I was at the gym a while back, and a guy there was asking me questions about bench pressing. I had questions of my own – so naturally the subject of leg workouts came up. ‘I don’t squat because of my knees and back’, he says. I’m obligated to ask… ‘What’s wrong with your knees and back?’ ‘Nothing,’ he replies, ‘my uncle, who’s a powerlifting bodybuilder said squats are bad for them’.
How do you argue with a powerlifting bodybuilder uncle? Now I’m not going to tell you why you need to work your legs, which, for the record consist of over 50% of the total muscle mass in your body. If you’re happy covering your sticks up in your sweats, while casually distracting onlookers with the biceps you shower with hours of bicep curl attention, then this article is not for you.
If, however, you’d like to wear a pair of shorts occasionally, then let’s do this right!
- Balance: Too many leg workouts are actually quad workouts thinly disguised with the token leg curl exercise thrown in at the end. An effective leg training plan balances your quad training with your posterior chain work.
- Emphasize Compound Exercises: Particularly for novices, the majority of your leg training (70-80%) should consist of compound lifts*.
*A compound lift is an exercise that uses multiple muscle groups to complete the work, as opposed to isolation lifts which isolate an individual muscle (example: the squat is a compound exercise that works the entire lower body strenuously, whereas leg curls isolate the hamstrings).
- Focus on Technique: Performing your exercise with proper technique minimizes your risk of injury, and maximizes the effectiveness of the exercise.
Putting it all Together
An effective leg training program doesn’t have to be complicated. Three ‘simple’ exercises will leave you hobbling out of the gym feeling completely wasted – that is the goal, right?
- Squat: Performed properly, squats anchor an effective leg workout. A proper set of squats hammers every muscle in your lower body, taxes your core, and strains your central nervous system. To do them right, you need to take them all the way into the hole. Above parallel, the squat over-emphasizes your quads. You need to drop your hips below parallel to get maximum activation of your glutes.
Squatting at the IPF World Championships
- Leg Press: Leg presses let you push some serious weight to isolate the lower body muscles you’ve already exhausted under the squat bar. When done right, your quads will be on fire at the end of each set. If they’re not on fire, keep on repping. As with the squats, leg presses need to be completed with the full range of motion – bring that platform down until your knees are pressing into your chest.
- Stiff-Leg Deadlift: Stiff-leg deadlifts, or romanian deadlifts are, in my humble but correct opinion, the best exercise there is for your posterior chain. They will help you build powerful glutes and hamstrings. To hit the hamstrings hard, keep your knees completely straight and slowly stretch down as far as possible before snapping it back up powerfully.
If you still feel the need to hit the machines to isolate your quads or hamstrings after the big three, it’s likely you’re doing something wrong…
Exercise Technique: Here are some simple pointers to make sure you’re performing these key lifts properly: