Leg day. One day out of the week that you absolutely crush your legs via squats, lunges, calf raises, leg extensions, leg curls, leg press, and the awkward adductor/abductor machine that gynecologists probably use in their office. The split routine of “leg day”, “chest day”, “back day”, etc is the most common way of training in the fitness world. And unfortunately this idea of isolating each body part on certain days out of the week creeps its way into athlete programming at the high school, collegiate, and even professional level.
The truth is that training your muscles to act in isolation and through motions that have no direct correlation to athletic movement is counterproductive. Not only will this training have limited carryover into athletic performance, but will inevitably lead to injury. Spending countless sets on hamstring curls and leg extensions, for example, teaches your muscles to act on their own instead of in unison like they do during sports.
It’s no big secret that the legs are the biggest asset to athletes—controlling running speed, jumping power, force production, and ground contact force for quick cuts and turns. Why, then, would you want to train your legs once a week and with many exercises that don’t help you out on the field, court, or rink?
To understand the importance of training legs multiple times a week, let’s examine some of the skills necessary for athletic performance.
Let’s break each component down. Strength comes in many forms and can be expressed through a variety of exercises. Athletic movement in sports is always some variation of squats, deadlifts, lunges, and olympic lifts. The mechanics of deadlift, for example, begins with the hip hinge. Working from the top down, the deadlift teaches the athlete to eccentrically load up the hamstrings in the same way they are loaded during a jump. A hang clean is the next progression from this hip hinge and is an actual expression of power and force. Like jumping, a clean takes an athlete into triple extension of the ankles, knees, and hips. Lunging, among other things, builds power off a single leg that comes into play with sprinting and jumps off of a single leg.
Power. As stated already, lifts like the hang clean and snatch teach an athlete how to create force and power as well as absorb it. Improving these lifts means a more powerful first step, a harder kick, a bigger jump, and a harder hit. And because it teaches you how to absorb force, it’s a way to prevent injuries as well.
Balance. There’s no better balance training than learning how to squat twice your body weight through the full range of motion. Not to mention the core stability and balance required in overhead squats, front squats, cleans, and snatches.
Agility can be improved through various running drills and sprints, and also through the use of plyometrics. Box jumps, broad jumps, split jumps, and squat jumps are your friends. So start using them!
Flexibility. Again, clean, snatch, squat, lunge, and deadlift through your full range of motion. Seated calf raises won’t do “squat” for you. You can also do active stretching and mobility work which Mike Whiteman covered in a previous article, “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”
Endurance. The ultimate bang for your buck endurance exercises are prowler sprints, sled sprints, resisted sprints, and good old fashion body weight sprints. The metabolic carryover is unmatched. Doing a burnout set of 20 leg presses can’t compare.
So now that you’ve seen how each component of an athlete is improved, does it still make sense to dedicate one day to training legs? Here is a sample training week for legs.
Clean and jerk
Clean and jerk
I’m a fan of having my clients combine their strength movements with their jumps, creating something called a complex. For example, let’s say you were doing 5×5 back squats. After each set of squats hit a set of 3-5 box jumps. This type of training fires up your nervous system and allows you to hit all aspects of the strength/power curve.
At the end of the day, the legs give the athlete their strength, speed, and power. But even if you weren’t an athlete, why would you only use the muscle building, testosterone producing, metabolic effects of squats and deadlifts once a week? Always remember what we say here at Legends of Pittsburgh Fitness, You can’t spell “legends” without “legs”!
– Stefan Lundberg
Legends of Pittsburgh Training