I’ve written a few times about how important it is to train your legs. And by that, doing something more than walking, running or hiking. Strength training is key to building and maintaining muscular strength, mobility and bone density.
Strength training your legs also builds a great foundation for any athletic endeavor you want to pursue, be it skiing, hiking, running or a whole range of other sports and activities.
I like to focus on exercises that work multiple lower-body muscle groups at once. There are some exceptions, and there’s nothing wrong with using or adding isolating exercises so long as you balance that out pretty well (if you’re hitting your quads, for example, be sure to do a similar amount of work for your hamstrings).
Lately I’ve been doing a specific workout, with exercises you will be familiar with if you read this blog very much. This session will take about 45 minutes, and it will help you get some work done. In order, I do this:
Calf presses (seated leg press machine): 10 reps 220, 10 reps 265, 10 reps 315. (You could also do standing single-leg dumbbell calf raises or seated calf presses on a calf press machine). I start out with calves because the stretch at the bottom of the lift helps loosen up your Achilles tendon, which in turn will increase mobility and range of motion in your forthcoming lifts. Tip: Don’t bounce the weight; Pause at the bottom of the lift for a second or two, then do the press. Bouncing does nothing for you.
Dumbbell lunges: 8 reps 20s, 8 reps 25s, 8 reps 30s. Try not to have your forward leg’s knee go too far over your ankle, and when you’re standing back up, squeeze the hams and glutes on the back leg. Doing so will actually pull up upright instead of relying too much on the forward-facing leg’s quads doing all the work. Tip: Don’t lean in forward; keep your upper body upright. If you find yourself wobbly, use less weight.
Barbell squats: Now we’re in the thick of it. I don’t squat much — 8 reps 135, 7 reps 185, 4-5 reps 225. Grip the bar hard as you get under it, and flare your elbows forward slightly, tensing your shoulders and lats. “Packing” those muscles will help tighten your core, stabilize your spine and get ready for the work to come. As you drop down, you should bend at the knees AND at the hips, keeping you back straight (now bowed) as your rear drops down and back. Squat deep, at least past the point where the tops of your thighs go below parallel. If you can’t do that, use less weight. I used to squat with much heavier weight, but form was being sacrificed. So no more of that. It’s better to go lighter and do the exercise right that go heavier and do it wrong. Anyway, as you get to the bottom of the lift, drive your hips forward and stand back up. Tip: Some people look up; I say don’t do that. Keep your head in line with your spine (“neutral spine”) so your entire posterior chain, from top to bottom, is helping you with the lift. Anytime your head tilts back, you lose power from your glutes and hamstrings and your back takes over. That’s bad news. And NEVER bounce at the bottom of the lift unless you really want to tear something. Cheating never gets you anywhere.
I can’t stress how important form is on this exercise. Do it right, your strength will skyrocket. Do it wrong, you’ll get hurt. So learn proper form, use weight you can handle, and do it right before you start piling on all that weight. Ego won’t save your back.
Barbell deadlift: With this exercise, we’re in the heart of the workout. Again, I don’t go all that heavy; form matters here. I do 135×8, 195×7, 255×5. Stand at the bar, feet about shoulder width apart. Hand grips vary; I choose to have one hand palm out, one hand palm in, and both hands gripping the bar outside of my stance. Grip the bar tight, and tense those lats. Pull up on the bar to take up any “slack,” or the little bit of room that exists between the bar and the plates. Keeping your head and neck in a neutral spine position, drive up by firing your quads, squeezing your glutes and driving your hips forward. Your back should be straight, and your chest slightly up (to the point where someone could see the logo on your shirt as you began the lift). When you’re at standing position, your chest should be out (proud) and your shoulders slightly back. Then slowly lower the weight down, bending at the knees and getting your hips back. Tip: DO NOT hunch your back; keep it straight. And don’t tilt your head back to look up at the mirror; doing so will deactivate your hams and glutes and overly recruit your lower back, which you DON’T want to do. If you can’t avoid hunching over and pulling with your back, use less weight and get the form right.
Barbell Romanian deadlift: I do 135×8, 165×8, 195×8. Similar to standard deadlift, but instead of bending at the knees to pick it up, you will keep your legs nearly straight. The idea is to isolate the glutes and hamstrings. With a slight bend at the knees, hips back and a neutral spine (you should be looking at the floor when you start), begin the lift by squeezing your glutes and hams and thrusting your hips forward. Tip: Again, do not tilt your head back to look up; keep that neutral spine. At the top of the lift, your chest your be out, shoulders slightly back. You can use the same grip here as you did for conventional deadlifts. Then slowly lower the weight down, spine neutral, hips going back and allowing for a slight bend at the knee.
Goblet squats: This makes for a nice finisher. I use dumbbells, doing sets of 8 with 45, 55 and 65 pounds. Hold the dumbbell or kettlebell collarbone high with both hands, feet a little more than shoulder width apart, back straight. Squat down deep (rear to ankles, if possible), then stand back up. Your hips will not go as far back on this as they do on a back squat.
Keep in mind: Many of you won’t be able to do these exercises with as much weight as I currently use; conversely, there are a whole lot of you out there who can and should use way more weight than me. Scale these exercises to your abilities, and remember to NEVER sacrifice form.
Side note/disclosure: I have an earlier post with photos on a different leg workout; those photos show me doing deadlifts and squats with my head tilted back (not neutral spine). At that time I didn’t know any better. So don’t do that!
Try this workout and let me know what you think, or share your leg day workout plans in the comments. I’m always up to hear and learn something new!