How to Do Side Leg Lifts in Pilates

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

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Also Known As: Side-lying leg lifts, side leg lift series

Targets: Abdominal muscles, obliques, thighs, and glutes

Level: Beginner

Side leg lifts are a great beginner Pilates move, but even those at a more advanced fitness level can appreciate the simplicity and effectiveness of the move. You can do side leg lifts anywhere without any equipment, and they can also save you time by working your core and legs all at once.

Benefits

Pilates side leg lifts work your abs, including those hard to reach obliques. Lifting your legs engages your inner thighs and buttocks while keeping your abdominal muscles pulled in and up develops core strength and improves balance. It also targets your core and strengthens your back, which can improve posture and reduce pain.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  1. Lying on your side, check that your ankles, knees, hips, shoulders, and ears are aligned.
  2. Move your legs slightly in front (forming this "banana shape" helps balance and protects your lower back).
  3. Prop your head on your hand or stretch your bottom arm out to the side and rest your head on it. Your arm placement is just for balance; you should be engaging your core to lift your legs.
  4. Pull your abdominal muscles in.
  5. Inhale, allowing your body to elongate as the breath moves down the full length of your spine.
  6. As you exhale, engage your abdominals and lift your legs a few inches off the mat.
  7. Focus on keeping your inner legs together from your sit bones to your heels.
  8. Inhale as you lower your legs back down to the mat, elongating your body in a controlled movement.
  9. Aim for 5 to 8 reps, then turn to your other side and repeat.

Common Mistakes

You're Twisting Your Knees

Proper position at the start of the Pilates side leg lift is key to getting the full benefit of the move and avoiding injury. Following through with good form as you do the exercise is just as important. Don't let your knees twist or bend as you lift them. Remember to keep your body long and aligned—this means checking in to make sure your hips and torso stay facing forward.

Your Core Isn't Engaged

If you're adding side leg lifts or other Pilates moves, like the side-lying leg press, to your workout routine to strengthen a weak core, you may have a hard time keeping your core engaged as you perform the move. Go slow, breathe, and stay focused. Gradually add more reps to your routine. When you feel your core muscles slacking, pause for rest if you need it.

You're Yanking Your Leg Up

You want to initiate your slow, deliberate leg lift with your engaged core muscles. Stay focused on the move to avoid yanking your leg from the hip or building up too much momentum, as this can strain, wrench, or injure muscles in your pelvis or back.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

While you can perform side-lying leg lifts on the floor or a Pilates mat, this position may be uncomfortable for people with certain hip conditions or body types. Try placing a blanket or cushion under your hip to prevent bruising if you find this position too uncomfortable to maintain.

If your core isn't yet strong enough to support you as you lift your legs, it's fine to move your legs forward a little.

Up for a Challenge?

To intensify the move and add challenge, try pausing at the top of your lift for several breaths, keeping your core strong and engaged.

To give your hip flexors a deeper workout, try doing the side leg lifts with resistance bands or small exercise balls under your knees.

Safety and Precautions

If you're new to Pilates it can be helpful to work with a certified trainer to ensure you're performing the moves safely. Whenever you're thinking about starting a new exercise program, it's important to check in with your healthcare provider.

If you have certain health conditions or injuries or are recovering from illness or surgery, you may need to avoid exercises that work your core, knees, lower back, or glutes until you're healed.

You may want to avoid side leg lifts or similar moves if you are:

  • Are recovering from childbirth or have a condition known as rectus diastasis
  • Are healing from surgery or an injury involving your back, abdomen or pelvis, hips joints, knees, or feet
  • Have an abdominal hernia or another condition or injury affecting your core muscles

Ask your doctor or trainer about modifications. In some cases, moves like side-lying leg lifts can help you rehabilitate from a surgical procedure or heal for an injury.

Try It Out

While you are on the mat, you may want to try this exercise along with others in a sidekick series:

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