Strength experiment, part 2: Leg day

If you want stronger legs, you’re going to have to get under the bar.

In the last post, I went over different variations of the press. Specifically, overhead presses and chest presses. Good stuff to power up the upper body.

But as we all should know, the foundation of any athlete is a good set of legs. All the upper body power in the world won’t do much (aside from looking good) if your legs are weak. Hiking, running, sprinting, jumping – you name it, if there is any sort of land-based locomotion going on, your legs are going to be heavily involved.

Go into the fitness corner of the internet enough and you’re bound to hear the admonition to “never skip leg day.” Sometimes that’s accompanied by a photo of a dude with a stacked upper body and the spindly legs of habitual computer gamer.

As a matter of disclosure, I wish mine were stronger. They don’t look like much. That’s why I never skip leg day. In fact, I make sure I do leg day twice a week and spend plenty of time under the bar.

Going back to my original theme of four basic movements, my leg day workout centers on the squat and its variations. The goal is to strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves.  When I think about these muscle groups, the quads and glutes power you through jumps and quick bursts as well as being the primary “push” engines of your lower body. Your glutes work with your hamstrings to propel you forward when you’re running or sprinting. The calves assist in all of these, but have enough slow-twitch muscles in them to make them ideal stabilizers for everything from all-out sprints to holding your place on a wall when climbing. I know I’m barely scratching the surface here, but it gives you an idea of how these muscle groups make you move.

If you’re strong in your legs, it’s a pretty good bet you’re going to be strong everywhere else. Strength training for legs is hard. Really hard. But it’s also crucial, not only in your athletic performance now but in your mobility as you age. Running alone won’t cut it. You really should be lifting. Don’t neglect the legs!

Anyway, enough of that intro. Like I said, I do two leg day sessions a week, with the core of the workout centered on the squat. Here’s what it looks like:

Warm-up: 3×10 sumo squat with a kettlebell; 3×10 single-leg calf raises w/dumbbell (escalating weight with each set on the calf raises). I include those calf raises because that movement stretches the calf muscles and Achilles tendon, allowing for better mobility once I get under the bar for squatting. I use a 60-pound kettlebell on the sumo squats; nothing too heavy, just enough weight to help wake up the muscles in my legs and hips for the work to come. When I’m done with these, I’m ready for the real deal.

Barbell back squat, 1×8, 1×7, 1×6, 1×5 (escalating weight)

Barbell front squat, 3×6

Barbell Romanian deadlift, 3×6

Peterson step-up w/kettlebell (light weight), 3×10 each leg

Kettlebell swing, 3×12

Leg extension, 3×15 (escalating weight)

The key to this is that both squat variations should be challenging weights. The rep ranges are not high, so the weight must be on the heavier side, relative to your ability. Generally speaking, you’re going to be able to squat much more weight on the back squat than you are on the front squat. The Peterson step-ups are a really good single-leg exercise to build your quads, especially that “teardrop” muscle on the inside of the kneecap. The Romanian deadlifts pound your glutes and hamstrings. Same thing with the kettlebell swing, but more explosively. The leg extensions at the end of the workout are a great way to safely roast your quads before you call it a day.

I usually don’t do core work on leg day, as your core is going to get a lot of work doing the squats. But that’s a call you’ll have to make for yourself.

For conditioning, I like to do three rounds of a barbell complex. The goal here is not really strength, it’s more about quick-burst lifts to raise your heart rate. And believe me, a barbell complex will do it. Mine includes some lifts that aren’t “leg day” lifts, but by this point it’s more about conditioning than lifting anyway. Here’s what a round of mine looks like:

Hang clean x6

Front squat x6

Standing overhead press x6

Romanian deadlift x6

Bent-over barbell row x6

With the barbell complex, you load a light weight (I’ve seen some people do it with an unloaded bar). Perform all the lifts in the entire complex without stopping to rest or put down the bar until the round is finished. It’ll spike your heart rate nicely, and is a good way to end a leg day workout.

My first lift of the week is always a leg day workout. I’ll do it again three days later.

So there it is. Next time, we’ll tackle the hip-hinge and the posterior chain. See you then.

Bob Doucette

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