I tried a 30-day leg raise challenge

Core fitness challenge: “I tried a 30-day leg raise challenge – these are all the benefits I garnered in a month”

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Want to build serious glute, hip, core and leg strength? Then leg raises are a brilliant exercise to add to your lower-body regime. Writer Sarah Blakely gave them a go every day for a month and hasn’t looked back. 

Leg raises are the kind of exercise that PTs and pilates instructors love sticking in at the end of a workout. No one loves them, and all too often they pop up just when you could really do without them. Leg raises are good for us: they work everything from the ribs down.

When I decided to take on a 30-day leg raise challenge, however, it wasn’t for the promise of stronger abs or rock-hard quads. I wanted to complete the challenge to prove to myself that I do have staying power. I’ve done loads of month-long challenges in the past and, without exception, I’ve never made it to the end of the first week. 

This time, I decide to fool-proof my commitment. The challenge needs to be achievable, be something I could progress over a four-week period, and push me outside of my comfort zone enough to give me that sense of achievement (without provoking anxiety or dread). That’s where leg raises come in: they’re easily adaptable if you want to make them harder, I could work up to doing 50 in one go and they take relatively little time. Here’s how I got on. 

Week one: focusing on form

I hit my first stumbling block on day one when I realise that I have no idea about correct form. I quickly enlisted the support of Ben Greenhalgh, personal trainer at Fitness Plus in Lancashire, who tells me that leg raises are one of the worst-performed exercises he sees on a daily basis.

Fortunately, Greenhalgh is on hand to tackle my technique, explaining that “the most important part of any leg raise is to ensure stability, tension and contraction at the core to work your abdomen and obliques”. He points out that “a leg raise is a commonly under-utilised exercise for your core and there are several different variations that can be done at home or in the gym.”  

I like the sound of variations but don’t want to get overwhelmed, so ask Greenhalgh to give me just a couple of options. He suggests “lying on a bench with your upper body anchored back, contracting your core with intention and purpose while raising your leg,” adding that it’s a good idea to try unilateral (one side at a time) raises to build equal strength.

I spend my first week mastering the basic leg raise, setting myself a target of 30 raises a day. It’s not easy but by day seven, I’ve progressed from three sets of 10, to just about being able to complete all 30 in one go. The burn is intense but I do feel a real sense of accomplishment.   

Week two: managing motivation

The second week begins well and I’m managing to do 40 leg raises in two sets of 20. But then boredom hits. I want to complete the challenge but I’m not actually enjoying it anymore and I realise that this lack of motivation is going to escalate, unless I work on my mindset pronto.

I consult Dr Hannah Stoyel, sport psychologist for Swim England and Optimise Potential, who tells me that to stay motivated, I need to have both outcome and process goals. “The big question is: will this challenge get you to an outcome goal that you care about?” she asks. “A lot of motivations are also tied to our personal values. For example, the challenge and outcome are tied to your values of being a dedicated writer, but also to your value of being a healthy, strong, driven human being,” she explains. 

That makes sense, but will those goals be enough to get me through a daily task that was already beginning to feel tedious and arduous?  

“As well as outcome goals”, Dr Stoyel says, “you need to have process goals and feel a mastery of something in the meantime.” She asks me if I’m feeling little wins each day, and then gives me a further tip: “One of the most freeing things is a little bit of gratitude practice; be grateful that you get to do this challenge, that you’re physically able to do it. If you make it a punishment, it will never stick.”

Armed with goals and gratitude, I’m buoyed on. By the end of week two, I’ve achieved mini wins of bench leg raises, medicine ball leg raises, and hanging leg raises.

Week three: accepting that progress isn’t linear

Week three gets off to a fantastic start, hitting 50 leg raises on the first day, and making them progressively harder on days two and three by slowing the down movement and holding for longer at the bottom. And then, on the fourth day, I take a massive backwards step and struggled to hit 40 leg raises. The next day, 30 is my limit. A sense of failure overcame me and I begin to panic that I’d peaked too soon.   

Then I remember something Dr Stoyel had said: “Be full of self-compassion because progress is never linear.” She remarked that “in terms of the 30-day challenge, if it’s the same every day, then you must allow yourselves the flexible permission of listening to your body and adapting what you need. Self-compassion is noticing what you need, and acting accordingly.” 

It clicks. I take the pressure off myself and give myself a pat on the back for achieving any leg raises at all on the days they felt particularly tough.

Week four: learning that consistency is key

As I hit the home straight, my final hurdle is one that, admittedly, should have been considered before I even started the challenge. I have no routine in terms of when in my day I’m performing the leg raises, and consequently find myself performing them at random points throughout the day.

I try setting an alarm to remind myself to do them at the same time every day, but I work freelance from home, so my days don’t have a set routine, and the timing isn’t always convenient.   

I recall one of Dr Stoyel’s pearls of wisdom about doing the leg raises first thing in the morning as “it frees up the headspace you would otherwise use thinking about doing the challenge”.  She points out: “It’s not just about the psychological side of things, there’s also a logistical side of things that we forget about.” Dr Stoyel’s right (of course) and as soon as I start to implement the leg raises as my first task of the day I feel better, not only about the challenge, but about my day in general.   

Verdict: is a 30-day leg raise challenge worth the faff?

I’m amazed to have stuck with a challenge for this long, but it was only when I’d started to do my leg raises first thing in the day, as part of my morning routine, that I started to feel any real accomplishment. Emma Storey-Gordon, coach and founder of ESG Fitness, sheds some light on that feeling, explaining: “Starting your day with a positive is so simple and underrated. It impacts every decision you make for the rest of the day.” 

She goes on to explain: “The benefit of a morning routine has nothing to do with the specifics and everything to do with simply starting your day in a positive way. That, in itself, will influence the rest of your day.” 

As for how I benefited physically from 30 days of leg raises? Well, my core strength has definitely got better, judging not just from the improvement when performing this particular move, but also when doing other abdominal-focused exercises. I’ve also noticed a better range of flexibility in my hip flexors and, it might just be my imagination, but I’m pretty sure my glutes have reaped some rewards too. One added benefit that I definitely hadn’t anticipated is a reduction in the amount of bloating I experience. I frequently suffer from a distended stomach as the result of IBS, so I’m now a total leg-raise convert.

How to do a leg raise

  1. Lie down on your back, with your hands by your side and your legs extended.
  2. Keeping your legs as straight as possible, lift them up to 90 degrees, with your toes pointed.
  3. Lower back down until your feet are hovering just above the floor.
  4. Hold at the bottom for a second (or two) and then repeat. 

Storey-Gordon points out that, as with all core exercises, “the slower and more controlled you do these, the better”. Be careful not to arch your back; it should be touching the floor the whole time. If you’re struggling, then start with bent legs and gradually progress the movement until you can perform the exercise with straight legs.  

If you’ve nailed the basics, why not try the following variations:

  • Unilateral leg raise: lifting one leg at a time.
  • Bench leg raise: lying with your back on a bench and your legs sticking out.
  • Medicine ball leg raise: gripping a medicine ball between your feet.
  • Weighted leg raise: holding a weighted ball or light dumbbell between your feet.
  • Hanging leg raise: hanging from a pull-up bar while you raise your legs.

Image: Getty

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