Leg Exercises

Leg Training: Bring Out the Big Wheels

Change the game of lower body training for stronger quads, hams, and glutes, and less risk of injury.

Training: Big Wheels

Lifters tend to break down into two categories: those who squat and those who don’t. The squatters, it is believed, stand to gain the most muscle and strength, while the nonsquatters are, well…wussbags. At least that’s been the prevailing line of thinking since gyms began. But it’s wrong.

Leg training—heck, all training—just isn’t as simple as that. Squats are great for building your legs, but so are a whole bunch of other exercises. So if you can’t or won’t squat, either due to injury or fear of incorrect form (but not because you don’t want to work hard, like some wussbag), this guide to leg training will change the way you pump your wheels forever.

The Case for Legs

Ladies love sculpting a round butt and curvy thighs, but men would almost always prefer adding more sets of chest and arms to their leg training. The thing is, if you had to pick one body part to be biased about, it should be legs. The glutes are the most powerful muscles in your body and, in conjunction with your hamstrings, are the chief forces behind fast running, high jumping, and the ability to create power with the upper body. The quads help to stabilize your knees and decelerate your running, so you can change direction quickly. Every home run swing, knockout punch, and heavy overhead press begins in your legs.

SEE ALSO: The Ultimate Leg Training Workout

Just this year, the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that rugby players who increased their squat strength—as opposed to their bench press, row, or clean—had the greatest improvements in tackling ability. In fact, their three-rep-max squat was found to be a “moderately good predictor” of change in tackling ability—as was an improvement in three-rep-max strength relative to body mass.

But even if performance means nothing to you, leg training still should. Weak quads, glutes, and hamstrings set you up for knee and hip injuries, and guys who avoid leg training for more upper-body work inevitably end up with “light bulb” bodies—big up top and nothing below the belt. (Yes, we know there’s a double-entendre there, and it holds true: Guys who don’t train legs have no balls.)

The Royal Family

The barbell back squat is often referred to as the “king of all exercises,” and it definitely rules. It targets the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back and also involves the core, upper back, and shoulders to stabilize the bar. Because it’s designed to let you lift heavy, it encourages bone growth and the release of muscle-building hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone.

But we’ll argue that it’s the act of squatting itself that’s “king,” not the specific type of squat you choose. Squats where the weight is held in front of your body, such as goblet squats, front squats, and Zercher squats, can all build big, strong legs, and offer unique advantages that back squats don’t.

A goblet squat, for instance, has you hold a dumbbell with both hands under your chin. When you squat, the weight will help to counterbalance your hips and torso, so you can lower down deeply without bending too far forward. It encourages you to push your knees apart to make room for your elbows, better activating your glutes. The result is near-perfect form on every rep, regardless of muscle imbalances or lack of mobility. For these reasons, the goblet is an ideal exercise for beginners to learn the squatting movement.

A front squat is a good lift to graduate to next. The bar is held in a similar position to the goblet squat but allowed to rest on the front of the shoulders. If you have back or knee pain, you’ll probably find that front squats allow you to squat deeper and with more safety than back squats do. They also hit your quads more directly, making them a favorite for bodybuilders who aim to train the “teardrop” portion of their quads—the point at which the vastus medialis oblique inserts into the kneecap.

The Zercher squat is another option that offers similar benefits to the front squat but does more for the core and upper back. In a Zercher, you cradle the bar in the bend of your elbows as you squat. It can be uncomfortable until you get used to it, but it builds brute strength throughout the body. After all, it was invented by an old-time weightlifter, Ed Zercher, who used to begin the lift by bending down and loading the bar on to his arms from the floor (which we don’t recommend for safety’s sake; but it sure is cool). See full directions on how to perform these lifts in “The Three Kings” section (on page 3).

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