Training Legs? Try this "Quad" Set
Training legs can be SO MUCH MORE than what you are used to.
Your leg day isn't just about building muscle, developing strength, or developing your power and athleticism. Sure, these primary goals are important and provide an amazing amount of benefit. See, like a deal on QVC or the Home Shopping Network, when it comes to training legs all we can say is..."but wait, there's more!"
It's also about developing joint stability in the hips, knees, and ankles. And then there is building load tolerance, and tissue endurance, in a variety of directions and positions.
Training legs, completely, also requires focus on joint mobility (at the hip and ankle), muscular flexibility and optimal use of the feet (namely the ball-of-the-feet and the tripod). OH, and don't forget the development of balance and coordination.
And last, but not least, would be total-body integration of all these aforementioned traits. We want the lower body to feed the upper body output when necessary and we want the neural connection to develop the proper rhythms and sequences (namely the lumbopelvic rhythm).
Now, I know you might be reading this thinking,
"Damn Kevin, I hear you and all, but I just want to get into the gym and lift some weights, build my glutes, and go home. I don't want to spend hours doing all this functional crap on balance boards or use 37 bands to create instability while also juggling lacrosse balls and singing a Taylor Swift song, backwards..."
And you are right. You shouldn't EVER lose the training effect, or the fun, during your sessions. Go in there, put in the work, and sing whatever you want, forwards...
See, what the functional gurus and the traditional meatheads are missing, like most debates in Western culture, is nuance. Otherwise known as the "grey area".
You can accomplish multiple training goals, especially with your lower body if you organize your training in such a way that it makes logical sense, the efforts don't compete with each other, and you provide yourself adequate rest between rounds (or sets).
The Functionally Fit Quad Set
(Not just for Quadriceps)
The structure of this program design is quite simple and builds on the principles established in things like the OPT model by NASM and expands it utilizing input from other reputable sources and my own experience.
Exercise 1: Single Leg "uncommon" Stability Endurance
In this first exercise we are looking to challenge the body's ability to maintain proper alignment and positioning in a single leg biased movement. Our endurance could come from tempo (thinking of the classic 4.2.1 in the textbooks or 5.3.5 if you are mean)*, or it could utilize an isometric hold in the most challenging position.
*Tempo is typically written (eccentric.isometric.concentric), so a traditional split squat tempo might be written as (4 seconds down, 2 second hold, 1 second up).
The key with this first exercise is to utilize an "uncommon" position. This could be having a plantar flexed foot on the working leg (knees over toes forces), an overly internally rotated back leg (such as a hip airplane), or simply creating a proprioceptively rich environment (such as shoes off standing on Airex pads).
This uncommon position will serve as an activation and training effect on the lesser trained tissue that often takes a backseat to the prime movers.
Muscles of the ankles, the lower leg, and the deep six rotators of the hip are a few examples.
Something like heel-elevated split squat held at the halfway position will light up the gastrocnemius and soleus (in addition to the fibularis and other ankle muscles) while simultaneously providing isometric stress on the quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. Additional coaching of "squeeze your knees together" will bring in additional adductor recruitment, thus further enhancing the intensity of the effort.
All in all, this first exercise can be done for moderate repetitions with tempo (I'd say no more than 8), or a 15-20 second isometric hold in the weakest position.
5 Sample Exercises:
Heel Elevated Split Squat
Warrior 3 Hold (Isometric RDL)
Box Assisted Hip Airplane Rows
Peterson Step Downs
Single Leg Glute Bridge/Hip Thrust with Unstable Platform
Exercise 2: Single Leg Strength (mimic position of exercise #1)
This is pretty straight forward. Do a single leg strength movement in a position similar to your first exercise. This will utilize the same tissues in a very different capacity.
For example, that heel-elevated split squat hold is perfectly superset with a loaded reverse lunge for 4 to 6 repetitions. Both patterns train the "lunge" movement and all the muscles involved.
The key is to remember that this is a STRENGTH movement. Thus, your weights should be heavy enough to cause legitimate fatigue (or leave someone with about 1-2 reps in reserve) at repetition 5.
Some great single leg exercises for loading are:
Flat Ground Split Squats
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squats
Kickstand Romanian Deadlifts
Single Leg Machine Hip Thrust
Lateral Lunges/Cossack Squats
Just remember, to quote Ben Bruno, "single leg efforts are a cheat code because you have to do them twice, once on each leg".
Exercise 3: Bilateral "Weak Point" Stability Endurance
I know it's hard to admit, but we all have weak points. For some it's their hamstrings. For others its the glutes, or adductors.
We aren't judging you for having a weak spot...only if you willingly choose to ignore it.
So, for your next exercise we are looking to challenge your muscles in a more stable position (both feet on the ground/implement), but with specific emphasis placed on the muscles that are in need of some extra love and affection. This additional stress placed upon the muscles, especially in a pre-fatigued state, will be the super secret sauce for catching them up to your "better" muscles.
For repetition range, I'd like to see ten to twelve really smooth efforts in a single set. There should be minimal stop and start to the pattern; instead focusing on the middle "80%" that lives within every repetition (no end ranges). This will ensure the work stays focused on the muscle, and not the joint.
My top 5 weak spot exercises for the lower body are:
Swiss Ball Hip-Bridge Hamstring Roll-in
Plate Loaded Frog Pump Glute Bridge
Toe-Elevated Romanian Deadlift
Reverse Nordic Curl (or Leg Extension if patella can't handle stress on knee)
Each of these efforts will put a significant burn into the muscle tissue and have you feeling a bit fatigued, but there is one final output.
Exercise 4: Bilateral Strength (Opposite Pattern of Single Leg Effort)
The Godfather of lower body lifts. Squats or Deadlifts live right here. It's time to unleash the Kraken.
The only caveat is choosing the strength pattern that biases the opposite joint from the exercise you chose for single leg strength. At this level, you are essentially making sure you have a hip dominant and a knee dominant effort in the quad set.
So, if you performed the reverse lunge as exercise #2, then you'd want a Hip Dominant, or Hinge, exercise here. So, any form of a deadlift works.
However, if you chose a kickstand Romanian deadlift for exercise #2, then you'd want a knee dominant, or squat, in this position.
Put simply, we want to balance the stress across the tissues and joints when it comes to force output. Like the single leg efforts, keep your repetitions between four and six here. We want force production above all else.
Top 5 Bilateral Strength Exercises:
Trap Bar (Hex bar) Deadlifts
Barbell Front Squats
Safety Bar Back Squats
Barbell Back Squats
Barbell Romanian Deadlifts
In practice, a few sample quad sets might look like this:
20 second isometric each
15 seconds between legs
2. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge
6 Repetitions each
15 seconds between legs
3. Reverse Nordic Curl
30 seconds after
4. Trap Bar Deadlift
4 to 6 Reps
120 seconds rest after
20 seconds isometric
20 seconds per side
2. Kickstand RDL
20 seconds between legs
3. Swiss Ball Hamstring Roll-In
4. Barbell Front Squat
120 seconds after
Now, play with these templates and explore what your body can do for you.
I'd recommend no more than 2-3 rounds of this quad set on your first workout using this template. The soreness WILL sneak up on you. You are going to be using a lot of novel muscle tissue in addition to the prime movers on your strength movements.
Rest as needed between bouts of this lower body training session. I'd recommend at least three full days. Additionally, run only 1 "quad set" per workout. Any more than that and we might need to roll you out of the gym and help you up and down from your toilet at home.
Soon enough you'll experience functional, fitness, and performance gains with your lower body - the ideal scenario for anyone with a life to live and fitness to gain.
Go out there, train hard, be smart, and remember that fitness is an element to your life - train it with intention.
Tag me at @kevinmullinsfitness with your videos of this EXACT format. Use the hashtag #NewWayLegDay so we can build a community.
Till next time,