How to Do Leg Lifts Correctly for a More Effective Abs Workout

You can crunch, plank, and leg lift all you want-but if you’re not doing these moves correctly (and pairing them with a healthy lifestyle), you probably aren’t going to see ab progress anytime soon. (And for the record, core strength is important for a lot more reasons than getting a six-pack.)

Leg lifts are a pretty basic-but effective-core exercise. But it’s easy to mess them up. (Ditto with biceps curls.) That’s why Jen Widerstrom (Shape’s consulting fitness director and the creator of the 40-Day Crush-Your-Goals Challenge) is sharing the most common leg lift mistakes and how to do a perfect leg lift, so you can optimize your abs routine instead of wasting time in the gym. Watch her demo the correct and incorrect version in the video above, then give it a try yourself in this 10-minute at-home abs workout.

The key mistake is arching your lower back, which lets your ab muscles slack off and puts more pressure on your hip flexors and back extensor muscles to control and perform the movement. Before you toss your legs around, find a solid position lying faceup with your arms overhead and legs extended, and really press your lower back into the floor. (This is called a hollow body hold; watch Bob Harper demo it here.) Once you can hold that for 15 seconds with your back pressed firmly into the floor, try the leg lift with Jen’s tips.

How to Perform the Perfect Leg Lift

Dos:

  • Press lower back into the floor. While lowering legs, stop once you feel your back lifting off the floor.
  • Keep legs together and inner thighs engaged.
  • Inhale on the way down, exhale on the way up.

Don’ts:

  • Allow lower back to arch off the floor.
  • Let legs come apart.
  • Hold your breath.
  • By Lauren Mazzo @lauren_mazzo

Crunches or Leg Raises for Your Abs?

If you are hoping to get your tummy tighter the question that always comes up is which is better, crunches or leg raises? I think the better question is which one works your tummy and doesn’t weaken your low back? The last thing you ever want to have happen if you begin a workout program is to have to stop because of an injury. Unfortunately if you are doing any type of leg raises or hanging leg raises for your abs…you could be making things worse.
Depending on how old you are you may have forgotten that – we stopped recommending straight legged sit-ups years ago, because it aggravated low back pain. Aren’t leg raises pretty much the same thing as the straight legged sit-ups… done in reverse?

To understand why I am cautious about leg raises, you only need to know a little anatomy and physiology. What you need to know is where muscles attach. Once you know that it’s pretty easy to understand which exercise or movement works a specific muscle.

The Basics

Think of your skeletal system like a ‘pulley’ system. Muscles attach to bones and when these two attachment points come closer together the muscle contracts and shortens. If you look at the bicep muscle, you notice it attaches at the top of the shoulder and runs below the crease of your elbow. When you contract and shorten your bicep, your arm bends!
When you look at the abdominal muscles you see it attaches at the bottom of your ribs and at the top of your pubic bone. It’s not attached to your leg, so raising your leg doesn’t seem to really be working your abs, does it?

A simple test you can do to confirm that is….

  1. Lie flat on the floor with your legs straight
  2. Place your right hand along the bottom of your rib cage
  3. Place your left hand at the top of your pubic bone.

These are the two attachment points of the abdominal muscle.

Now slowly raise your legs, it doesn’t matter if you keep your legs straight or bent. Did you feel your hands move? Did the two endpoints of your abdominal muscle contract and move closer?

If your hands are in the correct position, I don’t think you felt any movement!

The muscle responsible for raising your legs are the hip flexors, commonly called your psoas muscles. You can see they attach to the front of your spine and run down to the inside of your leg. Any Anatomy and Physiology book will tell you the action of the hip flexor is to raise the legs or bend forward at the waist.

The abdominal muscles are not the primary muscles involved in raising your legs, at least not for the first 90 degrees.

Stay on the floor and repeat the test, but this time, pull your legs past 90 degrees. Go beyond perpendicular. What happened to your hands? Did you finally feel you left hand move?

It is only when you pull your legs pass perpendicular that your abdominals come into play. Unfortunately, most people who do leg raises or hanging leg raises only pull up to about 90 degrees. In essence they are contracting and shortening their hip flexors, not their abs.
Tight hip flexors are a huge underlying cause of back pain that is often overlooked by doctors, health care providers and trainers. But when you look at where the muscle attaches you can quickly see that it could be one of the muscles that could be at the root of your back problem and needs further investigating.

What about Crunches

To check and see if crunches target your abs go back on the floor and assume the same hand position as before. Now perform a crunch (feet flat on the floor or elevated and raise your shoulders a few inches off the ground).

What you should notice is that your top hand is moving closer to your opposite hand, which means, crunches are specifically targets your abs. Let me also suggest performing a reverse crunch (raise your hips off the ground and keep your shoulders on the ground). You should again feel your abs contracting and your hands moving closer together.

Don’t get mislead into thinking that placing a towel or your hands behind your back or bending your legs will lessen the strain on your low back when doing leg raises. What pulls your legs up are the hip flexors Not the abdominals.

Making your hip flexors any shorter or tighter is not a good thing for most people when you consider most people have tight hip flexors because of all the sitting we do at a desk, in a car or on a plane, not to mention that a lot of people sleep in a curled up fetal position that further shortens your hip flexors.
I have nothing against leg raises, but if you are going to do them do them correctly to minimize any potential aggravation to your low back. I’m a big fan of crunches for helping you target in on your abs. I hope that‘s helpful for anyone who has been struggling with low back pain that isn’t getting resolved.
It’s not about training harder or longer – it’s about training and dieting smarter!

Leg Lifts

The Leg Lifts exercise, or leg raises, is an ab isolation exercise. By raising your legs above your body, you work not only your upper abs, but your lower abs as well. Because you raise your legs off the ground, Leg Lifts especially work your lower abs.

This abs exercise is very similar to the V-ups exercise, but you don’t move your arms. Often performed while hanging on a bar, this exercise is often termed “hanging leg lifts” or “hanging leg raises.”

To Do Leg Lifts:

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Place your hands, palms down, on the floor beside you.
  3. Raise your legs off the ground (Exhale as you go).
  4. Keep your knees locked throughout the exercise.
  5. Hold for 30 seconds, or as long as you can (with some routines, there is only a short contraction/holding period).
  6. Return to starting position (Inhale as you go).

Leg Lift Variations

If you find it too difficult to perform then raise your legs at a different angle. This will give you added support. Different leg lift variations include going very high, or very low. Switch things up, until you find what works for you. You can hold grasp a stability ball between your legs, to increase your core strength.

Also, keep your knees locked for a better workout. Unlock your knees to make Leg Lifts easier. You can also cross your legs, as seen in the 2nd video below.

Popular Leg Lift Workouts

  • The Matthew McConaughey workout for Magic Mike uses this exercise to train his abs.
  • The Ryan Reynolds workout for Green Lantern uses the Hanging Leg Lifts version of this exercise.
  • The Jen Selter workout (Instagram sensation) uses Lower Leg Lifts during her lower abs workouts.
  • The Audrina Patridge workout from The Hills, works her abs using Bent Leg Lifts and other variations.
  • The Marisa Miller workout uses Lying Leg Lifts. She says this is a great exercise to tone your waist.
  • The How to Get A Sexy Butt Workout Video uses leg lifts that go up and out, as well as, ones done in a pushup position.

Leg Lifts Videos

Swiss Ball Leg Lifts

Swiss Ball Leg Lifts are a popular variation of leg lifts. Here you put an exercise, or Swiss ball, between your legs. Some variations even have you extend your arms up as you go. The first video shows this version of Swiss Ball Leg Lifts. The second shows an easier, safer way, where you support your abs/core with your hands. Remember to inhale on the way up, and exhale on the way down:

Hanging Leg Raises

With hanging leg raises, keeping your knees in is the easier version. Raising your legs above your head is obviously the harder version. Proper breathing, like explained in the video above, is important.

If you’re looking to get ripped six pack abs, try the “Get Ripped Six Pack Abs” Workout, or Jillian Michaels Workouts: 6-Weeks To Six Pack Abs.

Popular Leg Lifts Exercise Terms:

  • abs exercise with legs
  • are leg lifts the best for lower abs
  • double leg lift exercise for abs
  • home workout leg lifts
  • how to do leg raises properly

If you’re doing , don’t even think about getting up off the ground until you’ve done a few sets of lying leg raises.

Not only will this move sculpt the hell out of your core, but it also improves the flexibility of your hip flexors—crucial for aiding every step you take and every squat you make.

How To Do Lying Leg Raises

How to: Lie on a mat on the floor, face up, legs extended. Place your hands underneath your lower back and glutes so your pelvis is supported. Begin to raise your legs toward the ceiling, pressing your thighs together and keeping the legs straight. Lift until your hips are fully flexed and you can’t go any higher with straight legs, then lower back down and repeat.

“It’s such a versatile exercise, you really have the freedom to add it in whatever way you’d like.”

Form note: Move slow and with control, making sure not to arch your back at any point in the move, says Jenna Epperly, ACE-certified trainer at Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios in Virginia Beach, VA.

Reps/sets you should do to see results: Repeat 15 to 20 times for three to four sets. If performing solo (not in a circuit), rest 30 seconds between sets.

The Benefits Of Lying Leg Raises

Lying leg raises are touted as a killer abs exercise—because they are. But your hip flexors actually reap some major benefits of this move, says Epperly. So don’t be surprised if your hips feel a bit of the burn during this one.

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Strong hip flexors will improve your runs, your spin game, and your squat, so this is a great move to add to any routine—regardless of your activity of choice, says Epperly.

Lying leg raises can also help alleviate low back pain, she adds, since it improves the overall strength and stabilization of your core.

Make Lying Leg Raises Part Of Your Workout

Aim to work lying leg raises into your routine two to three times a week. “It’s such a versatile exercise, you really have the freedom to add it in whatever way you’d like,” says Epperly. Leveraging it in a workout that targets the opposing muscle groups (the lower back, for instance) is a great choice. But Epperly’s go-to is adding lying leg raises at the end of an abs circuit workout.

If the traditional method of raising and lowering completely straight legs is too hard (hint: when you can’t keep your back flat), start by performing the move with bent legs, says Epperly.

When the move with straight legs feels like a breeze, there are a few options for how to make it more difficult:

  • Don’t allow your legs to fully touch the ground at the end of the move.
  • Add a dumbbell in between your feet (or ankle weights) during the traditional lift-and-lower.
  • For max challenging, grab onto a pullup bar and perform hanging leg raises.

Weighted Hanging Leg Raise

weighted hanging leg raise is a free weights exercise that primarily targets the abs and to a lesser degree also targets the hip flexors and quads.

The only weighted hanging leg raise equipment that you really need is the following: chin-up bar. There are however many different weighted hanging leg raise variations that you can try out that may require different types of weighted hanging leg raise equipment or may even require no equipment at all.

Learning proper weighted hanging leg raise form is easy with the step by step weighted hanging leg raise instructions, weighted hanging leg raise tips, and the instructional weighted hanging leg raise technique video on this page. weighted hanging leg raise is a exercise for those with a expert level of physical fitness and exercise experience. Watch the weighted hanging leg raise video, learn how to do the weighted hanging leg raise, and then be sure and browse through the weighted hanging leg raise workouts on our workout plans page!

Today I’m going to cover a basic but very important exercise referred to as the straight leg raise exercise. I am going to show you how to do this properly without causing unnecessary and uncomfortable strain in your lower back.

I consider this an active straight leg raise since you will consciously use your breath, core strength, posture, shoulders, hip flexors, and quadriceps as you raise your leg.

You will need two pieces of equipment:

  • Pillow (optional depending on your comfort level).
  • Small support for your waist.

You might need a second pillow for additional support (I will explain this later).

Straight Leg Raise Exercise Benefits

The straight leg raise exercise benefits and strengthens muscles in your quadriceps and your hip flexors. If you keep everything engaged and tight as I describe in the video and in the step-by-step instructions, then your hip flexors will not pull on your back and potentially cause discomfort.

Straight Leg Raise Exercise in Physical Therapy

The straight leg exercise is often used in Physical Therapy to help patients improve the strength of their lower extremities.

Over the past 34 years as a Physical Therapist (Physiotherapist), I have often prescribed the straight leg raise exercise to patients recovering from a variety of surgeries or traumas to their body. It is a popular exercise that can be done before you are able to place full weight on a joint or limb. The straight leg raise is a cornerstone exercise in rehabilitation for knee replacements or many surgeries involving the lower leg, foot and ankle.

As the name implies, the straight leg raise exercise does not require you to bend the knee joint. This is encouraged when an individual has advanced arthritis in their knee(s). The straight leg raise exercise strengthens the muscles of the upper thigh, the quadriceps, without placing any stress on the knee joint.

How to Avoid Back Pain During the Straight Leg Raise

Although the straight leg raise exercise is kind to the knee, it can be hard on the low back. The reason back pain can occur is because the hip flexor muscles work along with the quadricep muscles to raise the leg up. Engaging the hip flexors without counteracting some of its effects can lead to back pain. Let me explain why this happens.

The quadricep muscles attach from the front of the pelvis and upper thigh to below the knee. This is illustrated in the image to the right.

If you only had to engage your quadricep muscles to raise your leg, you would not have to worry about compromising your low back.

However, the act of doing a straight leg raise exercise also involves a powerful hip flexor muscle, known as your iliopsoas.

The psoas part of the hip flexor muscle originates from the front of the spine, and it joins the iliacus before attaching onto the upper thigh. The psoas major and psoas minor as well as the iliacus muscles can be seen near the top of the image to the right.

The pull from psoas at it’s spinal attachment points (caused by raising the leg) can cause you to arch your lumbar spine area. This back arch, in turn, can lead to back pain. You must counter the back arch by engaging your deep abdominals. Activating your deep abdominal muscles will counter the strain on the lower (or lumbar) spine and reduce the chance of back pain.

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How to Do the Straight Leg Raise Exercise

Follow these steps to do the straight leg raise exercise properly.

Setup

It is important that you set yourself up correctly to do the straight leg raise exercise. Do the following before you start the exercise:

  • Always go down onto your shoulder before you roll over. If it’s comfortable for you to use a pillow, then, by all means, I recommend that you do so.
  • I encourage you to use a little support in the small of your back whether it is a pillow or some other support. The size and thickness of that support should be the same the depth of your hand when it is placed flat on the floor.
  • Slide the support out to one side and after you have verified that the support is the correct size, bring that back in a position to support your lower back.
  • When you use the muscles of your legs, you should also engage your abdominals. This keeps your low back safe.
  • Like all of the exercises that I work through with you online, I want you to think about your posture and alignment. This very important!
  • If you are comfortable without a pillow, then, by all means, do the exercise that way. This approach will give you an extra stretch through your neck.
  • Use a little roll just at the base of your skull if you feel you need support through your neck . That should fill in that cavity or space behind your neck.

Step by Step Instructions

Follow these step-by-step instructions:

  • Make sure that you tuck your shoulders down and orient your palms to the sky.
  • Keep your knees well bent while you support your low back.
  • Slide out the leg your going raise.
  • This is a nice opportunity to stretch your toes before we begin the rest of the exercise. (You can never get enough toe stretches!)
  • Keep your toes pointed towards your nose and raise your leg.
  • Lift your leg no higher than the opposite thigh.
  • Pause.
  • Bring the leg down in a controlled manner (do not drop!)
  • Pay special attention to your breathing through the movement and make a point of not holding your breath.

Here are the steps you should follow to control your breathing.

  • Take a full breath in.
  • Exhale and tighten your lower tummy as you raise your leg.

Here is a breathing tip. As you exhale, gently blow through pursed lips to help you tighten your pelvic floor.

Please refer to the Exercise Safety Tips in Exercise for Better Bones to learn more about supportive breathing while exercising.

You might want to start with a shorter leg lift, raise (or elevation) or use an assist depending on:

  • How strong that you are when you do the straight leg raise exercise.
  • If you wear a support boot on your ankle because you are recovering from a recent surgery or fracture.

Exercise Recommendations for Osteoporosis

Exercise is vital to bone health and osteoporosis. But what exercises should you do and which ones should you avoid?

A great resource on exercise and osteoporosis is my free, seven day email course called Exercise Recommendations for Osteoporosis. After you provide your email address, you will receive seven consecutive online educational videos on your bone health — one lesson each day. You can look at the videos at anytime.

To register for this free email course, simply click on the image of the couple or click here and provide your email address.

I cover important topics related to osteoporosis exercise including:

  • Can exercise reverse osteoporosis?
  • Stop the stoop — how to avoid kyphosis.
  • Key components of an osteoporosis exercise program.
  • Key principles of bone building.
  • Exercises you should avoid if you have osteoporosis.
  • Yoga and osteoporosis — should you practice yoga if you have osteoporosis?
  • Core strength and osteoporosis — why is core strength important if you have osteoporosis?

Straight Leg Raise Exercise With External Rotation

If your Physical Therapist gave you ten straight leg raises to do, five should be done in the position that I just demonstrated and five should be done with your leg slightly externally rotated.

Follow these instructions to do a straight leg raise with external rotation:

  • Roll out the whole leg about 30 degrees.
  • Follow the detailed step-by-step instructions above.

Straight Leg Raise Exercise With Extra Support

If you are following the instructions and still have a hard time keeping your back down and engaged, use another pillow for support. The higher the pillow, the more assistance you’re going to get.

  • Rest your thigh all the way down to your heel on the pillow. This extra support will take away the hardest part of the lift for the abdominal.
  • Follow the detailed step-by-step instructions above.

Follow these instructions and you will not cause any undue stress on your back (1).

Conclusion

That is how I like to see you do the straight leg raise exercise. This approach will yield all the benefit of the straight leg raise without creating any stress in your low back.

  1. McGill, Stuart. Low back Disorders, Evidence-based Prevention and Rehabilitation. p. 240.

Osteoporosis Exercise Plan

Visit my Osteoporosis Exercise Plan page for more information on this topic.

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