I first saw the Kettlebell Dragon Flag in a Ken Blackburn photo. After I got past the “wow” factor (after all, Ken is built more like a pro wrestler than a gymnast), I immediately went to try it… and failed. Why? I was not strong enough and I had not laid the right foundation. Not easily detoured, I put in the work to deconstruct the movement and build my capacity, strength, and control.
Step 1: Prerequisites for the Dragon Flag
The Dragon Flag is a core strength movement that requires a significant amount of pulling strength, so a minimum of at least 10 Strict Pull Ups is an essential base. See what a Strict Pull Up looks like at www.onnit.com/ academy/strict-pull-up-bodyweight- exercise/.
A second prerequisite is the ability to perform 8-10 smooth Ball-Ups. Since the Kettlebell Dragon Flag is technically a straight-arm movement, building the capacity to invert yourself with straight arms will help condition the muscle and connective tissue for the load of the Kettlebell Dragon Flag.
If Ball- Ups become easy, you can practice inverting yourself in an L-Sit position, extending your hips at the top. For extra credit, raise and lower with a slightly piked or completely straight body. If you can’t do a Ball-Up, spring from the ground using your legs into an inversion and work the negative down until you build the capacity to lift yourself up with control.
SAFETY NOTE: Always use a grip with the thumb around the bar opposite your fingers when hanging upside down. Never invert with your thumb on the same side of the bar as your fingers. Also, when practicing or performing any type of Dragon Flag, never push your head into the floor; keep a soft neck instead.
Step 2: Exercise Progressions for Dragon Flags
Hollow Body Extensions
The term “hollow body” refers to full body flexion, essentially turning your entire body from finger tip to toes into the shape of a banana. To perform Hollow Body Extensions, lay on your back and lift your hands and feet upwards towards each other with your lower back pressed strongly into the ground. Your knees and elbows should be locked.
Keeping the lower back pressed into the floor, slowly extend your arms and legs away from each other as far as you can go, again keeping your lower back pressed strongly into the ground. Then, slowly raise your arms and legs back up towards each other to finish the repetition. This should be done slowly with a 2-3 count down, pause at the bottom, 2-3 count up and a pause at the top.
The goal is 4 rounds of 10 reps. To test to see if you are keeping your lower back pressed into the ground, roll up a gym towel or shirt and place one end of it under your lower back. Have a training partner grab the other end of the towel and try relatively hard to pull the towel out from underneath you while you perform each rep.
Hollow Body Holds
A Hollow Body Hold is simply holding the bottom position of the Hollow Body Extension. Again, keep your lower back pressed strongly into the ground. Only go as low as you can while keeping a strong lumbar contact with the ground. The goal is 4 rounds of 60 seconds.
Kettlebell Floor Press Hold
Since the goal is to perform the Kettlebell Dragon Flag, you’ll need get accustomed to holding two kettlebells overhead. Floor press two kettlebells with a combined weight of about 3/4 of your bodyweight. Then, pressing the lower back strongly into the ground, lift and lower your legs as you did with the Hollow Body Extension and hold. The goal is 4 rounds of 60 seconds.
Step 3: Dragon Flag Progressions
Scaled Dragon Flag
When you have built the capacity to perform the previous tasks, you are ready to begin training the Dragon Flag. Lay on your back and grasp some kind of stable support with your arms above your head (bent arms are fine for this). Curl your hips and knees in, then raise your lower torso with bent legs above you.
Your upper back should be the only point of contact with the ground. Keeping your hips and knees bent, extend your spine to neutral and slowly lower down with control until your glutes touch the ground. At first you may need to focus on simply lowering then curling back up, but ultimately you will want to raise and lower for reps.
Don’t press your head into the ground for any version of the Dragon Flag. You may need to work this scaled movement with your legs progressively further extended to build strength. The goal is 5 rounds of 5 reps.
Set yourself up as you did with the Scaled Dragon Flag, but this time, extend your hips and knees at the top and lower down with control. Also, like the scaled version, you may have to start with the lowering part alone. As you become stronger, progress to raising and lowering for reps. The goal 3 rounds of 5 reps.
Kettlebell Dragon Flag
When you are able to do the previous movements (set and rep goals) with control, you are ready to begin training the Kettlebell Dragon Flag. The stability and control demands for this are considerable, so don’t jump ahead.
Begin by Floor Pressing two kettlebells weighing more than half of your bodyweight. I typically use two kettlebells weighing 24kg-32kg at a bodyweight of 85kg. Heavier is easier, but don’t exceed your bodyweight with the kettlebells.
Once pressed, keep your arms locked and curl your body up, then extend your hips and knees. Similar to the Hollow Body Extension, you will lower your feet and hands, this time with kettlebells, away from each other.
Go slow! You will have to adjust the leverage to keep balance. Use a spotter for safety until you are comfortable with the movement. At this point you will lower and lift for a complete repetition versus just lowering. If you think you might lose control, you are not ready to attempt. If you do lose control of the kettlebells, have a safe plan of escape.
Some people will be able to see a movement and then do it with no problems. I would urge you to test the prerequisite movements and progressions before attempting the Kettlebell Dragon Flag so you don’t jump into the deep end before you’re ready.
Most people need a road to success, so follow these progressions. Build capacity with each progression steadily until you reach the goal sets and reps/times and you will succeed. You may also find your deadlift and squat getting stronger along the way.
Step 4: The Dragon Flag Program
This series of movements will build the Kettlebell Dragon Flag movement. Progressively increase volume from week to week adding the movements into your warm ups. Keep the Pull Ups and Ball-Ups in the rotation of movements and move on to the next progression once you reach each movement goal.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday
10 Pull Ups
10 Hollow Body Extensions
Next Progression (MWF)
10 Pull Ups
10 Ball Ups
60 second Hollow Body Hold
NOTE: You will have to build up to the goal for each movement and may need to start with something like 4 rounds of 5 Pull Ups, 5 Ball-Ups and 5 Hollow Body Extensions or possibly 4 rounds of 10 Pull Ups, 10 Ball-Ups, and 30 seconds of Hollow
Body Holds. Rest as needed between movements.