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Q: What do you see when you look at the physique of an Olympic male gymnast?
A: You probably didn’t have to look very hard to notice those insane triceps attached to a mountain of a shoulder, and of course, a set of rippling abs. Despite their impressive development, though, gymnasts don’t lift weights. They do, however, use their own body weight as resistance, and while it would be difficult to replicate many of the gymnasts’ signature moves in a conventional gym, there is one you can do that will target your triceps and abs like no other exercise: the L-sit.
The L-sit hold is a deceptively brutal exercise with benefits that go beyond merely the visual. Not only will this exercise help fill out your sleeves and chisel your abs, it will improve the health of your shoulders, help you with your deadlift, and build functional core strength as well. How do you do it? The L-sit hold is best done on a pair of parallettes. They look like a tiny version of parallel bars (hence the name) you’d find in a gymnasium or outdoor park. Most CrossFit gyms will have a few of them lying around, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find one in a commercial gym. However, nearly every gym has dip bars, and you can even do L-sits on a pair of pushup bars, on kettlebells, yoga blocks, or even on a pair of benches. You just need two sturdy and secure platforms of the same height that will lift your butt off the ground when you lock your arms pushing down in between them.
To perform an L-sit, position yourself between the parallettes, set shoulder-width apart. Using a firm, neutral grip, push your body off the ground, locking your elbows as if you’re at the top of a dip exercise. Make sure to keep your shoulders down as you lock your knees and hold your legs together tightly, forming a 90-degree angle with your torso. Your legs should be parallel to the ground. Now hold…and hold…keep going. Is it at least 20 seconds yet?
So your first attempt at an L-sit made you feel like a little girl. You can work your way up by trying the following intermediary variations.
You will need a dip station or something higher than most parallettes for this easier version of an L-sit. It’s the same as a regular L-sit, except your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle. You’ll look like you’re sitting in an invisible chair in the end position.
This variation looks similar to the chair L-sit, except you tuck your knees close to your chest rather than having your thighs parallel to the ground. You’ll notice that this variation taxes the core, rear deltoids, and triceps significantly more.
One-Leg Straight L-Sit
This progression is a cross between a tuck L-sit and a regular L-sit. One leg is extended straight out while the other is tucked in. Be sure to alternate legs when training. You can also do a “bicycle” variation, in which the legs alternate during the set.
When performing an L-sit, most people round their shoulders and back. The advanced version requires you to keep your shoulder blades back and chest out, which is much harder.
The V-sit is the variation in which your legs are much higher than parallel. This is not only a great muscle-building exercise but will also turn heads in your gym. Work up to this by mastering (holding for 20–30 seconds) the other moves on the list above.
L-Sits on Rings
You might want to give this variation a try if there’s a set of gymnastic rings in your gym (only after you’re proficient with a normal L-sit on parallettes). The instability of the rings makes this same exercise exponentially harder.
Chan Lien is a presenter, trainer, and mindset coach based in New York City.