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Leg lifts can be used to build hip strength.
Back in the 1980s, leg lifts while lying down were all the rage. If you tuned into late-night infomercials or any exercise video, you'd find a leotard-clad instructor draped on an exercise mat, urging you to squeeze those cheeks and feel that burn. These days, you're more likely to do standing leg lifts using a variety of gym apparatus. But the intent of the exercise remains the same: working the muscles of your hips and/or glutes, depending on which angle you use to do the leg lifts.
Standing leg lifts performed in a variety of positions strengthen muscles in your hips and glutes.
Kick it Back
When you squeeze your glutes and swing your leg to the back, you're doing a movement called hip extension. This exercise primarily works your gluteus maximus, the muscle that gives your buttocks most of their strength and shape. Your hamstrings also kick in to help a bit. You can do this exercise with the ankle cuff on a cable machine, with a gym machine that places a padded roller against the back of your thigh so you can swing your leg back against the resistance, with ankle weights or with no weight at all.
With this variation on the standing leg lift, it's particularly important to keep your abs tight to prevent your lower back from hyperextending into a swayback. You might be surprised by just how much this limits your range of motion. If you kick your leg very far back, it's usually the lower back, not the hip, that does a lot of the movement.
Lift to the Side
Doing a standing leg lift that moves your leg sideways, away from the midline of your body, is a movement known as hip abduction. You can do this exercise with the ankle cuff on a cable machine, with ankle weights, with no weight at all or with a variety of gym machines that, one way or the other, all place a padded roller against your outer thigh so you can swing your leg out against resistance.
This exercise primarily works your gluteus medius and gluteus minimus - the other two "glute" muscles that get much less attention than the large and noticeable gluteus maximus - along with the tensor fasciae latae, a small muscle in your outer hip.
Bring it In
Doing standing leg lifts that swing your leg toward - and then past - the midline of your body is a movement known as hip adduction. This exercise is usually achieved by swinging the working leg slightly in front of the supporting leg. As with the aforementioned variations on leg lifts, the standing version of this exercise is usually done with the ankle cuff on a cable machine, ankle weights or no weight at all.
You'll also find gym machines designed to let you do leg lifts to the inside and outside - that is, hip adduction and hip abduction, respectively - while seated.
Take it to the Front
Leg lifts to the front are relatively popular, but they're usually done while you're either hanging onto straps, hanging onto a bar, or suspended from an apparatus know variously as a captain's chair or a vertical knee raise "machine." The benefit of this exercise is that it both works your hip flexors and provides an intense core workout - one of the best core workouts in fact, according to a study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise.
Doing the same exercise while standing takes most of the core effort out of it, leaving only the hip flexors working. Although there is a machine built for this - it's one of the functions of something called a four-way hip machine - it's rare to see people doing it. That's because most people already have too-tight hip flexors from spending much of their lives sitting, so they benefit more from hip flexor stretching than hip flexor strengthening.