Holding yourself above the ground in a flag position is an amazing sensation.
Imagine being able to soar above the earth like Superman, while also being able to rip a telephone pole from the ground like the Hulk. It is weightlessness and pure strength combined into a single drill.
In this tutorial, I am going to teach you how to do an intermediate flag variation, called a shoulder flag.
The shoulder flag is a step down from the full human flag, in which you suspend yourself sideways between two outstretched arms. I wouldn’t classify it as a beginner drill either — it requires a substantial amount of grip, shoulder, and core strength.
If you are starting out with calisthenics and street workouts, you should try a beginner movement known as elbow flag. Fans of Al Kavadlo’s work will know of the elbow flag by its other name, the clutch flag.
Now, the best way to describe a shoulder flag is that you start by creating a vise grip between your hands, a vertical pole, and the meaty part of your upper shoulder. You are basically trying to make a pole sandwich between your upper trap and both hands. Once the pole is positioned correctly between your neck and your shoulder, you hop your lower body above the ground, while pulling through your arms as strong as you can. From there, you gradually extend your torso and legs until they are horizontal to the ground.
Obviously, the farther you extend your body, the more effort will be involved.
With that in mind, the way to work your way up to the full position is to master a few easier positions
The first one is the tuck shoulder flag. Suck your knees into your chest and curl into a tight ball. The more compressed you stay, the easier it is to hold the position.
After you can consistently hold a tuck shoulder flag for 10 or more seconds, try opening into a more extended position.
One option is to extend one leg outward, while keeping your other leg tucked. For lack of a better term, you can call this position a single leg shoulder flag.
The other option is to straddle your legs apart. Beginners will initially maintain slight flexion through your hips. The stronger you become, the lower you should position your legs. Remember, the goal is to obtain a perfectly straight and horizontal alignment.
Once you have a solid straddle shoulder flag under control, work to pull your feet together. As you can see in the picture below, my full lay shoulder flag needs some work.
See how there is little bit of bend at my waist? I should form a straight line through my trunk and legs.
Difficulties and supplemental exercises
One of the most challenging aspects of learning these flag variations centers upon your ability to gauge where your body is in space. You might think you are horizontal with the ground, but you could be WAY off.
The solutions are either to film yourself, or work with a training partner. The side view is essential for assessing how parallel with the ground you are. Have your friend spot your alignment, or capture yourself on video.
After enough feedback, you will eventually be able to sense the right position on your own.
The second major fault entails slipping down the pole. Poor grip and shoulder strength are your enemies here. If you find yourself in this situation, go back and work on a few basic bodyweight exercises.
The main exercises to work on include the passive hang and the pull-up. If you cannot hang beneath a bar for 30 or more seconds, or do at least 10 dead hang pull-ups, you will not have the strength for the shoulder flag.
Toes-to-bar leg raises are another great core strength exercise that also target your grip and shoulder.
Speaking of core strength, the ultimate calisthenics drill to help you obtain a shoulder flag is known as a dragon flag.
To do a dragon flag, find a park bench or a set of bleachers without a backrest. Lie down and use both hands to grasp the bench above your shoulders, near your head. Next, raise your lower body off the bench so that your feet point toward the sky.
Beginners should stay in a tuck. Intermediate athletes can open up into a more extended position. As with the shoulder flag, the more laid out you are, the more challenging it becomes.
Here comes the hard part. After you have raised your lower body off the bench, you are going to slowly drop your feet back towards the ground. The idea is to generate whole-body tension, from your shoulders all the way to your toes.
Before returning to rest, pause and hold your body at a low angle. See if you can hold the position for a few breaths, and then gently drop your butt on the bench again. Try a couple of repetitions, staying absolutely tight through your shoulders, trunk, and hips.
Don’t be ashamed if you struggle with the dragon flag. It can take a while to master. Working on planks and hollow holds are a few good supplements to further strengthen your midsection.
One of the best aspects of bodyweight strength training is that your journey never ends. You always have a new movement or skill to work toward.
It is also pretty cool to watch how strength gains in one position will carry over to other positions. For example, the front lever and the full human flag are two skills that will benefit from training the shoulder flag progression outlined above.
By the way, the more time you spend training these holds, the faster you improve. One session a month will not cut it. Finding time for a few 15-minute sessions each week will really accelerate your progress. Feel free to tag me on Instagram so I can see how things are coming along.
Finally, please leave any comments or questions you have in the section below.
Good luck training, and be sure to download the Mad Skills Exercise Workbook!