A leg lift, also called a leg lowering exercise, is a core exercise you do lying on your back. It involves lifting and lowering your legs in a controlled manner. Leg lifts are a very effective core exercise.
This at-home, easy-to-modify exercise targets several hip and core muscles, including your abs, lower back, and hip flexors. (Your hip flexors are the muscles at the top of your thigh that allow you to flex your hip and bend your knee.)
When you use these muscles, you are helping to create pelvic and trunk stability. This affects how you move in multiple ways.
Hip and core strength helps you better perform athletic activities, from running to golf and everything in between. A stronger core also helps you move better in everyday life, like bending down to pick something up.
The leg raise is a bodyweight exercise. This means that all you need is your own body — no additional equipment is necessary. However, there are different variations of leg lifts, from beginner to advanced.
If you’ve had low back problems, leg raises can help build strength. But if not performed properly, they can aggravate existing problems. It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or physical therapist before starting a hip and core exercise program.
We’ll run through various options for performing leg lifts, with form tips each step of the way.
Never Miss a Beat!
Subscribe to Our HealthBeat Newsletter!
Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!
Beginner’s Guide to Leg Raises
First, you’ll need a firm surface. A carpeted floor will do. If you have a wood or tile floor, you might want to use an exercise mat.
Soft surfaces, like beds or couches, generally don’t work for leg lifts. You won’t have enough support under your body.
- Start by lying on your back, with your legs up toward the ceiling, at 90 degrees. Ideally, your legs are straight, but it’s perfectly okay to bend your knees. (Everyone has different degrees of strength and flexibility.)
- With your palms facing down, tuck your hands just under your butt. You are creating a small “shelf,” which will make the leg raise a bit easier.
- Press your lower back into the mat or floor. It’s very important to keep your low back pressed into the floor the entire time. (If you arch your back, you may injure yourself.)
- With your chin tucked, lower your legs as far as you can, ideally a few inches from the floor. Some people prefer to keep their neck neutral while doing leg raises (staring at the ceiling). But tucking your chin is a good way to keep your spine pressed into the mat.
- You may not be able to lower your legs all the way to the floor at first. Only go as far as you can go without arching your back or compromising your form. (And if you go so low that you can’t lift your legs back up, try going a little less low the next time.)
- Keeping your core engaged, lift your legs back up to the ceiling. Try to inhale as you lower and exhale as you lift. It’s okay if you find a breathing rhythm that works better for you — just don’t hold your breath!
- Aim for 10 to 15 repetitions (called a set). Build up to doing two to three sets per workout. The slower you lift and lower, the more difficult it will be.
How to Do More Advanced Leg Raises
There are several ways to make your leg raises more difficult.
- Less support: You can remove your hands from under your butt and press your palms down into the floor. Lifting and lowering is more difficult without the support of your hands.
- Hip lift: As you lift your legs back up to 90 degrees, keep lifting until your butt and low back come off the ground slightly. This will feel like a crunching motion, as if you are trying to push up on the ceiling with your feet. You need a neutral neck (not a chin tuck) when you do this version.
- Corkscrew: Do the leg raise as above, with the hip lift. But when your hips are lifted (when your butt is off the ground), create a corkscrew. Essentially, move your legs in a small circle each direction.
- Stability ball: Use a stability ball (a large, lightweight ball, also called a yoga ball) and pass it back and forth between your arms and your feet. Hold the ball behind your head as you lower your legs. Then, as you lift your legs, reach forward and place the ball between your feet and lower; alternate.
- Off a riser: Do leg raises while lying on a riser (like one you would use for step aerobics). You can also scoot toward the end of a bench and do them. It’s easier to arch your back doing them this way though, so be mindful.
Turn a Leg Raise into a Pilates Leg Lift
You can do the Pilates version of the leg raise — what Pilates instructors call a double leg lift. What makes it slightly different from the leg lifts described above is the breathing pattern.
- Lift your legs to 90 degrees. With your arms behind your head and your elbows fanned out, crunch up a few inches.
- Keep core engaged. Inhale and slowly lower your legs. Pause.
- Exhale and lift back to starting position. The lift will be quicker than the lower, and the breathing pattern will help you time the movement.
- Some people prefer to pull their knees into their chest on the exhale. This means you extend everything out on the inhale and then crunch in for the exhale.
The reason leg lifts are a perennial favorite exercise is their versatility and effectiveness. You can add them to any workout and do them anywhere. Don’t be afraid to be creative!
See other ideas for at home workouts from UPMC.
Connect with UPMC
Headquartered in Pittsburgh, UPMC is a world-renowned health care provider and insurer. We operate 40 hospitals and 800 doctors’ offices and outpatient centers, with locations throughout Pennsylvania, Maryland, New York, West Virginia, and internationally. We employ 4,900 physicians, and we are leaders in clinical care, groundbreaking research, and treatment breakthroughs. U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks UPMC Presbyterian Shadyside as one of the nation’s best hospitals in many specialties and ranks UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on its Honor Roll of America’s Best Children’s Hospitals. We are dedicated to providing Life Changing Medicine to our communities.