The hanging leg raise is one of the best abdominal exercises you can perform, hitting the rectus abdominis (especially the lower rectus abdominus) and external obliques extremely well, and this is backed up by thousands of anecdotal accounts by lifters, but also by science.
Bret Contreras collected electromyography (EMG) data for over 50 different core/core-related exercises, and what he observed is that the hanging leg raise (at body-weight) had a mean and peak activation of 124.0/300.0 for the lower rectus abdominis and 76.3/163.0 for the external obliques. These EMG values for the lower rectus abdominis and external obliques were the second highest of all the exercises tested, only behind the chin-up (mean and peak) for the lower rectus abdominis and the ab wheel from feet (mean) and turkish get up (peak) for the external obliques.
Note – He also tested the EMG activity of the internal obliques (30.2/92.8) and lumbar erector muscles (4.2
6.9) during the hanging leg raise, and those muscle were activated, but not to the same degree that they were with exercises such as the ab wheel from feet (112.0/184.0) for the internal obliques or the kneeling cable lift (103.0/248.0) for the lumbar erectors.
There is a problem though. Hanging leg raises can be a difficult exercise to perform because of a few limiting factors, and as a result many people do them incorrectly or not at all. The three tips below will help you break through any plateaus you might encounter with hanging leg raises and enable you to rep them out with perfect form.
Note – If the hanging leg raise is too difficult for you to perform, your abdominal muscles are weaker than they need to be, and the hanging leg raise might be too advanced of an exercise just yet. Easier core exercises such as planks are great core exercise alternatives which can be progressed until sufficient strength is built up.
Stretch Inflexible Leg Muscles
As you can see in the diagram above, the person on the left has bent knees with legs only partially locked out at the top of the hanging leg raise, unlike the person on the right. While you can still perform hanging leg raises as depicted on the left, eventually you’ll want to progress to the form on the right. This knee bend is caused by a lack of flexibility, and the primary flexibility issues holding people back in the hanging leg raise (as well as L-sits and other related gymnastic movements) are tight hamstrings. Once flexibility is no longer a limiting factor in the hanging leg raise, the possible range of motion is much greater. What strategies should you employ to increase your hamstring flexibility then?
Static versus Dynamic Stretches?
What’s the difference between static and dynamic stretches? A scientific meta-analysis of 106 studies showed that the effect of acute static stretching on maximal muscle performance was minimal if limited to a stretch duration of only 0-45 seconds at a time. Maximal muscle performance decreased by 4.2 ± 5.0% when preceded by static stretches lasting 1-2 minutes and maximal muscle performance decreased by 7.0 ± 5.7% when preceded by static stretches lasting 2 minutes or greater.
A narrative review on dynamic stretching observed that dynamic stretching appears to have either a slight temporary improvement in performance or no improvement at all when performed for longer durations. No expected mean improvement associated with dynamic stretching protocols was calculated as this wasn’t a meta-analysis, just a narrative review.
Overall the literature tends to suggest that there is strong evidence for impaired performance when the total duration of static stretching for a single muscle group is 90 seconds or greater (such as 3 stretches of 30 seconds each). If the total duration of static stretching is less than 90 seconds, there is enough variability in the evidence to be inconclusive of whether static stretches impair performance. As for dynamic stretches, there appears to be a possibility of increased performance if performed, but definitely no chance of impaired performance.
Based off of these studies, if you plan to stretch out tight muscle groups to improve your hanging leg raise form, perform dynamic stretches if the stretches are going to be done during the workout, and static stretches if there is significant time until your next workout (12-24 hours). If you decide to do static stretches during your workout, then keep each set of static stretching under 45 seconds, and total static stretches for a particular muscle under 90 seconds. With this protocol you should be fine if you want to lift heavy afterwards, especially if you don’t utilize the muscle groups which were stretched earlier.
Dynamic Hamstring Stretches
Toe touches and single leg Romanian deadlifts are great dynamic stretches which can be performed for 8-12 reps per leg per set. Perform 2-3 sets per stretch and those hamstring should be nice and loose.
Static Hamstring Stretches
Static hamstring stretches can improve hamstring flexibility over a long term, and can be easily done at home with minimal equipment.
For more information, check out this useful hamstring stretching guide.
An inability to straighten the legs during a hanging leg raise can also be the result of tight calves, tight hip adductors, or other tight hip related musculature, but in most situations the hamstrings are the limiting factor.
Utilize the Hollow Body Position
The hollow body hold, also known as a hollow body position, is an important core bracing gymnastic technique which once learned drastically increases the effectiveness of the hanging leg raise. When performing a hanging leg raise while maintaining a hollow position (right), relaxation of core musculature does not occur, and the abs are stimulated to a greater degree as a result compared to relaxing after each repetition (left).
An explanation of how to perform a hollow body position from Gymnastics Wod:
- Lie down flat on back and push belly button down towards the floor, your lower back should be touching the ground.
- Keep your abs and butt tight at all times, and with your arms pointed straight overhead and legs straight with toes pointed.
- Start slowly raising your legs and shoulders off the ground.
- Your head should come off the ground along with your shoulders, with your ears are glued between your shoulders.
- Stay tight with your abs and butt and find the lowest position you can have your arms and legs without them touching the ground AND without breaking your lower back (where it begins to arch off the ground).
- To develop your hollow, you can start with your arms and legs higher (1-2 feet high off the ground) and slowly build up strength until they can be held lower (just inches off the ground) without breaking the position.
- Being able to hold the hollow body position is key in gymnastics, whether you’re in a handstand, in a support hold on p-bars or rings, or doing straight and broad jumps. Continue to find and develop your hollow!
Only a minor hollow body position should be held during the hanging leg raise exercise.
Maintain Control Throughout the Movement
One of the biggest mistakes people make when performing hanging leg raises is that they relax at the bottom of each rep due to a failure to control the negative portion of the rep. This is characterized by excessive leg swinging. Maintaining control of your legs by minimizing/eliminating any momentum that builds up from the negative portion of the movement is a great way to increase the difficulty and effectiveness of the exercise. By controlling each repetition , the abdominals are activated to a greater degree and for a longer duration, effectively turning each set performed into one grueling unbroken rep, instead of X amount of individual reps where abdominal tension is lost at the bottom of each rep. Below is great video demonstrating what it looks like to control each repetition through a full range of motion and with correct form.
Mastering the Hanging Leg Raise
It should be noted that muscle fibers adapt to any physical stimulus by getting bigger and stronger, and these positive adaptations continue until that stimulus no longer is capable of producing strength and hypertrophy gains. With hanging leg raises, you can make a lot of progress initially by increasing reps, slowing down reps, and controlling the movement more via core activation, but once those improvements are made, it is challenging to increase the difficulty of the movement, other than having access to a pair of ankle weights. At that point, my recommendation for hanging leg raises is to slow down the rep tempo, taking longer to execute the concentric, isometric, and eccentric portion of each repetition, to really focus on the mind muscle connection. More advanced variations of the hanging leg raise, such as windshield wipers, are also great ways to further progress.
U.S. Gymnast Brandon Wynn describing and demonstrating some advanced hanging leg raise variations.
If possible, perform hanging leg raises with a double overhand grip from a straight pull-up bar which allows you to do a dead hang with your feet at least 6 inches clear of the ground. If your pull-up bar is too low, or you workout using a doorway pull-up bar, these ab straps are a good accessory which will allow you to perform hanging leg raises without needing to have the space to dead hang. These ab straps are Velcro adjustable so they can go on any bar and conform to your size.
For a thorough guide to the hanging leg raise from a gymnastic/calisthenics perspective, check out the article, Developing the Hanging Leg Lift, by DragonDoor.
GO FORTH AND CONQUER
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