Whether you're bouncing back after pregnancy or training for your first half-marathon between carpools and ballet recitals, abdominal exercises should figure prominently in your fitness routine. Tightening and strengthening your abs -- including the rectus abdominis, obliques and transversus abdominus -- can improve pelvic stability, posture, balance and coordination, all of which tend to suffer during pregnancy. Standing knee raises are great for boosting strength in your mid-section. They don't isolate the abdominal muscles the way standard crunches do. Instead, they work your abs in conjunction with other key muscles.
Standing knee raises come in many forms, ranging from low-key balance exercises to intense movement combinations that incorporate squats or lunges. Experts generally agree that all variations of the knee raise have one thing in common -- they're all functional exercises that work the muscles of your core, including your abs, hips and back. The American Council on Exercise includes a single-leg stand with the knee raised and Frankensteins, which involve raising one knee and swinging it from side to side, in its list of exercises that target the abs. The IDEA Health and Fitness Association includes a more dynamic, heart-pumping version of the knee raise in a sample core routine that appears on its website.
The Bigger Picture
Standing knee raises offer some pretty impressive benefits. Not only do they strengthen your abs, they also boost strength throughout your core, including your hips and back. They're easier on your body than some traditional abdominal exercises, including crunches, which tend to put too much pressure on the neck and shoulder area. All varieties of the standing knee raise develop functional strength, or strength you need to pick up your toddler, schlep groceries from the car and participate in sports safely, for example. As a core-building exercise, knee raises promote better alignment and posture, prevent or reduce low-back pain, improve your balance and help with control, coordination and agility. These are all qualities that can make everyday life as a mom easier, enhance your athletic performance and reduce your risk of injury.
Maximizing the Benefit
Your abs will gain more benefit if you stay alert and focus on your technique. Whether you're doing high-knee wood chops, standing cross-body crunches, plies with a lateral knee lift, knee hugs with a lunge or high-knee runs, keep your abdominal muscles engaged and maintain excellent form throughout your sets. Keep your back upright, your head centered over your spine and your shoulders down and slightly back. Aim for smooth, fluid movements and breathe easily at regular intervals, exhaling during exertion.
Include core exercises in your overall fitness program, which should include strength-training two or three times a week on alternate days. Always start with a brief warm-up -- consisting of five to seven minutes of light cardio activity -- to increase circulation and prep your muscles and mind for activity. After doing knee raises, take several minutes to stretch, paying special attention to your abs and hip flexors. If you're a fitness newbie, have been away from exercise for awhile or have back problems, ask your doctor about the advisability of specific exercises. If knee raises cause or exacerbate pain in your lower back or hips, stop. Your form is likely off or you might be pushing yourself too hard. If you're postnatal and your abdominal muscles separated during pregnancy, which is a condition known as diastasis recti, ask your doctor how and when you can safely work out your abs.