Sometimes, the title of things can be misleading. Some examples: the entire Real Housewives series (uh, many are divorced, working ladies), Gossip Girl (spoiler alert: it’s a guy, actually), and hanging leg raises.
If I asked you to imagine what a hanging leg raise exercise is all about, obviously you’d think it’s about your gams. But—even though, yes, it does involve both hanging and raising your legs, the star of the move is your core. “Hanging leg raises primarily work the abdominals and hip flexors, and are a great addition to any fitness routine for overall core strength, spine health, and mobility,” says Mitchell Fischer, ACSM, trainer and weightlifting coach with Gold’s Gym. “You get additional benefits of working your grip and shoulder strength by hanging from the bar and stabilizing your body throughout the movement.”
Not that your leg muscles aren’t getting any love in the exercise—Fischer says that besides strengthening your hip flexors and lower abs, your quadriceps are getting worked as well since you’re using them to raise your legs up. Also, the bonus perks of working your core and arms with hanging leg raises are that you are better able to protect your back, which helps you hold your body up in general, says Tatiana Lampa, trainer with Training with T.
Though it may sound as easy as grabbing a bar and literally pulling your legs up, they’re sneakily really difficult, and there are a slew of common mistakes trainers see people make when attempting the move. “I see a lot of people using momentum to pull up, and as a result, hyperextend their backs,” says Lampa. Fischer says this swinging just means you’re losing control of your body and not engaging the muscles you need to be. “One mistake is not engaging your abdominal group and flexing your spine, or overworking the hip flexors,” he says.
Pro tips to keep in mind: Focus on working the right parts of your body. “Think about the contraction happening from your low abs,” says Lampa. And be sure to activate your abs and hip flexors as you’re raising your legs, adds Fischer. “If you feel it primarily in your hips, you need better engagement from your upper body to keep you stable and engage your core, which will flex your spine to assist,” he says. “You also want to make sure there’s enough leg room to lift and lower your legs so you’re not burning out your biceps performing your consecutive sets,” says Jay Mark, a trainer with Fithouse, who adds that a wide grip is best when working on the bar. Now let’s get to executing the exercise itself.
Your guide to doing hanging leg raises, according to trainers
Make sure you have the strength: Hanging itself is challenging, so first make sure you can do that. “Ensure you have the shoulder and lat strength to safely hang from a bar,” says Fischer. Not there yet? “There are straps that can assist in the hang that are available at most gyms,” he says. “It’s important to do this movement when starting out to minimize the swinging back and forth during the movement.”
Begin with your knees: Another option for when you’re new to hanging leg raises is to start with baby steps. “Keeping your legs straight is difficult since you’re moving a long lever far away from the active muscles,” says Fischer. “Shorten this by performing knee raises to start, and slowly build the movement by straightening your knees.”
Stay controlled: As Fischer points out, stabilization from the bar stars in the lats, AKA the big muscles behind your shoulders. “Achieve this by pulling the bar down towards your hips as much as possible while your legs raise and have a slow and controlled descent back to the starting position,” he says.
Remain stabilized throughout: Mark stresses that you shouldn’t just focus on your abs and legs during the exercise. “Make sure to also stabilize your upper body as you lower your legs,” he says.
Try a modification: If these options aren’t working for you, Fischer suggests performing a modification instead. “Lie down on your back and do a reverse crunch,” he says.
You can do so much more than hanging leg raises for your abs, though—here’s how to strengthen your core and all the muscles within it. Also try this resistance band core workout from our Trainer of the Month, which only involves six moves… but lots of burning.
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