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THE PROBLEM WITH TYPICAL LEG WORKOUTS

As they say, there are many ways to skin a cat… so how do we construct the Perfect Leg Workout that will ensure you will build not only size but strength and explosiveness as well? 

First we want to realize that there are a couple of key issues with the typical leg workout. First, most leg workouts only work in the sagittal plane, but want to make sure we’re also including exercises that work in the transverse and frontal planes. Second, we want to make sure we’re working ALL the muscle groups including smaller ones.

Don’t let anyone mislead you. While the Squat is a GREAT exercise, you can’t develop all the muscles optimally with JUST that exercise.

The Perfect Leg Workout should overlook no component of upper leg training to ensure we’re hitting the hips, the glutes, the hamstrings, and the quads and working in all three planes of motion.
Here’s a map of the muscles that make up the legs and I’ll go into greater detail in the next section on each of these areas and their main function.

A BRIEF SUMMARY OF MUSCLE GROUPS OF THE LEGS

The Perfect Leg Workout needs to hit 4 important muscle groups in the legs: the quads, the hamstrings, the adductors and the abductors.

I’ll demonstrate the leg anatomy with the Muscle Markers to help show how each of these muscle groups functions.

By the way, there will be NO MUSCLE MARKERS FOR THE GLUTES. Jesse did volunteer, but it ain’t going to happen, guys. You’ll have to use your imagination.

THE QUADRICEPS

True to its name, the Quadriceps has four components:

VASTUS MEDIALIS

The Vastus Medialis is the medial component of the quad on the inside of the knee. Its main function is to help with extension of the knee.

VASTUS INTERMEDIUS

The Vastus Intermedius is the medial component of the quad beneath the muscle in the middle of the knee and can’t be directly seen. It is also involved in extension of the knee.

VASTUS LATERALIS

The Vastus Lateralis is the lateral component of the quad on the outside of the knee. This muscle also helps with extension of the knee.

RECTUS FEMORIS

The Rectus Femoris is the only component of the quads that has an attachment above the hip, allowing us to have some function on the hip and its ability to lift you into flexion. 

THE HAMSTRINGS

On the back side of the legs, the Hamstrings have two main muscle groups we want to make sure we’re focusing on:

BICEPS FEMORIS

The Biceps Femoris is the outside lateral component of the Hamstring.

SEMITENDINOSUS

The Semitendinosus is the inside lateral component of the Hamstring.

THE ADDUCTORS

On the inside of the legs, the Adductors are a muscle group that many people neglect in their training but they are important:

ADDUCTORS

The Adductors are on the inside of the anterior chain and it’s important not to neglect them in your leg training.

THE ABDUCTORS

The Abductors are a muscle group on the outside of your legs that require separate targeted training:

ABDUCTORS

The Abductors are a chronically weak muscle that needs to be targeted separately.

STRUCTURING THE PERFECT LEG WORKOUT

The Perfect Leg Workout must consist of compound exercises for the quads, glutes and hamstrings while not overlooking the smaller muscles of the hips and our ability to train in all three planes.

THE WARMUP

All of our Perfect Workouts kick off with a good compound exercise. The best, when it comes to training the legs, is the Squat. 

We’re going to work our way up to the Squat in a warmup fashion using some submaximal sets. I never want you to exhaust yourself in warming up.

While warming up the key is not to exhaust yourself more than necessary.  Often people perform too many warmup reps, cutting into energy reserves for their working sets.

Try to use half of your working weight and then about 20% less than what your working weight is going to be, and just do a few reps with each weight. Just enough to ‘grease the groove’ and warm up the joints to prepare yourself for the working sets.

To warm up for the Squat perform submaximal sets of a few reps each of half your working weight and 20% less than your working weight.

I also like to include some touch up sets using a Box Squat. With a touchup set, we’re trying to overreach with an additional 10% more weight than what we’re going to use in our first working set, to our five-rep max.

That 10% overreach allows us to feel more ready and able to attack our working sets with a lighter weight. Neurologically it’s a powerful tool to help “lighten” the load that is to come.

Doing the touch up sets with a Box Squat allows us to squat down and feel the safety of the box, giving us the confidence that we have a bottom point. It will give us biofeedback to know, ‘that’s the point I’m heading for’. Give it a one or two rep touch, come back up, then start your working sets.

Doing a few Box Squat Touch Up Sets allows us to feel a bottom point in the movement and the 10% overreach makes the working sets that follow feel lighter.

1. ANTERIOR CHAIN COMPOUND LIFTS

Now we’re starting with our heavier sets of the squat, and they should feel a little lighter after your touch up sets.

Our first two sets are a 5RM, then work ourselves up to a 10RM, and then a grueling 25RM. Training your legs up to higher reps is important if, for nothing else, to train your mental fortitude.

Squats are by far the best compound movement for the legs.

We’ve got some compression going on because of the loading of the squat.  One of the best things we can do is get some decompression by hanging from the bar in between sets for about 30 seconds.

When we pair the Squat with a 30 Second Bar Hang, the hanging allows us to get a decompressive effect.

Performing a 30 Second Bar Hang following each set of Squats gives us a decompressive effect.

EXERCISE NOTES: Do your squat sets in a 5-5-10-25 rep sequencing, and do 30 second bar hangs between sets. Rest about three minutes between work sets.

2A and 2B. POSTERIOR CHAIN COMPOUND LIFTS

Next we’re going to hit the posterior chain with a compound exercise that hits the glutes and the hamstrings in one powerful movement.

I’ll give you two exercises to choose from, but you’ll just do one of them.

OPTION 1: The Barbell Hip Thrust allows us to load up much heavier than Option 2, so you’ll want to choose this option if your main goal is training for strength. If you choose the Barbell Hip Thrust, we’re going to work backward in a 25-10-5-5 rep sequencing.

This helps you recruit your glutes to be the main driver of the movement, and then allow the hamstrings to assist. Many of us do not have good control over our glutes, so starting out with the lighter weight helps us to establish that mind muscle connection to the glutes.

Try to establish that purposeful movement, initiating with the glutes, and then squeezing with the hamstrings. Doing this with a lighter weight allows us to get into the movement pattern, and then as we get more comfortable we begin to increase the weight.

The Barbell Hip Thrust allows us to use a heavier load and is the preferred option if your main goal is training for strength.

OPTION 2: The Glute Ham Raise is ideal if you are looking to get more active engagement of the hamstrings through their concentric range of motion.  The Glute-Ham Raise contributes active engagement in areas that the Hip Thrust only challenges isometrically.

Not everyone has access to the glute-ham raise machine, which takes this exercise off the table right off the bat. But if you do have it, I’m going to explain why it provides some additional benefits.

The Glute-Ham Raise is ideal for getting active engagement of the hamstrings through their concentric range of motion.

If you choose the Glute-Ham Raise for this workout you would still use the same 25-10-5-5 rep scheme, but you’d have to load yourself appropriately. To do that you may have to use an assisted version, using your hands to creep yourself up during the first portion of this exercise. You may also want to include some weight held across your chest to allow you to fail in those heavier ranges.

Use a weight plate during the Glute-Ham Raise to allow you to fail in the heavier ranges.

In the Glute-Ham Raise you’re going to feel it much more directly in your hamstrings. However, you will also feel this in your glutes if you squeeze your cheeks together as hard as possible on the initiation of the movement back to the top.

Squeezing your glutes on the upward motion of the Glute-Ham Raise will ensure this exercise hits both your glutes and hamstrings.

While I do prefer a Barbell Hip Thrust if your main goal is training for strength, don’t overlook the value of the Glute-Ham Raise, especially for athletes.

3A. SINGLE LEG TRAINING

One of the things I preach all the time as a trainer to athletes is the value of single leg training.

Not only do you get dynamic stability benefits in the hips with single leg training, but it challenges the frontal plane of the body in ways that traditional bilateral training such as squats cannot do.

Our unilateral leg training exercise is a Bulgarian Split Squat in High-Low Fashion. You’re going to alternate the position of your torso on each rep to ensure you hit both the quads and the glutes more effectively on each rep.

The Dumbell Bulgarian Split Squat in High-Low Fashion allows you to hit glutes and quads more effectively.

We can load this more through our quads, or we can load it more through our glutes and posterior chain, depending upon the angle of our torso on each repetition.

If you drop straight down, initiating the lift off from the bottom of this exercise through the quads, you’ll provide most of the overload there.

Dropping straight down in the Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat allows you to more directly target the quads.

Then on the next rep, you’ll go down into a sprinter lunge position, which loads the posterior chain by placing the glutes under enormous stretch.

Using a runner’s lunge position in the Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat creates for more efficient targeting of the glutes.

EXERCISE NOTES: Alternate Bulgarian Split Squat repetitions between upright and sprinter lunge position to failure for two sets.

3B. EXPLOSIVITY

To incorporate explosivity in our leg workout we’re going to do a bodyweight plyometric version of the Bulgarian Split Squat.

There are two key reasons this is important.  One is that you should always try to speed up what you slow down so that you don’t get stuck in only slow patterns.

When you only train slow you eventually become slow unless you try to become more explosive and deliberate with your movements.

The other reason explosivity is important is that it helps us train for stability of the knee in jumping and landing situations by challenging this function of the Vastus Medialis.  This allows us to become a little more athletic in our training, which should always be a goal of yours.

Doing a plyometric version of the Bulgarian Split Squat helps us train for greater athleticism and builds knee stability.

4. INSIDE AREA OF THE QUAD

It’s important to understand that there is no way to isolate the medial or inner portion of the quads during an exercise.

What you can do is influence its ability to contract fully and ensure it gets full stimulation by going to a full lockout position of extension on every rep.  Instead of using a leg extension machine I prefer closed chain environments, where my foot is in contact with the floor.

The TKE Drop Lunge is a great way to ensure resistance through terminal knee extension. We can overload that with the addition of the band as well.

The TKE Drop Lunge using a band is a great exercise to ensure resistance through terminal knee extension.

You can use dumbbells in your hands to load this exercise fairly heavy.  You’ll put the band behind your knee and it will resist as you go down, pulling your knee forward. When you come back up, drive your knee back as hard as possible, into full extension.

There’s no danger in driving your knee into full extension. It is a myth that lockout can be a damaging component of a joint’s function.  In actuality it is part of the complete function of a joint.

EXERCISE NOTES: Do two to three sets with a 10 to 12RM in your hands for the drop lunge on each leg.

5. ADDUCTORS

No Perfect Leg Workout would be complete without the additional focus on the adductors on the inside of our legs.

Many people believe that after hitting quads and hamstrings your leg workout is complete, but as a physical therapist I will tell you that’s not the case. I say it all the time: ALL MUSCLES MATTER.

We can hit the adductors very well with the Goblet Adductor Lunge.  We are performing a side lunge on a slick surface to allow you to slide or squeeze your legs together to get yourself back to a standing position.  Also, we’re using this exercise as an opportunity to work our legs in the transverse plane.

This will light up the important adductor muscles on the inside of your thighs and help you to build inner thigh strength. You can do this on on a hardwood floor with your socks on.

The Dumbbell Goblet Adductor Lunge done on a slick surface helps you target the adductor muscles on the inside of your thighs by allowing you to squeeze your legs together on the way up.

EXERCISE NOTES: Do two sets of 10 to 12 on each leg to hit these key muscles.

6. ABDUCTORS

To wrap up the Perfect Leg Workout we have to hit the outside abductors of the hips as well. 

We’re going to accomplish this with a Hip Band Ladder finisher.  You’re going to hate me for this one. You’ll notice that while there’s not a lot of resistance here, you’ll be burning like hell. That’s because these muscles are chronically weak.

The Hip Band Ladder requires that you work your way up from 1 rep to 10 reps in each direction of a side step while making sure to keep your toes pointed straight ahead at all times. Take a band and anchor it against your arms and on the outsides of your feet.

Do not allow your toes to start drifting and turning outward because you’ll start to use muscles as a compensation rather than the abductors. During this finisher we’ll be working our legs in the frontal plane.

The Hip Band Ladder is a leg workout finisher that hits the chronically weak outside abductors of the hips. It’s painful and effective.

EXERCISE NOTES: Start with one step to the right and one step back to the left. Then two steps out to the right and two steps back to the left. Work your way up the ladder until you reach 10 steps in each direction. Be sure to include at least one set, and if you’re psychotic, you could add a second round.

THE WORKOUT

So, here is the entire PERFECT LEG WORKOUT step by step, all sets, all reps for you guys to follow.

PERFECT leg WORKOUT

**IMPORTANT NOTES: PERFORM TOUCH UP SET OF BOX SQUATS (5RM + 10% BEFORE WORK SETS)
BAR HANG B/W SQUAT SETS FOR DECOMPRESSION
 (30 SECONDS EACH)

1. BARBELL SQUATS – 4 x 5RM, 5RM, 10RM, 25RM **

2. POSTERIOR CHAIN COMPOUNDS – 4 x 25, 10, 5, 5

CHOOSE ONE:

       A. BARBELL HIP THRUSTS (BETTER STRENGTH OPTION)

       B. GLUTE-HAM RAISE (GHR)

3. DB BULGARIAN HIGH/LOW SPLIT SQUATS

       A. 2 x 10-12RM EACH LEG (ALTERNATING HIGH/LOW TORSO ON EACH REP)

       B. 1 x FAILURE EACH LEG (BODYWEIGHT EXPLOSIVE PLYO HOPS)

4. DB TKE DROP LUNGE – 2-3 x 10-12RM EACH LEG

5. DB ADDUCTOR GOBLET SQUATS – 2 x 10-12RM EACH LEG

6. HIP BAND LADDER FINISHER – 1 or 2 x LADDER TO 10 REPS

I’m telling you, if you haven’t done this workout already, you’re in for a treat. Or at least you’re going to hate me. And that would be a good thing because you’re going to feel things in your legs that you’ve never felt before.

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THE HIGHLIGHT REEL:
THE PERFECT LEG WORKOUT

  1. The two main problems with most leg workouts is that they only work in the sagittal plane (ignoring the important transverse and frontal planes) and that they neglect many important muscle groups beyond those found in the quads and hamstrings.
  2. When we structure the Perfect Leg Workout, we want to be sure to work ALL the leg muscles including quads, hamstrings, abductors, adductors and the smaller muscles. We also want to be sure we’re working in the sagittal, transverse and frontal planes.
  3. Our Perfect Leg Workout should incorporate a variety of training elements: anterior and posterior chain compound lifts, single leg training, and direct targeting of inner portion of the quads, the adductors and the abductors.

This Perfect Leg Workout is just one example of how training like an athlete means you don’t overlook a single muscle group!  If you’re looking for a step by step program that lays out the science behind exercise selections and the reason why we do what we do, check out all of our complete ATHLEAN-X programs. Start training like an athlete and start looking like one fast!