There’s a fine line between overtraining your legs and not training them hard enough. And not surprisingly, most of us fall into one of the two camps. First you have the guy who spends 45 minutes doing squats at the power rack before moving on to the rest of his hard-hitting, 90-minute quad workout. Then you have someone who thinks a sufficient lower-body routine consists of a machine-only session in which he hardly breaks a sweat.
“Most guys don’t realize that their leg training should probably be more middle of the road,” says Hollywood-based trainer Gunnar Peterson, CSCS. “They either try to do a pro bodybuilder workout once a week and end up hobbled like James Caan in Misery or do a leg extension/curl combo every three days and think they’ve trained legs. But you really should find a middle ground between the two so you train your legs with decent intensity twice a week.
Following a split that has you train legs one day a week would cripple you with 20 sets at maximum weight and keep you from progressing the way you could.” Peterson has nothing against extensions and curls, but a solid leg routine needs to be centered around multi-joint moves such as lunges, squats or step-ups. These exercises not only hit the quads and hamstrings but also the glutes, a bodypart seldom discussed among men unless it concerns those of the opposite sex. “The glutes are one of the biggest muscle groups in the body and to not train them is irresponsible,” Peterson says. “Read a women’s magazine — that’s the other team’s playbook. Women look at your glutes long before they notice your guns. Plus, training the glutes revs up your metabolism by stimulating such large muscles.”
All bodyparts should be trained from a variety of angles to maximize musclefiber recruitment. This advice becomes even more important with legs since your quads are composed of four different muscles, the hamstrings are made up of three and a slew of fibers “come in from the north, south, east and west” to form your glutes, Peterson says. “It’s not just about squatting and driving up,” he explains. “You can tweak your stance, and you can change where the load is by doing front squats, back squats and one-leg movements. A lot of people just do it by rote or don’t do it at all.”
The routine Peterson designed hits all the major leg musculature via traditional squatting moves performed in novel fashion. A good dose of core work is involved, too, and the reason is simple: You can’t build strong legs with intense workouts without a sturdy core, and many guys are weak in this area. “You’ve got to shore up the weakness,” Peterson says. “I know it doesn’t sound fun, but it’s crucial to maximizing the effectiveness of your workouts, regardless of what muscles you’re training.
Sets: 4–5, Reps: 8–12 each side
START: Grasp a light dumbbell in one hand, stand erect and place the top or toes of the same-side foot on a box or bench behind you, knee bent. Press the weight overhead so your arm is directly over your shoulder.
EXECUTION: Keeping your arm extended, bend your front knee and hips to descend straight toward the floor. When your front quad comes parallel to the floor, press back up through your front heel to return to the start. Repeat for reps, then switch sides.
GUNNAR’S TIP: “Stand tall throughout the movement. There’s a tendency to tip forward as you descend, but you need to work on staying tall.”
Sets: 2–4, Reps: 8–15
START: Grasp the handle of a kettlebell with both hands and stand erect with your arms hanging straight toward the floor, feet roughly shoulder-width apart.
EXECUTION: Bend your knees to dip down while lowering the weight between your legs. Keeping your arms extended, explosively swing the kettlebell up by extending your knees and hips, and lifting your arms. As the weight passes shoulder level, quickly bend your elbows and knees to drop underneath it (letting it flip over in your hands) and catch it in front of you in a full squat position. Stand up while pressing the kettlebell overhead, then drop back down to the start.
GUNNAR’S TIP:“Stay focused on every part of the movement: exploding, the catch, lowering and driving up. You can’t phone this one in.”
Sets: 4–5, Reps: 10-20 (Do 8–12 reps each of front and back squats.)
START: Sit in a leg extension machine and adjust the roller so it rests across the front of your ankles.
EXECUTION: Perform a one-leg extension with your right leg while simultaneously crunching and twisting your torso to bring your left pec over your right knee. Reverse the motion, then repeat to the opposite side — extension with your left leg while crunching your right pec over your left knee. That’s one rep. After you complete all reps, finish the set with double-leg extensions to failure.
GUNNAR’S TIP: “Don’t bounce the weight. On the extension, really think about reaching that toe out and making that leg as long as possible. Don’t just snap it up.”
Sets: 4–5, Reps: 8–12 (Do 8–12 reps each of front and back squats.)
START: Stand erect in a Smith machine with your feet shoulder-width apart, head up and the bar resting across your front delts, hands grasping the bar.
EXECUTION: Descend into a squat, keeping your back flat and chest out, until your quads are parallel to the floor. Drive back up to standing and repeat for reps. Then rerack the bar, position yourself for back squats and complete the prescribed number of reps.
GUNNAR’S TIP: “Try to focus on driving through your heels on the back squat so you get the most out of your hams and glutes.”
Sets: 4–5, Reps: 8–15
START: If it’s available, choose a leg-curl machine with an angled (not flat) bench. Lie facedown, position the backs of your ankles against the pad with your legs extended and make sure your knees are off the edge of the bench.
EXECUTION: Contract your hamstrings to bend your knees and pull your heels toward your glutes. At the top of the rep, contract your lower back muscles to perform a hyperextension (the range of motion will be very small). Lower your torso to the pad, then return to the start.
GUNNAR’S TIP: “Rise slowly on the hyperextension and go for the contraction. This is one you really want to feel; you don’t want to just knock them out.”