Dragon Flag Exercise

Ever wonder how this advanced bodyweight core exercises got its name? This exercise became popular in the movie Rocky IV when Sylvester Stallone used this as a part of his training. The name Dragon comes from one of Bruce Lee’s nicknames, “little dragon”. He used this exercise regularly in his workouts. It is this exercise that is most responsible for his perfectly defined abdominal muscles. The dragon flag exercise is a perfect solution to a core routine that is becoming too easy. Because the movement can potentially cause injury when performed with poor form, you should only attempt it after you have mastered a good range of basic core exercises. Therefore, only advanced exercisers and athletes are potential candidates for this exercise.

Step-by-step exercise instructions

Perfect technique has to be maintained all the time for this exercise to be effective. Doing this exercise incorrectly may lead to injury or lack of achievement of your bodybuilding goal. It is therefore crucial that one performs this exercise using the correct form in order to get the best out from this great movement.

STARTING POSITION (SETUP): Lie horizontal (lying face-up) on a bench or on the ground. Hold the underside of the bench with your arms to secure your shoulders to prevent your body from rolling forward. If doing this exercise on the floor you can hold a vertical pole or low horizontal bar. The grip should be firm.

dragon flag exercise instructions

MOVEMENT (ACTION): Pull the rest of your body (legs, hips, and lower back) up in the in the air until it’s almost vertical with only your hands and shoulder blades (upper back) on the bench. You will create a strong line from the shoulder joint to the ankle joint. From there you lower yourself down without allowing any part of your body to touch the ground except for your upper back and shoulders. Your knees and hips remain locked in the extended position while performing this exercise using the abdominals.

Key points & helpful hints for dragon flag exercise

Here are some key points to take into account.

  • How to start? Start by contracting your torso and driving your legs up as if you are performing a reverse crunch or incline reverse crunch exercise. The main difference is that here you have to keep your body entirely stiff from your shoulders to toes, and avoid bending the hips.
  • From the top position of this exercise you have to lower yourself down without allowing any part of your body to touch the ground except for your upper back & shoulders.
  • The goal of this core exercise is to keep your body completely straight without arching your lower back or bending your legs. A common mistake is to arch the lower back which is often seen when rushing ahead to a level one is not ready for.
  • Maintain a posterior pelvic tilt to ensure a flat lower back throughout the movement.
  • If you notice your back arching reduce the difficulty and build capacity before progressing.
  • In the full dragon flag variant all the segments of the body not in contact with the floor should form a straight line at all times.

Common errors

Avoiding these common mistakes is a reliable guarantee that you’ll get the most out of this exercise and reduce the chances for developing strain or injury.

Common form mistakes when doing dragon flags include:

  • Hinging (bending) your hips as you are coming back up – this is going to take the tension off the abs during the exercise;
  • Arching your back during the movement – this is a common compensation for a lack of anterior core strength;
  • It is crucial that you grip a stable and fixed object overhead. For that reason using dumbbell, barbell, or kettlebell is not a good idea;

Dragon flag progressions (exercise variations)

If you are not able to perform this exercise you’re definitely not alone. The main question is what is the best road to get you from zero all the way to doing multiple reps of the full dragon flag? You should start by doing some basic core exercises in order to develop your anterior core strength. We highly recommend the following exercises to start with: basic forearm plank, ab wheel rollout, hollow body hold, and reverse crunch. Once you have really mastered these movements you’re ready to try some easier variations of this exercise. This way we can progress in a manageable way so that we can safely get towards the full dragon flag.

The dragon flag exercise can be performed in various postures:

Front lever (tuck dragon flag). The closer your weight is distributed to your shoulders the easier the exercise will be. Therefore keep your knees and hips flexed while maintaining a straight back and perform the exercise throughout the full range of motion. The knees can be closer to your chest (easier) or further away. At first your lower back will be round, but aim to straighten the lower back into a nice hollow body position along with your personal progress.

Tuck Dragon Flag - Front Lever

Single leg extended dragon flag. Here only one hip is flexed. This is going to make things slightly more challenging. With one leg dragon flags you should already be able to keep the lower back straight and abs tight. If you can’t, then you need to move back to the tuck dragon flag.

Single leg extended dragon flag

Straddle dragon flag. The wider you open your legs, the easier the exercise becomes. Try to bring your legs closer together each time. Slightly closing the space each time is really the best way to bridge the gap from the straddle to the full dragon fly.

Straddle dragon flag

Full dragon flag. This is what you ultimately want to achieve – performing the exercise with a straight lower back and both legs fully extended.

Make it even more challenging

It is important to continually challenge the body. Here are a few ways to spice this exercise, making it even more difficult than it already is.

  • use a decline bench
  • do the exercise with ankle weights on a flat exercise bench
  • do the exercise with ankle weights on a decline exercise bench set between 30 and 45 degrees

Replacement exercises

Doing the same exercise over and over can be tiresome. There are plenty of exercises that target your core muscles. Finding the right replacement should be a piece of cake. However, it’s going to be quite difficult to find the exercise that is more challenging than this one.

Muscles engaged

Although the dragon flag predominantly challenges the core, some degree of strength in the shoulder extensors is also required to hold the body off the ground. The following muscles are highly recruited: rectus abdominis, stabilizer muscles of the spine, gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, gluteus medius, and hip flexors (muscles which attach to or cover the hip joint).

Closing thoughts about the dragon flag exercise

The dragon flag is one of the most difficult, but rewarding core exercise you can do. This exercise represents a great test of your entire core stability or pillar strength. There is absolutely no point in trying to do dragon flags if you don’t have the necessary basic strength before doing them. Ultimately you need to walk before you can run. The full dragon fly exercise allows you to train your abs with similar intensity as the front lever but with less demand on your shoulders.

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