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Top 5 Leg Exercises: Pursuing Leg Strength

Training legs can be a daunting workout, but because legs are the biggest muscle group in the body, a lower body workout can very effective in developing muscle, increasing performance, or weight loss. With as many machines that exist for working out, I find that some of the best lower body exercises just require your body and a barbell or dumbbells! A good warm-up is always necessary to keep your lower back and knees healthy. This can entail glute activation exercises, core work, and/or stretching. Once you’re warmed up, I always recommend working through the big compound movements first and then progressing onto the accessory work once your legs are already fatigued.  This approach will maximize your efforts for the big, dense muscle groups and reduce the stress on your joints during isolation exercises.

Sets and Reps

After warming up, there are a few different sets and rep schemes that you can incorporate to get stronger and gain muscle. A good foundation will always be 3 to 4 sets of 12. But as you get comfortable with that, you’ll need to progress to heavier weights. Start with one set of 15 at a manageable weight, then add weight and decrease your reps every set. Your last set may be so heavy that you can only manage 3-5 reps, and that’s good! The idea is to address muscle fiber endurance (with the first two sets at 12-15 reps) and then address pure strength of the muscle fibers in the second two sets (reps ranging between 3-8). Addressing muscle endurance and muscle fiber strength in your leg workouts will be tough, but the results are worth it. Whether you’re trying to achieve your next level of performance or a certain look, introducing these strategies into your workouts will help.

Squats

With squats, you should try to get as strong as you can! Whenever you squat, you want to shift your weight into your heels and keep your chest from falling forward. The stronger you get with squats, the stronger your back and core will get as well.  There are many different ways to squat: back squats, sumo squats, front squats, single leg, sissy, or hack squats, to name a few. Your goals might determine which squats are best for you, or your injuries/limitations may determine which one is best for you. I like doing CrossFit; so for me,  back squats, front squats, and single leg squats are best for me to focus on in my workouts. So whichever type you choose, it’s good to rotate through them with your workouts to avoid over training one movement. 

Deadlifts

280 lb for 2 touch and go reps!

Again, get as strong as you can with this! Keep your back straight, chest up, and drive your heels into the ground to pull. I could write whole articles about squats and deadlifts and cues for doing them correctly, but those are the basics of deadlifting. The deadlift is considered the most taxing exercise on your nervous and muscular system because of all the muscle groups involved. That’s what makes it so important to incorporate and get strong with it! Because you should approach the deadlift with getting strong and doing heavy sets, I wouldn’t recommend doing heavy deadlifts on the same day as heavy squats at first.

Lunges

I have a bittersweet relationship with lunges. They suck. Big time. But they work! They’ll get your heart rate up and they burn a lot of calories.  Aim for 90 degree angles for your front and back leg while keeping your weight on your back leg. Keeping your weight in your back leg reduces the stress on the knee of your forward leg. Lunges are best in high volume training, so endurance is the goal. You can do lunges weighted, but I would recommend a weight that allows you to get at least 20 lunges at a time. Some people’s knees don’t tolerate lunges very well, so they may need to be modified in order to do them pain free. I’ve trained people with knee replacements and hip replacements and every injury in between. If you’re cleared to workout, there are modifications to everything, and I promise you that your body is capable of more than you probably think. 

Romanian Deadlifts

This is considered an accessory exercise. That means you should do this after your big compound movements like squats and lunges.This exercise is great for isolating the hamstrings while still incorporating the glutes and core. I like to recommend that people do this exercise one leg at a time to reduce how much weight they need to get in good work. It’s important to keep good posture and to listen to your body as to whether this is a good exercise for you.

Leg Extensions

This is also considered an accessory exercise and should be done at the end of your workout. Leg extensions require a machine that can be found in almost every traditional gym setting. It’s not necessary for sports performance per se, but it’s very helpful in developing a well rounded muscle structure for legs.

Training legs doesn’t have to complicated to be effective. It won’t be easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is. If you’re interested in a more in depth training for legs, core, or upper body, check out my online training packages! My online training clients get access to in depth instructional videos and detailed workout routines.


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Pursue Strength First and Cardio Later

We’ve all heard it….you have to do cardio to lose weight. You have to run to get in shape. Hit that elliptical and burn calories to shed inches. Right? What if I told you that that’s only partly true? 

Yes, cardio burns more calories for the duration of the activity than weight training, but when you’re done with cardio, the calorie burn stops. Weight training burns fewer calories for the duration, but the burn continues in the form of tissue replenishment, repair, muscle building, and muscle maintenance. 

Think about it in terms of a short term versus a long term investment. Yes, cardio will help you lose more weight in the immediate future. But, weight training consistently and building muscle tone is an investment in your weight loss for your long-term future. Lifting is an investment in your metabolism for the years to come. 

Muscle mass takes up less space than fat tissue (significantly less) and it takes more calories for your body to maintain it than fat tissue. So, the more muscle mass you have, the more calories your body will use up just doing daily life. Don’t get me wrong–cardio is still hugely important and absolutely necessary for cardiac health as well as body fat loss. But weight training should be equally important in the process of becoming healthier and leaner. 

There is also a correlation to lifting heavy weights in building muscle and leaning out than keeping the weight light for high volume of reps. The heavier weight you use, the more muscle fibers, your body will recruit to do the work. Our bodies are built for survival and will use the path of least resistance to accomplish a task. That means, if it can get the job done while only using half of the muscle fibers in your muscle group, it will! Unless, that is, you give it a big enough challenge that requires more fibers helping out. That’s why those 3lb dumbbells need to go and you need to challenge the strength of your muscles, not just the endurance.

Typically, I like to recommend people 3-4 sets of 12-15 repetitions. This is actually considered low weight and high rep. What that means is, the weight should be light enough to be able to complete all 12 or 15 repetitions, but heavy enough to where more than 15 is impossible. So if you’re smoking those sets quickly without needing to rest, or if you’re able to do 17 or 20 reps, it’s too light to do you any good. Go grab those heavier weights!! I guarantee that it will be uncomfortable at first. And sometimes it can be intimidating to venture to heavier weights in the gym. But I also guarantee that magic happens when you’re outside your comfort zone!

Now, a lot of women are concerned with “bulking up” from lifting weights. And in the future I’ll probably address this issue in it’s own post. But, in short, because of our hormone profile, it’s actually extremely difficult for women to get that bulky look naturally. And by naturally, I mean without the help of legal and/or illegal supplements. Men are able to achieve a bulky muscular physique because of their testosterone. Now, women have trace amounts of testosterone naturally, but only a tiny fraction to what men produce daily. That’s why men are typically able to lose weight more easily than women. Testosterone boosts their metabolism, causing them to burn generally 1,000 more calories per day just existing. Because we only produce trace amounts of testosterone, lifting heavy will help our bodies utilize what is there more effectively and improve our bodies response to weight training as well as recovery. Besides, can you ever be too strong?

Increasing your strength will never reduce your femininity. You are a woman, you are feminine. Society likes to tell us what femininity is because they like to make money off of selling us their ideas. The ways in which corporations try to profit from selling women the belief that their bodies need to look a certain way is extensive. That being said, increasing your strength won’t necessarily increase your size if that’s a concern. There are female power-lifters that can dead lift over 500 pounds, and by looking at them, they just look like athletic women. Wearing normal clothes, you would never guess that they were 5 foot tall Amazon warriors that hold world records for weightlifting.

So lift that weight. Get as strong as you can. Get curious to see what your body is capable of! It will help you out with your everyday life, your health, and your journey to weight loss. If you’re wondering how to start an effective weight training program check out my post where I talk about the basics of a lower body program. If you have more questions, reach out!! There’s so much to do and so many solutions to roadblocks that you should never be bored with your training!


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