Category Archives: Legs

Dumbbells For Massive Legs

Dumbbells For Massive Legs
Exercise, including resistance training, acts as a stress on the body. We’re accustomed to thinking of stress as a negative, but when it comes to training, stress applied in the correct doses is a good thing – because stress is the trigger that causes physiological adaptation to occur.
For example, apply the correct amount of aerobic stress to the body and it will adapt by becoming more aerobically fit. Similarly, apply the correct level of stress using resistance training, and the body reacts by increasing muscle size and strength. Thus, when it comes to training, stress applied in the correct doses produces positive results.
However, one of the challenges for lifters is that the body adapts quickly. The trick, then, is to manipulate the stress of exercise often enough to keep the adaptation rate at an optimal level while avoiding becoming over trained.
While there are a number of variables (e.g., rest times, sets and reps, training speed, training intensity) you can manipulate to keep the stress of resistance training elevated, one of the most significant variables to manipulate is exercise selection.
By providing exercise variation each workout, and then adjusting the specific exercises performed every 4-6 weeks, the body will continually be faced with an elevated level of training stress.
For the lower body there are the typical barbell lower body exercises (squats, deadlifts, and straight leg deadlifts) that can be performed along with various exercise machines (leg press, hack squat, leg extensions, etc.).
However, one variation that isn’t often considered is performing lower body training with dumbbells. I’ve been using dumbbell lower body exercises to supplement the barbell lower body exercises we perform with my collegiate athletes with great success for a number of years now.
Some of you might be thinking that it will be impossible to overload the musculature of the lower body using dumbbells, but I guarantee that if you perform these exercises with strict technique and high intensity, you’ll be fully aware of your training the next day.

Training with dumbbells also provides some specific advantages:

Variety. 
Safety. 
Novelty. 
Even when performing an exercise that requires the barbell to be held in the hands, such as a straight leg deadlift (SLDL), the load placement still differs because the barbell is held in front of the legs, in contrast to performing SLDL’s with dumbbells where the dumbbells are held to the sides of the legs.
When the load placement differs the muscle recruitment pattern, by necessity, also changes. This variation in muscle recruitment helps keep both the stress of exercise and thus the rate of adaption elevated.
The following are some of my favorite dumbbell variations of the classic lower body barbell exercises. In terms of programming, use the same training protocol on dumbbell days as barbell days.
For example, if in a hypertrophy training cycle, do these dumbbell lower body exercises for 4 sets of 8-12 repetitions with 60 seconds of rest between sets. If in a strength cycle, perform 5 sets of 3-6 repetitions with 2 minutes rest between sets.
To assist you, exercise technique instructions are provided as well as common mistakes to avoid. Video demonstrations are also included, so that you can see the exercises performed correctly.

Dumbbell Squats

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Hold the dumbbells along the sides of the body.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Arch the back, keep the head up.
  • Maintaining an arched-back position, initiate the movement by sitting back at the hips.
  • Continue to sit back until a parallel thigh position has been achieved. The center of the hip joint should be at the same height as the center of the knee joint.
  • The heels should be down. The knees can drift slightly forward of the toes, be kept in line directly above the toes, or be lined up slightly behind the toes, depending upon what’s most comfortable to the athlete.
  • Leading with the head (as opposed to lifting the hips first) return to the starting position. The back should remain arched and the head should be up.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not achieving a parallel thigh position at the bottom of the movement.
  • Initiating the movement with the knee joint moving forward rather than initiating the movement with the hip sitting back. Often this can result in the heel lifting off the ground because of incorrect position.
  • Lowering the weight too quickly rather than controlling the movement during the descent.

Dumbbell One-Legged Squats

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Hold the dumbbells along the sides of the body.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Arch the back, keep the head up.
  • Reach back with the left leg and place the left foot on a bench or plyometric box that’s approximately knee height.
  • The right foot should be placed far enough forward of the bench that you are now in a lunge position.
  • Maintaining an arched-back position, initiate the movement by sitting back at the hips.
  • Continue to sit back until a parallel thigh position has been achieved. The center of the hip joint should be at the same height as the center of the knee joint.
  • The heels should be down. The knees can drift slightly forward of the toes, be kept in line directly above the toes, or be lined up slightly behind the toes, depending upon what is most comfortable to the athlete.
  • Leading with the head (as opposed to lifting the hips first) return to the starting position. The back should remain arched and the head should be up.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not achieving a parallel thigh position at the bottom of the movement. This is especially common when performing a one-leg squat so emphasize correct depth.
  • Initiating the movement with the knee joint moving forward rather than initiating the movement with the hip sitting back. Often this results in the heel lifting off the ground because of incorrect position.
  • Lowering the weight too quickly rather than controlling the movement during the descent.

Dumbbell Front Squats

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Place the dumbbells front to back on the shoulders, with the back end of the dumbbells resting on the shoulders. The hands should continue to grasp the dumbbells, with the elbows held high so that the dumbbells are level rather than the front end being lower than the back end.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Arch the back, keep the head up.
  • Maintaining an arched back position, initiate the movement by sitting back at the hips.
  • Continue to sit back until a parallel thigh position has been achieved. The center of the hip joint should be at the same height as the center of the knee joint.
  • The heels should be down. The knees can drift slightly forward of the toes, be kept in line directly above the toes, or be lined up slightly behind the toes, depending upon what is most comfortable to the athlete.
  • Leading with the head (as opposed to lifting the hips first), return to the starting position. The back should remain arched and the head should be up.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise. Focusing on keeping the elbows high will help eliminate this problem.
  • Not achieving a parallel thigh position at the bottom of the movement.
  • Initiating the movement with the knee joint moving forward rather than initiating the movement with the hip sitting back. Often this results in the heel lifting off the ground because of incorrect position.
  • Lowering the weight too quickly rather than controlling the movement during the descent.

Dumbbell One-Legged Front Squats

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Place the dumbbells front to back on the shoulders, with the back end of the dumbbells resting on the shoulders. The hands should continue to grasp the dumbbells, with the elbows held high so that the dumbbells are level rather than the front end being lower than the back end.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Arch the back, keep the head up.
  • Reach back with the left leg and place the left foot on a bench or plyometric box that’s approximately knee height.
  • The right foot should be placed far enough forward of the bench that you’re now in a lunge position.
  • Maintaining an arched-back position, initiate the movement by sitting back at the hips.
  • Continue to sit back until a parallel thigh position has been achieved. The center of the hip joint should be at the same height as the center of the knee joint.
  • The heels should be down. The knees can drift slightly forward of the toes, be kept in line directly above the toes, or be lined up slightly behind the toes, depending upon what is most comfortable to the athlete.
  • Leading with the head (as opposed to lifting the hips first) return to the starting position. The back should remain arched and the head should be up.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not achieving a parallel thigh position at the bottom of the movement. This is especially common when performing a one-leg squat so emphasize correct depth.
  • Initiating the movement with the knee joint moving forward rather than initiating the movement with the hip sitting back. Often times this can result in the heel lifting off the ground because of incorrect position.
  • Lowering the weight too quickly rather than controlling the movement during the descent.

Dumbbell Lateral Squats

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a stance that’s substantially wider than shoulder-width.
  • Hold the dumbbells at arm’s length in a line directly under the shoulders.
  • Keeping the left leg straight squat back and to the right.
  • Lower the hips through a full comfortable range of motion.
  • The right knee can drift slightly forward of the right foot, be kept in line directly above the right foot, or be lined up slightly behind the right foot, depending upon what’s most comfortable to the athlete.
  • The back should remain arched and the head should stay up through performance of the exercise.
  • Return to the starting position and then repeat in the opposite direction until the desired number of repetitions has been completed.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not lowering the hips through the full comfortable range of motion.
  • Allowing the knee of the leg that’s supposed to remain straight to bend.Ê For example, when lowering to the right the right knee should bend but the left knee should remain fully extended.

Dumbbell Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Keeping the left leg stationary, step out directly forward through an exaggerated range of motion with the right leg.
  • At the forward position the right knee should be over or slightly forward of the right foot, the left leg should be bent with the left knee just off the floor, and the back should be arched with the head up.
  • Return to the starting position with the right leg and repeat the movement with the left leg.
  • Make sure to return to the starting position in one aggressive step; don’t take more than one step to return to the starting position.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not taking a full stride length step as you move to the forward position.
  • Allowing the knee of the rear leg to touch the ground.
  • Taking more than one step to return to the starting position.

Dumbbell Side Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Keeping the left leg fully extended take a long direct lateral step to the right.
  • Once you plant your right foot, shift the hips back so you achieve a full comfortable depth and range of motion.
  • Keep the back arched and the head up during performance of the exercise.
  • Return to a shoulder-width stance with one aggressive step.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Allowing the knee of the “post” leg to bend rather than keeping it fully extended.
  • Taking an incomplete recovery step so that a shoulder-width stance isn’t achieved before initiating the next lateral step.

Dumbbell Arch Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Imagine an arch in front of you, each point of the arch is a stride’s length away from you.
  • Divide the arch up into sections based on the number of repetitions you have to perform.
  • The first repetition will be to the bottom right corner of the arch, the last repetition will be to the bottom left corner of the arch.
  • Each step is a gradual progression across the arch, starting at the right corner and ending at the left corner.
  • Keeping the left leg fully extended take a long, direct lateral step to the bottom right corner of the arch.
  • Once you plant your right foot, shift the hips back so you achieve a full comfortable depth and range of motion.
  • Keep the back arched and the head up during performance of the exercise.
  • Return to a shoulder-width stance with one aggressive step.
  • The next step will be a gradual progression towards the opposite side of the arch.
  • Continue until all the repetitions have been completed and you’ve progressed from one corner of the arch to the opposite corner.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not returning to a shoulder-width stance before initiating the next step.
  • Not progressing in sequence from one corner of the arch to the opposite corner with each step.
  • No steps should be directly forward to the center of the arch. Every step should involve an angled step.
  • Every lunge across the arch should involve a full range of motion.

Dumbbell Hockey Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Keeping the left leg stationary, step out at an angle that places the foot 18″-24″ wider than shoulder width (depending upon leg length) through an exaggerated range of motion with the right leg.
  • At the forward position the right knee should be over or slightly forward of the right foot, the left leg should be bent with the left knee just off the floor, and the back should be arched with the head up.
  • Return to the starting position with the right leg and repeat the movement with the left leg, taking that same 18″-24″ wider than shoulder-width step with the left leg.
  • Make sure to return to the starting position in one aggressive step; don’t take more than one step to return to the starting position.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not taking a full stride length step as you move to the forward position.
  • Making the lateral step too narrow rather than achieving the desired width.
  • Allowing the knee of the rear leg to touch the ground.
  • Taking more than one step to return to the starting position.

Dumbbell Reverse Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Keeping the left leg stationary, step out directly backwards through an exaggerated range of motion with the right leg.
  • At the back position the left knee should be over or slightly forward of the left foot, the right leg should be bent with the right knee just off the floor, and the back should be arched with the head up.
  • Return to the starting position with the right leg and repeat the movement with the left leg.
  • Make sure to return to the starting position in one aggressive step; don’t take more than one step to return to the starting position.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not taking a full stride length step as you move to the backward position.
  • Allowing the knee of the rear leg to touch the ground.
  • Taking more than one step to return to the starting position.

Dumbbell Pivot Lunges

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder-width stance.
  • Pivot on the right foot, twist the body to the right, and lunge in a direction toward the back and to the right of the starting position.
  • At the end position the left knee should be over or slightly forward of the left foot, the right leg should be bent with the right knee just off the floor, and the back should be arched with the head up.
  • Return to a shoulder-width stance with one aggressive step.
  • Repeat in the opposite direction.
  • Foot placement can vary during performance of the exercise – there isn’t one correct foot placement so the angle during the pivot can be varied each repetition.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Not taking a full stride length step as you move to the pivot position.
  • Allowing the knee of the rear leg to touch the ground.
  • Taking more than one step to return to the starting position.

Dumbbell Straight Leg Deadlifts

Instructions

  • Grasp a dumbbell in each hand with the arms fully extended.
  • Assume a shoulder width stance.
  • Lock and then slightly unlock the knees; maintain this slightly unlocked position during performance of the exercise.
  • Arch the back, lift the head, and maintain this position during performance of the exercise.
  • Keeping the knees slightly unlocked and the back arched, pivot at the hips and slide the dumbbells down the lateral portion of the legs through a full comfortable range of motion.
  • Return to the starting position maintaining the position at the knees and back.

Common Errors

  • Allowing the back to round rather than maintaining an arched-back position during performance of the exercise.
  • Allowing the knees to flex beyond the slightly unlocked position during performance of the exercise.
  • Allowing the dumbbells to drift forward during the lowering portion of the exercise rather than keeping them on the lateral portion of the legs.
  • Performing the movement through an incomplete range of motion.

Wrap Up

Dumbbells For Massive Legs
Squats are still the “king of exercises” and you can’t beat deadlifts for building brute strength, but even the most stripped down lifter needs a little variety from time to time.
For some lower body variations that are both challenging and build serious size and strength, take a look beyond the barbell. Take some (or all) of these dumbbell variations out for a test drive and stay ahead of your body’s adaptation curve

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The Cure for Ostrich Legs

The Cure for Ostrich Legs

You know, for some guys, comparing their legs to an ostrich is way too kind.

I mean, ostriches have pretty strong legs, right? And there’s some appreciable muscle near the hip insertion point.

That’s why I think we should refer to these legless humans as “Flamingo legs.”

Who’s with me?

Alright, alright, I’ll stick with the ostrich analogy for the time being.

The following routine is a pure hypertrophy-based program that will increase leg size and strength potential and allow you to finally quit wearing sweatpants to the beach.

In order to maximize leg development, you must stimulate and fatigue as many motor units as possible. Sounds simple on paper, yet the prevalence of impressive leg development is pretty scarce at the local fitness center. I suspect the sheer willpower and effort required to create an adaptive response along with a well-designed plan are the missing ingredients.

Requirements for Building Bigger Legs

Increased leg development is a result of maximal activation and fatigue of a wide corridor of muscle tissue. An effective protocol to increase leg size is to target the quad dominant and hip dominant musculature on separate days, while performing 8-12 work sets of 4-12 repetitions within a 45-minute training window. Appropriate loads would be between 60%-85% of your 1 RM.

This leg routine is especially beneficial for the drug-free non-competitive athlete because of the increased work capacity and muscle hypertrophy that’s produced. You see, inadequate work capacity is commonly the limiting factor for the average trainee who wants more muscular development.

Simply put, if you are unable to train with enough volume, intensity, and time-under-tension, you won’t activate and fatigue the maximum number of motor units.

The beauty of this routine is that the work capacity component is built into the repetition sequences by utilizing a tried and true bodybuilding rep sequence: pyramid training.

The old school pyramid may seem like a step back to some of you, but for pure hypertrophy and work capacity, it’s extremely effective. And as an added bonus, the work capacity improvements achieved will increase potential for gains on the more intensity-based training cycles to follow.

Trainee Prerequisites

Recommendations to Maximize Recovery

Granted, you’re probably not going to do half that crap, but it was worth a try.

Program Details

The Bodybuilder’s Pyramid

The two primary exercises of each day utilize two variations of the pyramid-loading pattern advocated by Vladimir Zatsiorsky. The advantage of the pyramid is that it guarantees the activation of most, if not all, of the motor units being trained.

As is standard for pyramid patterns, the load progressively increases as the number of repetitions decreases.

The first exercise of each day makes use of the pyramid rep pattern using the sub-maximal effort method. In other words, you’ll complete every rep of every set with 1 or 2 reps left in the tank. This method will increase conditioning as well as stimulate and fatigue a wide range of motor units.

All the remaining exercises are taken to failure using the repeated-effort method. This means that you’ll take each set to concentric or technical failure, i.e., the point at which the trainee can no longer maintain ideal exercise technique.

Hip Flexors (rectus femoris, psoas, iliacus) are important stabilizing muscles that are typically underdeveloped in non-sprint athletes and trainees.

The typical gym rat (you), rarely if ever trains the hip flexors (rectus femoris, psoas, and iliacus). This is a shame as strong hip flexors help maintain hip stability during squat, lunging, and bending exercises, and also has a huge impact on squat ability.

I’ve personally trained sprinters who had sub-par core strength but could safely squat double bodyweight, and I believe this was due to their good hip range of motion and extreme hip flexor and leg strength.

Likewise, the Erector Spinae muscles are also a common weak point. These muscles can be considered omni-muscles due to their contribution to all movements and exercises, and weak low back muscles will hinder your ability at every level of physical activity.

According to spine expert Dr. Stuart McGill, low back isometric endurance is a direct indicator of low back health. If you have a job that requires you to sit for extended periods of time, you need to train the low back for endurance!

Hamstrings are also a common problem. Hamstring range of motion determines the ease at which you achieve optimal body postures during the squat, lunge, and bending exercises. A tight antagonist can decrease motor unit activation of the agonist. In other words, shortened hamstrings will not only decrease your ability to maintain a neutral spine during a barbell squat, they can decrease your ability to activate the quadriceps.

As I said, this program addresses all those weak points, and don’t tell me you don’t have any of them!

You’ll perform two leg workouts per week: one quad dominant and one hip/hamstring dominant. The ideal training split for this program is as follows:

Monday:
Tuesday:
Wednesday:
Thursday:
Friday:
Sat/Sun:

Perform 4-5 warm-up sets prior to the first work set of the first exercise. Perform no more than 8 reps for each warm-up, but keep in mind that warm-up sets aren’t necessary after the first exercise.

(Sets indicated in the program refer to work sets only. Warm-up sets do not count.)


The Routine

Tuesday: Quad Dominant workout

A) Squats, medium stance, bar low on traps.

Barbell on lower traps, feet shoulder width apart, toes pointed out slightly. Initiate descent by bending the knees, keeping feet flat on the floor. Keep chest up and elbows pointing down.

Squat down until thighs are at least parallel to floor. Focus on maintaining a slight arch in the low back. Explode out of the bottom position. Do not bounce or bottom out. Return to start position. If squat technique is an issue, correct any problems with the help of a qualified coach before commencing this routine.

Sets:
Reps:
Tempo:
Rest:
Note:

B1) Split Squat, DB.

Hold a pair of dumbbells and assume a split stance with front foot flat. Keep shoulders back and chest up; stay on ball of foot of trailing leg. Initiate descent by bending front knee and pushing knee over the toes. Be sure to keep front foot firmly on the ground throughout duration of movement. Explode back to start position.

Sets:
Reps:
Tempo:
Rest:
Note: .

B2) Cable Hip Flexion.

Keep toe flexed towards knee throughout movement. Maintain neutral spine position.

Sets:
Reps:
Tempo:
Rest:

C) Donkey Calf Raise.

Sets:
Reps:
Tempo:
Rest:

Cure for Ostrich Legs Day 1

Order Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest
A Squats, medium stance 5 12,10,8,6,4 2011 3-4 min.
B1 Split Squats, DB 3 12,10,8 2011 90 sec.
B2 Cable Hip Flexion 3 10-12 2010 90 sec.
C Donkey Calf 4-5 15-20 2110 90 sec.

Friday: Hip/Hamstring dominant day

A) Kneeling Leg Curl or Single Leg Curl.

Toe is pulled towards shin, keep thigh in contact with support pad. Perform one leg at a time.

Sets:
Reps:
Tempo:
Rest:
Note:

B) Good Mornings, medium stance.

Wide grip on the bar, bar resting on lower traps; place a pad or towel around bar if necessary. Feet hip-width apart, knees flexed 15°. Maintain an arch in low back. Initiate descent by pushing hips back without bending knees any further than 15° and keeping weight on the heels. Descend to the limit of your hamstring flexibility. Explode up to start position.

(Perform this exercise in a power rack with safety pins set high enough to catch the bar if you fail.)

Sets:
Reps:
Tempo:
Rest:
Note:

C) Back Extensions with isometric hold.

Adjust bench so the edge of pad is in line with the hip-bone (greater trochanter). When adjusted correctly, you’ll be able to bend forward with minimal rounding of the low back. Keep head in alignment with spine and initiate concentric contraction by squeezing glutes. Hold extended position for a 1 count before returning to start position.

Sets:
Reps:
Tempo:
Rest:
* Hold additional weight across chest if you can complete more than 15 reps.

D) Standing Calf Raise.

Sets:
Reps:
Tempo:
Rest:

E) Hamstring Stretch, Active-Assisted.

Lie supine (on your back) with a small rolled-up towel under your low back. Actively initiate hip flexion; once you reach the limit of your active range of motion, use the strap to deepen the stretch by pulling leg a few inches farther. Hold for 2 seconds; repeat until 6 reps are complete.

You’ll feel mild pain in the hamstring on each rep. Your non-working leg should be in contact with the floor and completely straight with toe pointing towards ceiling.

Sets:
Reps:

Cure for Ostrich Legs Day 2

Order Exercise Sets Reps Tempo Rest
A Kneeling Leg Curl or single leg curl 4 12,10,8,6 2011 2 min.
B Good Mornings, medium stance 3 10,8,6 3011 2-3 min.
C Back Extensions with isometric hold at top 2-3 12-15 2011 90 sec.
D Standing Calf 4-5 12-15 2110 60 sec.
E Hamstring Stretch, Active-Assisted 3 6

You’re done! Literally.

Perform each routine once per week for 4 weeks. This program should be used sparingly, and don’t repeat it more than once every 4 months.

At first glance, this routine may seem pretty generic to the seasoned TMUSCLE reader. Please, don’t be fooled by its simplicity. The principles that form the foundation of this workout have stood the test of time and have never failed to produce results…as long as you hold up your end of the agreement and supply the necessary effort.

Don’t let Ostrich Leg Syndrome force you to spend another summer hiding your scrawny chicken legs in baggy sweat pants.

<!–The Cure for Ostrich Legs–> The Cure for Ostrich Legs

Single Leg Curl

The Cure for Ostrich Legs

Hamstring Stretch, Active-Assisted.

The Cure for Ostrich Legs

Cable Hip Flexion.

The Cure for Ostrich Legs

Good Morning.

The Cure for Ostrich Legs

Split Squat Dumbbell

About Erick Minor

The Cure for Ostrich Legs

Erick Minor is a freelance writer and the owner of Dynamic Barbell Club, a sports performance and personal training studio located in Fort Worth, Texas. For more information go to www.erickminor.com

© 1998 — 2009 Testosterone, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Wikio

Build Bigger Legs, One at a Time

I’ve advocated single-leg training over the years for a variety of reasons, which I summed up in this article for TMUSCLE back in 2007. In my view, single-leg training results in less back stress due to the reduced loads. And, although the phrase “functional training” is overused, single-leg training meets my definition.

It’s the application of functional anatomy to training. You do almost everything in sports in a split stance, or by pushing off one leg from a parallel stance, so it just makes sense to train your body that way.

Since I’ve already made that argument about single-leg training, there’s no need to rehash it here. Instead, I want to present an entirely new question: What if you could get more stress to your legs, build more useable strength, and potentially add more size by working around your back, which is often the weak link in bilateral exercises like squats?

This is what bodybuilders have been doing for decades. By bracing your back in the leg press, you can hit your leg extensors — your quadriceps — with far more load. That’s because the load doesn’t have to move through your back to get to your legs.

Now, before you think I’ve done a 180 and come to love the leg press, let me assure you that my opinion hasn’t changed. Yes, the machine allows bodybuilders to pile on the plates, but we now know that the back pays a price. It’s just a different price than the one lifters pay for using heavy loads in the squat. Instead of compressing the spine, the leg press causes a rounding of the back, which over time might create more damage.

Safety isn’t the only reason to avoid the leg press. The exercise has evolved into a kind of a circus act, done with the help of knee wraps, hands on thighs, and abysmal ranges of motion. Did you ever see that video of Pat Robertson, the 74-year-old televangelist, leg-pressing 2,000 pounds? If you took the exercise seriously before, that video surely curbed your enthusiasm.

All that said, when the goal is to build bigger, stronger legs, I still think it’s a good idea to target those muscles without having to place heavy loads on the spine. We just need to find a better way to do it.

Why the RFESS Is Your BFF

The rear-foot-elevated split squat, which I’ll abbreviate as RFESS, is usually called the Bulgarian split squat (BSS) here on TMUSCLE. In other venues it’s referred to as the Bulgarian lunge, despite the fact it didn’t originate in Bulgaria and isn’t a lunge.

The RFESS has numerous benefits. Beginners, for example, will develop balance and hip flexibility, along with strength, size, and the all-important ability to endure a high level of discomfort while training. But the really dramatic results come when more advanced lifters load up the exercise. You can apply huge weights to your leg muscles with limited spinal compression.

In fact, I think the loading capability of the RFESS is unmatched by any other exercise that primarily targets the leg extensors. And yes, I include the squat. When my trainers and I started using heavy RFESS as the primary lower-body exercise for our athletes, we found they couldn’t work both legs without taking a break in between.

A couple of quick technique points:

The Massachusetts Experiment

Recently I performed a little experiment on the hockey players I train, a very compliant group of athletes. I can’t call this true “research,” as we had no control group, but the results were so startling that I have to think they would stand up under true scientific scrutiny.

For most of our postseason training sessions, we did RFESS instead of traditional front or back squats. My goal initially was to test a hypothesis about back injury and back stress, but the conclusion went way beyond that.

After approximately six weeks of RFESS, we did a simple repetition-max test. Each guy took 50% of his one-rep max on the back squat and did as many RFESS reps as possible with each leg. Since we don’t do back squats in our program, we had to estimate each guy’s max by adding 15% to his 1RM in the front squat. And then, as I said, we used 50% of that number.

The estimated 1RMs for the back squat ranged from 290 to 460 pounds. So our test weights ranged from 145 to 230 pounds. My strongest athlete lifted 230 pounds 14 times with each leg. The weakest one did 14 reps on each leg with 145.

I drew two immediate conclusions:

First, if we had spent six weeks working on our back or front squats with equal focus and intensity, there’s no way in hell any of these guys could’ve lifted 5their estimated 1RMs 14 times.

The strongest guy, for example, had a very respectable 1RM of 405 in the front squat. That’s the number we used to extrapolate a max back squat of 460 pounds. Is there any drug-free training program on earth that could increase his strength to the point that he could lift either weight — his true 1RM in the front squat or estimated max in the back squat — 14 times? And to make it comparable, he’d need to do two sets of 14 reps, since he did 14 RFESS reps with 230 pounds with each leg.

If he got to the point where he could back squat 460 for 14 reps, it would imply a 1RM of 675 pounds. Nothing’s impossible, but this scenario comes pretty close.

That brings us to point number two, which is far more important: The experiment showed that the athletes’ legs could handle far more weight than their backs were capable of transmitting. This suggests that the back is the weak link in squatting. Bypass the back, and your legs can handle much heavier weights.

Backing It Up

To me, the results of my experiment make intuitive sense. What gets injured most often in squatting? The back. So how do you train your legs with heavier loads, with the goal of increasing strength and size? Bypass the back.

You may wonder why this conclusion isn’t completely obvious and uncontroversial.

For starters, old-school gym culture puts the back squat on a pedestal. You can’t convince traditionalists that there’s a more effective way to train the lower body for strength and size, and they won’t experiment to figure it out for themselves.

Second, the RFESS has a specific niche in training programs. It’s an exercise you do for fat loss, or for muscular conditioning, usually while holding dumbbells at arm’s length. I can’t recall any popular book or magazine recommending the exercise with a barbell, using heavy weights for low reps.

Third, I think the exercise is just awkward enough to discourage lifters from pushing themselves to better performance. That’s why it’s used in fat-loss programs — it feels like a punishment for needing a fat-loss program in the first place. Lifters who’ve spent years mastering the back squat, followed by months or years with the front squat after coaches like me talked them into switching, don’t want to spend a few weeks getting comfortable with the RFESS.

Finally, I think it’s difficult for the guy I just mentioned, the guy who’s worked like a slave to build bilateral strength in the squat, to work with half his max in a single-leg exercise. I can relate; I wouldn’t have considered it back in my powerlifting days. But now that my only goal is to help my athletes get bigger and stronger for their sport, it’s a lot easier to be open-minded about better ways to accomplish those goals.

So try looking at it through my eyes: If there’s a way to get better results with half the weight by training one leg at a time, shouldn’t you at least give it a shot? Especially when you consider the back-sparing effects of using lighter loads?

When you can do 225 for 5 reps with each leg, you know you’ve built some serious lower-body strength.

About Michael Boyle

Michael Boyle is the editor of StrengthCoach.com, a website for coaches interested in serious strength and conditioning. In addition to speaking and writing, he owns and operates Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. He’s also an assistant strength and conditioning coach at Boston University, responsible for men’s ice hockey.

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