The dragon flag is a skill that I’ve been trying to perfect for some time now. This is my favorite exercise for rock-hard abs. I often get the question “So, what’s a good exercise to get a six pack?” My answer is usually this: 5 sets of eat-less-crap and progressing to be able to do a dragon flag.
Besides the aesthetic aspects, learning this move will give you incredible core strength that has lots of carry-over to other movements that involve core stability (which is basically almost every bodyweight exercise). And Bruce Lee did it, ’nuff said.
If you want to tap into the secret of Bruce Lee’s powerful abs, read on.
(If you’re reading this via email, the pictures below might not be displayed properly. Click here to read it on the website.)
First, let’s discuss location. You need something that you can grab with your hands that’s stable enough to support roughly your bodyweight. You will apply a lot of pressure to this object, which is why the dragon flag is also quite demanding on the triceps.
This can be a park bench. Either grab the edge of one end of the bench or, if it has arm-rests, use these. Heavy objects like a very sturdy bed, wardrobe or even some very heavy kettlebells can also be used. In the pictures below, I used the metal loop of a boat bridge which they use to fasten boats.
You see, there are lots of possible ways to do a dragon flag. In the following, I will refer to the object that you are grabbing as your anchor.
Next, get acquainted with the positioning of your upper back against the surface you will be practising your dragon flags on. Get into a candle pose (legs facing towards the sky, hands are grabbing the anchor). You can just kick up into this position, this is not supposed to work any strength related aspects.
Now, make sure the weight of your body is solely resting on your middle trapezius. Don’t press into your head or your neck. This is asking for trouble. To make sure you’re doing this correctly, see if you can turn your head left and right easily while maintaining this position. Spend a good 10-15 minutes until you’re confident that you’ve figured this out.
If you’re practising on one of these newer metal benches with some kind of “metal net”, maybe bring a towel to put between you and the bench. Otherwise, you’ll probably get bruises in the form of funny black and blue patterns on your upper back (been there, done that).
Lying Leg Raises
If you’re just starting out with strength training, but still like to set high goals from the beginning, lying leg raises are your entry point for the dragon flag.
Simply lie on the floor or a bench. You may put your arms to your sides. It’s not necessary to grab an anchor at this stage. Simply straighten your legs and raise them so that your feet are above your belly button. If you lack the flexibility and/or strength to do this with straight legs, bend at the knees and try to straighten them out over the next few practice sessions.
To maximally “milk” this exercise, try to slightly raise your hip at the end of the movement. When you can do 20 perfect lying leg raises, you are ready for the real deal.
One of the key concepts of the basic principles of bodyweight progression is adjusting the mechanical lever to make an exercise easier/harder. The dragon flag is a perfect example to illustrate this:
The longer your body appears from the side, the harder this move will get. To work your way up to a dragon flag, begin with the shortest variation possible, the tuck dragon flag.
Fully tuck your legs in, grab the anchor and lift up your body. Lower down to the point where you lower back almost touches the ground. Don’t lower down completely, maintain the tension throughout a full repetition. At the highest point of this move, there should also still be some tension (don’t go so far that you can simply rest on your trapezius).
If you are not able to do this with the full range of motion (all the way up and all the way down), do negatives. This applies to all the following progressions and will probably be necessary for the harder variations.
When you can do 10 clean and slow tuck dragon flags with full tension, you’re ready to move on.
The half tuck dragon flag is the next step in this progression. Straighten out one leg while tucking in the other. Start out with slow negatives in the beginning, then work on getting in the full range of motion (ROM).
When you are at this stage, it’s a good time to validate that you have crisp and clean form. That one straight leg and your upper body should form one straight line. Most people tend to bend at the hip too much without even realizing it. Shoot a quick video of yourself practising this move.
Make sure to catch form errors early on before you’re going around doing half-assed dragon flags.
Switch sides to increase your strength as symmetrically as possible. Once you can do 5 half tuck dragon flags with full ROM on both sides, you can tackle the next level.
I call this the dragon flag spring. Grab your anchor and start doing a regular lying leg raise, then lift your lower back off the ground and straighten out at the hips. The lower you keep your legs, the harder this gets. Do this back and forth, with your lower back never touching the ground.
Simply practise this and hold the straight position a little bit longer to get a feel for the full dragon flag.
The last step before tackling the full dragon flag is the straddle dragon flag. Kick into the highest position of the dragon flag and simply spread your legs. This is another technique to shorten the mechanical lever of your body.
Looking from the side, your body should still form a straight line. Let somebody spot you or use video evidence. Work on getting as low as possible. 5 perfect straddle dragon flags is a good goal to shoot for.
The Full Dragon Flag
After all these progressions, it might still be really hard to go all the way down and up again while maintaining a straight body. This is what I struggled with the most.
What helped me was doing very slow, strict negatives and stopping at the lowest point I could tolerate. Then hold it there for time. When I was able to hold it for about 5 seconds, I dared to lower down a bit further in my next practice session.
When you can lower down so that your body hovers only a couple of inches above the surface, and hold it for a few seconds, you’re ready to tackle full ROM dragon flags.
Remember that you never really “master” a skill, there is always room for improvement. Strength is a skill, so treat your dragon flag training as practice.
I did this by doing 3-5 practice sets each session, 3-5 times a week. Each set, I did 3-5 reps and focused on stellar clean form rather than burning myself out with every set.
What to Expect
The dragon flag can be very humbling when you try it the first time. The key is to get comfortable with the underlying mechanics first, then slowly progress by lengthening the “lever”. The hardest part for me always was full ROM, meaning that in the end position, your whole body only hovers a few inches over the ground (or bench).
To make sure that you struggle less than me: Work on nailing each progression with full ROM. Only perfect practice makes perfect.
Focus on using your core more than your arm strength. This puts more emphasis on the core muscles (which is gonna help with them six-pack abs) and takes some stress off of the elbow tendons (I’ve heard elbow tendinitis is a pain in the keister).
This progression is pretty straight-forward. Lengthen the lever with every step, be patient and consistent and the skill will come. Good luck to you slaying your dragon flag!
Photo credits: Sabrina Frank
Photo source: trapezius