Ask a lot of casual gym-goers what they think about training legs and you'll likely hear common answers. "Squats, deadlifts, leg extensions, and calves; gotta do calves". You might also hear about working glutes, not being able to sit properly for forty eight hours, and maybe; all the excuses you'd skip it.
It seems that regardless of training goal, gender, or view on Justin Beiber - everyone views training legs as "a day". Moreover, they have a tendancy to view it through the scope of bodybuilding; one which emphasizes burning out the muscles by training them to failure.
Now, this approach has worked wonders for a lot of individuals who are either:
A - Completely new to training and cannot handle the high cumulative volume in a training week
B - Advanced bodybuilders and figure athletes who are looking to bring up muscularity in particular muscles such as the hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. They may even be focused on specific muscles such as the Vastus Medialis Obliqus (VMO) - or "teardrop" in the right circle.
The flaw to this approach is that the lower body, which is the predominance of your entire body and is responsible for allowing you to navigate the world around you, does not recieve adequate stimulus for total athleticism.
By limiting the training stimulus to that within the hypertrophy and strength realm you are preventing the lower body tissue from developing critical traits such as power and endurance. A step further than this and you'll see decreased movement quality in those who only lift weights for their lower bodies. Steps are heavy, and lateral or transverse movement no longer looks fluid.
It's like comparing the movement capabilities of a boxer and a bodybuilder. It isn't saying that the bodybuilder is unathletic, especially in comparison to the average Joe. Yet, if put into the ring with a Boxer, no punches allowed, the boxer would likely run the bodybuilder into the ground with conditioning.
The efficiency of the lifter's movements is much lower than that of the boxer. He/She must work harder to do the same movement.
I even experienced this effect in my own life. As a full-time trainer I'm no stranger to the iron game. I love lifting weights, heavy ones, light ones, small ones, tall ones. Paired with a proper diet I can look the part and move pretty swell too.
Yet, on the weekends here in Washington D.C. I like to play flag football. It is hosted on our National Mall, so you quickly find yourself running go routes and pulling flags in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Kinda cool if you ask me...
Kinda cool backdrop if you ask me
Nonetheless, when I first began i looked the part of the athlete, but i felt like the couch potato. My burst was limited, and my legs would get tired after I ran a few routes, or had to cover someone as a cornerback. I didn't jump as high, and definitely didn't cut and juke at my best.
So, I redesigned my training program and now find myself training legs 4 days a week. The intensity varies, but there is an emphasis on footwork, power, speed, endurance, and still a day for me to slaughter the muscles with training volume and heavy weights.
Gotta stay steady with the pump'
The result is that I am heavier than I've ever been; yet, leaner. I feel faster than ever, and my lifts PR on a monthly basis. My legs have gotten larger, more defined, and I now need to shop for new jeans every 6-8 months.
The struggle is real.
This isn't about me though. It is about you realizing your athletic potential at the same time you begin looking the way you want to look! Read on...
When training the lower body it is more important to focus on:
These factors are going to determine whether or not you are just changing things up or you are actually challenging your body in a multitude of ways.
When it comes to movement direction - think frontal, lateral, and transverse. These are the three primary planes of human movement. In layman's terms think: Moving in front, moving to your side, and moving behind you while rotating your torso. When added to stationary movements like the squat and deadlift - you will have a full plate of movement directions.
When it comes to movement load - Think about load as an elevator. The ground floor is simply your bodyweight. Nothing needs to be added. Movements such as jumping jacks, squat jumps, and multi-plane lunges can challenge even the fittest of legs. From there we ride up our elevator of load. Lighter weights become progressively heavier, floor by floor, until we reach the top floor, which we know as our max. Ideally, we will make a stop at all floors in some point of our training.
When it comes to movement intensity - by definition intensity should be in reference to the load added to an exercise. However, I truly believe that is a short-sighted and misuse of the word. Intensity is the intersection of three factors - load, rest periods, and repetitions. By standard strength and conditioning terms - a squat at 500 pounds is more intense than supersetting squatting 250 for 8 with sprinter lunge jumps for thirty seconds.
I'd argue it is quite the opposite. Thus, when training to develop the lower body it is critical to look for ways to shock the lower body. Whether it is supersetting, drop sets, sprint intervals, climbing, or maxing out there is a way to challenge the fibers in the body.
The body needs to lift, run, sprint, and move in three-hundred-and-sixty degrees.
How To Train Better
The training program that leads to the best results for you will include multiple intensities, loads, and directions. Yet, it will need to be customized to your week so that you can have ample recovery between workouts, and before an event that may matter for you.
There are far too many variations to cover in a simple blog post, but we can emphasize what exercises you should be doing every week in some volume that is appropriate for your goals. The exercise is in bold; while the variations will be italicized.
1. Deadlift - barbell, trap-bar, dumbbell, Kettlebell, or even lifting your grandmother. Bend over and pick something up.
2. Front Loaded Squat - Goblet Squat, Barbell Front Squat, Kettlebell Rack Squat
3. Sprint - Flat ground or incline
4. Weighted Conditioning - Prowler Push and Pulls, Farmer Carries, Multi-Move Complexes
5. Kettlebell Swing
6. Incline Walk
7. Box Jumps or Knee Tuck Jumps
8. Lying Hamstring Curl (Single Leg)
9. Unloaded Bodyweight Circuits for Conditioning - squats, squat jumps, lunges, lateral ice skaters, etc.
10. Hip Thruster - Barbell, unloaded, banded, unilateral, bilateral, plyometric, static.
Think of these as your top 10 go-to exercises. That isn't to say you can't add a few more, or that this list is complete. In fact, I'm sure there is so much more you could add. Yet, if you were to build your workouts around these movements and the appropriate variations in load and intensity, then you are sure to see some results.
There is always space for activation and mobility as well as foam rolling and flexibility.
It doesn't have to be rocket science when looking at how to develop the best lower body possible. Focus on creating variations in load, intensity, and direction and you are sure to see a continued curve of development. Like a skyscraper needs a solid foundation - so too, do you!