Now it’s time to cover the last progression series that will seriously strengthen your core. Leg raises and Dragon Flags.
Most gym goers that are trying to tone up (whatever that may mean) and look good, want to have nice six pack abs. As we know, we all have abs, it’s mainly a matter of getting the body fat percentage down to make them visible. The standard go to exercises are usually sit ups, crunches, planks, Russian twists, lying leg and knee raises and machines resembling medieval torture devices. And then there are workouts, like the 6 minute abs, that promise you a proper ripped six-pack by training a few minutes a day. How convenient!
The question is, how much strength can one actually build using the aforementioned exercises? A strong core is very important, as it connects the upper body to the lower body. It plays a crucial role in stabilisation, which is what the rectus abdominis, the obliques and other muscles in that area are designed to do. To stabilise, not to crunch. And that’s exactly what these muscles are doing when you train exercises from the following 10 steps. Besides, most people are able to do a crunch or sit up straight away, but being able to do a toe-to-bar or dragon flag requires a lot more practice. Here you can see that if one relies on sit ups for core strength, one will inevitably end up doing high reps (50, 100, 200… reps), which will give you muscle endurance, but won’t build much strength.
Another problem is that crunches are not particularly good for your back, which is something to consider, especially nowadays when so many people have back issues and muscle imbalances. Flexing the spine during this exercise is simply not worth it. Compare it to leg raises and dragon flags – the spine stays relatively straight, they generally engage more muscles and strengthen the muscles that protect your spine.
Now, the original Big Six didn’t include Dragon Flags and ended with Hanging Straight Leg Raises (legs are horizontal). I found that this exercise is simply not hard enough to be a master step, especially when compared to the other master steps, like the One arm handstand push up, One arm pull up, Stand-to-stand bridge… I also find Dragon Flags, invented by Bruce Lee himself, superior to Leg Raises, when it comes to core engagement and overall difficulty.
Let’s dive into it then – here are all the progressions for Dragon Flags and Leg Raises, from newbie to pro, starting with:
level 1: knee tucks on a bench
Great beginner’s exercises, also very useful when recovering from an injury or other health issues. No equipment needed, except something to sit at, which can be a bench of some sort, a sofa, chair, bed, anything that won’t move.
Simply sit on the edge of a bench, place your hands on it next to your hips. Lean slightly back and lift your feet of the floor. Your legs are extended at this point and back relatively straight. From there draw your knees towards your chest in a controlled manner, then extend your legs back into the starting position.
level 2: lying knee raises
Many people that just started working out for the first time will find this progression pretty useful in strengthening the core muscles, as well as the hip flexors.
Lie down on the floor, with your hands underneath your buttocks. Lift your legs an inch or two off the floor, then draw your knees towards your chest. You can lift your hips a bit off the floor, as shown on the photo.
This is one of the exercises people sometimes advice to train your “lower abs”. This is a myth. The rectus abdominis, or the six-pack, is attached to the pubic crest and symphysis on one side, on the other side to the costal cartilage and the xiphoid process of the sternum. So trying to train one’s lower abs is like stretching out a rubber band held with one’s hands by both ends and expecting there to be more tension in the left half of the band than in the right half.
level 3: bent leg raises
For many people it is a bit of a struggle to perform lying leg raises without bending their legs, due to lack of mobility in their hips and tight hamstrings. Together with mobility exercises and stretching, one can do bent leg raises, which are easier and therefore also good for people that aren’t strong enough for full lying leg raises yet.
Lie down on the floor, hands underneath your buttocks, legs together. Lift your legs off the floor, slightly bending them in your knees, until your feet are above your hips, lower your legs down to the ground so that they’re an inch or two off of it, then do another rep.
level 4: lying leg raises
Great core exercise for beginners. Once you are able to do a decent amount of bent leg raises and are flexible enough, lie down on the floor, hands under your buttocks. Keep your legs straight and together throughout the movement. Lift them up off the floor until they are perpendicular to the floor, then go down and just before touching go into another rep.
level 5: leg hip raises
The following progression offers you greater core engagement compared to the previous ones, and you will also engage other muscle groups, same as with all other exercises in this series that will follow.
There are two ways of doing it: with your hands underneath your buttocks or holding on to something behind your head (bench, pole, etc.) The one where you are holding on to a sturdy object is slightly better for Dragon flags than the other, otherwise there’s not much difference between them, when it comes to core engagement. So, lie down on the floor and either hold on to something or place your hands underneath you. Keep your legs extended and lift them up until they are perpendicular to the ground, try not to go beyond. From there lift your hips up off the floor into a candle position. Lower your feet down until they nearly touch the floor and repeat.
level 6: hanging knee raises
Time to get on the bar! All leg raise variations are big compound movement, strengthening one’s entire core, upper back, hip flexors and grip. To perform this exercise, get on a bar, so that your feet are above the ground. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart, palms facing forwards. Extend your arms, you don’t have to pull yourself up and definitely don’t use one of those contraptions, where you stick arms into, it defeats the purpose. Same goes for all progressions that’ll follow. Bend your legs and raise your knees high, close to your chest, in a controlled manner, then lower them down and repeat.
level 7: tucked dragon flag
hanging bent leg raises
As mentioned before, in the original Big Six, this series ended with full hanging leg raises, which is in my opinion way too easy compared to other master steps, like the one arm HSPU or one arm pull up. It’s also what I’ve noticed when training other people – some were able, or really at least close, to do hanging leg raises on their first session. It’s not enough of a challenge. That’s why the series diverges into two – dragon flags, which are the superior core exercise here, and hanging leg raises.
a) Tucked Dragon Flag:
Lie down on a bench and hold on to it, if you are doing it on the floor, hold on to something sturdy behind your head. Lift your legs and hips up into the air (candle position). Bend your legs to 90 degrees in your hips, don’t place your knees to your chest and keep the same angle in your hips throughout the entire movement (very important!). Also make sure your bodyweight is resting on your shoulders and shoulder blades. Lower your body down to the floor/bench, until your lower back is nearly touching it, then go back to the starting position and repeat.
b) Hanging Bent Leg Raises:
Place both hands on a bar, palms forwards shoulder width apart. Hang on the bar and lift your legs up sligthly bending them in the knees. At the end your knees are at the same hight as your hips.
level 8: one leg dragon flag
hanging leg raises
Once again, two exercises for you to train side by side for better results, skillset and the challenge of it!
a) One Leg Dragon Flag:
As always, we are using a change in leverage here to increase the resistance, by extending one leg. Lie down, hold on to something behind your head, get your legs and hips up into a candle position and bend only one leg. Lower yourself down close to the ground or bench, but don’t touch it. Be careful not to arch your lower back in any way, try to keep a your feet, hips and shoulders pretty much in a straight line.
b) Hanging Leg Raises:
Hang on a bar with an overhand grip and arms extended. Lift your legs up in front of you in a controlled manner, keeping them straight, so that your legs are parallel with the ground at the end. You can hold it there for a short moment, then go down.
Make sure you are not using any momentum (we’re not doing crossfit here), no swinging and if you do start swinging when you bring the legs down, here are a few tips: don’t do it too fast, use your upper body to mitigate it a bit and when you go down with your legs tilt your pelvis slightly back.
level 9: full dragon flag
a) Dragon Flags:
Invented by Bruce Lee, shown in a training montage by Sylvester Stallone in one of the Rocky movies, and the favourite core exercise of the kettlebell pioneer Mike Mahler, this one is incomparably more effective and tougher than any commonly used core exercises, like Russian twists, sit ups, planks… It’s not just a fancy move to show off, training it will significantly improve your core strength.
Once again, it can be done on a bench or on the ground. Lie down, hold on to the bench or something behind your head and lift your legs up into a candle position. Throughout the movement keep your feet, hips, and shoulders aligned. Some athletes, like Frank Medrano, tend to arch their back and legs, which is not much of an issue if you’re as strong as Frank, but it’s safer to maintain a straight line when you’re starting off, to prevent any possible lower back injuries. Lower yourself down until you nearly touch the ground, then go back up. Also, when you’re returning into the candle position, don’t initiate the movement by raising your legs, creating momentum and then following up with the rest of your body. Move your body as one whole.
We are moving beyond the regular hanging leg raises, all the way to the bar. But keep a few things in mind – you have to be flexible enough to get your toes up to the bar without bending your legs in the knees, or moving your hips forwards and up. Keep your legs straight and don’t move your upper body much.
level 10: one arm dragon flag
one arm toe-to-bar
a) One Arm Dragon Flags:
Lie down on a bench and hold on to it with one hand this time. Lift your yourself up into a candle position, resting on your shoulders, then start moving down to the bench keeping your feet, hips and shoulders aligned. Once your a few inches off the bench, move back up, do a some reps and then repeat switching your arms.
Holding on to the bench means you’re losing one point of contact, which makes this move a lot more difficult than a normal dragon flag. At this point you should be strong enough to start practicing a dragon flag on a pole as well.
b) One Arm Toe-to-bar:
Grab the bar or ring with one hand, palm forwards. Raise both legs all the way up to the your hand, keeping your legs locked out in the knees, ideally not raising your hips up. Repeat on the other side.