5 Leg Training Tips to Maximize Gains and Minimize Injury

February 15, 2019

Leg Training Without Injury

Leg day! This tends to be either a bodybuilder’s absolute favorite workout day or their most dreaded.

Leg Training Without Injury: Tom Platz Leg WorkoutOften the mental part of leg day is the toughest so make sure to do whatever it takes to get amped up for what’s to come. Use visualization techniques, set goals for the workout, watch the video of Ronnie Coleman screaming “Lightweight!” while front squatting 720 lbs, and consume a good pre-workout boost, so you walk into the gym pumped up and in the zone.

Here are some tips to maximize your leg training while staying injury free.

Here Are Some Tips to Maximize Your Leg Training While Staying Injury Free:

1- Just Squat! Don’t Rely Solely On Machines

Many people don’t look forward to leg day and will find any reason to skip it, whether it’s an imaginary headache, stubbed toe, or just a sniffle. And when they do arrive they knock out some leg presses, leg curls, extensions, and calves then call it a day. This won’t get the job done if having large and defined legs or even just a functional and mobile body is your goal. You must incorporate some squats and other free weight movements.

Machines can and should be a part of any programming for the legs. Especially after a few compound, free-weight exercises when stabilizers are fatigued and are more likely to experience failure before the targeted muscle group. They can also be safer when performing high-intensity training techniques or reaching failure. However, squats provide many benefits over their machine counterparts:

  • They result in larger increases in growth hormone and testosterone.(1)
  • At the top of a squat, the hips are in a fully extended position of 180°, opposed to leg presses when you are in a state of hip flexion around 90° to 110° for the entire movement. This additional 70°+ of hip extension on squats will more heavily recruit muscles in the glutes, hamstrings, and hips.
  • Squats recruit a much larger amount of total muscle fiber. This includes all the muscle of the legs as a result of having to stabilize during the lift and accessory muscles such as the erector spinae and transverse abdominis.
  • As a result of the large amount of muscle recruitment, squats burn many more calories.
  • Squats improve mobility of the entire body, especially at the hips and ankles.

2- Recruit the Glute

A lot of lifters experience knee or back pain during or after leg day. Many of these injuries are due to failing to properly load the posterior chain (glutes, hips, hamstrings) during exercises like lunges, step ups, Romanian deadlifts, and squats. This results in instability and dangerous shearing forces occurring at the knee. If you are squatting or lunging and notice your knees are turning in or shifting forward, then you are failing to properly transfer the load from hips to your glutes and hamstrings. The glutes are a very large muscle group and also one of the most important for functional movements as well as balance. You will be missing out on a ton of power and mobility if your glutes aren’t doing their job. To make sure your posterior chain is fully engaged there are a few steps you can take:

  • Make sure to attain a depth where your thighs reach parallel or below parallel to the floor. This is where the glute muscles kick in and become a prime mover. Failure to reach this depth means the quads will be doing the vast majority of the work.
  • Leg Training Without Injury: Generate TorqueGenerate torque and turn on your glutes from the beginning. During any leg movement with your feet on a flat surface like the ground, initiate the movement with some external rotation of the hip. This generates a torque force and turns on your “side butt”, aka gluteus medius and minimus. You can create external rotation by screwing your heels into the ground or platform and spreading the floor. This kicks on your glutes and tightens all the slack in your tendons and ligaments leading to joint stability in the knee.
  • During the descent continue the external rotation force while “sitting back” more on the heels. At the bottom of the movement, the shins should be perpendicular to the ground or very slightly forward if you are dropping to a lower depth.

3- Know Your Hip Alignment

When selecting exercises, it’s important to understand what movements are best for your body. Most people have some degree of muscular imbalances making some muscles very tight and overactive while their antagonists are long and weak. When programming, be aware of this, so you don’t keep compounding imbalances and losing mobility on your quest to massive wheels. To select the best exercise for your body, you need to know where you are tight and where you are lengthened. To do this, you should determine if you have an anterior or posterior tilt. Someone with a neutral hip alignment should use a balanced variety of leg movements. (There may also be other issues such as torsion and lateral tilts., But those are beyond the scope of this article)

Leg Training Without Injury: Pelvic TiltPosterior Pelvic tilt

This is characterized by tight glutes, hamstrings, and abdominals. In contrast, the erector spinae, quads, and  hip flexors are loose and weak. Someone with this tilt would need to do a higher volume of work for their quads in relation to their hamstrings. Also, you would want to do more lengthening movements for the hamstrings such an RDL as opposed to shortening movements like the leg curl. Reverse hypers are an excellent exercise to target the weak muscles in the lower back and weighted marches help shorten the hip flexor.

Anterior Pelvic Tilt

This is more common than the posterior pelvic tilt, especially in women. It is characterized by tight lower back, hip flexors, and quads. This means glutes, abdominals, and hamstrings are long and weak. In this case, your leg program would include much more volume for the glutes and hamstrings in relation to quads. Lots of leg curls should be incorporated to shorten the hamstring. A glute hamstring raise is probably the most beneficial movement to someone with an anterior tilt. Avoid excessive leg extensions and other movements where your hips are flexed the whole time, like the leg press.

If a tilt makes it difficult to use proper form, spend the first 15-30 minutes of your workout foam rolling and stretching your tight overactive muscles.

Leg Training Without Injury: Foot Positions4- Use A Variety Of  Foot Positions

Perform exercises like the squat, leg press, hack or power squat from a variety of foot positions to recruit different muscles more heavily. This allows you to target weak areas. A neutral stance is about shoulder width apart and places a relatively equal load on all the muscles in the legs. Going more narrow results in more outer quad activation, while going wider recruits more heavily the adductors and inner quad. When doing an exercise like the smith squat, hack/ power squat or leg press, try placing the feet higher or lower, alternating placement for working muscles more effectively. Going higher recruits more hamstrings while lower keeps it on the quads. You could do 5 sets and change it up targeting different muscles every set. Allowing for more volume with higher intensity since the emphasis changes each time instead of hammering away at one muscle group.

Mix Up the Training

Since legs are such a large muscle group with many different functions, you need to do a variety of different training techniques to keep making progress. Squats, leg presses, extensions and curls are all good exercises but try incorporating these techniques to take leg training to the next level.

  • Consider alternating quad and hamstring exercises. This is called agonist-antagonist training, which provides many benefits. An example of this would be alternating leg extensions with leg curls. When doing the extensions, the quads are the prime mover while the hamstrings are assisting and stabilizing the movement. After resting 1-2 minutes, perform a leg curl where all the roles are reversed with the hamstring being the prime mover while the quads are now stabilizing. Some of the benefits of this type of training include increased power on the second exercise(2), minimizing muscular imbalances by working the muscles on both sides of the joint equally, and a faster recovery time due to increased blood flow.
  • Include some plyometrics such as box jumps. Power is greatly increased when plyometrics are incorporated, translating to more weight being lifted. Plyos also are a great way to implement some HIIT and burn tons of calories while building strength and shaping the legs.
  • Advanced lifters should consider separating the days you do work on the hamstrings and quads. You may not be providing the individual muscles of your legs enough volume to stimulate growth. Try a day where you do a few compound leg movements but then focus on quad isolation after. On another day of the week finish with isolated hamstring work after you have done your compound exercises.
  • unilateral movementsTry some unilateral movements. One-legged movements force stabilizers to become more engaged. When performing bilateral exercises involving both legs, it’s easier to overcome muscular imbalances through synergistic dominance, defined by NASM as “the neuromuscular phenomenon that occurs when inappropriate muscles take over the function of a weak or inhibited prime mover.” Many people do lunges in their workout program but also try things like single leg presses, split squats, single leg RDLs, step ups or pistol squats.

In Conclusion

Leg training can be challenging both physically and mentally, but there is nothing quite as rewarding as the feeling of that exhausted euphoria after an intense leg session. Training such a large muscle group with high intensity fatigues the muscles, and it also fatigues the entire CNS. Make sure to allow proper time to recover for maximize growth. This means getting enough sleep and letting the muscles rest. Don’t go out or a long hike or bike ride the day after you hit legs. Eat plenty of real whole food providing the necessary nutrients to aid in growth and recovery. Maybe take a day off from the gym after leg day. Sheer Recovery is a great supplement using creatine, BCAA, L-Carnitine, and other research-backed ingredients shown to help reduce soreness and accelerate recovery. Adequate recovery ensures the full benefit from these five tips maximize leg training while taking it to the next level.

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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