Let’s Talk About Leg Lowering

Today we’re going to explore one of the most popular exercises in my circle of the fitness industry, a move called leg lowering.  This is one of my favorite exercises to develop kinesthetic awareness, differentiate between the pelvis and legs, and create relative stiffness in the midsection.

Leg lowering is an exercise frequently used as a “corrective” exercise for the Active Straight Leg Raise (ASLR)  of the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), and often assumed to be about the length of the hamstrings.  To explore the nuances of the leg lowering exercise, we first have to appreciate that the test it seeks to improve, the ASLR, isn’t actually looking at the hamstrings.   Here’s FMS founder Lee Burton demonstrating:

Almost every trainer I know uses the FMS, and I’d consider it a given in the client assessment process.  Unfortunately, the screen is often assumed to be a test of Hamstring Length, but it’s not.  It may look like it’s about the hamstrings, it’s actually about creating separation between the legs and the midsection.

Where does that separation come from?  We’re seeking proximal stability, or control of our midsection, before we can authentically control our limbs in space.  In this case, we’d like our pelvis to stay put before our legs move.  While we can philosophically discuss the difference between stability and mobility, they’re more appropriately constructs on the continuum of relative stiffness.

It’s pretty simple: If we can maintain adequate stiffness in our core, we allow for movement in our hips.

So while sometimes our pelvis moves on top of our legs, in this case we want to move our legs on top of our pelvis.  When we’re considering relative stiffness, we’re appreciating the body awareness and control to move as desired.

Now, let’s check out some leg lowering:

Okay.  What do you see?  Hips moving? Check.  Back staying flat?  Nailed it.  Legs staying straight?  Wait, is that how you do it?!

My knees “break” as my legs go down.  That knee flexion occurs during hip hip extension.  Traditionally, you won’t see leg lowering done this way.  Traditionally, the leg is held straight the entire time.  Here’s an example of what we’re used to seeing:


Look closely at this .gif’s hips.  They’re moving a whole lot, aren’t they?  The stiffness that we desire, the whole goal of the exercise, isn’t there.  It happens quite often, and I ask: Then why are you doing it?

The biggest mistake I see made when practicing leg lowering is that we don’t sufficiently create or maintain stiffness.  Our legs flop up and down and as a result, our pelvis wiggles back and forth.  It’s rarely our intention, but ultimately we’re not seeing the benefits that we seek. Ruh-oh!

The stiffness that we desire can best be bought with an exercise called the deadbug.  After a few minutes of reading my articles or programs, you know that I LOVE me some deadbugs.  The reason is simple: They teach us to create stiffness in a desirable position.  So, before those legs start to move, we have to connect our pelvis to our upper body.  Start here:

Once you feel comfortable creating circular tension through your trunk, you’ll be far more successful in your leg lowering endeavors.  Leg lowering is one of the most popular “corrective” exercises in the world, but it’s not about the hamstrings, it’s about relative stiffness of the core.  If we don’t maintain our pelvis position, then we’re not learning to create the tension that is so beneficial during our big lifts.

To improve your technique, try 5 exhales of your deadbug, and use that tension as a reference point for 5 leg lowers per side.  Maintain that tension by exhaling as your leg drops down, and inhaling as you lift it back up. You’ll feel a more stable pelvis on the ground, and the resultant body awareness should help you “magically” improve exercises like squats, deadlifts, and swings.

Unless; it’s not magic.  It’s you learning and getting better.  That’s where the magic happens.  Let me know how it works!

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