If you have so much as a passing interest in building a rock-solid core or sculpting a six-pack, you’ll probably have heard by now that sit-ups and crunches aren’t the best way to go about achieving this. There are a few reasons for that, but one of the biggest is that they do little to work your lower abs, so even if you do sit-ups every day you’re more likely to end up with a four-pack than the full six.
Fortunately, there are plenty of effective lower abs exercises out there you can use to round out your core routine, and one of the very best of them is the leg raise. It’s a simple but savagely effective exercise that often feels easy on the first rep and then entirely impossible by rep ten.
As well as working your lower abs, the leg raise also improves the strength and flexibility of your hips and lower back, which is a considerable benefit for anyone who spends a lot of time sitting at a desk.
Read on for our complete guide to how to pull off the perfect leg raise. Once you’ve mastered it, move on to the challenging variations that you can use to confirm your status as a lower-limb-lifting legend.
How To Do Leg Raises
Start by lying down on the floor or a mat. Unfortunately, it gets tougher from here. Lay flat with your arms at your sides and legs stretched out next to each other, then raise those legs. Even if you can’t hold them perfectly rigid, keep your legs as straight as possible, and lift them until they are pointing at the ceiling, or as near as you can get. Make sure your toes are pointed.
Then lower them back down, being careful to keep your movements measured. The return journey should be at the same pace at which you raised your legs. Lower them until they’re hovering just above the ground, and then raise them again. Shoot for three sets of 10 reps, or simply do as many raises as you can – keeping the pace steady – in a set time as part of a circuit.
If you’re struggling to do even 10 traditional leg raises, you can make the movement a bit easier by bending your legs at right angles when you lift. Once your thighs are perpendicular to your body, try and straighten your legs to point at the ceiling.
A good way to ensure you’re keeping your movements steady, and test your leg-raising abilities, is to set a metronome running and do the exercise in time with the beat. At 50bpm, you should lift on one beat and lower on the second. Try and stick with the beat for a minute, rest for 30 seconds and do it again.
Leg Raise Variations
Single leg raise
As explained above, one way to make the leg raise easier is to bend your knees during the movement, but another less taxing variation is to lift one limb at a time. Keeping one leg grounded will help stabilise your body as you raise the other leg, so you can focus on perfecting your form.
Medicine ball leg raise
Add an extra challenge for your abs, hips and adductors (the insides of your thighs) by gripping a medicine ball between your feet.
Weighted leg raise
As with most exercises, you can make the leg raise tougher by introducing some weight. With this variation you hold a dumbbell or sandbell between your feet as you perform the exercise. Keep the weight light, because it really doesn’t take much to make the leg raise very challenging indeed, and also you don’t want a heavy dumbbell to slip when you’re holding it with legs fully extended above your crotch.
Leg raise on dip station
If you’re looking to take your leg raises airborne but aren’t quite ready to try the hanging leg raise yet, head for the dip station. You’ll work your core all the harder to keep your torso still, and your arms and shoulders get a workout as well. Supporting yourself on both arms, which should be extended and by your sides, raise your legs straight out in front of you, then slowly lower them again. If this is proving too tough then you can bend your legs and bring your knees up instead.
About as tough as leg raising gets, this variation involves hanging from a pull-up bar or gymnastic rings while you raise your legs until they are parallel to the ground. Once again, you can start by bending your legs and raising your knees to your chest as a way of working up to the full exercise, and it’s also worth trying some dead hangs first to ensure you have the upper-body and grip strength to hold yourself up while leg raising.
If you’re building up to the hanging leg raise, or halfway through a set of them and realise you haven’t got the strength to get through to the end, give the hanging knee raise a go. Hang from a bar with an overhand grip. Draw your knees up slowly until your thighs are parallel to the ground, then lower them slowly. It’s still a great move for hammering your abs, just not quite as tough as the full hanging leg raise.
Hanging knee and leg raises are both great exercises for working your core, but the garhammer raise makes one adjustment that makes it even more effective – if you can manage it. With both the leg and knee raise you extend your legs beneath you after each rep, which releases the tension in your abs; with the garhammer raise you don’t get that break, because you never extend your legs fully until the set is completed.
Hang from the bar with an overhand grip. Bend your legs and bring your knees up until your thighs are parallel to the ground. This is the starting position for the exercise. Bring your knees up as high as you can towards your chest, then lower them slowly until your thighs are parallel to the ground again. Don’t be surprised if you tap out earlier in the set than you expect, because maintaining the tension in your core muscles like this is brutal. You can always switch to the standard hanging knee raise halfway through a set if you do need the release.