Flagging it up

flagging image

As it was recently a special day for our American friends, the 4th July, Independence Day, we thought it is a fitting time to learn how to master the human flag.

Flagging it up – mastering the human flag

Parkour, freerunning and contemporary calisthenics might be the new kids on the block, but Olympic gymnastics isn’t, having been present at every modern Games since 1896. The most successful gymnasts are relatively short and compact. If you are attempting to master moves that involve your own bodyweight, it makes sense to have more functional, fat-free mass. For example, Great Britain’s Max Whitlock, 2016 double Olympic champion in men’s all-around gymnastics, is 167cm (5’ 6”) tall and weighs 56kg (124lb). Beth Tweddle, GB’s most successful female gymnast ever, having won medals at European and World championships and the Olympic Games (now retired), is 160cm (5’ 3”) and had a competition weight of 53kg (117lb).

Women are (unfortunately) disadvantaged

According to exercise physiologists Jack Wilmore and David Costill, “Anthropometric measurements at maturity differ substantially between the sexes. Women have narrower shoulders, broader hips and smaller chest diameters, and tend to have more fat in the hips and lower body, whereas men carry more fat in the abdomen and upper body.”1 These differences in relative body fat are considerable, with the difference between average young women and men aged 18-24 years being 6-10%1. Of course, there are considerable individual differences and female athletes (especially endurance runners) can be remarkably lean.

The above doesn’t just matter in terms of total bodyweight; it matters biomechanically. To perform many calisthenics and gymnastic moves, it helps to keep the mass of your body and limbs close to the anchoring point or fulcrum: it’s all about physics and lever length after all. In the human flag, because of the anthropometric differences described, the average female’s centre of body mass will be relatively further from the pole so, not only will she have typically less muscle strength and power in the shoulders and upper body, she probably has a significant leverage disadvantage. This makes the female human flag even more impressive.

Previous training is important

If you don’t have a previous training history involving bodyweight exercises, you probably need to spend some time acquiring one before you start your human flag training. This means becoming comfortable with – and technically proficient in – exercises like press-ups (all variants), pull-ups (wide and narrow grip), supported handstands (with weight transference from one hand to the other), side bridges and even cartwheels.

Stephen Hughes Landers outlines a progressive eight-week programme he has devised to help you master the human flag.

These exercises work well when incorporated into an existing training programme but can also be used in isolation for a shorter flag-focused workout. It is recommended that the session is repeated two or three times throughout the week.

Begin each session with a thorough warm-up, making sure to include the wrists and forearms. Start with some basic wrist circles. Additionally, from a kneeling position, bring the hands together so that the thumbs are touching. Then place the palms on the ground close to the knees. From there, gently shift weight forwards and back so that the wrists begin to flex.

Change the hand position so that the fingers are folded into the palms and the hands are resting on the floor. Once again, shift weight forwards and back. The key here is to only apply a small amount of weight through the wrists.

The aim of the set is to perform the number of reps listed in the minimum amount of sets, but with proper form. If you see your client’s form deteriorating, you should end the set and allow them to rest, resuming the set when you feel they are ready. Regress the exercise if the client is unable to perform the exercise listed or when form is still poor after a rest period.

Toe touches

  • Begin by hanging from the bar with arms straight, core engaged.
  • Bend your hips, bringing your toes up to the bar, keeping your legs straight.
  • Reverse the movement to return to the start and repeat, trying not to let the legs swing forwards and backwards as you do so.

Side plank

  • Begin in a side plank position with your upper body resting on one arm. Your body should be in a straight line from head to toe, with your hips and shoulders stacked directly on top of each other.
  • Hold this position and then switch sides and repeat

Wipers

  • Begin by hanging from the bar and then come into the toe touch position – this is your starting position.
  • Take your legs over to the left, holding for a count of one.
  • Take your legs back to the centre and over to the right.
  • Aim for a smooth, controlled movement without any swinging.

Supported handstand push-ups

  • Kick up into a handstand with your feet resting against a wall for support.
  • Slowly bend your arms and lower yourself straight down towards the floor.
  • Straighten your arms and then repeat.
  • Start with a small range of motion, building up to bringing your head down to just above the floor.

Exercise and reps

Week 1

Toe touches – 30 reps

Side plank – 120secs each side

Supported handstand – 30secs

Bent leg flag – 5 reps

Week 2

Toe touches – 35 reps

Side plank – 120secs each side

Supported handstand – 30secs

Bent leg flag – 5 reps

Week 3

Toe touches – 35 reps

Wipers – 20 reps

Supported handstand push-ups – 12 reps

Bent leg flag – 8 reps

Week 4

Flag hold with jump – 5 reps

Supported handstand push-ups – 15 reps

Wipers – 26 reps

Bent leg flag – 10 reps

Week 5

Flag hold with jump – 8 reps

Supported handstand push-ups – 15 reps

Wipers – 26 reps

Bent leg flag – 10 reps

Week 6

Flag hold with jump – 8 reps

Bent leg flag – 12 reps

Supported handstand push-ups – 15 reps

Wipers – 20 reps

Week 7

Flag hold with jump – 8 reps

Bent leg flag – 12 reps

Supported handstand push-ups – 15 reps

Wipers – 20 reps

Week 8

Flag hold with jump – 8 reps

Bent leg flag – 12 reps

Supported handstand push-ups – 15 reps

Wipers – 20 reps

Author bio

Stephen Hughes Landers is the UK’s number-one calisthenics athlete and an official Barstarzz athlete. Calisthenics UK is the UK’s leading authority on all aspects of calisthenics and street workout. The elite team of instructors delivers their own REPs-recognised workshops designed to enable fitness professionals to incorporate calisthenics training into their clients’ workouts. They also offer a range of workshops for the calisthenics practitioner to take their training to the next level.


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