On this page, I’ll discuss the best leg training tips, exercises and strategies for building strong and muscular legs.
Leg training is what separates the true alpha males from the pre-pubescant, high voiced and limp wristed girly men! End of story. **Pounds Chest**
Okay, okay…maybe that was a bit too harsh and just slightly exaggerated. But you get my point…
…Leg exercises are important!
The legs are easily the most ignored of all muscle groups. Those who ignore their legs tend to have some creative excuses and rationalizations for not doing so.
But the real reason clear: leg exercises can be painful. Unfortunately, there’s no way around this, except to grab your nuts and man up.
The long-term results are more than worth it. And let’s not forget the benefit of experiencing an endorphin rush following an intense lower body workout. Who knows – you might be one of the “freaks” who absolutely loves leg workouts.
- The Best Leg Exercises
- The Benefits of Training Your Legs (and Excuses for Not Doing So)
- Leg Anatomy Guide
- Leg Training Tips
- What’s the Best Leg Training Strategy for You
The Best Leg Exercises
Here’s my top 5 picks for the best leg exercises:
Read my article on the best leg exercises to find out how to do with proper form and what their benefits are.
The Benefits of Training Your Legs (and Excuses for Not Doing So)
Leg Training Benefits. Leg exercises are an essential component of any serious weight lifting routine for the following reasons:
- Run Faster & Jump Higher. Performing weight lifting exercises for your legs will develop explosive lower body power. Watch your sprinting speed and jumping ability dramatically improve as your weights on the major leg exercises increase. This is an irreplacable advantage for competitive athletes. But even as a non-competitive athlete, I find it fun to be able to jump up and hang on a basketball rim when I’m under 6 feet and over 200 lbs (white men can jump!).
- Big Wheels. Enhanced performance benefits are just the beginning; you can also develop an impressive pair of muscular “wheels.” Although generally underrated, well-developed legs are essential to a symmetrical and aesthetically appealing physique (just ask Arnold). The only downside to bigger and better upper leg muscles is that you’ll have to buy new pants (or you could be frugal and embrace the tight jeans fad! :-/ )
- Gain Muscle Mass…Everywhere! You are essentially working the entire body when performing a set of a compound lower body exercise. Take the squat, leg press or deadlift exercises for example; just think of how many muscles you’re contracting throughout your body, other than your legs. Even if they are only being isometrically contracted (i.e. flexed but not moving), these other muscle groups recievve enough muscle fiber stimulation for enhanced size and strength development.
- Prevent TPLS. An epidemic has been spreading rapidly through gyms, worldwide. TLPS is a serious condition known as Tooth-Pick Leg Syndrome. In medical terms, it occurs when your upper body muscles make your legs appear as itty-bitty twigs in comparison. Luckily, recent scientific breakthroughs have shown intense leg training to be an effective treatment for this debiltating condition. 😀
- Chicks Dig Squat Butt. ‘Nuff said!…
From my eloquent explanations about the benefits of leg training, the advantages of leg training should be blindingly obvious. But even so, many trainees choose to skip leg training altogether.
Among the endless
reasons excuses for avoiding leg training, here are some of the most amusing ones that I’ve heard of:
- “I already workout my legs when I run.”
- “Nobody even sees your legs!”
- “Squatting is bad for your knees.”
- “Deadlifting is bad for your back.”
- “…but isn’t the squat rack for bicep curls?”
But since you’ve read this far, I’m assuming you’re past all that non-sense… Or you’re ready to change past habits and are ready to learn to love leg training!…
…So let’s start with a quick leg muscle anatomy lesson so we can best understand how to train the legs for maximum results…
Leg Anatomy Guide
Let’s talk about the leg anatomy to get a better perspective for deciding how to train the leg muscles.
- Note: This is limited to the upper legs (glutes, thighs). It does not include the calves. For calf anatomy and training info, see my post on calf training.
Function of the Leg Muscles
The upper legs are a large and complex group of muscles, which are interconnected with the knee and hip joints. This high level of complexity is necessary for all of the movement done using with the lower body muscles…
…We can move and rotate our legs and pelvis in any direction, and through a large range of motion. Thus we have the ability (or potential ability) for diverse movements such as squats, running, doing the splits, performing acrobatics, hula dancing and more.
Quadriceps (AKA “Quads”)
The quadriceps are the prominent leg muscles that make up the front of your thigh. The quads’ most essential role is knee extension. Knee extension is demonstrated by straightening your leg from a bent-knee position.
It’s secondary purpose is hip flexion, which refers to the movement of bringing your thighs or knees towards your chest. Raising your knee toward your chest is an example of hip flexion.
Hamstrings (AKA “Hams” or “Hammies”)
The hamstrings makes up the back of the thighs. The functions of these leg muscles are the exact opposite of those of the quadriceps. Their primary hamstrings role is knee flexion, which is characterized by curling your leg backward as if you’re trying to kick your ass with your heel.
The second basic funtion of the hamstring muscle group is hip extension. This is most easily displayed by the “pelvic thrust” motion [Insert your own joke here].
Glutes/Gluteal Muscles (AKA “Butt,” etc…)
The gluteal muscles include the gluteus maximus, medius and minimus. The glutes are powerful muscles, whose role is hip extension and adduction. As explained directly above, hip extension is characterized by either moving your hips forwards, or raising your leg behind you.
Abduction constitutes sideways motion of moving your leg away from your body. This can be experienced when performing an outward sweeping motion with one of your legs.
Hip Abductors (AKA “Outer Thighs”)
The hip abductors are located on the outer thigh area of your leg muscle. And as you might have guessed, this muscle group’s function is abduction in conjunction with the glutes (see above).
Hip Adductors (AKA “Inner Thighs”)
The hip adductors are to hip abductors as the quads are to the hams; they are essentially opposites. While the abductors work to move the leg outward, the abductors work to bring the leg inwards. Also known as the inner thighs, the easiest way to “feel” your adductors working is by squeezing your thighs together.
The hip flexors are a group of muscles in the upper-thigh to frontal-hip area. Their name gives away their purpose: hip flexion. As explained in the quadriceps section above, hip flexion is demonstrated by lifting your knee/leg towards your chest (or lowering chest towards legs).
People who do too much sitting (i.e. most people in industrialized societies) have flexibility or pain issues due to shortened and inflexible hip flexors. The solution? Stretching the hip flexors more and taking breaks when sitting for long periods can go a long way.
Leg Training Tips
I’ll share some technique and training tips that will allow you to get the most out of leg training.
To start off, here are some mental tips and techniques for improving your leg training results.
- Get Beat Up! I don’t care how you get amped up. Just do it. When I used to workout in my basement with my friend, we would take turns getting slapped in the back of the head, punched in the abs and swatted across the back to get ready for heavy deadlifts (don’t worry, nobody got hurt). It worked like magic. My intensity effort and strength went through the roof. I realize this may not be your cup of tea. but don’t knock it till you try it!
- Change Your Attitude. Embrace the pain with end in mind. Your perception of, and attitude towards a difficult objective like intense leg exercises, is the most important part of completeing the objective with emphasis. If you’re one of the many people who loathe leg training, try to reframe it as a challenge. This way, you will focus more on pushing yourself, instead of focusing on the fact that you hate doing it.
- Workout Music. This is a must-have in my opinion. I didn’t have an iPod when I first began working out and I was too lazy to burn a CD. But it made an undeniable difference when I finally did add music to my workouts, especially during leg training. So bring your mp3 player, turn it up and get into the zone with whatever music gets you hyphy. It helps if you make a workout playlist beforehand.
- Visualize Success. Visualizing success helps with achieving damn near any goal, including the ability to intensely power through a set of bone-crushingly heavy squats (or your leg exercise of choice). I try to do this before and during the set. Play out the scene in your head – Imagine how the exercise will look, feel and sound when you are successfully performing it? Think of details: How do you appear when perfectly executing the technique, how quickly do you explode upwards, what does the resistance feel like against your body?
- Think About Your Arch Nemesis. Do you have an enemy? A person, a thing or a situation that’s been bothering you lately? Well this is a healthy time to get angry about it. Put all that negative energy to good use during intense leg training. You tend have better workouts when you’re pissed off, but the endorphin release makes you feel like a giggly schoolgirl when you’re finished.
- Meditate & Clear Your Mind. You don’t have to be a Buddhist Monk to do this; try focus your mind to clear all distractions. Don’t think about the lift at all. Keep this state before and during the lift, and you’ll be done before you know it.
- Move Around. Pace around your area, jump up and down – whatever. This helps you keep blood flowing and can be surprisingly helpful for gaining a focus. Some people might prefer to get their game-face on, while standing up or sitting down; but you’ll often see powerlifters or Olympic weightlifters pace around the floor right before performing a lift.
Now, that I’ve covered the psychological aspect. I’ll give some more general tips on leg training:
- Focus On Squats & Deadlifts. There are many great compound leg exercises out there. However, in most situations, I recommend using the squat and/or deadlift (or variations of them) as your primary leg exercise(s). That is, you should use squats and deads near the beginning of your leg training, so that you will be able to perform them at a higher intensity level.
- Learn & Use Good Form. “Practice makes perfect” is a lie – The saying should be “perfect practice makes perfect.” Actively critique yourself even if you think everything is correct. I was too arrogant to do this when I first began training at 15. I knew technique was important. But I had convinced myself that my form was flawless, despite never actually assessing it. I was soon humbled by an unpleasant lower back injury while squatting. In practice, your form won’t always be perfect, but it should always be good enough to prevent an injury.
- Control The Negative Reps. This is especially important for leg exercises because of the knee and lower back involvement. As you probably know, the knee and lower back are two areas that are more vulnerable to injury. One surefire way to induce one of these injuries is by going out of control when lowering the weight. This can put too much stress on these relatively fragile body parts, and potentially sideline you for a while. Handle the weight, don’t let it handle you. Lower the weight if you can’t handle it.
- Breathe Properly. I’m a proponent of the Valsalva Maneuver, which is a breathing technique that allows you to lift heavier during intense exercise. It is something you naturally do when picking up heavy loads: Inhale before or during the negative rep, hold your breath through the positive rep and exhale when the repetition is complete. It increases the pressure in your abdominal and thoracic cavities (the areas in your stomach and heart/lung regions), which supports and protects your spinal column. In addition, it gives you an intense burst of strength when you need it most. My friend Pascal from the Marathon Crossfit blog wrote a excellent article on how to breathe during squats using this technique–It’s short but highly informative, so be sure to check it out.
- Use a Weight Lifting Belt. Buy a weight lifting belt and wear it during heavy sets of squats and deadlifts. Much like the Valsalva maneuver (see above), a belt helps you lift more by will bolster your core strength and helps keep your spine safe and in alignment. Belts aren’t mandatory, but they can help you get stronger while potentially saving your back. If you get one, I recommend using it only when doing 5-rep maxes or heavier.
What’s the Best Leg Training Strategy for You
If you want to experience optimal leg training results, then you need a weight lifting routine with a training approach that correctly matches up to you and your goals.
Experience level is the most important factor to consider when choosing or developing the best leg training approach for you.
Beginner Leg Training Strategy
I’ve observed that full body routines are best for beginners since they let you train very frequently. This prioritizes strength progression and learning good form. For leg exercises, this translates to training the squat and/or deadlift in every workout…
…”How can you do this without overtaining?” you might ask. The answer is simple: Train often, but don’t kill your legs on every set. This is how the MYx8 Routine is set up.
Intermediate & Advanced Leg Training Strategy
Intermediate and advanced lifters have more freedom than beginners when it comes to leg training options. Rather than list out all the possible methods, I’ll boil it down to the following common strategies:
- Body Part Split Routine (e.g. Max-OT). Body-part splits are usually done 4-5 days/week, with each day being dedicated to 1 (or a few related) muscle group(s). This approach is appropriate for those training primarily for hypertrophy. You can try 2 leg workouts/week to really focus on builing up your legs.
- Upper Body/Lower Body Split Routine. Upper/lower splits are often done 4 days/week. As such, you train your legs twice/week. You can focus more on your lower body, relative to your upper body, by increasing training volume (i.e. sets x reps) and/or intensity (i.e. heaviness) on either or both of the leg days. I like this approach because I have one leg day be for hypertrophy, and the other for strength.
- Push/Pull/Legs Split Routine. This is usually done as 3 day/week routine. It can be used for both strength and hypertrophy. You’re able to work the legs on 2 of these days: On the “legs” day, and the “pull” day (i.e. e.g. deadlifts on pull days). The easiest way to double-down on legs with this training approach is to up the volume (i.e. sets x reps) and/or intensity (i.e. heaviness).
- Full Body Routine. This involves 3 to 4 full body workouts per week. This approach is most appropriate for gaining strength. You can modify the workouts to focus more on leg training by adding more lift increase intensity (i.e. heaviness) and/or add more volume (sets x reps); adding more leg exercises helps increase volume and makes your workouts variable (versus tediously adding sets/reps to existing lifts).