The crunch is the most popular ab exercise for one reason: Anyone can do it. Trouble is, that doesn't mean it's the most effective ab exercise. After all, would you rather be using the abdominal workout of an out-of-shape housewife or the ab workout of an Olympic gymnast?
Enter the hanging leg raise. Consider this movement the gold standard for all ab exercises, just as the pullup is for your back. Although most gymnasts have probably never bothered with a crunch, they've been performing variations of the hanging leg raise for decades. It works like this: As you hang from a bar, you curl your hips and knees up to your chest. Sound hard? That's because it is. Proper execution requires strength, endurance, and flexibility (of your abs, back, and hips), and a strong grip. Which is why few men can do even one with perfect form.
But don't let that discourage you. We've created a five-step plan to eliminate the weaknesses that prevent men from benefiting from the world's greatest ab exercise. And here's a secret: The process of building the strength and flexibility to perform this movement is nearly as effective as the exercise itself. Follow along and you'll soon realize why the guys with the best abs in the gym always seem to be the only ones doing the hanging leg raise.
See how many repetitions of the hanging leg raise you can do with perfect form. If you can't do at least one, follow the instructions in steps 2, 3, and 4. If you're able to do one or more repetitions of the exercise, proceed to step 5.
Hanging Leg Raise
Grab a chinup bar with an overhand grip, your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Simultaneously bend your knees, raise your hips, and curl your lower back underneath you as you lift your thighs toward your chest. Pause for a second when the fronts of your thighs reach your chest, then lower your legs and repeat.
1. Using momentum. Try staring straight ahead at all times--it will help your body stay upright.
2. Simply bending your knees and lifting your legs up. Instead, imagine scooping your hips up and forward.
3. Leaning backward. Your shoulders should remain in place or round forward slightly.
As its name indicates, the hanging leg raise involves hang time. To measure yours, grab a chinup bar with an overhand grip and hang for as long as you can. If you can hold on for at least 30 seconds, skip to Step 3. Otherwise, strengthen your grip with fat-bar holds (below). This exercise ensures that a weak grip doesn't limit the amount of work your abs can do. Do it at the end of your regular workout two or three times a week for 6 weeks. (Note: The exercises in Steps 2, 3, and 4 can be done in the same workout.)
Wrap a hand towel around a chinup bar, then grab it with an overhand grip. Hang--arms completely straight--until your grip gives out. Rest for 1 minute and repeat two times. Aim to increase your hang time by at least 5 to 10 seconds each workout. If you can hang for 20 seconds, for instance, go into your next workout thinking that you won't settle for less than 25 seconds.
Raising your legs toward your chest requires flexible lower-back muscles and hip flexors--the muscles on the front of your upper thighs. When tight, these muscles lose range of motion and the ability to generate force. Check your flexibility with this simple drill: Stand with your back against a wall, your feet about a foot in front of you. Make sure your upper back, shoulders, and hips touch the wall, then slide your hand between the arch in your lower back and the wall. If you can fit only a couple of fingers in the space, go to Step 4. If your whole hand fits easily, you're tight. To fix it, do the overhead reverse lunge five or six times a week, either before your workout or on rest days.
Overhead Reverse Lunge Grab a light barbell or broomstick with an overhand grip that's twice shoulder width. Holding the bar overhead with straight arms, step back with your left leg and lower your body until your right knee is bent 90 degrees. Push back up to the starting position and repeat, this time stepping back with your right leg. That's one repetition. Do two sets of 12 to 20 reps, resting for 30 seconds after each set.
The key here is to do exercises that strengthen your abs and hip flexors as a unit without requiring you to arch your back, which can exacerbate tightness. Use the 6-week training schedule below to work up to the hanging leg raise. Once you can do at least one repetition with perfect form, move on to Step 5.
Flat-Back Leg-Lowering Drill
Lie on your back and raise your legs over your hips, with your knees slightly bent. Press the small of your back into the floor to eliminate the arch in your lower back. Keep your back in this position as you take 3 to 5 seconds to lower your legs. Upon reaching the lowest point at which you can still keep your back flat, bring your legs to your chest. Try to lower your legs more with each repetition.
Hang from a bar or position yourself in a vertical knee-raise station. (Don't allow your back to press against the pad.) Now lift your right leg up. Maintain an upright torso (don't swing forward) and keep your left leg down. Once you've raised your leg as high as it will go without allowing the other leg to pull forward, pause momentarily, then lower it back to the starting position. Repeat with your left leg. That's one repetition.
Weeks 1 and 2: Perform only the leg-lowering drill 3 days a week. Do two sets of six to 10 repetitions, resting for 30 seconds between sets.
Weeks 3 and 4: Do both moves 2 days a week. Perform two sets of six to 10 reps of the flat-back leg-lowering drill. Then do two sets of six to eight reps of the hanging single-leg raise. Rest for 30 seconds after each set.
Weeks 5 and 6: Do one set of 8 to 12 reps of each exercise before resting for 30 seconds. Then repeat one time, for a total of two sets of each exercise.
Do as many hanging leg raises as you can, then rest for 30 seconds. Repeat three times. That counts as one set. Do two or three sets--resting for 60 to 90 seconds after each--two or three times a week. Each week, shorten your within-set rest by 5 seconds until you can do 10 reps straight. Then you'll be ready to challenge your abs with the exercises below.
This is performed just like a regular hanging leg raise, except that you don't bend your knees as you bring your legs up. So, in the top position, your toes should nearly touch the bar you're hanging from. Start with two sets of four to six repetitions--resting 90 seconds between sets--and increase your repetitions as your strength improves.
Begin by performing a hanging leg raise. Hold the top position and rotate your lower body to the left by bringing your right hip toward your right armpit, then repeat to the other side. Return to the center, then lower your legs. Refer to the hanging pike (above) for set and rep protocol.