Strengthen the Core with These 10 Leg Raise Variations

leg raise variations

Leg raises are a foundational calisthenics core workout, favored by bodybuilders, CrossFitters, and powerlifters alike. This lower core workout supports muscles that contribute to every day activities, making them a great option for athletes of all ages. While they offer several benefits in a fitness routine, they aren't for everyone. 

Limited equipment, limited grip strength, lower back issues, or plain dislike are just a few reasons someone might avoid hanging or lying leg raises. Fortunately, there are plenty of variations to help you work toward leg raises or avoid them entirely without sacrificing your core workout.

Here are ten leg raise variation exercises to add to your training repertoire.

Dead Bugs

Dead bugs are a foundational, beginner-friendly movement that works well as a warm-up or core activation exercise. This leg raise variation benefits newcomers to the gym or those returning to training after an extended break while working the core muscles, including the back. 

How to:

  1. Lie on your back with your arms extended upward and perpendicular to the floor. Tilt your pelvis and bend your knees so that your shins are parallel to the floor and your thighs are vertical. This is your starting position.

  2. Support your core, and gradually stretch your right arm back over your head while extending the left leg. 

  3. Pause when your right arm and left leg are fully extended, about an inch from the floor. 

  4. Reverse the movement, bringing your right arm and left leg back to starting position.

  5. Duplicate on the other side to complete the rep.

Focus on keeping your pelvis tilted and back flat against the floor throughout the movement. If you feel your back arching, you've reached the end of your range of motion.

Hollow Holds

Hollow Holds is another isometric hold that supports core strength for athletic performance and everyday movements. This surprisingly challenging exercise will engage your glutes, hip flexors, abdominals, and mind.

How to:

  1. Lay on the floor on your back, with your pelvis engaged and your arms stretched overhead. Your lower back should be flush against the floor. 

  2. Gradually raise your arms, shoulders, and legs slightly off the floor while keeping your back flat. Press your hands together, and point your toes.

  3. Hold this pose for 10-30 seconds, then slowly lower back to starting position.

Remember to breathe through this movement. Shaking is a normal side effect!

Boat Holds

Boat holds are a yoga-inspired core movement that's ideal for beginners who want to work the same muscles as leg raises but aren't ready for the intensity. This exercise is ideal for seniors working to prevent back pain while promoting core strength and athletes of all levels. Boat holds work your adductors, hip flexors, and core.

How to:

  1. Sit on the floor with your knees bent. Extend your arms in front of you, parallel to the floor.

  2. Lean back slightly, then lift and extend your legs while holding them above the floor. Beginners can keep a slight knee bend.

  3. Hold this pose for 10-30 seconds while maintaining a straight back.

As you get more comfortable with boat holds, you can extend your legs further or raise them higher off the floor. Remember to focus on your breathing and keeping a straight back.

Lying Windshield Wipers

Windshield wipers are a leg raise variation that engages the obliques while working the lower abs and lower back muscles. This movement also requires strong stabilizer muscles throughout the upper back. Windshield wipers are more advanced (especially the hanging variation) and ideal for seasoned athletes to build overall core strength.

How to:

  1. Lie on your arms extended to your sides, palms on the floor. Tuck your pelvis and extend your legs upward, so they're perpendicular to the floor. This is your starting position.
  2. Brace your core and gently lower your legs to the left while keeping them extended and together. 
  3. At the end of your range of motion (your upper back should remain flat on the floor), stay for a few seconds and reverse to the starting position.
  4. Repeat on the right side to complete one rep.

Windshield wipers are a great isometric exercise that increases mind-body awareness while working your core muscles. Form is everything, so take it slow and steady.

Med Ball Leg Raises

This leg raises alternative exercise follows the same movement as the traditional version with the added resistance of a medicine ball. The separation caused by holding the ball between your feet also shifts the focus of the movement to the hip flexors, making it a great core workout to support deadlifting.

How to:

  1. Lie on your back with a weighted ball placed between your feet and your pelvis tucked to ensure your back is flat against the floor. Place your hands close to your glutes for added support. 
  2. Brace your core and raise your legs while applying external pressure to the medicine ball with your feet.
  3. Stop at an 80-degree angle (to protect your face), pause, and slowly lower until your feet are about an inch off the ground.
  4. Pause and move onto the next rep.

Try not to let your feet touch the ground between reps. Avoid putting your legs at a 90-degree angle, or gravity could quickly become your enemy. To advance this exercise further, perform it while hanging from a pull-up bar.

Med Ball Pass Overs

Med ball pass overs are another traditional leg raise variation exercise and an advancement of the med ball leg raise. This exercise engages the upper abs in addition to the lower abs, back, and hips for a compound core workout. 

How to:

  1. Lay on your back with your pelvis tucked, and a med ball held securely between your feet. Stretch your arms overhead to create a straight line with your body. 
  2. Keep your core braced and your legs straight as you lift the med ball between your feet. Extend to come forward and grab the ball while keeping your core engaged.
  3. Grab the ball, then lower your legs and arms. Stop when the ball is just above the floor, and your arms are stretched overhead.
  4. Reverse the motion to bring the ball back to your feet.
  5. Return to an extended position until the ball is hovering above the floor while held between your feet. That's one rep.

The trick with this exercise is to go much lighter with the medicine ball than you think you need to.

Horizontal Scissor Kick

Horizontal scissor kicks are another lying leg raise variation that works the lower abs, hip flexors, adductors, and glutes. This movement is a great postpartum exercise to help correct diastasis recti and flatten the lower belly area.

How to:

  1. Lie on your arms extended to your sides, palms on the floor. Tuck your pelvis and extend your legs, lifting them slightly above the floor. This is your starting position.
  2. Using a slow and controlled motion, open and close your legs while keeping them off the ground. Keep your back flat throughout the movement.

You can enhance this simple-yet-challenging exercise by adding a resistance band around your ankles. Contrary to most exercises, lifting your legs higher can make this exercise easier for beginners.

Corkscrews

Corkscrews are a pilates twist on leg raises, in which you follow the same basic movement pattern. This exercise primarily targets the abdominals (with a special focus on the obliques) but also engages the hamstrings, hip flexors, and lower back as secondary movers.

How to:

  1. Lie on your arms extended to your sides, palms on the floor. Tuck your pelvis and extend your legs upward, so they're perpendicular to the floor. This is your starting position.
  2. Keeping your legs straight and back flat, slowly move your legs around in circles, adjusting the size based on your range of motion.
  3. Complete all reps in one direction before reversing.

Going slow and controlled is a must for corkscrews— and don't forget to breathe.

Hanging Garhammer Raise

Garhammer raises are an evolution of the hanging knee raise, which is often viewed as the easier version of the hanging leg raise. Prepare to be unpleasantly surprised by how hard these are. Garhammer raises are a compound movement that engages the entire body, with special torture focused on your rectus abdominis (A.K.A., your six-pack abs).

How To:

  1. Hang from a pull-up bar and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel with the floor. This is the starting position.
  2. Brace your core and raise your knees to your chest.
  3. Lower back to starting position.
  4. Repeat without pausing until all of your reps are complete.

With traditional hanging knee raises, you fully extend back to a dead hang between reps. This variation puts continuous tension on your abs for an exercise that looks easier but isn't.


Single-Leg Banded Slow Lowers

Unilateral training is an effective way to promote recovery after an injury or correct imbalances in one's physique. Single-leg banded slow lowers are a rare unilateral core training exercise that builds the anterior core, strengthens hip flexors, and supports spinal and pelvic health. This exercise is ideal for rehabilitation and injury prevention.

How to:

  • Lie on your back with your pelvis tilted and core engaged. Your lower back should be flush with the floor.
  • Loop a long resistance band over the bottom of your right foot, holding the other end with both hands.
  • Extend both of your legs overhead to a 90-degree angle. Flex your toes toward you rather than pointing.
  • Brace your core and slowly lower your unbanded leg toward the floor, as you would with a leg lift. Your banded foot should remain vertical.
  • Stop at the end of your range of motion— just before your back arches off the ground.
  • Pause, and reverse back to starting position. That's one rep. Complete all reps on one side before switching to the other.

Thicker bands will make the movement easier, while thinner bands will up the intensity. Eventually, you should be able to do this movement without the band.


Programming a Leg Raise Workout

Ideally, dedicated core work should be incorporated into training two or three times a week. However, if you do a lot of full-body training with compound exercises, you may scale back on dedicated core work. Conversely, someone trying to get defined abs might want to do core more often.

As leg raises and leg raise variations engage more of the posterior chain, plan for these exercises one to two times per week with a day or two in between. As a beginner, setting aside 10-15 minutes of dedicated core work will help you ease into things while minimizing DOMS. As you build more core strength, feel free to increase your frequency and duration according to your goals and training threshold.

pull up bar outside

Benefits of Leg Raises

The primary benefit of leg raises is that they're a true core exercise, rather than a superficial abdominal exercise. In other words, they support the broader core muscles, including the back, for better functional fitness that impacts all areas of one's life. 

Leg raises engage the posterior chain while working the abdominals, which contributes to big lifts like the barbell squat and deadlift while also helping you sit and stand, bend over, and maintain a healthy posture as you age. These effects promote longevity in any lifestyle, whether you sit at a desk all day or have a physically taxing job.

Conclusion

Incorporating a leg raises workout with traditional leg raises, variations, or alternatives, can improve your athletic performance and quality of life. This functional exercise engages both the anterior and posterior core muscles while working the hip flexors and several secondary movers. If you're not already doing these exercises, it's time to start.

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