The Art of Leg Day
Legs. The most pointless muscle group mankind has ever dealt with. Not only is training these troublemakers quite a painful experience, yet they don’t even look cool! What’s the point of placing so much emphasis into training such a dumb group of muscles that nobody even finds to be appealing, when you can be placing twice the time and dedication into more important matters such as your chest, or abs? When would having big legs ever be important in a training regimen when, regardless of leg size, you can walk perfectly fine? And why is that man smack in the middle of the gym always placing so many damn plates on the leg press, is he trying to intimidate me? Does he really want his legs to grow that badly, or is he doing it to look like a tough guy?
Hold on. Let’s stop being so rash for a minute, and instead take a look beneath the surface.
To start delving into the horrifying world of legs, let’s begin by discussing anatomy. Contrary to the belief, there is more to the legs than just your quads and your calves; instead the term “legs” actually refers to your glutes (yes, your butt is a leg muscle), hamstrings, quadriceps, adductors, abductors, and gastrocnemius (your calves). Although each of these groups are also composed of even smaller groups of muscles that perform very specific task relative to their location, these six terms cover the broad spectrum of the dastardly land of legs. Let’s establish in basic wording what each of these muscle groups really even do for your ever-so-needy body.
Your glutes are not only one of your strongest muscle groups, yet are arguably the most important leg muscles you have. Infamously known by their alter ego- the “buttox” -these pieces of flesh help accomplish many tasks, such as moving your legs in various motions, maintaining balance, lifting yourself from a squatted position, and stabilizing the bodywhile in motion .
The hamstrings are extremely necessary for body movement, yet are tremendously overlooked. Located on the posterior section of the leg above the knee joint, the string-like group of muscles allow you to bend your knees, slow yourself down, switch direction, “brake” when moving, and rotate your legs in different directions.
These odd triangle-shaped muscles also can go by their somewhat more appreciated name: the “speed muscles”. Located on the anterior portion of the leg above the knee joint, these so-called geometric force generators allow you to create speed while moving, straighten the leg, and work with the hamstring to balance the body out when performing movements, such as jumps.
Although one could consider them to be the overlooked middle children of the leg family, their roles are nonetheless extremely useful for bodily functions. The adductors are located to the right of your quadricep and above the hamstring, while your abductors are located to the left of the quadricep and also above the hamstring (think: the sides of your legs). An easy way to remember the function of the former and the latter is quite simple: the ADD-uctors “adds” the leg back to the body, meaning moves the legs closer together , while the ABDUCT-ors “abducts” the legs from the body, meaning spreading the legs farther apart.
For some quite unknown reason, a scary amount of people tend to base leg strength solely off the size of these lumps that are located on the posterior side of the leg below the knee joint. The calf itself is composed of two parts, the medial head, and the lateral head. Ultimately, your calves allow you to perform functions with your feet (such as curling your toes), assist in bending the knee, and even aids circulation through your legs by constantly contracting.
WHY TRAIN LEGS
For starters, your legs happen to be the foundation of your body; your abs, pecs or lats don’t bare the burden of maintaining and coordinating one’s body weight and generating force throughout the entire day, every day. Your legs undergo great stress in even what seem to be the simplest situations, such as standing and walking, while simultaneously performing grand acts of coordination twenty four-seven in order to keep oneself from flopping head first onto the sidewalk. Like any structure in life, without a foundation, you have nothing. Without a strong foundation, you will not be able to perform a myriad of workouts to your full potential, such as deadlifts, Olympic lifts, and even bench presses (shocker), as in one way, shape, or form, each of these workouts rely on a substantial amount of force to be generated by your legs to be accomplished. Furthermore, your joints will start to take a serious toll, as your extremely muscular and heavy upper body will begin to exert more force than your knees can handle, and in the blink of an eye you can cost yourself months of heavy iron training.
Moreover, nobody wants to bear the dreaded title of “pencil-legs”. We’ve all seen it before, a massive man walks by in the gym, and the initial awe of his impressive upper body frame diminishes as his legs, with the diameter of a toothpick, follow suite. I am not going to sugar coat the sight; it’s depressing. Not only does this depict the image to your fellow fitness peers that you were too afraid to tolerate the grueling pain of leg day that others have embarked, yet it’s plain disproportionate.
Finally, if the past two reasons weren’t enough to sway your dense muscle head, various studies have also proved that heavy leg-oriented compound lifts, such as the squat and the deadlift, actually result in the body producing more Growth Hormone (GH), which consequently causes your upper body to grow in mass as well. I kid you not, simply Google, “training legs to grow upper body”, and I guarantee your search engine will bestow you with an infinite amount of sources. Therefore, by punishing your legs, your body responds by strengthening the entire person as an entity. Think of it as a win-win situation. Now, diesel legs AND iron pecs are a possibility!
Now that you (hopefully) are convinced to start training your legs, the question arises: How to do it?
Let’s establish how to make your legs grow into tree trunks efficiently and effectively.
I’m not trying to depict the idea that my ideology is the only way; however, from what I have seen with the people I’ve worked with and my own being, you will see the results you crave. My philosophy is simple, yet effective (and quite painful); do what the legs are meant to do. What does that mean? Simply put, your legs are an extremely functional pair of muscles that respond to functional stress every single day. If you want to create effective hypertrophy and tear your leg muscles to the point where they grow back stronger than ever, proportionate, and USEFUL in various exercises and activities, then hop off the machines. That’s right, leg press included. Stop basing your leg workouts off machine movements (unless if you are extremely injured or have joints of paper, then it’s okay). If you are currently thinking that “There’s no way I’m hoping off machines! I know a guy that can leg press X amount and his legs are completely jacked compared to the guy who can parallel squat Y amount!”, let me explain. Although the former seems to have bigger legs, they’re ultimately superficial and unnatural. The legs of this person will develop imbalances, and due to the leg press being an nonfunctional movement that this person prioritizes, his strength will become nonfunctional and will not transfer well to functional or compound movement.
Since I keep throwing the word “functional” around in thin air as if I don’t know what I’m talking about, let me assure you that it makes sense in context. Functional movements are movements that the body is designed to do. Period. Your body was designed to squat down into a deep position, that’s how you’re supposed to go to the bathroom. Your body was also designed to pick up weights from the floor, that’s the deadlift. However, the body, specifically legs, were NOT designed to push heavy loads, lay flat on a bench and curl great loads, or contract to move a weight, and etc. Therefore, not only will functional movements allow your strength to be utilized in various situations as your body works as one unit, yet they will stimulate muscle growth in the areas of the body where are most appealing and useful for your FUNCTIONAL routines! See the win-win situation? I can confidently declare that once you start incorporating more functional movements into your workouts and mitigate machine based workouts, your strength gains will increase exponentially, and your physique will follow suite.
Yes, you read that correctly. Unless you are some sort of ultra competitive power lifter that must abide by Powerlifting Standards of the squat -which you probably aren’t- you should go as deep as you can on these bad boys. Reasons being? Well, for starters, by going as deep as you can in a deep, or ATG (a** to grass) squat, you are completing the full range of motion that the body was meant to achieve, therefore efficiently working groups like the glutes, hamstrings, and calves to their fullest potential, and allowing your body to work more efficiently throughout the movement. Think of the parallel squat as a half deadlift, would you ever come up halfway on the deadlift, then go back down? I don’t think so. If we can apply these fundamentals to deadlifting, why can’t we apply it to squatting? Furthermore, the psychological aspect of a deep squat taxes the mind less during the actual workout, as no longer will you have to be monitoring yourself to whether or not you are going deep enough for it to “count”, the worst feeling is attempting a squat one rep max that apparently doesn’t qualify because you were millimeters away from being “parallel”. Finally, deep squatting is just plain harder. Not only will your flexibility dramatically increase over time, yet your power will as well, as deep squats place a significantly higher amount of stress on the legs than any measly parallel squat can manage, and more muscle is the goal, right? A disclaimer, however: if you have poor knees or flexibility, go as deep as you can comfortably manage. Over time, if flexibility is the main concern, your squat will naturally get deeper, and your strength will naturally become more impressive as well.
Now that the reason for doing the king of all leg exercises has been explained, let’s discuss proper form. When you perform this exercise, rack the bar by keeping your abdomen tight, and take as many steps back to where you can perform a deep squat without any obstacles in the way. Once you have assumed the starting position, attempt to point both of your toes straight and parallel. To some this comes naturally, and to others, the duck feet seem to be an underlying issue. The reason being is quite simple, when you squat with your feet pointing forward, you generate more power via your adductors and abductors (I told you they were underrated), and less stress is placed on the knee joint. Next, check to make sure your chest is facing upwards, and you are looking straightforward. You are ready to begin the squat. Think of the downward motion as “flaunting your assets”: stick your butt out while simultaneously maintaining a flat back throughout the downwards motion. You want to feel as if you are literally going to sit on something while keeping your posture perfect. To achieve such a stance, make sure to rely less on your toes, and more on your midsole/heels, as this allotted pressure will allow one to more effectively sit back into the ideal squat position. Once you have hit rock bottom, maintain the position for a count of 3 seconds, as this pause will diminish momentum, and instead force your legs to do their own dirty work. While waiting the 3 seconds, it is extremely important to make sure that you can still comfortably look straight, keep your back flat and upright, and chest high; DO NOT LEAN FORWARD, IF YOU LEAN FORWARD, YOU ARE USING TOO MUCH WEIGHT FOR YOUR BACK TO HANDLE. Now, once you start to come up, do NOT “good-morning” the bar up, meaning using your lower back to lift the weight; keep your back out of the lifting process and save it for the carrying process instead. Moreover, come up as if you are “undoing” the squatting position while maintaining perfect posture; unbend your knees and slowly retract your glutes into your body while maintaining a forward view and an upwards-facing chest. That is one rep. Two efficient ways to perform the ATG squat is at the beginning of a leg day, where you either perform 3 sets of 6 reps, or 5 sets of 5 reps. Regardless, this workout should be performed heavy, with high volume for a low duration, as this will bestow great strength gains for the legs instead of great muscle endurance, which isn’t the goal. Enjoy!
2.Single Leg Deadlifts
A variation of a classic that places great trauma on the legs, specifically hamstrings. Holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand, balance on the same side leg the weight is in while raising the other leg off the ground, and bend at the hip to a position where your back is flat and body is parallel to the ground. From this position, come back to the starting position by maintaining a flat back (like in the deadlift) and bringing the airborne leg back next to the other leg on the ground, to the point where you are standing straight up again. That is one rep. A recommended setup would be to do 4 sets of 4 reps, as the weight, once again, should be particularly heavy.
3.Pistol Squat/Duck Walk
I always advise to incorporate some kind of calisthenic into a workout, I will not get into great detail, here but feel free to read my other post explaining so. Nevertheless, regarding the former, begin the movement by standing straight-up. Think of the movement as a “one legged squat”, bring one leg straight forward while dropping down into the deep squat position (same body mechanics as the normal deep squat), feel free to bring your arms forward to help maintain balance. Once you hit the bottom position, pause for 3 seconds, then come back up by “undoing” the squat. This is one rep. This exercise will target the same muscles the squat targets, yet will place great emphasis on the smaller stabilizing muscles that are neglected in heavier, compound exercises. Once you are capable of performing 3 sets of 8 or more repetitions, increase the difficulty of the exercise by adding dumbbells in your free hands.
With regard to the latter, begin by going into the deep squat position, and raising your butt ever so slightly to where it is below the parallel mark, but well above your ankles. With your hands in front of you and clasped together, start “walking” forward by rhythmically trekking forward while maintaining this low position. Do NOT swing your legs out, this can cause great knee injury, instead maintain a linear path. Once you make it to your destination, pause briefly and begin to perform the exercise backwards. Start “walking” backwards from the same position, and this will allow the entire leg to be trained, as walking forwards places more emphasis on the quads, and backwards placing more emphasis on the hamstrings. Both, however, also place great importance on strengthening the stabilizing muscles and the knee joint in the leg. Once you get good at a certain distance, increase it!
A personal favorite, this movement is performed just like the normal deadlift, (which I won’t explain in detail, I’ll most likely make a separate post about it soon) except instead of the bar being in front of you, it should be placed behind the legs. When you lock out at the top of the lift, you should feel a great amount of stress placed upon the hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves, plus your abductors and abductors will also aid in keeping the body stabilized. Place the weight back down to the floor as in the matter that you would in a normal deadlift. That is one rep. I prefer to perform 3 sets of 4 reps, and like the major theme of leg day states: heavy is good!
An underrated wonder of today’s fitness-oriented society. Rack a barbell just as if you were going to deep squat, and instead of actually squatting, place one leg forward and bend it to the point where it is millimeters above the ground, hold for 3 seconds, and step back to the standing starting position. Make sure throughout the movement that you keep looking forward, chest up high, and ensure your back stays flat and erect, no slouching! Once you have engaged in the movement for one leg, proceed to do it for the other leg. That is one rep. 3 sets of 6 reps will suffice. And I think by now, you understand the notion of going heavy.
Although this list contains five functional workouts for the legs, the possibilities of free weight and calisthenic workouts for legs, such as Jefferson Deadlifts, wall sits, and step-ups, is infinite. The beauty of working out functionally resides in the endless amount of possibilities. There’s always a challenge to add, or a variation to implement, consequently keeping your mind on its toes and thus causing your muscles to grow stronger and better than ever. Take your pick, a limited amount of machines, or a never ending supply of functional movements. The choice is simple.
Last but not least, before I conclude this post, I had promised to address one more aspect of the introductory paragraph: the man doing super heavy leg presses. Let’s make it clear, if you do happen to continue doing leg presses, despite my advice, do not let your ego get the best of you. Quite frankly, intermediate and experienced lifters could not be less amused by the fact that you can slap on thousands of plates onto the leg press for one awful, half-assed set. It’s not impressive to see someone come one hundredth of the way down, groan, and come right back up with a noticeable amount of weight if the movement is not performed correctly. Thus, I will quickly offer some advice on the leg press, although once again, I do not suggest prioritizing this movement. If you do insist on performing the exercise, make sure you come down as deep as you can possibly go, just like the deep squat. This will utilize more of your quadriceps and hamstrings, and works the true range of motion the exercise was intended for. By performing the movement like so, you might find the thousands of plates you placed on the machine to be a tad too heavy. Do not be afraid to sacrifice some weight in order to perform the exercise perfectly. Regarding every exercise you will embark on in your weightlifting career; form over force provides greater, safer, and faster results every time. Back to the topic of leg presses, when you extend your legs back to the starting position, do not lock your legs out. The machine always has the ever so slight potential of malfunctioning, and if the press collapses on your locked out limbs, there will be some serious problems. Furthermore, utilize the leg press to your advantage by adjusting the position of your feet. Placing your feet higher up on the platform will increase the amount of stress placed on your hamstrings and glutes, while a lower foot placement, on the contrary, will increase the amount of stress allotted on your quadriceps. Finally, if you are a huge leg press addict and for whatever reason refuse to train functional (not my suggestion), you can always try to train your calves by only placing your toes on the platform and flexing the calf muscle to “flap” the foot. If you HAVE to use it, at least be safe and somewhat innovative.
Overall, it is safe to say that leg day truly is an art. Although many people approach the day differently, the regimen takes time to master and perfect for your personal desires. My approach clearly recommends one to train heavy and functional, however, it is up to you if you choose to give my philosophy a shot. Regardless of how you do leg day, just promise yourself not to disregard the muscle group in place for something you feel is more important, like back. Although leg day superficially seems to be a boring and painful drag that is a weight lifter’s “chore”, it’s genuinely more entertaining than it seems. Once you find a leg training session that works, the day (shockingly) will start to grow on you, to the point where the day dedicated to legs can potentially become your favorite training session. That’s right, I enjoy training my legs more than my chest, and no, I’m not insane. Moreover, do not become disgruntled if your legs do not immediately begin to grow like weeds if you choose to utilize my outlook, as with most things in life, good things come to those who wait. Give it more than a month, and I promise brawny legs will no longer just be a fantasy. To end this post, I will leave you guys with a phrase that a close friend has shared to his peers, including me, during times of great stress and contemplation: “Trust the process”. And to lifters, leg training is a pretty big process.
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