Ever seen a human being hanging sideways on a pole? An absurd sight yes, but also a powerful one! The aptly named human flag (or human flag pole) is often referenced as one of the most (if not the most) extravagant displays of fitness in existence.
There are no shortcuts here. The path to hanging sideways from a pole is (appropriately) one of strength, balance, and control.
Yes, it is undeniably a difficult skill. Also yes, with time and dedication, you can train yourself to do it as well. Today we will be pushing our arms, shoulders, and core to their utmost limits. And once we get them there, few things will seem impossible anymore!
How to do a Human Flag
After we’ve warmed up and stretched, we will of course need a stable (this can’t be stressed enough) vertical pole. It is to be grasped with the top hand in an overhand grip, and the bottom hand in an underhand grip. Resist the urge to use the overhand grip on the bottom hand; it increases strain on the wrist and can lead to injury.
Grip distance between your hands is not exactly important for “proper” performance of the human flag, but the farther apart you grasp, the easier it will be; thus earning you less bragging rights. Just do what works for you. After tightening your grip and locking your shoulders (your torso should be as horizontal as possible), you are to engage your core and lats.
Now, whether you aid yourself with a minor push from the bottom leg or lift both legs up on pure strength, is up to you. All that matters is that you are able to remain in the vertical position. And the more you can hold it, the more onlookers will be driven to disbelief.
The Human Flag Workout
What makes the human flag so difficult to pull off? Put simply, leverage. We are using a comparatively shorter part of the body (the arms) to hold up the entire body; this is no joke.
Thus, the idea behind training for the human flag is to start with modified, easier to hold positions, which we will slowly swap out for the more difficult ones. We will do this with four exercises, each progressively more difficult, and culminating with the complete pose.
This one requires a pull-up bar. Should it also have a vertical stabilizer, great—it may come in useful with some exercises further down! What you will want to do is grasp the overhead bar with your top hand (a reminder to use the overhand grip) while grabbing the vertical, supportive pole with the other (underhand grip!).
Keep in mind that both arms will need to be completely straight. Your shoulders, core, and lats should likewise to be fully engaged and locked before proceeding.
Now lift your feet while pressing your lower hand against the bar, and pulling with your top arm. With your legs off the ground, your goal will be to tense up your body completely, holding yourself at a 45-degree angle with as little fluctuation as possible.
Once you are able to hold this position for about 20 seconds, you can move on to the next step.
The goal of this (significantly more difficult) exercise will be to raise our legs above our shoulders while keeping both knees bent to compensate for the increased leverage. This will effectively make our body lighter, which is what we want for now.
If you don’t have a stabilizer bar (or access to a jungle gym), you can simply use the vertical bar. It may be somewhat more difficult, but what matters is that you apply everything we’ve gone over with the previous exercise: firm grip, arms extended, body engaged.
Then jump, possibly kicking up in order to raise your legs without injuring yourself. Press with the bottom arm while pulling with your top arm. Contract your legs, knees bent, and hold them close to your body. From then on, your goal will be to hold that position. Arms should remain extended, knees above your shoulders.
You should be able to consistently hold it for 10 seconds before progressing further.
Now we will extend our legs up into a full flag, albeit (obviously) a vertical one. This actually builds on the chamber hold; simply stretch your legs out from that position (be careful, the increase in difficulty can be steep if you hurry too much) and hold them up. Stay like that for a while, and lower yourself back on the ground.
As you progress, you should gradually move toward a more diagonal flag. This will do well to prepare you for the next step.
After you are able to hold it for 10 seconds, move on to the penultimate exercise.
As you turn your vertical flag ever more horizontal, so will you inevitably reach this stage. While lowering yourself into a full vertical flag with both legs extended will likely fail on the first try, doing so with bent legs (or one bent leg) should be more than doable.
From this point on, keep experimenting with extending and bending your legs until you can hold an actual, horizontal human flag.
Congratulations! You’ve done it! Now that’s left is to keep practicing until you no longer need the chamber hold step. Raising yourself from the ground instead of lowering yourself will be somewhat more difficult, but compared to what you’ve been through at that point, the transition will be almost seamless.
Chris is an experienced Calisthenics practitioner focused on isometric exercises and street workout. He founded thehybridathlete.com in 2017, which was subsequently acquired by theyhybridathlete.com
He is based in Portland and has been working out using solely his own body weight and bars for the past 6 years.