Real bodybuilders admire those massive striated wheels when they see them. But very few people are willing to put in the work necessary to acquire them. While machines can add some nice finishing touches, the bulk of your leg workouts should be based around compound free weight movements. One exercise in particular must be the foundation in your leg workout regardless of your goals. The all-mighty squat.
Squatting is a function everyone should be able to do without pain or compensations. Even if you don’t have a goal of gaining large amounts of muscle, you must include squats to maintain an adequate level of mobility for daily living and recreation. A good squat means you can stabilize your spine when lifting and during hip flexion to avoid injury from everyday functions (like moving furniture). Including various forms of squats in your workout program benefits you in many ways such as increasing testosterone and growth hormone levels, facilitating stronger neural connections and intermuscular coordination, and also improving CNS efficiency.
Along with being a functional movement to improve mobility, squats also grow and define your legs like no other leg exercise. When you perform a squat with a full range of motion (below parallel), your glutes are heavily recruited along with all the quad muscles. It’s very important to have adequate mobility to squat with a full range of motion. As you increase depth, glutes become more heavily recruited. Hamstrings will be used, but to a lesser degree. There is no other exercise that will get as much out of your quads and glutes in one movement. Additionally, your deep core stabilizers such as the transverse abdominis and internal obliques are strengthened. That translates to more stability and power in just about every single exercise.
There are many squat variations that change muscle recruitment slightly. The first type of squat to master is the bodyweight squat. If you can’t do a body squat with proper form, don’t expect to do so with weights.
Some other useful variations of the squat are:
While all the above squat variations can be implemented and have benefits, the next three are what should be considered the essentials. If done properly they will lead to complete leg development and optimal mobility throughout the hips, spine, ankles and knees.
Back squats: are the bread and butter of any leg routine. Unfortunately, many people are performing them in a less than optimal way and risking injury. This video covers some of the common mistakes lifters make. Once you have the form down, you can load up the weight more on the back squat than any other kind. The barbell back squat will most likely lead to the largest amount of muscular growth in your legs. There is simply no substitute providing all the benefits of this one movement.
Front squats: would be the next most important squat. While many people have an adequate level of mobility to perform full range of motion back squats, they may be lacking in areas required to execute the front squat. Tightness in the downstream arm and spine often prevent people from correctly performing this exercise. However, when done properly, front squats are easier on the knees and recruit more hamstrings, quads, and spinal stabilizers than a back squat. They are perhaps the best way to add mass to the quads specifically.
Pistol squats: are the most challenging type of squat to master. They are the ultimate testament of lower body mobility. If you can perform a full pistol squat, then you have full mobility and range of motion in your hips, ankles, and spine. If you can’t perform a bodyweight pistol, you can use a weight to counterbalance yourself or something to hold onto for support. The important thing is to keep your hips properly aligned and not sacrifice form to reach a full range of motion. Once mastered, start adding weight for some massive gains in your quads that can rival the back and front squat.
When performing your leg workout, start with the squat that’s going to benefit your goals the most. If you’re looking for just overall size and strength, go for back squats. Maybe you think you need more emphasis on quads and hamstrings instead of glutes. In this case, start with a front squat. If mobility is your main priority, then pistol squats will be your first stop. Keeping this in mind, here is a layout for someone who is at an intermediate level with a main goal of strength and overall leg development.
No more excuses for missing a leg day. You’ll never build impressive legs if you only work them on machines. Identify which squats put your goals in your grasp quickly instead of just admiring them on other people.
Jonathan Warren is a national level physique competitor and personal trainer with multiple certifications including NASM, NCCPT, and IKFF. His specializations include mobility training and corrective exercise as well as contest preparation.
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