One of the most effective abdominal exercises that may well be missing from your routine is hanging leg raises—a challenging, core-shaking, mobility movement that hones in on the abs and hip flexors. We asked the experts to explain exactly what are hanging leg raises, how to perform them properly, and also suitable modifications to build your way up to the grip bar.
Meet the Expert
- David Chesworth is an ACSM-certified personal trainer and fitness director at Hilton Head Health.
- Elise Armitage is a fitness trainer and creator of What The Fab.
What Are Hanging Leg Raises?
Mimicking the starting position to the pull-up, hanging leg raises begin in a free hang hold. “Hanging leg lifts are a great isometric movement for working your abs,” explains fitness trainer Elise Armitage, meaning the muscles are contracting without movement. “Start by hanging on a bar with your arms extended and your body straight, and then lift your legs parallel to the ground while keeping them straight.”
Adding to this, ACSM-certified personal trainer David Chesworth explains: “This exercise puts your hip flexors and lower abs in one of the most disadvantaged positions in a battle against gravity, making it a superstar exercise for developing strength in those muscle groups.” And not only that, but the movement is also ideal for stabilizing muscles such as the lats (muscles in the middle and lower back) and forearms (improving grip strength).
Not as simple as you initially thought? Not to worry. If you’re new to hanging leg raises, or exercise in general, Chesworth suggests using equipment to assist, as you work on the strength required to hold up your entire body. “For instance, start with an assisted pull-up machine, or add in a resistance band to progress safely and prevent injury.”
Benefits of Hanging Leg Raises
Hanging leg raises, while super effective in building core strength, have a host of other benefits. “They are a perfect choice to improve on grip strength, as free hanging maintains suspension of the body off the ground—held up by nothing more than your hand, wrist, and forearm strength,” explains Chesworth.
Also, they improve both shoulder mobility and stability. “If, like most people, you spend most of your day with your arms below your head—perhaps at a keyboard, steering wheel, or using a phone—a hang position gives your shoulders an opportunity to lengthen, strengthen, and simply breathe.” This is a go-to exercise to realign upper body posture and improve shoulder health.
And, for those of us prone to back pain, there’s good news—hanging leg raises can help reduce the ache. “In a free hang position, all of your joints are in traction, which allows the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and discs in your spine to lengthen and relax, thereby taking pressure off the back,” adds Chesworth. Strengthening your back in a lengthened position is one of his suggested methods for fighting the battle against back pain.
How to Perform With Proper Form
First and foremost, you’ll need to source a sturdy overhead bar, such as those found in an indoor or outdoor gym. “It should be one that can fully support your weight as you grip on,” cautions Armitage. “With an overhand grip, engage your abs and lift your feet off the ground, bringing them out in front of you with straight legs while exhaling, and then lower back down while inhaling.”
It’s also important to maintain form throughout the entirety of the movement. “As you return to the starting position with control, it’s important to keep your lower abs engaged even at the bottom of the movement, and your tailbone slightly tucked,” says Chesworth. This is to ensure your spine maintains a healthy alignment and prevents unwanted strain on the back.
The key to perfecting your hanging leg raises is maintaining control throughout the movement, with one common mistake being “swinging your legs up and using momentum, rather than your abs, to raise your legs,” states Armitage. “Another mistake is to let your legs fall down too quickly, thereby not enlisting your abs during the second part of the exercise.”
Other mistakes, described by Chesworth, are bending at the knees, bending at the elbows, and arching and leaning back at the spine. Given the difficulty of the exercise, it’s likely our form will shake from time to time, especially if we are new to the exercise.
The Best Hanging Leg Raise Modifications
To simplify the hanging leg raises, Chesworth suggests using a Roman chair, which has added back support and arm pads in which to rest your forearms until your grip improves; or bending your knees at a 90-degree angle to reduce the intensity and remove excess strain on the core.
You can even start off with floor work and build your way up. “A reverse crunch, for example, will remove the upper body entirely and allow you to focus on the lower extremities,” says Chesworth. Similar modifications include V-ups, where the arms and legs are lifted simultaneously to reach together, creating a ‘V’ shape. Or, try Swiss Ball knee tucks, where the front of your legs are balanced on the inflatable ball before tucking the knees toward the chest (yes, that’s a lot of core work).
Once you’ve worked your way to the full hanging leg raise, you can up the ante by throwing on ankle weights or holding a dumbbell or slam ball in between your ankles. "It is one of my favorite ways to strengthen my abs,” says Armitage. “I aim for three sets of 10 reps to feel the core effect the next day!”
Hanging leg raises will elevate your workout if the goal is to improve core strength, hip flexor mobility, and shoulder stability. Start off with a modification such as a reverse crunch, to master core control before building up to the grip bar in next to no time.