July 10, 2022/Exercise & Fitness

How To Do Leg Lifts Properly: A Step-by-Step Guide

6 core-strengthening leg lift exercises to round out your ab work

A person showing the proper way to do a leg lift.

Are you looking for a core-boosting exercise you can do in a matter of minutes with zero equipment? Leg lifts hold the power to help build a strong trunk as a part of your abs routine. That can mean improved posture, less back pain and more strength to power your workouts.

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“When you think of an exercise routine for your core, most people think of sit-ups or planks, which are great exercises for your ‘six-pack’ ab work,” says exercise physiologist Griffin Nykor, RKin, CPT. “Leg lifts are an important complement to that because they get at the muscles that make up the rest of your trunk — your lower back, glutes, hip flexors and your transverse abdominus (the muscle that sits under your six-pack).”

Nykor breaks down how to do traditional leg lifts, as well as some variations on this workout heavy-hitter.

What are leg lifts?

Leg lifts are exactly what they sound like — a series of exercises where you engage your core to lift your legs. Leg lifts are versatile exercises. There are a bunch of ways to do them, and they can — and should! — be modified according to your fitness level and workout goals.

The benefits of leg lifts

Traditional leg lifts and their many variations target the muscles that make up your core. A strong core helps you stand straighter and keeps your trunk stabilized during your workout — and even as you go about your daily activities. Studies show that strengthening your core can also help if you’re living with lower back pain.

“Leg lifts are an important part of any core-strengthening routine,” Nykor notes. “For office-workers or other people who sit a lot, they can help to open up your hips to keep you limber to go through your day-to-day. For athletes, keeping your trunk strong will help prevent injury and increase your speed.”

Leg lifts can strengthen your entire core, which includes:

  • Your abdominal muscles, including the “six-pack” of abs in the front and the muscles along the sides of your body.
  • The muscles in your back, including the ones between your spine bones and those that run along your spine.
  • Your diaphragm.
  • Your pelvic floor (the group of muscles located deep in your belly that help with your below-the-belt bodily functions).
  • Your hip flexors.
  • Your gluteal (backside) muscles.

How to do leg lifts

There are several different forms of leg lifts that allow you to get at various muscles with differing levels of intensity. Nykor stresses that making modifications that work for your level of fitness and your goals is important to get the most benefit from your leg lift exercise routine. Start small, and work your way up.

Traditional leg lifts

Difficulty level: Beginner and beyond

  1. Lie flat on the floor or on a thin towel or yoga mat.
  2. Firmly glue your back body to the floor — from your head to your backside — making sure there’s no space between the floor and your lower back.
  3. Squeeze your legs together, from your inner thighs all the way to your ankles. You can keep your feet and toes relaxed.
  4. Inhale as you slowly lift both of your legs together, keeping your legs as straight as possible. (Your goal is to get your legs all the way vertical so your body looks like a capital L. This may take some time to achieve.)
  5. Slowly exhale as you slowly lower your legs. Lower them until they hover just a few inches above the floor.
  6. Pause and complete the next repetition. Nykor suggests beginners start by completing about 10 repetitions per session — or 30 seconds if you’d rather follow the clock. As you gain strength, you can slowly begin to increase the number of reps.

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Rule No. 1, Nykor says, is to keep your entire back body really pressed to the floor. Allowing your back to arch can rob you of the full benefits of the exercise and can lead to injury.

“You want to imagine pushing your belly button to your spine,” he explains. “That keeps your abs activated. If you’re arching your back, your back muscles are the ones getting the bulk of the workout, and that can lead to lower back pain.”

Form modification for beginners:Instead of keeping your legs straight, try bending your legs at the knees 90 degrees and tapping your heels to the floor.

Where do I put my hands when doing leg lifts?

The placement of your hands will affect the intensity of your workout, so use them wisely.

“With any exercise, the farther you’re working from your center of gravity, the harder it’s going to be,” Nykor says. “So, having your hands tucked underneath your backside is one way to make leg lifts a bit easier. That can also help keep your back body stuck to the ground. If you place your hands behind your head, it’ll be harder because you’re moving your extremities away from your center of gravity.”

Variations of leg lift exercises

There are many different leg lift exercises that target different sets of muscles in your core. Beginners should stick to traditional leg lifts (or the bent-knee option), alternating leg lifts and side leg lifts. With time, you can move up to some of the more advanced forms.

Alternating leg lifts

Difficulty level: Beginner and beyond

For the alternating leg lift variation, lift both legs until they’re perpendicular to the floor (remember that capital L), then lower them one at a time. Nykor suggests starting with 10 repetitions per leg or about 30 seconds.

As with traditional leg lifts, you can bend 90 degrees at your knees to bring down the intensity or keep them straight to bring it up a notch.

“As humans, we have discrepancies between the left and right sides of our bodies. One side will be stronger than the other,” Nykor points out. “When you exercise using one leg at a time, your stronger side can’t overcompensate for your weaker side. Alternating legs gives your less-dominant side more chance to strengthen.”

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Watch the video to see alternating leg lifts in action.

Side leg lifts

Difficulty level: Beginner and beyond

For this variation, lie on your side. You can bend your bottom arm at the elbow and put it under your head like a pillow. Raise your top leg, keeping it straight. Your body should form the letter Y. Switch sides after about 10 reps (for beginners) so both legs get a turn.

Nykor says side leg lifts are the best at-home method for working your gluteus medius (the “medium” muscle in your backside), which is responsible for stabilizing your trunk and gait when you walk.

Reverse leg lifts

Difficulty level: Advanced

Because this variation requires a strong back, reverse leg lifts (aka “reverse hyperextension”) should be reserved for more advanced exercisers.

Lie on your stomach. Stack your hands under your forehead to give your head a place to rest. Raise one leg at a time, keeping it as straight as you can. Do about 10 reps with one leg and then switch to the other. Build up to more reps and longer workout times as you gain more strength.

Plank leg lifts

Difficulty level: Advanced

Heat up your reverse leg lifts by starting in the plank position. Plant your palms and elbows into the floor, shoulder-width apart. Engage your core to keep your body in a straight line from the crown of your head to your ankles. Lift one leg at a time.

Kick it into an even higher gear by holding that same plank position, but with your arms straight and your palms on the floor instead of your elbows.

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“Plank leg lifts are an advanced exercise that will strengthen your shoulders in addition to your glutes, hamstrings and abs,” Nykor says. “You’d want to incorporate a plank leg lift only after you’re really comfortable holding a strong plank position itself for a while before you add in the aspect of the leg lift.”

Hanging leg lifts

Difficulty level: Highly advanced

This highly advanced version of a leg lift will require some equipment. For a hanging leg lift, dangle from a pull-up bar (also called a high bar) and lift your legs until they’re parallel to the floor.

This can also be done with your knees bent so your feet are parallel to the floor. Uncurl your knees, then lower your legs for each repetition.

Are leg lifts right for everyone?

Nykor describes leg lifts as a low-injury-risk exercise, but that doesn’t mean they’re the right choice for everyone. As a floor-based exercise, leg lifts may not be the right choice if you have had a previous hip injury or if you have trouble getting down on the floor (or if it’s hard for you to get up off the floor). People who are pregnant or recently gave birth may also be advised not to participate in core workouts for some time, especially floor-based exercises.

If you’re looking to boost your core, leg lifts can be a well-coordinated accessory to your standard routine. Talk to your doctor or an exercise physiologist if you have questions about making leg lifts a part of your core workout routine.

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