In this article, I’m going to look at leg day. I will try to break down a basic leg routine and why this basic leg routine is good for beginners as much as it is for the advanced trainer…
Friends don’t let friends skip leg day. I sat and thought about this title for a while. The reason is a lot of guys don’t train their legs as hard as they should. I can go to the gym and see perfectly healthy guys doing leg presses all the time. Yet there’s almost no one backing up the line at the squat rack. Now I’m not putting down the leg press. It certainly does have its place in the leg regiment. However, there’s more to working legs. Here’s why – 9 times out of 10 these people don’t train it correctly and turn it into an ego exercise. They put way too many plates on the press and barely move the weight. They are making themselves look like retards to the other people in the gym who train legs correctly. That aside, you can’t skip leg day, for several reasons.
In this article, I’m going to try to break down a basic leg routine and explain why it’s good for beginners as well as advanced trainers. I will also explain why squats, leg presses, and hack squats are so important to building overall strength in the legs. I won’t neglect exercises like leg extensions, leg curls, or even lunges, but these in my opinion are secondary to the other four exercises.
“Let’s start /at the beginning and what I see is missed before any leg day.”
Warming up properly. I see people come in, sit on the leg extension machine and do a couple of sets, or walk the treadmill for maybe 5 minutes. Then they say their knees are warmed up. To me, this is not nearly a good enough warm-up for legs. Sure it is fine to get the blood moving a little. However, for a really good leg training day I recommend getting on a stationary bike or elliptical for 10 minutes, then get on the floor and stretch. Making sure you stretch the hamstrings, quads, and especially the hips.
So many people neglect stretching their hips. If you think about it, this is your core, this is where your power is coming from. If your hips are tight, it pulls on your hamstrings and lower back. Especially with someone like me that has lower back problems, I continually try to stretch my hips out.
Get A Good Stretch
Sit on the floor, legs spread out in front of you like you are going to stretch the hamstrings and tuck one leg inward back into your groin and lean over. You should feel a stretch on the outer upper thigh and in your hips. Hold this for 3 seconds then release. Repeat this motion about 5 times, you will feel it loosen up. This is especially good for those that sit at a desk all day. Sitting all day makes your hips tight because they are in a fixed position all the time. It is imperative to stretch throughout the day and stretch when you start your leg training session.
Leg Day – Start With Squats
Start with compound movements. If you’re going to start with squats here is what to do. Pick a light weight for 10 reps and do this for about 4 or 5 sets. Some would say you are wasting energy but you’re really not. You are prepping the muscle for the 3 to 4 heavy sets later on. The more warmed up those legs are the better, 4 or 5 warm-up sets are perfect to start with. You will know when you are starting to sweat. This will let you know your body temperature is up and is ready to work.
Squat Work Sets
I like starting off with squats. There is nothing better than squats if you can do them. Some people have extreme lower back problems or extreme knee problems. I for one have back problems, and for a while there I had to stop doing squats until my back felt better, but if you can do squats do them. There is nothing better for building leg strength with this power builder. Now let’s talk about foot position because this gets much debate. I use variations but I mostly stick with a shoulder-width stance with toes pointed out.
Like I tell so many of my trainees, the reason the toes are pointed out and legs wide is because this is a great power stance. Look at the ancient Egyptian pyramids. Look at how long they have been standing. Why? Because they have a wide, strong base. Use good form in the basic squat, try looking for some good form Youtube videos.
Now there will be some debate and arguments about going below parallel or just going parallel, which is relative to your height and where your hips become even with the floor. As long as your hips come even with the floor you’re doing fine. These ass to the ground squats, in my opinion, is another ego bro-science statement that has created confusion in the lifting world. In my opinion, going all the way down below parallel takes tension off the quads at the bottom of the movement and puts a lot of stress on the knees when you have to come back up.
If you just stay parallel your quad muscles, hamstrings and calves all stay under tension and work harder. Again with any lift stay under control with the weight. So when doing work sets, do about 3 to 4 work sets to stimulate the muscle after you are properly warmed up. For added measure, at the end of the work sets, decrease the weight and do one more set of 20 reps. This is for endurance and for really getting a good pump in those legs. Now you are ready to do leg presses.
Leg Presses – What Can & Can’t Be Done
One of the best leg builders, but also one of the worst as well. The leg press has to be done right, no excuses. It is okay to use different foot positions but for basic movements use a shoulder-width stance: toes pointed slightly outward. Come down with the weight until your hips are level with the foot platform. Not this two-inch push that a lot of people do. Again this is my pet peeve. Loading the rack up with almost every damn weight in the gym and doing two-inch pump sets. This works nothing. It’s absolutely a waste of time and everyone else’s time because they look so stupid when they do this and insult the rest of us who are trying to do it right.
Leg Day – End The Set With This Tip
Your legs can take a beating at leg presses so punish them accordingly. I like to do high reps on leg presses, such as 15-20 reps per set. This does two things. It keeps the weight down because honestly, this is not a power exercise. It’s more of a direct “work the muscle” exercise. High reps also force a lot of blood into the muscle and help build incredible endurance in the quads. I also like to add in a very wide stance or a sumo stance, for an ending set, to really hit the hamstrings. This little added set at the end of your leg press session can make your hamstrings work.
You can feel it afterward on this one, but when you go down, try to go down all the way where you feel the stretch keeping your wide stance. In some cases your heels are going to be the only things on the leg press platform, this is okay, just don’t use extremely heavy weight. By now, your legs are feeling pumped and getting tired.
Leg Day – Hack Squats – The Secret Weapon
I don’t see people doing hack squats enough. This is one exercise that does not get credit where credit is due. Hack squats offer so much development to the front quads, but again are one of those exercises that are not done right, and not utilized to their full potential. Here again, is an exercise that people believe you have to go down all the way past parallel to benefit from it. On the other hand, traditional wisdom tells us that as long as you hit parallel and keep constant tension on the quads, this is more effective.
Start your hack squats lighter and get at least 12-15 reps out of the first couple of sets. This will put you in the rhythm of keeping tension on the legs as you go heavier your will notice your legs burning more and more. This is getting into the deep tissue and the blood flow to your legs will give them a good pump. Three to four sets here are all that is needed to pound your legs to mercy, but you are not done just yet.
For the basic leg workout, I like trainees to superset leg extensions and leg curls. This will offer a mind torching pump in the legs. You can literally feel the legs heating up with all the blood flow. On the leg extensions, you don’t have to go heavy. More people cause knee problems by thinking they can do the entire stack on leg extensions. This puts a tremendous amount of pressure right on the knee cap. Like most machines, you want to go slow and squeeze the muscle, barely relax the legs at the start position. When you come to the top, legs straight out in front of you. Squeeze the quads and repeat until you can’t do it anymore.
Leg Day – The Leg Curl
Move over to the leg curl. If it is the lying curl, use light enough weight to get 20 reps. You want to have reps here but not a tremendous amount of weight. Too much weight will make you catch a cramp because at the top of the movement you squeeze the hamstrings. Same as on a seated leg curl machine, you want to squeeze the hamstrings when you curl it down. This squeeze is the most important part of the exercise as it makes the muscle contract and forces blood into the working muscle.
What About Calves?
If you have any gas in the tank afterward you might be able to do calves. For some, calves are a weak point and can be trained twice or three times a week. I’m not going to go into detail about calf training in this article because I think that should have an article all to itself. For the basic calf exercises, keep the sets to around 4 and reps in the 15 to 20 range. For beginners, I think the standing calf raises are the best. Just make sure you are going all the way down to stretch the Achilles tendon, and all the way up to contract the gastrocnemius muscles, which are the two big muscle bellies in the calves.
I can’t say enough now on how important it is to stretch again after you work out. In the long run, stretching well can decrease muscle soreness and help build stronger muscles. Good leg days require intense focus, and help the endurance level in other workouts. You will find no other day that will tax you cardio wise like a leg day. Leg days burn more calories overall than any other day as well. This is one of the reasons I love doing legs in the first part of the week. Mainly because you should be fresh from resting on the weekends and it starts the week with a good workout, and you get to just go ahead and get it over with.
So it really is true…. Friends don’t let friends skip leg day.