August 09, 2021 10 min read
Side leg raises build strength around your knees and hip joints, which is ideal preparation for other exercises such as lunges, jumps, and squats.
Beyond better preparing you for the rest of your fitness routine, side leg raises also make everyday actions like bending over, running, walking, and going up stairs easier.Like many exercises, side leg raises need to be performed correctly to work as efficiently as possible.
The standing variation is particularly prone to form errors and cheating, whether intentional or not. Fortunately, the lying variation can help you learn the proper form for this exercise before you move to the more challenging standing leg raises.
Read through this guide to find out more form tips for side leg raises, how to fit this stellar exercise into your workout routine, and a few variations that will keep your muscles fully engaged.
Also called lateral leg raises or leg lifts, the side leg raise is a basic movement focused on your hip flexor and hip abductor muscles.The standard version of the side leg raise requires you to lie on your side with your hips completely in line.
For example, if you start on your left side, your right hip should be exactly parallel with the left hip on the ground.Support your upper body with your elbow while you raise your upper leg. Don’t go fast, just get your leg up as high as you comfortably can. Bring it back down to complete the leg raise.
Despite the simplicity of the exercise, a side leg raise activates your three primary hip abductor muscles. These muscles work together to facilitate movement around your hip joints, so making them stronger will help protect this critical lower-body joint and help you move better.
Although it’s often overshadowed by the larger gluteus maximus muscle, the gluteus medius is very important for leg movement. It helps keep the pelvis stable, hips level, and maintain balance when you’re standing on one leg.This vital muscle in your glutes suffers when you spend prolonged periods sitting.
When you’re in a seated position, your hip flexor muscles tighten, placing more strain on your gluteus medius and raising the potential for debilitating injury, tendon problems and dead butt syndrome.
Luckily, strengthening your gluteus medius with exercises like the side leg raise will prevent DBS and other problematic conditions from developing.
The gluteus minimus is a small but important part of the glute muscle group that helps keep your pelvis stable as you step or take strides when you run. It’s the deepest muscle in your glutes and works together with the gluteus medius to both rotate your leg and raise it laterally away from the body’s midline.
When you walk, the gluteus minimus tilts the pelvis so that you can comfortably lift one foot off the ground and move it forward. Tension between the gluteus medius and minimus also provides support for the trunk.
The TFL is the core actor in hip rotation. It also helps during other key functions of the other two hip abductors, notably stabilizing the hip and knee joints with the gluteus maximus. When the gluteus minimus tilts the pelvis during a normal walking stride, the tensor fasciae latae lifts the ilium to help.
You might not have heard of the TFL before, but fitness experts have devised countless ways to target this important abductor muscle. Hip extensions, leg bridges, clams, and sidesteps all target this muscle, as do all of the variations of these bodyweight exercises.
Although hamstrings move your knee and hips when you walk, side leg raises don’t target them specifically. Fortunately, variations like the lying leg lift do incorporate the hamstrings.
Your hip flexors, quads, glutes, core, and lower back are also activated by this particular variation of the side leg lift.
The different direction of lateral leg lifts is why they don’t activate the hamstrings. In a lying leg lift, one or both legs are raised straight up above your body with the soles of your feet facing the ceiling. During the side leg lift, the side of your foot is aimed upward instead.
Certain styles of side leg lifts work your ab muscles differently. When you’re performing the standard lying side leg lift exercise, for example, your core is engaged as you lie on your side.
However, the double leg variation that requires you to raise two legs at once also has your lower back flat on the ground. Your abs don’t need to put in as much work so you won’t build as much core strength during that particular variation.
Here are a few of the most important things to consider for the perfect form in your side leg lifts:
While you should have both legs straight when you’re performing side leg raises, you should take care not to lock your knees. You’ve probably seen videos of people passing out because they’ve stood ‘at attention’ with their knees completely straight for extended periods.
The reason this happens is that the locked knee supposedly blocks the flow of blood back to your heart. Whether or not this is always the case, locking your knees during a side leg raise will impede your leg’s ability to move naturally, and complete this exercise most optimally.
To make sure your lower back and legs are in position and moving along the right path throughout the exercise, you have to keep the top hip in line with the hip on the floor. Even if you’re performing a standing variation, you should still make sure your hips don’t shift forward or backward unilaterally.
Your core, lower back, and neck should form a straight line throughout the leg lift exercise. As we mentioned before with your knees, the back and neck need not be held rigidly in place. Keep them fairly flexible, just take care not to let them bend.
Bending in the lower back and neck could cause discomfort and it might also take some of the strain off your body, making the workout less intense and robbing you of the gains and other health benefits of side leg raises.
It might sound counterintuitive, but you don’t want to lift your leg too much when you’re doing leg lifts. Of course, the goal is to move the hip joint through its range of motion in one direction, but that doesn’t mean you should push it to the limit every single time.
Overextension can cause strains and other injuries in the hip flexors and other muscles that are critical for the normal function of your lower body. Aiming to get to the farthest reaches of your hip joints’ range of motion is also very likely to make you increase your speed, causing form errors in the process.
If you’re performing standing leg raises, lifting your legs too high could also throw you off balance. Focus on getting through the full range of motion on each rep rather than throwing your leg out to the side as far as you can get it. Building momentum isn’t important for this exercise.
When you start to feel a strain in the back of your thigh and your obliques, you can return your leg to the starting position. Mind your speed and listen to the signals your body sends.
Which of the many varieties of the side leg raise is the original is up for debate. Since it’s just a simple exercise, it’s unlikely there will ever be a settled winner. Some people start with the standing version and others with one of the lying variations.No matter which one you use as your go-to, the following are far and away the most popular side leg raise exercises:
To get into the starting position for this move, you may need a chair or a hip-level horizontal bar to help maintain balance. If you have a really good sense of balance and don’t find a need for support, you can place your hands on your hips or even hold onto free weights to give your upper body a small workout.
Follow these steps to do the standing side leg raise:
You can continue all your reps on the right leg before you switch sides or you can alternate between the right leg and left leg. It’s probably easier to count and faster to focus on one leg at a time.
The supine version of the side leg raise is a great way to give your inner thigh a workout. This will help support the hips and maintain a healthy walking gait. Improved hip abduction strength like you get from this simple exercise also improves your overall balance.
We highly recommend a yoga mat or some similar form of padding so your hip doesn’t get sore from resting on the hard floor. Once you have something to lie on, go through these steps to perform a side lying leg raise:
You’ll notice that the bottom leg isn’t doing much work in this variation of the side leg raise. If you want to incorporate your core muscles and the bottom leg a bit more, try this advanced variation:
Rather than resting the bottom leg flat on the ground, you’re going to perform a full side plank for a greater challenge. Lift yourself using your lower elbow as support. There should be a straight line running from the heel to the shoulder on the bottom side of your body.Once in this position, lift the top leg the same way you would for the original side lying leg raise.
The other variations in this list are unilateral in that they work one leg at a time. You can use the double leg lift to work out both legs at once - it doesn’t have the same benefits for your obliques and inner thighs, but it’s easier on your lower back and could help alleviate back pain. It’s also a great exercise for a warm-up before you start your regular exercise program.
You can follow these steps to do a perfect double leg lift:
You don’t have to worry about switching sides like you would with the other leg lift variations. If you want to make the double leg lift a bigger workout for your abs, try adding an isometric pause when your legs are at their lowest point.
This final variation is kind of a combination between the lying leg raise and the double leg raise, although it’s still a single-leg move. The starting position is a bit different but it’s still a straightforward exercise.
If you want to target your quadriceps a bit more, this is the variation for you. It targets your quads in addition to your core and glutes, although it doesn’t feature hip abduction like the other side leg raises in this guide.
Follow these steps for a flawless straight leg raise:
Make sure your leg isn’t falling to the floor. Place it gently back down, or, if you’re trying to get a bit of an ab workout in, don’t let it touch the floor at all.
Like many bodyweight exercises, you can make these side leg lift variations even more effective by using a resistance band or ankle weights. Once you’ve mastered the form, you can attach ankle weights with a cuff or wrap a resistance band around your thighs.
The advantage of a resistance band is that it maintains pressure on your muscles throughout the exercise. Weights make the move harder, but you’ll miss out on the continuous tension that further exhausts muscles.
When you build enough strength, you can even use a combination of ankle weights and resistance bands.
Strength training and cable machines aren’t the only way to build strength in your glutes, thighs, and hip abductors muscles. Side leg lifts are perfect for targeting your upper legs and core in a novel way and there are plenty of variations to keep building functional strength.
Doing so helps improve balance and prevents your hip joints from suffering strains or other injuries. Strength in your hamstrings, quadriceps, and hip abductors will protect your knees as well as hips, so combining side leg raises with other lower-body exercises on leg day will leave you in the best possible shape for daily activities like walking, running, and climbing.
Whether you don’t have time for the gym or you just want to get in a quick workout, side leg raises are great strengthening exercises that you can perform pretty much anywhere. Use the tips and variations in this guide to bring the side leg raise into your workout routine for tons of strength and wellness benefits.