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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
Updated On: January 25, 2024
Tired of doing the same old sit-ups and crunches in your efforts to strengthen your core and build the six-pack of your dreams?
Breathe some new life into your core workout by including leg lifts, an exercise that taps into the activation of your core muscles while actively stabilizing through your hips and lower back. This functional movement connects the entire body and is an efficient way to strengthen your core.
Also referred to as leg raises, this bodyweight exercise can be done anywhere and as it's a low-impact movement, it's suitable for all fitness levels.
Ready to put your core to work? First read our article on performing leg lifts correctly, and then get ready to feel the burn!
Table of Contents:
This exercise is a compound core-focused movement that strengthens the front and sides of your core as well as your lower back. With increased stability through the core, you’ll not only see your core strength increase, but you'll also see improvements in other movements that recruit the abdomen and lower back for activation.
Although you are not guaranteed six-pack abs from performing leg raises, there are many progressions and variations, so you can continue challenging yourself and building strength in your core.
Your entire core and abdominal muscles are hard at work during leg lifts.
In addition, the hip joint must move during this exercise, resulting in leg lifts working the hip flexors, with the rectus abdominis, transverse abdominis, and lower back stabilizer muscles acting as primary movers and stabilizers.
Many muscles in your upper body and lower body are also engaged and active, helping the primary movers perform their jobs. For leg muscles, the thighs are activated, with the hamstrings putting in significant work when proper form is used.
Progressions of the leg lift include hanging positions, which require a full-body effort and target the upper body’s pulling muscles like the forearms, shoulders, and lats while activating the entirety of the core, including obliques, throughout each rep.
Core stability and strength are key components of a strong and functional body. Leg lifts directly target abdominal strength and stability and can help assist in injury prevention.
In addition to increasing core stability and strength, leg raises strengthen the hip joint, which loses efficiency over time, especially in those who are sedentary. The motion of lifting the legs upward recruits the lower back to work in synchronization with the core muscles.
Practicing this movement pattern can help connect the core and lower back to help stabilize movement at the hip joint. When performed correctly, it even becomes a good exercise to help relieve low back pain.
This how-to is based on a standard leg lift exercise in which the legs stay straight and the torso and neck remain in contact with the floor the entire time.
Try your first few repetitions with straight legs and if you feel yourself falling out of a neutral spine alignment, bend your knees slightly and repeat with the same form.
An exercise mat is not required but will make the move more comfortable. If you want to make this more challenging, consider adding ankle weights while performing leg lifts, as there are tons of great ankle weights benefits.
How to do the Leg Lifts exercise:
Make the most out of lying leg lifts by avoiding these 4 common mistakes.
In the leg raise, keep your ribcage and hips stacked throughout the movement, making sure your lower back is in contact with the ground. When setting up in your supine position, slightly tuck your pelvis to position yourself in a stacked form before moving through the lift.
Position your hands under your lower back and feel yourself actively push into your hands during your setup. When you’ve found that connection, remove your hands and maintain that tension throughout the entire range of motion.
If you’re starting in a place where you need your hands as a guide for core engagement, placing your hands underneath the lower arch of your back is recommended, but only for a few reps. With your hands under the arch of your back, you’ll start to feel your ability to press your lower back into the tops of your hands.
When you’re ready, extend your arms and place them next to you. Focus on maintaining constant tension within your lower back. Use this method as a tool to help you connect with your core instead of your standard form and set up for leg lifts.
When first trying leg lifts, it’s common to want to speed up the movement and get as many repetitions in as possible. Muscular endurance training certainly has its place, but for this move, it's important to slow down your raises, especially when the legs are lowering so you can feel the activation of your core.
You’ll be able to recognize any compensations when you slow down the movement, especially any excessive arching through the lower back.
If you’re new to the leg lift and haven’t built up adequate strength for the full range of motion, reducing the range of motion is a good regression. But follow this regression with the intent of eventually lowering all the way down.
Aim to work your way up to the full leg raise by lowering your legs down to the ground until there’s a foot or less of space underneath you. Completing the movement with full range allows you to gain the full benefits of this exercise.
If you find you're continuously making mistakes with your leg lift form, it is a good idea to start with a modification and work your way up to the straight-leg version.
Here are some great tips for modifying this bodyweight core exercise.
Looking for some great variations of the leg raise? Here are 4 great options to try.
A simple variation that can help you recognize any compensations within the leg lift is to alternate your legs. This movement will challenge you to hover one leg as the other leg pulls back to the start position.
How to do Alternating Leg Raises:
Ankle weights or resistance bands can take your leg lift to the next level. This will place even more stress on your core muscles, as they work hard to stay activated throughout the range of motion.
How to do Weighted Leg Lifts:
The upper body and upper abdominal muscles activate with this variation. If at any point you feel a strain or fatigue within the neck or upper body, reset and press your body into the ground like your standard leg lift position.
How to do Hollow Body Leg Raises:
This variation emphasizes the activation of your obliques and allows you to move from side to side.
How to do Lying Windshield Wipers:
Once you have built significant strength with the standard leg lift, using 2-3 sets of 10-15 strict repetitions with strong form and moderate fatigue, you can start to advance your practice.
Most of these movements require full-body activation in active hanging positions. If you're just getting started with these, you may even want to start with the dead hang first as a way to ease into these positions.
If you get to the point where you need to make these progressions harder, we recommend you wear ankle weights. It'll bring even more challenge to these tough moves.
The hanging leg raise is a natural progression commonly seen in advanced bodyweight programs. Not only does it target the core, but it also targets your grip strength and ability to activate your entire body while isolating the core.
This is a great movement to incorporate when you are trying to build upper body pull-up strength.
How to do the Hanging Leg Lift:
A regression to the hanging leg lift, the hanging knee raise is a great place to start if you feel like you are not able to fully raise your legs to parallel while feeling your core activate. Knee raises will allow you to focus more on stabilizing your body.
If you feel like you’re swinging back and forth during the movement, it is normal, as long as you aren't swinging excessively. Engage throughout your entire body to minimize swinging on the bar.
If you're swinging a lot, you may also want to add some plank variations to your training program to continue strengthening your core.
How to do Hanging Knee Raises:
A level-up from the hanging knee raise, the v-raise, also referred to as toes to bar, targets the entirety of the core along with your back muscles, which help you stay controlled at the top of the v position.
Instead of stopping your leg lift when they're parallel to the floor, bring your toes all the way up to the bar.
How to do Hanging V-raises:
The most advanced variation of them all, the hanging windshield wiper targets the entire body and especially emphasizes the oblique muscles.
This movement is only recommended to attempt when you’re able to complete 2 to 3 sets of full-range hanging v raises.
How to do Hanging Windshield Wipers:
Similar to a hanging position, the dip bar places your body in an elevated position while your arms are pushing down and away from you. This is a great progression for building strength in leg raises and building muscle as you hold your body on a dip bar.
If you need a regression, bend through your knees and work your way up to the straight leg variation.
How to do Dip Bar Leg Lifts:
Leg lifts are an efficient accessory core exercise that can be included in your workout split in a multitude of ways. Depending on your fitness goals and exercise routine, incorporating leg lifts may serve a different purpose for you than it does for someone else.
If you’re targeting muscle hypertrophy, incorporating the leg lift and its variations 1-2 times per week at 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps is plenty.
If you’re diligent and driven to work your way up to hanging leg raises and v-raises, adding leg lifts 2-3 times per week with specific progressions is recommended. Once you’re advanced and working with progressions, you may start to feel fatigued due to the full body demands.
Work with lower repetition schemes, 2-3 sets of 6-8 reps, when completing hanging variations and start to build from there. You can incorporate leg raises after or during specific lifting days (upper body, leg day, etc.) or full body and conditioning days. It is all dependent on your performance and physique goals.
Here's a sample workout plan, showing you how you can add leg lifts on to your leg workout.
Barbell Back Squat
Leg lifts are an efficient exercise to help you strengthen your core and stabilize your lower back and hips.
Leg lifts can be modified or progressed depending on your specific training goals, making them an ultra-versatile exercise. You will no doubt reap the benefits of leg raises and keep progressing your movement ability as you gain core strength.
Looking for more information on how to perfect a seriously tough leg raise progression? Check out our article on How To Master The Hanging Leg Raise!
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