the fifer scissors exercise
Fifer Scissors are one of the hardest ab exercises – according to the internet.
But where did this exercise come from?
After googling, I found a bunch of information that led back to an old school p90x video. I watched the clip and realized I’ve been doing “Fifer Scissors” all along, but differently. The Angel version is with toes pointed and legs in maximum extension. My clients know it as “Dancer Legs”.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll refer to it as the Fifer Scissors exercise. I’ll break down how to do it, what it works, modifications, and whether or not it’s an exercise you should try.
Let’s get into it.
Origin of the Fifer Scissors exercise
In 2005, Tony Horton launched the infamous p90x. I didn’t own the dvd set but I was able to try a workout here and there when visiting friends who did. I loved it. The workout series featured regular people undergoing a 90 day transformation. In a 2007 video, a participant named Scotty Fifer dominated one of the ab exercises. It stood out because that particular exercise was loathed by all p90xers.
“Those were the hardest part of the video! Even though I had a six pack, I could never do all the fifer scissors!!”
After Scotty’s debut, Tony coined the exercise the Fifer Scissors. It became part of the popular ab ripper x series. And it is still considered by many to be the hardest exercise in the program.
1. The abdominals are used isometrically to stabilize the body while the legs lift and lower. Even though your abs don’t “move” during this exercise, they are working!
2. The quadriceps, the front of the thigh, are responsible for knee extension and hip flexion. Every time you lift your leg, the quadriceps are engaged.
3. The hamstrings, the back of the thigh, are used to bend the knee and extend the hip, ie. straighten the leg. During the fifer exercise, the hamstrings are worked passively. They are doing the work but they are worked/stretched the higher the leg is lifted.
4. The hip flexors, the top part of the quads, are responsible for, you guessed it, hip flexion. You will feel this each time you raise your leg.
How To Do Fifer Scissors
Lie flat on your back with arms by your side and legs straight. Lift your left leg in the air so that your foot is directly above your hip. Lift your right leg one inch off the floor. Switch legs simultaneously so now the right leg is above your hip and the left leg is above the ground.
My hands are by my side which makes the exercise much harder. Most people will need their arms under the body.
Isn’t this the Abs Scissors Exercise?
If you’re like me, you weren’t familiar with the term ‘fifer scissors’. You’ve probably done the exercise in a fitness class, but it was called something different, maybe Scissors Kicks or Abs Scissors. So yes, fifer scissors is scissors kicks is the abs scissors exercise. Fitness terms come and go quickly. I’m barely keeping up. 🙂
Excess movement in the hips. Your hips (the pelvic region) should not be rocking side to side nor back and forth. That area should be stiff and still. If you’re having trouble with stability, practice the exercises described in the next section.
Excess arch in the back. The more your lower back is arched, the less your core is working. When your back is pressed firmly into the floor, the abdominals get triple the results. If you can’t get your back to stay on the floor, we need to fix that.
A lot of people can “do” fifer scissors. But very few people can do it with excellent form and mechanics. There’s too much arch in the back or the legs are doing all the work or it’s painful. Here are two modifications to use until your strength and mobility improves:
Fifer Scissors Modified One Leg
Lie face up with arms by your side and legs straight on the floor. Lift your right leg straight until it is above your hip. Lower it down slowly. Repeat with the left leg. *The legs move one at a time, not simultaneously.
Fifer Scissors Modified Bent Knees
Performed like the original version except both knees are bent. This is good if you have tight hamstrings.
Progressions for Fifer Scissors
If you still can’t do the modified version, I recommend working on the fundamentals. This exercises below will reduce lower back pain and increase core activation. Do the movements slowly because that’s when the magic happens.
Dead Bug No Arms
Lie face up with your arms extended toward the ceiling, directly over your shoulders, and knees bent 90 degrees over hips, calves parallel to floor. Lower one leg to the floor and straighten it as you do. Return the leg to the starting position. Repeat with the other leg. *The arms never move.
Lie face up with your arms extended toward the ceiling, directly over your shoulders, and knees bent 90 degrees over hips, calves parallel to floor. Lower the right leg to the floor and straighten it as you do. At the same time, lower your left arm to the floor beside your ear. Return the arm and leg to the starting position at the same time.
Cook Hip Lift
Lie face up with knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Pull the right knee to your chest. Using your left foot, push into the ground and left your hips as high as you can. Hold that position. Lower your hips and repeat on the other side.
Begin on all fours with your hands directly under your shoulders and your knees directly under your hips. Keeping your back and pelvis still, reach your right arm forward and left leg back. Return to the starting position, placing your hand and knee on the floor.
When to do Abs Scissors?
It’s best to do the fifer scissors exercise when you are warm and the core has been activated. Put it at the middle or end of the workout. I recommend 2-3 sets of no more than 20 reps. If you do them properly, you don’t need a ton of reps. Your abs will feel it.
Things To Watch Out For
Tight Legs. If you have inflexible hamstrings or tight hip flexors, you will feel fifer scissors in your legs more than your abs. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. It means you need to improve your leg flexibility. Yoga and long stretch sessions are a must!
Weak Abs. I do not recommend Fifer Scissors for beginners. Specifically, if your core is not strong, I would avoid this exercise until your strength improves.
Is the Scissors Exercise Angel Approved?
Absolutely. They are part of my workouts and I program them for my personal clients. If you have good body awareness and determination, you’ll see and feel the effects in your abdominals. Bonus: it’s a great stretch for the hamstrings. 🙂 10/10 recommend
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