Aaaah leg raises.
Talk about these to any gymnast and watch them smirk away. These are a staple of gymnasts training regimes and one of the best exercises out there to build a rock solid core and abs.
Given all the progressions and their specificity to climbing, if there’s one core exercise climbers shouldn’t miss, then for sure it’s leg raises!
Leg raises lying, leg raises hanging, however you prefer or are strong enough for, make sure you’re training these bad boys.
Muscles Worked During Leg Raises
Of all the different abdominal muscles, leg raises work the following:
- The superficial abs, a.k.a Rectus Abdominis
- Hip flexors
- Adductors and tensor fascia latae
6-pack Abs aka Rectus Abdominis
These are the muscles we generally refer to when we talk about core or abs and are the outermost layer of muscles that produce that 6-pack effect.
The muscles flex and rotate the lower back and stabilize the pelvis during walking.
The rectus abdominis muscles aren’t engaged during a hanging leg raise until your knees rise above hip level, so make sure you’re going above that 90° level!
If that’s too hard then bend your knees slightly to decrease the leverage.
Of the 5 hip flexors, the following two are the main ones used during leg raises:
- Rectus Femoris
These are the prime boys involved in flexing the thigh and trunk all the way up.
The lliopsoas group, a combination of the iliacus and psoas major muslces, is the flexor most used during a hanging leg raise as it lifts the thigh towards your chest.
The rectus femoris is one of the four quadriceps muscles. It also works with the iliopsoas to flex the hips and raise your knee during a leg raise.
Adductors and Tensor Fascia Latae
The adductors are a muscle group located on the inner thighs. These guys help press the thighs together as you raise your legs.
The tensor fascia latae assists the iliopsoas and rectus femoris muscles during hip flexion. This muscle is located on the upper lateral thigh and is enclosed between layers of connective tissue known as fascia.
Let’s see these 5 variations of leg lifts in increasing order of difficulty.
1) Leg Raises On Bench
This is one of the beginner progressions as you can provide support with your hands by holding onto the bottom or the top of the bench while you perform the movement.
Start lying with your back on the bench, legs extended straight off the end.
Use your hands to grip the bench and steady yourself, either under your glutes or over your head.
Keeping your legs as straight as possible, exhale and raise them until they make a 90-degree angle with the floor. Slowly lower to the starting position in a controlled manner.
2) Leg Raises Lying (aka Supine Leg Lifts)
Only slightly harder than numero uno, here you can’t hold on with ez hands.
Start lying in the supine position, that is lying flat on your back.
Your legs should be out straight and the palms should be face down out at 45° to your torso.
Next, squeezing your feet together, lift the legs off the ground till they are verticle, keeping them nice and straight.
Then very slowly lower the legs to the starting position. Performing the eccentric movement nice and slow gives the best burn!
3) Leg Raises On Roman Chair
A step up from the horizontal to vertical. This changes the axis you’re working on and makes the leg raise more climbing specific.
The Roman chair, also known as a captain’s chair is a great progression.
Being in the vertical position with your feet straight down means a stronger pull of gravity and more work for your hip flexors and rectus abdominis to lift those legs up.
- Steady control of the legs and no swinging!
- Lift your legs above hip level to ensure you’re fully working the abs and not just the hip flexors.
Stand in the Roman chair and place your forearms on the padded armrests and back firmly on back rest, grabbing the handles, if available. Your back should be nice and straight.
Inhale and engage your abdominal muscles and hip flexors. Lift your legs, keeping them as straight as possible, until your quads are slightly above parallel to the ground.
Slowly lower your legs in a straight line and controlled movement, exhaling as you go, until you’re back in the starting position.
Keep your core engaged.
4) Hanging Leg Raises
As with leg raises in the Roman chair, being in full vertical position means more work for your hip flexors and rectus abdominis to lift those legs up!
In addition here the back support is removed meaning more work from your core to stabilize your trunk and control the movement during the concentric raise and eccentric lowering.
On top of that the dead-hanging position means forearm flexor engagement.
Grab the bar with an overhand grip. Having your thumbs wrapped below the bar improves stability whereas above will make the gripping more difficult.
Engaging your core and hip flexors, exhale as you lift your feet off the ground, raising your straight legs outward in front of you. Tilting or rotating your pelvis slightly backwards so that you’re in posterior pelvic tilt for provides good form.
Raise your legs as high as possible whilst keeping a straight back. Lifting them above the hip level provides the most work for the abs as the hip flexors are involved a lot in the first 90° of the contraction.
Slowly lower your legs back down, inhaling during this portion of the exercise.
You want as little swing from the legs as possible when performing these!
5) Leg Raises On Dip Bar
A step up from hanging leg raises, performing these on dip bars also requires shoulder and tricep engagement as you support yourself on your arms.
Raising your legs above 90° or hip level also becomes much more difficult as you’re no longer in a dead hang position to counter balance the upwards contraction!
To start position yourself on the dip bars holding with your arms straight and shoulder blades retracted. Your shoulders shouldn’t be hugging your ears or slouching!
This will be your starting position.
Now as you breathe out, lift your straight legs up. Continue this movement until your legs are roughly parallel to the floor and if possible above hip level.
Slowly lower your legs in a straight line go to the starting position as you breathe in. Control this movement to have a little swinging as possible.
And there we have it!
5 variations of leg raises that you can use to mix-up your training or progress further!
Remember to perform the eccentric lowering of the legs nice and slow to get the most out of these!
What other variations of leg raises or lifts have you found give the most bang for your buck?