Use the Hanging Leg Raise to Build a Foundation for Strength

Not too long ago I went to a conference and one of the items we worked on was to assess pelvic stability. Upon finishing the pelvic stability portion of the conference, I was amazed by how dysfunctional my pelvic stability was. 

Even though I struggled with proper exercise techniques in core lifts and experienced occasional back pain with training, I felt I had a strong core. What I soon came to realize is not only were my abdominal muscles weak, but also I had no idea how to stabilize my pelvis when performing dynamic exercises. This was causing me to leak energy to other areas and making me inefficient in my strength.

The good news is I immediately had an idea about how to properly train my abdominal muscles to provide proper pelvic stability. I had just returned from a course where Pavel taught the hanging leg raise (HLR). This exercise was the first thing that came to mind after I found out I was having so much pelvic inefficiency.

After training through the HLR progression, I then began to practice challenging proper pelvic stability in my lifts, which carried over into a big improvement in technique and strength, as well as a cessation of that pesky back pain.

Understanding How the Pelvis Should Work

One way which really helps me to think about the spine and all the muscles which help its posture is to picture the core/spine as “a cylinder” (thanks to Senior SFG Andrea Chang for this concept).

How core muscles workThis cylinder has a front and back, right and left side, and a top and bottom. The pelvis and all the muscles attached to it make up the bottom of this cylinder. An inability to stabilize the pelvis in a neutral position can result in poor transfer of forces to the extremities and compensation of these forces to other areas of the body. If the bottom of the cylinder falls out, then the rest of the walls will follow in some type of fashion.

The most likely way you can lose pelvic position is through an anterior pelvic tilt. This anterior pelvic tilt can be a static posture in response to weak abdominals and/or glutes or tight hip flexors and back extensors (also known as lower crossed syndrome).

Anterior pelvic tiltDynamically, this can be the result of the hypersensitivity of hip flexor and/or back extensor contraction or inefficiency of contraction of the abdominal muscles and/or glutes. Many people may be able to demonstrate a static neutral pelvic position (like myself), but cannot maintain a neutral pelvis during particular movements or sacrifice this neutral pelvis to accomplish certain movements. In this situation, the pelvis and the hips cannot disassociate from one another. The loss of neutral pelvis occurs dynamically in the body’s effort to produce hip flexion or hip extension.

You may have seen this dynamic loss of pelvic stability with many different exercises and assessments. In case of the functional movement screen, this can be seen in several different tests, but may or may not affect the scoring of the particular movement. Inefficiency of the pelvis can also show itself with many different strength exercises.

Functional Movement Screen

  1. Active Straight Leg Raise
    • A score of 1 on the test
    • Or 2s or better on the ASLR but an inability to perform a toe touch standing
  2. Trunk Stability Push Up
    • Hip hike (increase in hip flexion) during test. Usually happens first
    • Lumbar extension or back drop/sag during test
  3. Squat, Hurdle Step, and In Line Lunge
    • First action when watching from the side (frontal view) is the dumping forward of the pelvis at the onset of hip flexion
  4. Shoulder Mobility
    • Anterior pelvic tilt instead of thoracic extension during the test

Strength Exercises

Hinge/Deadlift/Kettlebell Swing

  • First movement is anterior pelvic tilt on the onset of hip flexion
  • Tell-tale sign is an increase in lumbar extension on the onset of hip flexion
  • During the swing there is a chain reaction that demonstrates neck extension and lumbar extension at the downswing

Anterior tilt vs. neutral pelvis in hip hingeSquat

  • Anterior pelvic tilt and lumbar extension at the beginning of the squat at onset of hip flexion
  • This loss in pelvic control, I believe, can result in the sacrum tucking under at the bottom of the squat (lumbar flexion)

Pelvic tilt during the squatPush Press

  • Anterior tilt occurs on the onset of the first dip just like the squat

 Jerk

  • Anterior tilt occurs upon the first dip like the push press
  • Anterior tilt occurs upon the second dip in an attempt to help catch the kettlebell(s).  This usually causes a poor lockout or a poor catch position in the jerk.

Pelvic tilt in catch positionTurkish Get-Up

  • During the low sweep a loss of pelvic control
  • During the high bridge there can be a relaxation of the abdominals and extension of the lumbar in an attempt for more hip extension (higher bridge)

Bad pelvic position in Turkish get-upNeutral pelvis in high bridgeIf performed with a loss of pelvic tilt, many of these strength exercises can result in back pain and/or compensation and injury in other areas. As for me and the kettlebell jerk at my level II, I was having a lot of trouble with a proper catch and lockout of both elbows.  This turned into a really sore shoulder by the end of the weekend.

Training for Dynamic Stabilization of a Neutral Pelvis

I take the FMS approach to improving on this pelvic stability issue. I assess mobility first and foremost and get this off the table. Next I assess and/or address STATIC stability of the pelvis. Lastly I work into DYNAMIC stability and STRENGTH. Remember the FMS motto of RESET-REINFORCE-RELOAD.

Mobility

Trust what the FMS screen has provided you. Go after the weakest link and make sure there are no mobility issues on the table before working onto stability training and the hanging leg raise.

      1. Foam roller to affected areas and retest lowest scores
        1. I like to emphasize hip flexors, glutes, quads
        2. Static or dynamic stretching and retest lowest scores
          1. Single leg raise is a great progression
          2. Half kneeling hip flexor stretch

Emphasize here no loss of neutral pelvis in this stretch. If you or your client is unable to do this then try another method of stretching out the hip flexors.

Stability

Here is where you begin establishing neutral pelvis and begin to challenge this position.  We accomplish this through the following progression of supine, quadruped, kneeling, and then standing. Remember to retest lowest scores to make sure you are getting the most bang for your buck with the appropriate exercise or drill. I cannot overemphasize the importance of the proper set up of these drills. Neutral pelvis is a must or you will not make any positive changes.

Prone Drills

      1. Brace drill
      2. Brace and extend the leg
      3. Brace and flex the shoulder
      4. Brace and extend leg while flexing opposite shoulder
      5. Double leg brace and bridge
      6. Brace, bridge and march
      7. Single leg brace and bridge

Quadruped Drills

      1. Pelvic rock with core activation drill
      2. Bodyweight or resisted hip extension
      3. Bodyweight or resisted shoulder flexion
      4. Resisted hip extension and opposite shoulder flexion
      5. Crawling progression

Kneeling

The kneeling positions can give you a lot of feedback as to whether someone is able to establish a static neutral pelvis. If someone is unable to even get into proper position, then you may need to spend more time working on mobility.

      1. Tall kneeling
        1. Anti-rotation
        2. Press, push, pull (1 arm and 2 arm variations)
        3. Chop and lift
        4. Half kneeling
          1. Same progression as above

Standing and Exercise Postures

There are several drills you can do to challenge the neutral pelvis and to reinforce it. These can be specific drills or the strength exercises themselves done slowly with special attention to not losing neutral pelvis.

      1. Squat – Pavel squat drill, working into goblet squats in slow motion
      2. Turkish Get Up – Slow motion get ups, practice bridge and/or sweep in super slow motion (I suggest bodyweight first)
      3. Deadlift swing – Hip hinge slow motion, deadlift with slow motion on the set up or hinge, touch and go deadlifts, power swings (can’t do this in slow motion, but can emphasize neutral pelvis).

Hanging Leg Raise

You must always clear mobility before working the hanging leg raise. If you don’t, you or your client could experience back pain with the progression. So shame on you if you went off and worked on the HLR before clearing mobility first.

Here comes the tricky part. I have found at times I need to work a majority of the stability progressions with my clients before getting into the HLR progressions. But at other times a client has no idea what a neutral pelvis feels like or their abdominals are so weak by the time they get to quadruped and/or kneeling postures they cannot get into the correct position.

In these cases, you may need to work the HLR progression first and then go back into one of the stability progressions. So in the first case scenario, the RESET is the stability exercise and the HLR is the REINFORCE. In the second scenario, the tables have turned and the HLR is the RESET and the stability exercises now are the REINFORCE.

HLR Progression

      1. Supine at doorway with stick (stick above eyebrows)
        1. Abdominal flexion (concentric and eccentric) only
        2. Abdominal flexion working into hip extension
        3. Once both accomplished for 3-5 reps work deeper into doorway so stick is higher above your head
        4. Seated HLR with doorway
        5. HLR on pull up bar

I have seen many individuals get a huge benefit from doing only the supine HLR progression when it comes to strengthening up the abdominals enough so they can support a neutral pelvis. It depends on how far you want to take the progression. I personally have taken it to the point of being able to do one strict hanging leg raise on the pull up bar. I now continually recheck to make sure I can perform a solid one rep HLR to ensure I have enough strength to hold a neutral pelvis. The remainder of my time I use during dynamic lifts with moderate weights where I challenge myself to keep neutral pelvis.

How to Learn More About the Hanging Leg Raise

If you would like to know more about the HLR progressions, make sure you purchase Hardstyle Abs. If you are looking more into the stability progressions, you should definitely attend an FMS level 2 course. I also suggest you make sure someone has no history of herniated discs before beginning the HLR progression as this could exacerbate symptoms. In this case the brace progression will suffice.

MASTER THE HLR AND MUCH MORE: STRONGFIRST BODYWEIGHT CERTIFICATION

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Mark Snow
SFG Team Leader
Mark Snow is an assistant professor in the Human Performance program at Midland University in Fremont, Nebraska. He is a Team Leader for StrongFirst and instructor for Functional Movement Systems. He is a Certified Athletic Trainer (ATC) by the National Athletic Trainers Association and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) by the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

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