Why it’s time to consider a safer alternative
I recently lead a discussion at the registered exercise professionals forum about spinal wellness and awareness as a trainer and how we need to act with integrity when protecting our clients. The leg raise exercise came up and the safety and effectiveness of the exercise. It’s an exercise used by many trainers, as it is a tough exercise, the effort is felt on the lower abs and the perception is that it really hits the right areas in the lower abs, so it needs to work, right?
It’s not my favorite choice
As a trainer with a new client I have limited amount of time to safely cater for a client’s needs that are demanding results in a short time. Clients have a whole life’s history and the effects of their lifestyle do affect their safety and training.
I have personally not prescribed this exercise to my clients and patients in the last 10 years. Not because I deem the exercise as super unsafe, or ineffective, I based my decision on the stats and adapted my training according to the major issues we face in the general population today.
There are safer and very effective exercises out there. And if the leg raise works for you, that’s fine, but that doesn’t mean it’s safe for everyone or all our clients.
What do the stats say
65-70% of the general population are believed to have back or back related issues. That is a lot of people with mild back problems that are developing into chronic issues if not corrected.
10% of the world population suffer from chronic back pain and go through the entire day with constant pain. That’s rough going.
In this study the leg raise exercise was performed with individuals who have reported back pain, the study was also compared to 7 other studies testing clients from similar backgrounds reporting back pain in this exercise. PMID: 23220802. Check out the full study here.
Why do so many people have back issues?
Your body is essentially soft tissue, so it will adapt to positions that you regularly mimic like sitting. Sitting is the new smoking.
We live in a very demanding environment with excessive sitting hours, driving, and late night at the office. We are the sitting generation. If you are sleeping with your legs curled up that also mimics a sitting position. Many of us are constantly sitting.
With excessive sitting you are shortening your hip flexors, weakening your gluteus and these all added on top of an inactive lifestyle are a recipe for disaster. This in turn also contributes to the large numbers of back issues we see now.
Chances that you have a risk towards a lower back issue are now more prevalent than ever before. Previous generations did not have this issue as much as we do today.
So why take the risk with leg raise exercises or exercises that target your abs but put a lot of strain on your back if there are so many safer and more effective exercises that target the core and lower abs?
Leg raises aren’t actually ab exercises!!
Here is something I’d like you to consider if you are using leg raises on a regular basis and prescribe to clients.
Look at this diagram,
you’ll see that the abs don’t even touch your legs. For your abs to lift your legs in a leg raise your abs need to be touching / connected to your legs.
The leg raise also isn’t really an ab exercise. For your rectus abdominis / your six pack to lift your legs, the actual muscle should be connected to the legs / femur to lift your leg. Thing is your rectus abdominis connects to your pelvis only. So the only activation you feel is due to your pelvis tilting. You could simply use exercise variables that keep the spine safe and rotate your pelvis without the excessive strain you place on the lumbar spine.
What about Pilates and Yoga?
Here is the pilates way of the ‘leg raises’
In Pilates, which is known for safe and effective training, the leg raise exercise is used very often. The difference is that in Pilates the movement is tempo based, the slower the movement is the safer as you are always in control. In Pilates there is also a prep where only one leg is lowered thus less resistance on the core and lower back. There is thus a safe and effective progression when compared to leg raises in the conventional gym where legs are moving at a higher speed, often without control and over a large distance from the floor to over the hips.
In Yoga which is known for control and isometric contraction/constant contraction without movement for a set time there is focus on strength and control but not excessive shortening and lengthening like in conventional gym based leg raises. In yoga a single leg lift is used which is safer. Yet, Yoga does use a double leg raise/uttanpadasana which does hold risk if the client does not have the necessary control and has progressed adequately over time.
Safe and effective alternatives
Here are lower abs/pelvic exercises that have control or do not place the same amount of risk on the lower back as conventional leg raise exercises. You’re doing the same thing but with less risk. That sounds ideal!
Hanging leg raises
Try these variations out and let me know how it goes.