Hanging Knee/Leg Raises: A Super Great Exercise You Aren’t Doing

Hanging knee raises – where a person hangs suspended from a chin up bar and curls their legs to their chest with either bent knees (knee raises) or straight legs (leg raises) – are great for a whole buttload of reasons. “A buttload, Lucas?!” Yes. Read on.


1. Core Training

So, this is the obvious one. By using your belly to curl up into a little ball, you are crushing the muscles of your anterior core while preserving the health of your spine, which things like weighted crunches, Russian twists, etc. don’t do as well. If done correctly (i.e., slowly and braced tightly at the bottom), hanging knee/leg raises help teach abdominally-braced breathing techniques used in many lifts (like squats and deadlifts), help athletes resist lumbar hyperextension (which is essential to healthy lower backs), and give you those sexy abs that everyone keeps talking about.


2. Grip Strength

If you’re big and heavy like me, hanging from a bar for an extended period of time can be taxing. Yet, it’s a level of functional strength that we all need to possess. I mean, what are you going to do if you wake up tomorrow and discover that you’re actually an operative for the CIA who, until this exact moment, has been suffering from retrograde amnesia?


Puzzled as to why you know 23 different ways to kill a man with the toothbrush you hold in your hand, your front door explodes off its hinges and you’re caught staring at what can only be one of Russia’s top counterespionage agents, taxed with eliminating you at all costs. Panicked, you leap through your second story window in your jammies and barrel roll onto your lawn just as the paperboy is delivering the morning newspaper. This morning’s top headline? The paperboy is a Russian sleeper agent.


You spin-kick his stupid head, dive through your car window, throw it in gear, and head for the interstate, desperate to get away. But, just as you approach an upcoming overpass, a black SUV without a license plate shows up in your rearview mirror, slams into the back of your 2009 Hyundai Sonata, and sends it flipping side-over-side and tossing you from the driver-side window. The world is spinning, you hear an explosion that resonates deep in your chest, and when the dust settles you find yourself suspended fifty feet above the state’s busiest highway, clinging to nothing but a mangled piece of guardrail. In this moment, you look at your hands – two cast-iron vices, white-knuckled and unrelenting – and you think to yourself, “huh…hanging knee raises are pretty great.”


3. Spinal Decompression

The next time you’re in the gym, pay attention to how much time you spend getting pulled or squished into the floor. Gravity is a harsh mistress and almost all forms of squat, RDLs, deadlifts, push press, etc. smush us down. Your poor, poor spine, and all of its squishy little disks, are perpetually trying to keep themselves from folding up like an accordion. Peppering in some spinal decompression, or “traction,” exercises help keep you in a healthy equilibrium. Hang from that sweet, sweet, chin up bar and feel everything stretch back out.


4. Shoulder Stability

During a hanging knee raise, if you don’t want your arms to pop off your body like a Mr. Potato Head, your shoulders have to work pretty damn hard to maintain stability. Talk to a good physical therapist and they’ll tell you that shoulder health is all about keeping your humeral head (i.e., the ball part of your shoulder) centered in your glenoid cavity (i.e., the socket part). To not swing around like a deranged monkey during your knee raises, you have to keep your shoulders locked down and tight which helps make them super freakin’ strong.


BONUS: If you ever fall into the gorilla exhibit at the zoo because you were leaning too far over the railing in an effort to grab that perfect snapchat selfie so you could caption it with something hilarious like “just monkeying around,” hanging knee raises will make it a little more difficult for the gorilla to rip your arms off and beat you to death with them. NICE!


DISCLAIMER: If you are weak relative to your body weight, hanging knee raises might not be as amazing for your shoulders. For example, I’m thinking of super tall, young volleyball players or young defensive/offensive linemen who may not yet have the prerequisite level of strength necessary to keep their shoulders and back tight during the exercise. If this is the case, you don’t want to just hang on your shoulders like that, stretching them from their sockets, and actively creating further instability. You must be able to hold your shoulders in place.


5. Variability

For all its awesomeness, the hanging knee raise can get a bit stale. The good news? It’s super easy to vary.

Alternate your legs (i.e., one leg stays down while the other goes up) to add in some anti-rotation/oblique work.

– Change your grips to vary the difficulty (i.e., pronated vs. supinated, straight bar vs. grip implement).

– Vary your knee bend to adjust the difficulty and rep ranges (i.e., bent knees are easier, straight legs are harder).

– Jump up to the top and come down as slow as you can for negative work.

– While this isn’t a great exercise to load, super-duper strong people could add (light) weight to their feet.


For all its simplicity, the hanging knee raise offers a lot of cool benefits. At the end of your workouts, instead of crushing your spine with loaded crunches or Russian twists, try out the hanging knee raise. You’ll be training your beach body whilst simultaneously preparing yourself to escape Russian assassins and fend off irritated gorillas. Can’t beat that.


Thanks for reading!

Lucas Cook

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