Build Abs: Master the Hanging Leg Raise

From Beginner to Expert

Nail the lower abs, improve shoulder health, and build grip strength. All you need is the hanging leg raise. Here’s the right way to do it.


Like most things fitness-related, you can’t go wrong with the basics, and the hanging leg raise is one of those basics. Once you get it down, it’s brutally effective. It won’t just build incredible abs, but also contribute to a stronger grip and improved shoulder health.

Own the Exercise, Step by Step

1. Dead Hang

First, you need to have the ability to do a 45-second dead hang. Otherwise, you won’t be able to focus on the optimal technique or create enough time under tension to build your abs. The next time you hit the gym, time yourself and see if you can do a dead hang for 45 seconds.

If you can’t, do the following twice a week for two weeks and retest:

  • Hang from a bar for at least 30 seconds
  • Rest 15 seconds
  • Hang for another 30 seconds
  • Rest 15 seconds

Then extend that time a little more each week and you’ll hit the 45-second mark in no time.

2. Hanging Bent-Knee Raise

Like most bodyweight exercises, you can progress and regress the hanging leg raise based on leverage. The bent-knee raise allows you to train the hanging leg raise with a shorter lever by keeping your knees bent.

  • While hanging from the bar in a double-overhand grip, lift your legs and bend your knees to 90 degrees.
  • When raising your legs, your goal is to get into posterior pelvic tilt – getting your knees above the crease in your hips. This creates a much harder contraction in your abs and hits the lower abs hard while building the control needed to progress.
  • As you get stronger, extend your legs, gradually increasing the tension in your abs.
  • Lower your legs under control through the entire movement.

Progression:

  • Week 1: 3 sets of 10, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 2: 3 sets of 12, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 3: 4 sets of 10, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 4: 4 sets of 12, rest 90 seconds

3. Hanging Leg Raise (Past 90 Degrees)

  • Grab a pull-up bar with a double-overhand grip. While squeezing the bar as tight as possible, retract your shoulders as if tucking them into your back pocket and holding them there.
  • From this position, lift your straightened legs up past 90 degrees, getting your knees past the crease of your hips to contract your abs.
  • Work your way up to 3 sets of 12 with 60 seconds of rest and perfect technique.

Too tough? Finish the set by bringing your legs closer to your torso rather than flailing like a marlin during a deep-sea fishing expedition.

Progression:

  • Week 1: 3 sets of 8, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 2: 3 sets of 10, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 3: 4 sets of 8, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 4: 4 sets of 10, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 5: 3 sets of 12, rest 90 seconds

4. Toes to Bar (With Accentuated Eccentric)

This isn’t your “CrossFit” toes to bar, which uses a lot of momentum; this is a brutally difficult exercise you need to do with care and control.

  • Grab a pull-up bar with a double-overhand grip. Squeeze the bar as tight as possible and retract your shoulders.
  • Lift straight past 90 degrees, rolling your hips into posterior pelvic tilt and bringing your feet towards the pull-up bar. This will be highly challenging to your grip, shoulders, and core.
  • Once you get your feet up to the bar, control the eccentric, lowering your legs in 3-4 seconds.
  • Reset and repeat for reps.

Too tough? Begin regressing your reps as fatigue sets in. This means your first 4 reps could be full toes to bar, the next four could be a hanging leg raise to 90 degrees, and you could finish with a bent-knee raise.

Progression:

  • Week 1: 3 sets of 6, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 2: 3 sets of 8, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 3: 4 sets of 6, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 4: 4 sets of 8, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 5: 3 sets of 10, rest 90 seconds
  • Week 6: 3 sets of 12, rest 90 seconds

A Note on Programming

Like any exercise, treating it like a skill and training it frequently is the quickest way to improve. I’ve seen incredible improvements from clients by programming hanging leg raises as part of a daily warm-up. They build incredible shoulder mobility and core strength without excess fatigue. The key is to treat the hanging leg raise as a skill:

  • Use slow, controlled motions instead of trying to kick yourself in the teeth.
  • Regress the exercise when you get sloppy by manipulating your leg position.
  • Train leg raises at least twice weekly at the end of a workout or daily as part of your warm-up for quicker skill development.

The Benefits

Core Strength and Stability

The hanging leg raise builds incredible core strength, developing your abdominals and obliques. Controlling the eccentric (lowering) phase of the hanging leg raise, in particular, builds incredible stability through your mid-section while engaging your lats and shoulders.

It Emphasizes the Lower Abs

Hanging leg raises are particularly effective at targeting the lower portion of the abdominal muscles. Many lifters have no issue feeling their upper abs contact, but many struggle with “feeling” the lower portion working.

Yes, of course, your diet has to get cleaned up to reveal your abs, but building more muscle leads to deeper cuts and more abdominal visibility, even at higher body-fat percentages.

Shoulder Mobility and Stability

Hanging leg raises require high activation levels around the shoulder joint, hitting muscles like your lats, traps, and rhomboids. In fact, the plain old dead hang is known as an exercise for shoulder health and mobility, and every hanging leg raise requires a dead hang.

Hanging leg raises create shoulder decompression that’ll release tension in the joint and stretch the shoulder complex (especially your lats) while encouraging scapular retraction and depression. As you get more advanced, you build functional shoulder stability since your legs change position through the movement.

Improved Grip Strength

The hanging leg raise is another opportunity to challenge your grip strength using your own body weight. This will build your forearms and make adding weight to some of your big lifts a little easier.

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9 Likes

Hi Eric, do you program these for clients with anterior pelvic tilt?

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When I try to do toes to bar I can’t, I don’t think I have the flexibility instead I end up doing shin to bar :joy:

It seems the breathing is slightly off here in the example, as far as when to take a breath in and when to exhale?

Love this. However, Don’t laugh, as I may be challenged as swinging is a problem. I slowed down and did it better. Still needs work. Thanks for the breakdown.

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I do. But, we’re very careful with the progression. I find this to be a helpful way to teach them how to get into POSTERIOR pelvic and build strength. Eccentric control is paramount.

Haha, use the bent knee version!

You bet. It takes time. Continue working on the eccentric control.