Hanging Leg Raises – The BEST Ab Exercise?
The best ab exercise, hanging leg raises, doesn’t require any fancy equipment, special belts, ab king pro devices or any of that other BS.
To perform hanging leg raises all time all you need is your body and a horizontal bar – don’t have access to a pull-up bar? Not a problem! A ledge, tree branch or piece of playground equipment will suffice.
The fitness industry is constantly pushing consumerism, you honestly don’t need any of that stuff to build a great physique (funnily enough all of those isolation ab exercises with equipment net you virtually no results… but more on that a bit later!). I remember watching videos on YouTube about 5 or 6 years ago on ‘how to get abs’ and ‘how to build a ripped core’ of course the information I found was useful – eating acai berries and doing 100 sit-ups twice a day is NOT the way to get abs or even develop functional core strength… needless to say I spent a couple of years wasting my time with sit-ups, sit-ups and more sit-ups, until one day I discovered the hanging leg raise. If you only perform one abdominal exercise make sure it’s the hanging leg raise
Benefits Of Hanging Leg Raises
- Hanging leg raises don’t require any fancy equipment – just your body and a horizontal bar
- Hanging leg raises target the entire abdominal region (rectus abdominus aka. your six pack along with your obliques and serratus anterior)
- The process of raising your hips translates into increased functional power, useful in your athletic endeavours
- Your rectus adominus (your six pack) gets fully contracted unlike when performing sit-ups or other ground based ab exercises
- Hanging from a horizontal bar dec0mpresses your spine
- Hanging leg raises will not only smash your core, but you’ll also increase and build great grip strength (which translates over to grip strength on deadlifts, rows and the like) as well as stressing your lats and shoulders to an extent due to the isometric hold taking place (you’re locking your body in place for the duration of each set).
- Hanging leg raises will increase your lower back strength
- Mobility and flexibility are increased via full range of motion hanging leg raises
All Other Abdominal Exercises Pale In Comparison To The Hanging Leg Raise Because…
- The hanging leg raise is considered among the top 6 bodyweight exercises by old school calisthenics experts such as Paul Wade and Al Kavado
- No expensive ab rollers, roman chairs or ab swing machines required
- The hanging leg raise is suitable for YOU regardless of your current athletic ability – the leg raise is an extremely scalable exercise with many different progressions to keep yourself challenged
- The core strength, flexibility and mobility gained by performing hanging leg raises is entirely functional as it is essentially a compound movement – isolation exercises such as the traditional sit-up is useless
- Performing the hanging leg raise and progressing with the hanging leg raise will assist in increasing your strength and stability on major compound lifts such as the squat and deadlift
- Other ab exercises such as the sit-up, plank etc. compress your spine – the hanging leg raise (and its variations) are the only ab exercise to do the opposite and decompress your spine
SJ’s Tips For Performing Your Hanging Leg Raises
Before I delve into the different variations and progressions of the hanging leg raise I’d like to share a few tips I’ve picked up along the way which will be very handy when performing this exercise…
- Focus on building your grip strength – do not use straps until you have mastered the leg raise and plan on smashing out sets of 20+ repetitions
- Inhale during the negative (downwards) portion of each repetition and breathe out at the top of each repetition
- Remember that breathing tightens and contracts the abdominal muscles, use this to your advantage when performing your ab exercises
- If you’re getting a sore lower back from performing hanging leg raises this is generally due to a muscular inbalance aka. your core is much stronger than your lower back – the solution is to perform more exercises targeting your lower back.. great examples include barbell back squats and bridges (or a variation of the bridge depending on how flexible you are)
- Stretch out your hamstrings prior to performing your hanging leg raises – you require all the flexibility you can get (especially when performing the straight leg variation)
- Pause for 1 second at the top of each repetition, this is known as an isometric hold
- The abdominal muscles recover quickly – practise your hanging leg raises 3 – 4 times per week and don’t forget to mix it up with as many variations as you can
- Be mindful of your shoulder position, I personally do not entirely ‘lock out’ my arms, I like to get a small amount of tension in my lats
Without Further Adieu, Hanging Leg Raise Progression
Depending on your level of core strength and flexibility you may want to skip straight to the hanging bent knee raise variation, due to the large amount of sit-ups I’d performed when I started learning how to perform the hanging leg raise I was able to skip the floor based variations. I want this guide to be completely beginner friendly though so if you’re completely new to working out or training your abdominals at least make sure you have the first 2 variations down pat first – struggling to rep out a few of the third variation while skipping the floor based variations will see you running into a plateau or using questionable form in the not too distant future. Be patient and start at a variation in line with your current core strength and flexibility.
Floor Bent Knee Raise
Lay down on your back with your legs extended out in front of you.
Tense your core and bend your knees as you bring your legs up towards your chest – hold and squeeze for a second to feel the contraction before returning your legs to their extended position, do not let your legs touch the ground between reps.
Floor Straight Leg Raise
Lay down on your back with your legs extended out in front of you.
Tense your core and keep your legs completely straight as you bring your legs up towards your chest – hold and squeeze for a second to feel the contraction before returning your legs to their extended position, do not let your legs touch the ground between reps.
Very similar to the previous variation however by eliminating the bend in the knee more tension is placed on the abdominal region.
Hanging Bent Knee Raise
It’s time to take it to the bar!
Hold onto a horizontal bar (a pull-up bar, tree branch or piece of playground equipment) I think you’ll find a slightly wider grip to be easier as a beginner.
While keeping your core tight bend your knees and lift them up as high as possible.
Slowly lower your legs back down – the key to avoid swinging on the negative (downwards) portion of each rep is to consciously think about keeping your abs tight for the entire duration.
Tip: you want to form at minimum an L shape with your body, the higher up you can get your knees the better, but aim for at least 90 degrees.
Hanging Partial Straight Leg Raise
Very similar to the above however this time you’re going to keep your legs fully extended for the duration of the raise – there is a big difference between the bent knee raises and the straight leg raises so ensure you’ve mastered the bent knee before you delve into these. By keeping your legs straight the amount of tension and demand placed on your core is vastly increased.
The key with this first variation of the straight leg raise is to simply get your legs to form the L shape, a 90 degree angle is the goal – there is no need to push beyond that yet.
The hanging L-sit is an isometric hold that builds great core strength – try holding these bad boys for 30 – 60 seconds at a time.
The hanging L-sit is exactly the same as the above variation, the hanging partial straight leg raise however you are going to hold yourself in the contracted L position for as long as possible – this principle here is focusing on time under tension (which is a form of progressive overload, essential for size and strength gains).
Hanging Full ROM Leg Raises
It’s time to get those toes to the bar!
Keep your legs dead straight while hanging from your horizontal bar while ensuring your core is tight and your elbows remain straight (there is to be no bending of the elbows) lift your legs up and continue past the 90 degree L variation until your feet touch the pull-up bar, if you look at the shape of your body in the fully contracted position of a complete range of motion hanging straight leg raise it would resemble that of the letter ‘V’.
This is the traditional hanging straight leg raise! Aim to perform 10 strict repetitions without any kipping or swinging before moving on. This here is the benchmark, the below are all just slightly more advanced variations to keep things interesting!
The hanging V-sit is an isometric hold that requires both immense core strength as well as hip and hamstring flexibility (as I mentioned in the tips section I advise stretching before tackling anything like this)
The hanging V-sit is exactly the same as the hanging full range of motion straight leg raise, During the V-sit however you are going to hold yourself in the contracted V position (aka. with your legs basically touching the pull-up bar) for as long as possible – this principle here is focusing on time under tension (which is a form of progressive overload, essential for size and strength gains).
Few people can hold these longer than a handful of seconds but I recommend practising the V-sit regularly, an impressive feat of core strength, flexibility and determination are required to pull these off.
Keeping It Interesting! Hanging Leg Raise Variations
Now that we’ve got the traditional hanging leg raise down pat it’s time to mix it up and add in more oblique activation – forget performing Russian twists on the floor – these variations leading up to the window wiper are the ultimate way to smash your obliques and build up immense strength in the side walls of your abdominals.
Side To Side
The side to side leg raise is very similar to the full range of motion hanging leg raise however instead of lifting your legs directly in front of you for each rep the movement course for our legs alternates on each rep.
Aim for your left hand on the pull-up bar on the first rep
Aim for the middle of the bar (traditional leg raise style) on the second rep
Aim for your right hand on the pull-up bar on the third rep
Around The World
People quite often call this variation the window wiper, however in my books this is not a window wiper – I’m coining it the ‘around the world’ (IgnoreLimits patent pending..)
Grasp your pull-up bar and as you start to lift your straight legs up rotate at your hips and continue the movement from left to right for the first rep.
Pause and perform the following rep from right to left by simply rotating your hips again.
You’ll feel these in your obliques quite quickly! It took quite a while after I mastered the traditional straight leg hanging leg raise for me to get the hang of these.
The grand daddy of all abdominal exercises, the (genuine) variation of the window wiper.
If you can pull these off you will be getting a lot of attention in the gym and you’ll be sporting a core forged of steel.
Assume a hanging V-sit position before rotating your hips from left to right – when starting out limit your range of motion and perform these nice and slow, this will allow you to get the hang of the pause and change in direction for each rep. As you begin to become comfortable and build up that core strength even further you’ll be able to exaggerate your range of motion and increase the speed of each repetition.
Throw away your ab roller and disregard the gimmicky exercises and equipment that those mens fitness and muscle building magazines are trying to sell you… you don’t need to ‘shock’ your abs with a new exercise, rep range or workout each day or every other week for that matter.. the hanging leg raise is thg#1 abdominal exercise without a doubt – it has numerous benefits that ground based isolation ab exercise such as the sit-up or Russian twist. Regardless of your currently level of core conditioning there’s a variation of leg raise that you can start practising today.
I cannot stress the importance of taking it slowly, one progression at a time. Don’t jump straight into trying to pull off one or two dodgy repetitions of the window wiper, that’s not how you build a strong core and that’s alsoa good way to potentially injure yourself.