|By Alex Carnall|
Before I dive into what my five best leg exercises let me make a bit of a disclaimer. Understand that this article is written from my own perspective. I work with athletes who need a holistic, more functional (vs. structural) approach to their training. That’s not to say they won’t develop rippling quads and lofty glutes as a byproduct of working with me – but it isn’t the primary objective. In fewer words, I’m looking to develop movement-based strength. If you’re just starting out, I’ve included an anatomy chart of the lower body below.
So with a movement-based approach, nearly every strength exercise can be categorized (at least loosely) under one of the following banners: Squat, Push, Pull, and Hinge. Agree? Good. With respect to the legs, we can further slice this pie by looking for a Squat or Hinge; and a Hip dominant, or Knee Dominant single leg pattern. I think that pretty much sets me up to deliver the steak and spuds of this article. Here are my top five leg exercises:
The lunge is money. It’s what’s on the menu for our Knee-Dominant Single Leg Exercise. Single leg work will always make the juice worth the squeeze in athletic strength development. Lunges, by nature include a split stance and a nice deceleration component as well. The split stance develops ankle, knee, and hip stability by engaging adductors, abductors, quads, and peroneals. In addition, we become the beneficiaries of deceleration training. If you’ve ever done a lunge without losing teeth, you’ve used your hamstrings to decelerate the movement. Fun fact: eccentric hamstring work will also save your life when it comes to agility. Starting, stopping and cutting are a lot for primarily quad-dominant knee complexes to handle. Without the hamstring there to pull your tibias back where they ought to be, you’d be in a world of hurt and MRI machines.Variations of the lunge include lateral, diagonal, and different ways of extending the range of motion. Elevating the front or back foot is the simplest way to do this. You might also choose to change the COM (Center of Mass) by using a barbell or even going overhead if you’re that ambitious. By extending the range of motion, we are enhancing the ability of our muscles to produce force at different joint angles. This is useful in competition because we deal with both positive and negative shin angles, as well as being often called on to produce force without both feet fixed to the ground. Lunges are well-suited for a prep or transition phase to re-establish neuromuscular efficiency, coordination, and re-groove sound patterns.
#4. SLRDL – Single Leg Romanian Deadlift
The Single Leg Romanian Deadlift will be henceforth referred to as the SLRDL, for your comfort as well as my own. This is my first overall pick for the Hip Dominant Single Leg Exercises. The SLRDL is a gem for developing unilateral glute, adductor, and hamstring strength. When done correctly, the SLRDL will have a quicker concentric action than most would anticipate. I prefer to hold the weight contralaterally to the working leg, but it could also be done with a barbell in more advanced progressions. By slowly hinging at the hip to feel a long hamstring, the implement (if in hand) should reach to the lower third of the tibia. Then, the glutes and hamstrings should quickly snap the athlete back into the starting position.
As with the lunge, the SLRDL can be progressed by using a greater range of motion and performing the exercise from a box. This is more commonly known as deadlifting from a deficit. You may also choose to use a barbell to change the COM as mentioned earlier. Again, extending the range of motion is of great value to athletic strength development (see above,) and fits prep and transition blocks nicely. Side Note: Single leg exercise also helps to maintain and establish functional hip, and ankle mobility as well as knee stability.
#3. Glute-Ham Raise
The GHR should be an absolute staple in all training programs, even if you’re just after aesthetics. An inverted hinge pattern that engages the calves, glutes, hamstrings, and the postural lumbar erectors is too good to pass up. If you’ve never done or seen one of these (there’s something wrong with you) it’s like a backward hamstring curl. The posterior chain is the number one source of athletic power by producing strong coordinated hip extension. Jumping, accelerating, and maintaining top speed – while the product of many things working together – are all hip extension based movements. Strong hip extension is executed via co-contraction of the glutes and hamstrings; therefore it should come as no surprise that an exercise with Glute-Ham in the name is the ideal tool for the job.
Since it could be argued that the GHR is a bodyweight exercise (we use ~60% BW to quantify intensity for the unloaded GHR,) there are a number of modifications that can be made to progress the exercise if you have mastered it. Using a weight held to the chest, or a light band from the base of the machine as a form of accommodating resistance is a great place to start. You may also eventually progress to using an unloaded barbell across the back – and then loaded if you’re nuts or have a few friends that want to help. I’ve also heard of single leg GHR’s but haven’t encountered that stage of manliness yet.
#2. Conventional Deadlift
When it comes to separating man from boy, and boss from bro, nothing partitions athletes like the ability to pull big weight – fast. Although pulling from the floor is one of the most taxing things you can do to your nervous system, conventional deadlifting has a huge place in programming strength and power phases. This is the Hip Hinge movement from the introduction, and as such helps develop the all-important hip extension, as well as strong local stabilization of the TVA and lumbar erectors. Plus – it gives you monster upper back and traps, in addition to helping you keep your first pulls grooved for cleans and snatches.
In the interest of keeping this article from becoming too redundant, I want to talk about the psychological benefits of deadlifting. Athletes understand that once you reach a certain point in development, gains don’t come too easily, and small victories along the way are always motivating. There’s nothing like that about-to-black-out feeling you get after pulling a 3RM PR off the platform. Although I agree that heavy pulling should be in relatively low volume in your programming it’s a huge bang for buck exercise. Pure strength development from deadlifting and squatting set a stronger base for speed-strength conversion during power and pre-competition phases.
Later progressions of this exercise may include speed deadlifts, with 60-70% max pulled for singles and doubles, and can include the reverse band set-up for those who need it. You may also consider doing elevated deads to extend range of motion. Remembering to finish strong in the top half of the range with hamstring and glute contraction is the bread and butter of this movement.
How predictable – another advocate of squatting. What type of squat is most effective though? First of all, it’s important to rotate your core movement variations to facilitate continuing adaptations, but I have to pick one. While I agree that high-bar Olympic or “traditional” squats and front squats have their place in structural balance and maintenance of good hip/ankle mobility, there is one I feel goes under-used by athletes. The powerlifting, or wide stance squat is phenomenally useful in strength blocks. This is because of the higher levels of activation in the hamstrings, adductors, and forcedly greater involvement of the glutes to finish. Mark Rippetoe makes a great point about the inverse nature of hip and knee angles (and consequent instantaneous torques) in Starting Strength. The more open the knee angle, the more closed the hip angle and vice versa. In the powerlifting (wide stance) squat, there is less opportunity for the knee angle to close up because your ass is pushed back during the eccentric phase, creating a smaller hip angle. A greater knee angle means less anterior displacement of the patella and therefore greater pre-stretch in the hamstrings. If you’re still following me, it should start to make sense why I love the wide stance (and implicitly love the box squat.)
That is why squatting is also #1 on my list. If you can coach a person into successfully executing a squat to depth, you’ve taught the proverbial fishing lesson – you know – the one about about feeding himself for the rest of his life. Ignore the lesson and find yourself in rather dubious company…
Anyways, those are my top five leg exercises. I hope you’ve learned something, or even found something in this article that you disagree with. Leave a comment and let us know what YOUR favorite leg exercises are and why they should be on my list instead.
Alex is a graduate of the University of Texas – Pan American (NCAA, D1 – Texas) and Cisco College (NJCAA, D1 – Texas). A two-time All-American selection for baseball and Dean’s List Kinesiology student; Alex demonstrates strong commitment to both sport performance and academia. He has formerly interned with the Strength & Conditioning Coordinator at his alma mater working with Division 1 athletes and currently works as a strength coach at a sports performance facility in Oakville, ON. More recently, he is training to powerlift competitively and aspires to obtain his Masters degree. More articles by Alex can be found on his blog www.gamedaystrength.blogspot.com, website www.gamedaystrength.com, or followed on twitter @Gamedaystrength.