A fitness routine staple, leg lifts are one exercise you can get a lot of mileage out of: they increase core strength and flexibility, are easy to make more difficult via modification, and can help relieve aches and pains.
We asked certified trainer Lena Bozzo and fitness instructor Travis Watson to give us the 411 on all things leg lifts, including what they are, how to do them, and who should add them to their fitness routine. Read on for what they have to say.
Meet the Expert
What Are Leg Lifts?
Leg lifts are a challenging exercise designed to target the lower and upper abdominal muscles, and build strength in this region; think of them as a straight leg reverse crunch. Beyond this, leg lifts are also a superlative workout to improve flexibility across the back extensors and hips flexors.
In order to effectively lift your legs, engage all the right muscles, and reap the benefits of this core-shaking exercise, form is key. “From the outside looking in, leg lifts may appear an easy movement, but don’t be fooled,” says Bozzo. “When performed correctly and safely, this exercise targets those hard-to-reach, often stubborn lower tummy muscles, whilst also strengthening the core and increasing your flexibility.”
The latter is something to ponder over for those who remain seated most of the day, often resulting in tightness creeping into the hips and, potentially, discomfort in the lower back. “Leg lifts are a helpful exercise to combat this problem, and, given that no equipment is required, they can be done anywhere and at any time,” says Bozzo.
How to Safely Perform a Leg Lift
Given the vitality of the exercise, leg lifts are safe for most to throw into their workout, although to perform them properly, there are some key considerations.
“If you are just starting your fitness journey and still building your core strength, it’s best to master the basics,” says Watson. “Start by lying on your back with your head and shoulders off the ground, hands right by your side or supporting your lower back, and lifting your legs straight up to a 90-degree angle, before lowering back down slowly.”
Most important of all is the positioning of the spine and back to protect yourself from unnecessary strain. “The lower back should remain touching the ground the entire time without any gaps, which is quite often the hardest part to master,” says Bozzo. “The lower you go, the more difficult the challenge in maintaining that crucial contact with the floor.” To rev up the intensity, Bozzo suggests hovering the legs just shy of the ground for greater enlisting of the abdominal muscles.
What Are Some Leg Lift Variations?
With plenty of leg lift variations at your disposal, it’s easy to make this workout fun and challenging. “For beginners, some common variations to this movement would be to lie down on your back, bringing your feet off the floor and your knees into a 90-degree angle. This position will already create an easier environment for no gaps to occur between your back and the floor. While holding both legs off the ground, slowly lower and tap one heel to the floor at a time, alternating the legs,” shares Bozzo. “You can also vary the exercise by changing the tempo, slowing it down to further control the movement.”
The intensity can also be increased by adding in resistance. “Place a medicine ball between the legs at the ankles, and slowly lower and lift your legs while squeezing the weight. Make sure to keep your back pressed against the floor with no gaps,” says Bozzo. With the added resistance, your range of motion may decrease, as well as the depth your legs can reach while you maintain good form.
Another version is to stretch your hands to the side creating a ‘T’ shape. “This puts more emphasis on the abdominal muscles,” says Watson. “Leg lifts can also be performed seated on an elevated surface with your hands placed behind you, thereby raising your torso more, which can increase the squeeze you get on your abdominal muscles.”
For more advanced leg raise combinations, Watson suggests performing leg lifts while hanging from an overhead pull-up bar or while holding yourself up on dip bars, placing emphasis on the entire core and other muscle groups. “If you are doing [either] of these two more advanced variations, then expect to target more than just your core and hips,” he says. “If you are hanging you will also be using some forearm muscles and well as shoulders and back, and if you are holding yourself up on dip bars then expect to use some tricep muscles.”
Importantly, Watson points out the need to exhale on the way up and inhale on the way down, as well as ensuring the downward phase is slower and more controlled than the upward phase, for maximum muscle contraction.
Are Leg Lifts Suitable for Everyone?
If you are suffering from tightness in the hip flexors or lack balance and strength in your core muscles, this exercise may help to address these areas. But be warned: “There are common mistakes that can make or break your leg lifts, and the last thing you want is for this exercise to create pain in your lower back, taking the work away from your abs,” says Bozzo. It’s best to seek proper guidance from a personal trainer to avoid worsening back problems, or if you are unable to keep constant contraction of both the abdomen and back muscles at the same time.
For anyone experiencing lingering back pain and tightness, it’s best to proceed with extreme caution. “As leg lifts can cause lower back pain if performed incorrectly, those already suffering from pain in this region should work on slower, gentler movements,” says Watson. Instead, turning your attention to rehabilitative core exercises (such as a beginner's Pilates routine) can build strength in the back region and reduce chronic pain.
Kim K, Lee T. Comparison of muscular activities in the abdomen and lower limbs while performing sit-up and leg-raise. J Phys Ther Sci. 2016;28(2):491-494. doi:10.1589/jpts.28.491