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How to increase your core fitness with the hanging leg raise

Bored of performing the same old ab exercises while lying on the floor. Challenge your core with these hanging exercises 

Master the hanging leg raise.
Master the hanging leg raise. (Istockphoto)

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Floor exercises will always be a part of core and abs training, but doing them repeatedly in the same way can be boring. This boredom is triggered by repetitive movements which get easier over time, failing to challenge the muscles to learn new impulses. Given the fact that the core must be braced for most ab exercises, it is important to challenge it. And one of the best ways to do so is to add hanging core exercises to your routine.

First, there is the question of equipment. Hanging core exercises can be done with a pull-up bar, a dip machine—with your forearms resting on the pads—and also on rings. One might also ask if the hanging leg raise is any different from the lying leg raise. “Raising your leg is hip flexion, and hip flexors are what flex your hip. The Rectus Abdominis (RA) attaches from the ribs to the pelvis. It does not cross the hips and has no role in hip flexion. In order to work the [abs], which is presumably what someone is trying to do with most of their exercises, but especially the leg raise, one would need to flex the spine. This movement doesn’t do that at all,” states an article on the website of the US National Federation of Professional Trainers.

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The lying leg-raise is a very hip-flexor dominant exercise. You might feel the move in the abs, but that’s only due to the build-up of lactic acid in the psoas muscles which are responsible for all leg-raise action, including walking. This is the observation that eventually led to the reverse crunch, where you raise the legs and push them out and above to engage the abs rather than lead with the flexors. That is not to say you shouldn’t do them, but one must be clear which muscles are being targeted.

Any hanging exercises, be it knee-tucks or leg-raises or toes-to-bar, are different in the way they activate the right area, with more load. With your arms raised above, and gravity working against you, and the tailbone tucked in, the exercises provide an intense full-body move that you will not be able to rep out. There is no spinal support provided by the floor, so your stabilisers will work harder with a spillover to flexor strength as well. A knee-tuck on the floor is child’s play compared to one done hanging.

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The first step in learning these would be to perform the same exercises with control on the floor. Then learn an exercise called the Captain’s Chair (see above). Done on a dip machine with pads on the sides, this is a great starting point to learn how your body feels when you do a different kind of leg raise. You can try knee-raises and leg raises both in this way.

With sufficient strength built, you can move to the hanging knee-raise (see above). Given that this is easier than keeping your legs straight and raising them, focus on the full activation of your upper back and lower body while practising this. Work on your grip and forearm strength because that will prepare you for the leg raise.

One of the biggest mistakes people make while doing these exercises is letting their body hang limp at the end of every rep: “Most people let their body relax at the bottom of the range of motion, which is wrong. The correct position at the bottom is with the pelvis in a posterior tilt so your legs wind up slightly in front of the body. Think of it more like a hanging version of a gymnast's hollow-body hold than a dead hang,” states a article titled Hanging Leg Raise – 3 Mistakes to Avoid.

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Some trainers believe that the straddle position, which is hanging on a pull-up bar and shooting your legs out at an angle rather than straight up, is the middle ground between a knee-raise and a pike raise, where your legs are straight and slightly pulled up over the pelvis. Fitness trainer Tom Merrick, who has nearly 800k subscribers on YouTube, says that the straddle is “an uncommon variation that you usually don’t see but a bridge between the tuck and the pike.”

Once you have mastered the hanging leg raise and some variations of it, like the windshield wiper—where you raise your legs while hanging and move them side to side like a wiper— you can try the toes-to-bar. This will bring you full circle by using your spine to flex the abs and work them harder. But be careful with the toes-to-bar, because the CrossFit variation of this allows for momentum to be used to bring your toes to the bar. However, cutting out momentum and doing this in a controlled fashion is what will give you results while saving you from injuries.

The core is an everyday muscle group that connects the upper and lower body while helping both rotate. When you hang and work these, you will develop control, strength, and incredible ability which will all help your other floor ab exercises as well.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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