If you’ve never heard of dragon flags, you’re not alone. Me from yesterday raises hand. Though the term may sound like a medieval mascot, it’s actually a super challenging—and effective—total-body move that celebrity trainer Ben Bruno ranks as one of his favorite core exercises.
Bruno, whose clients include Kate Upton, Chelsea Handler, and Victoria’s Secret model Barbara Fialho, among others, uploaded an Instagram video yesterday of him demo’ing the move, which you can check out, via @benbrunotraining, here:
“It’s a very old-school move,” Mark DiSalvo, NYC-based certified strength and conditioning specialist, tells SELF, describing its ties to martial arts. (It’s said to be one of Bruce Lee’s signature moves). “It probably fell out of favor because it’s so challenging.”
This seriously tough move is great for total-body strengthening, particularly in the core, back, and shoulders.
The powerhouses in this move are the muscles in the anterior core (the front of the core), says DiSalvo, including the rectus abdominis (what you think of when you think “abs”), as well as the obliques (muscles on the sides of your stomach). It also works your transverse abdominis (the deepest ab muscle that wraps around your sides and spine) and hip flexors, Mike Clancy, certified strength and conditioning specialist, tells SELF. “This is by and large an ab-isolation exercise,” he says.
That said, it’s not all core. Maintaining the proper upper-body positioning also requires serious shoulder, upper-back, lower-back, and grip strength, DiSalvo adds.
As DiSalvo mentioned and as Bruno states in the caption, this move is super challenging (“I hope nothing funny happens in the next few days because my abs are too sore to laugh,” Bruno writes), primarily because it requires supreme tension from nearly every part of your body, explains DiSalvo.
A full dragon flag involves maintaining said tension throughout your entire body as you move it both down (eccentrically) and then back up (concentrically). As Bruno writes on Instagram, this OG version is “simply too hard for most people and even those who are strong enough to do them tend to feel it in the lower back.” That’s why he typically sticks with the eccentric-only version (what he demos in the video), “which gives very similar benefits with much less risk.”
To understand the intensity of dragon flags—whether you’re doing the full version or Bruno’s eccentric-only version—you can think of the move as a plank, but with only two points of contact with the ground, instead of four, explains DiSalvo, which makes it much more difficult. The move is also exponentially tougher than a plank because it involves slow, controlled movements (as explained above), as opposed to just holding a static position, he adds.
To do this full move while keeping your legs straight the entire time, you need strength and flexibility in both your spine and hip flexors, as well as strength in your core, explains Clancy. If you don’t have that expert-level combo—which most of us probably don’t—you’ll likely need to bend your knees to some degree and/or limit your range of motion. (More on those regressions below.)
The dragon flag has direct applications in several sports.
Compared to other core moves, like crunches and sit-ups, dragon flags are “more integrative and relevant to a variety of sports,” says DiSalvo, like martial arts, yoga, and boxing. (Hence Bruno’s shoutout to Lee and Rocky in the caption). With dragon flags, “you’ll get a good deal of understanding of how you move within your sport,” DiSalvo explains.
By slowly and steadily lowering yourself down, you are teaching yourself how to indirectly brace yourself against impact by developing and maintaining tension around your core, which translates especially well to sports like martial arts and boxing, explains Clancy, where you need a rigid core to withstand kicks and punches.
The move also teaches you how to move your spine in small increments and not just “as a block,” Clancy adds. This improves your back’s capacity for movement and overall functioning. What’s more, the move is also a great test of your proprioception, or your body’s ability to know where it is in space, says DiSalvo.
Here’s how do to Bruno’s version of the move, plus tips for making it more beginner-friendly.
- Start by lying on your back on the floor, with your head next to a fixed anchor, like the weighted pole in Bruno’s video. You can also lie on an exercise bench, though only attempt this if you have good balance, as you don’t want to topple over.
- Firmly grab onto the anchor or the back of the bench with both hands and bend your knees and bring them into your chest. Keeping your legs still, engage your upper body and rock back to lift your hip toward the ceiling. Your butt and lower back should rise off the ground.
- From this position (you should be in what looks like a yoga shoulder stand), try straightening your legs. If you can’t (don’t feel bad—most people won’t be able to, says Clancy), keep your knees bent. If you feel any tension in your lower back, bend your knees more until the tension dissipates. You’ll still get benefits even if your knees are bent all the way into your chest, says Clancy.
- Once you’ve found the appropriate positioning with your legs, slowly begin lowering yourself down, segment by segment, from your shoulder blades all the way down to the top of your butt.
- As each segment lowers, think about pressing it completely flat against the floor so that there is no space between the floor and your body.
- When the top of your butt hits the floor, you are done. Relax for 10 to 15 seconds, and then try the move again.
As you attempt this move, “go as slow as you can,” says DiSalvo. He also recommends attempting it no more than three to five times with ample rest in between each rep. Although you can tack it onto pretty much any workout, “I wouldn’t do this at the end of a back-intensive day,” caveats DiSalvo. “Save it for a day you are [feeling] pretty fresh.”
It’s also important to stick to a range of motion you can control, writes Bruno. For most people, that means only lowering to the halfway point, where you can no longer control the descent. If that’s you, “don’t force it, as you don’t want to hurt your lower back,” he explains. “Just do what you can and work toward controlling the full range of motion over time.”
If you struggle to get up onto your shoulders for the starting position of the move, DiSalvo recommends practicing yoga shoulder stands as a way to get used to putting weight on your upper back and shoulders and also train your core to stay vertically erect. You can also build up relevant core and back strength by doing hanging leg raises, he adds.
On the other hand, if you are able to do the full-on dragon flag with ease (go, you!), you can make it even harder by adding in a flutter kick at the top of the movement, says Clancy. You can also attempt the concentric portion of the move by slowly raising your body back up to the starting position, segment by segment, though keep in mind that this will be very difficult for most people and includes increased risk for back injury, writes Bruno.
The bottom line: “Even with bent knees and a partial range of motion this is still a great exercise that can be easily modified to different levels,” writes Bruno. And with that, you can move dragon flags from the “never heard of” category to “absolutely trying.”