EYC Podcast #25 – Hanging Leg Raise Progression Concepts
Example Leg Raise Progression:
Hanging Knee Raise
Hanging Bent Leg Raise
Hanging Straight Leg Raise
Hanging One Leg Pike Lifts
Hanging Pike Lift
In my previous podcast where I discussed midsection holds, I mentioned that they were a key factor in renewing my passion for core work, but that was only half of it. Hanging Leg Raise variations are the other half of what made me truly enjoy core work, and get the results that I wanted. This is why I thought I would dedicate an entire episode of the podcast to them. I also wanted to delve into some insight that acts as a companion to the posts I’ve made demonstrating different core exercises like the hanging knee raise, or hanging straight leg raise. The topics that I will focus on are proper hanging, momentum, transitional techniques, and finish off with some tips for success.
The journey from the Hanging Knee Raise to the Solid Rollover, which is considered the apex of hanging leg raise variations, was a long one because there are many muscle groups that need proper conditioning. For example, hanging alone requires baseline strength in the shoulders, grip, and back, and also activates the muscles around the rib cage. Furthermore, raising the knees or legs requires not only strength in the aforementioned areas, but in the hips and core – which includes the hip flexors, rectus abdominus, and lower back, to name a few. Progressing toward variations like the Pike Lift, and Solid Rollover requires tremendous strength and synergy, and a degree of skill that is developed through diligent practice of the fundamentals, and maximizing progression throughout the chain. Not only that, there are always areas of improvement and minor tweaks that one can make within each variation, which is sure to keep you busy for a long time.
Keep in mind, these variations are by no means a starting point for beginners. These techniques are useful for those that want to take their core training to the next level, and that have a baseline in the fundamentals like pushups, pull-ups and core exercises like knee tucks, planks, lying bent and straight leg raises, and the different midsection holds that I discussed in episode #23 of the podcast. Lying leg raise variations are particularly useful because they are great precursors to hanging variations. They simulate the leg raise portion, without the added difficulty of core stabilization, or back, shoulder, and grip strength.
The first area I want to touch on is hanging. There is much more to it than one would think, and it is a very important part of the overall exercise. In fact, bar hangs are considered an exercise in their own right, and anyone using a bar should add it to their repertoire no matter the skill level. It’s important to have a firm, strong grip on the bar whether in overhand, underhand, or neutral grip. Furthermore, the scapula should be retracted, and the chest up. You don’t want the shoulders to sag. This additional contraction will allow you to get the most of each rep, and help recruit the necessary muscle groups to their full potential. I’ll usually do two to three sets of bar hangs before I get into leg raise, or pull-up work. It is a solid warm-up for the shoulders, and grip. As your strength and skill develop, you can also use earlier progressions in the chain to warm up. Understanding proper technique while hanging is something that I wish I knew right from the start. Getting in the ready position, with the scapula retracted is a habit I picked up later in training, and I only realized it because it was one of the reasons I was developing asymmetrically, and I quickly wanted to understand why. I found that my right side was stronger because it was picking up a bit more of the slack as I progressed through the chain. Once I consistently applied the ready position to my training, it helped me to contract both sides evenly, and further appreciate how the muscle groups work together as a chain.
Among all of the exercises in the leg raise chain, you may notice that momentum is being generated as you go through the concentric, and eccentric phases of the movement. This is normally because proper technique cannot be maintained in a slow, and controlled way due to a lack of knowledge, strength, or both. One thing that I have stressed throughout my podcasts is not to sacrifice technique for reps. You want to use little to no momentum whatsoever when performing each variation. This was most challenging for me when I began training hanging knee raises. I found that I would begin swinging slightly, then use effort to stop, all the while prolonging the length I was hanging and bringing about fatigue quicker. One tip that really helped me is extending the legs at a slight angle in front at the bottom of the movement, which will help counteract swinging. As you develop strength, and proprioception, you will learn to maintain control throughout the movement, and avoid generating momentum. Al Kavadlo released an article on the PCC Blog that I encourage you check out, that discussed the hidden difficulty inherent in the hanging leg raise. In the PCC certification, the final test is called the Century Test, which involves doing 40 bodyweight squats, 30 pushups, 20 hanging knee raises, and 10 pull-ups in under 8 minutes. He talks about how often times the hanging leg raise ends up being a lot more difficult than people anticipate, likely due to a lack of preparation. This in turn means many candidates end up getting “no-reps”, which means your rep doesn’t count due to poor technique. One of the main factors to watch out for he says, is excessive swinging. This is why I like to put so much emphasis on technique, and maintaining control throughout the entire movement. Developing solid habits at the hanging knee raise will pay huge dividends down the line because as your training develops, you will learn to minimize the use of momentum throughout. You can find the article, and many more, on the PCC blog at pccblog.dragondoor.com.
One thing I want to bring up again that I talked about in episode #23 on midsection holds, is flexibility. This also applies to hanging leg raise variations, and having the necessary mobility to complement the movements is key in being able to execute them to their fullest potential. Because of this, I encourage you to supplement your training with some stretches to ensure you are staying limber. Some key areas are the hamstrings and hip flexors. I discuss this in a bit more detail in episode #23, so be sure to check it out. One area that will give you an indication of mobility limitations is in attempting the pike lift. One of the ways to make a pike lift, for example, more difficult is to reduce the amount you are leaning back during the movement, but this might prove difficult if flexibility is an issue. This usually results in the legs touching the bar at the knees, or the upper shins. I mentioned earlier that within each variation there are different ways to regress, or progress, and requiring increased mobility is often a key factor. This is important because one of the things I learned throughout my training is that greater strength isn’t the only requirement, and if I wanted to keep progressing, flexibility training is a must.
Another essential feature of progressions within calisthenics is the transitional technique. What it allows the practitioner to do, in most cases, not all, is mitigate the difficulty of a unilateral exercise by using an asymmetrical exercise to work toward it. For example, the uneven pushup is a transitional technique that allows the practitioner to work toward the one-arm variation. In the case of hanging knee or leg raises, it’s slightly different in that you are using asymmetry to work toward more difficult bilateral(or symmetrical) techniques. For example, this concept can be applied to hanging knee raises which turns the variation into a bicycle-like movement, where one knee is being raised at a time. Similarly, straight leg raises, or pike lifts can be done by raising one leg at a time, making the variation asymmetrical and mitigating some of the difficulty. As I’ve mentioned many times before, when working with asymmetrical techniques, it’s crucial that both sides be given the same attention. For my own training, I didn’t apply asymmetrical techniques to leg raises simply because I didn’t realize they existed in that context. I knew that they could be applied in other areas of training, but I just didn’t put two and two together. This is why I’m mentioning them here. In retrospect, these variations would have helped me break down my training early on, so I encourage you to take advantage. Another concept I’ve spoken about in previous podcasts, but I want to reiterate here because it’s a great way to work with transitional techniques, is structuring training with three variations that represent your strongest, strong, and weakest. Your weakest variation would be a technique that you are just beginning to pursue, and want to work up to using the other two techniques. Strong would be a variation that you are proficient at, however is still challenging, and strongest would be a variation that you are proficient at, and has become less of a challenge. For example, if your techniques include lying leg raises, the strongest, hanging knee raises, strong, and hanging straight leg raises, weakest, a good approach would be dedicating a session strictly to hanging straight leg raises, with more rest between sets, and keeping repetitions low, which will allow for more focus on developing strength, and technique. Then on the next core session, starting with lying leg raises, and then putting some serious work into hanging knee raises to further develop the foundation for your weakest variation. As your hanging straight leg raise develops, you can then shift it down to the strong position, and pursue a further technique. This certainly doesn’t mean that you have to avoid all other variations, I’ve just found it to be a very effective way to pinpoint my training, and maximize progression through the chain.
I want to end this episode off by touching on some tips for success when it comes to hanging core work. First, I mentioned this earlier in the podcast, but I want to stress its importance, is maintain a tight grip on the bar, retract the scapula, aka shoulder blades, and don’t let the shoulders sag. If it helps, establish a ritual before each set that ensures you are properly staged.
Second, notice, and maintain synergy between the muscle groups throughout the movement. This can be done by keeping tension throughout the body. This will ensure that you maximize contraction, and will also help recruit the required muscle groups to their fullest potential.
Third, progression can be difficult, so give each level the time it deserves. There are many different muscle groups at work as well, so be sure to keep that in mind when planning sessions, and allow for enough rest. Similar to midsection holds, as my training went on, I began to dedicate sessions strictly to hanging leg raise variations, or at least the majority of a session, to give them the attention they deserved without trying to do too much. It’s also important to note that because many different muscle groups are in play, development in other areas like pull-ups, midsection holds, grip work, and bridges, will compliment your hanging core work.
Finally, I’ve said it before, and I will say it again, focus on technique, and pay attention to how you are performing the movements. Always strive for control, and regress if necessary.
You can find a good example of a hanging core progression that you can apply these concepts to in the transcript of this episode on the website www.elevateyourcraft.net, but my goal for this episode was to discuss concepts that can be applied to any hanging leg raise variation, even if it isn’t necessarily in that progression.
I will also be releasing a video that will give you a demonstration of a progression chain, that way you will have a visual guide.