Embracing the Journey to Powerful Legs
What’s going on, nerds. You’re possibly already building some impressive arms or in the process of carving a chiseled set of abs. You might even have some pretty awesome shoulders, but let’s shift our gaze down to a widely neglected part of the body. Legs.
Are yours something you might find chiseled into marble by ancient sculptors, or do they look more like something you’d find on Spongebob? Females are pretty good about including them in their routine, but males not so much. Why? Because they hurt and most guys aren’t too worried about glute development unless they compete.
However, everyone who wanders into the gym and sticks around eventually asks themselves how to gain enough leg muscle to not look imbalanced. Sadly, most people don’t ever get the early 2000s Ronnie Coleman legs even if they do manage to develop a set of 2020 Ronnie Coleman legs (ouch!).
Put your Legs in the Limelight
Let’s get something straight: Your legs are nothing short of remarkable. They bear your weight all day, facilitate spontaneous dance-offs, and propel you down whatever sportsball field you are on. Your legs house some of the most robust muscles in the body. Sculpting these muscles isn’t just about appearing good in a pair of shorts, but also about boosting your functional strength and overall health.
You may not aspire to have the legs of an oxen, and that’s just fine. I’m just here to encourage a well-rounded fitness regimen that includes all muscles groups, especially the legs, for multiple reasons: Symmetry, functionality, joint pain reduction, longevity, hormonal balance, and tons of other stuff.
Do not neglect them. Give them the work they need to really shine. Just like a solid set of shoulders, a good set of legs displays your hard work like almost nothing else. You can buy a set of abs, but you cannot buy a set of legs.
Debunking Leg Exercise Myths
There’s a common belief among some people that leg exercises are strictly the domain of high-intensity fitness enthusiasts looking to bulk up immensely or that leg exercises (squats, specifically) are bad for you. That’s exceptionally far from reality! Like saying that hot dogs are actually delicious type ridiculous assertions.
Some people might be worried about how hard leg workouts can be, especially for beginners. That’s an accurate worry, but only the first few times. The counter to that is how much easier it is to gain leg muscle if you have never tried it before.
Exercising your legs is about more than just activating the quads and the glutes. It’s a journey towards increased strength, functional mobility, and the sheer delight you experience when you successfully perform a squat or a lunge.
Basic Lower Body Anatomy
You don’t know what you don’t know, and you can’t grow what you don’t know you have. You know? Let’s talk about your leg muscles, learn their names, and figure out what they do. That way you are better prepared for those workouts, building your own program, or figuring out if a routine is nonsense right off the bat.
1. Role and Importance of Leg Muscles
Think about this. Your legs allow you to walk, run, climb stairs, sprint away from danger, jump, and do pretty much anything else. When you don’t exercise them properly, almost all of your functional movement is impaired and quality of life drops dramatically. When it’s painful to stand up or move due to underuse/mistreatment of your legs, your overall mobility suffers and your opportunities drop quite significantly.
But that’s not all. Having strong leg muscles:
- Makes us speedy for a fun game of sportsball, or at least gives us a hope of making it down the field before sunset.
- Helps us lift heavy stuff, like your sofa when your wife tells you she doesn’t like where it is. Again.
- Keeps our body stable to prevent stumbles and falls, which is an enormous feat by itself.
And hey, let’s not forget: Pumped-up leg muscles also pretty awesome.
2. Anatomy of the Lower Body
Of course, you can’t really gauge whether a workout is going to help you reach your goals if you don’t know what each muscle group is, where it is located, and what it does for you.
- Quadriceps: These muscles make up your thighs’ and help you straighten your legs, lift your knees when you walk, or enable you to run. They are involved in actions such as climbing stairs, standing up from a chair, and carrying heavy loads. The quads also happen to be some of, if not the, biggest muscles in your body.
- Hamstrings: Sitting at the back of your thighs, they balance out the quadriceps. They pair-up for you to bend your knee and move your leg back, interfacing with your back to move your hips and help you keep balance.
- Glutes: The booty muscles! They help you stand tall, walk, climb, pick up heavy things, keep you balanced, move your leg, and generally are involved in almost all lower body movement.
- Calves: These lower leg muscles let you stand on tiptoes, run, and jump. Oddly and importantly, when they contract they also help pump blood back up to your heart from your lower legs which is enormous. Do not neglect your calves!
Getting Started: Seeking Professional Advice
Think back to something you wanted to do but had no idea how to do it. Might be riding a bicycle, could be writing some code. Maybe even how to gain leg muscle. If you had no idea how to do it you’d ask someone for some help, right? We’ve all done it. Same can be said about driving, catching a ball, or growing lean mass. While doing it yourself isn’t impossible, it takes longer when you are starting from scratch.
Pro help can:
- Show you the proper ways to exercise.
- Motivate you along your fitness journey.
- Help you avoid injuries.
If you are stuck, find some help. I happen to know someone pretty good at this stuff, you just need to get ahold of them by clicking HERE
Proper Initial Assessments Can Help Avoid Injuries
When you play video games what is the first thing that happens? Before the actual adventures begin you get a tutorial. Why? To understand the rules and challenges. Similarly, anything you do fitness-wise should begin with an assessment.
A good assessment can help you figure out where you are, identify any existing issues you have, and put you on the path towards hitting those goals.
You wouldn’t want to lift a super heavy weight right away and you don’t want to perform certain movements if you have certain issues. An assessment can be a game changer because it helps in avoiding injuries and hit those goals faster than you would otherwise.
There’s no rush when it comes to fitness. Everyone needs time to discover what works for them.
Common Things Beginners Might Experience
One thing to know about leg workouts is that they aren’t exactly like upper body workouts. There are some nuances here to be aware of.
First, remember that your leg muscles are some of the biggest in your body. That means you need to use a LOT of energy to work them out properly.
Secondly, your legs are much longer than your arms are, which means that you have a much longer distance to cover for proper range of motion during squats or deadlifts than you would during curls, bench press, or rows. The extra distance adds up and contributes to more energy usage and exertion.
Third, legs hurt on the second day not the day after. Upper body workouts tends to cause soreness to set in the following day, and you might even notice it a few hours later. Legs, on the other hand, can feel pretty tired right after a workout, start to feel better (comparatively) a few hours later, but 48 hours afterwards the soreness sets in. Consider it extended delayed onset muscle soreness. And the soreness can be worse than upper body workouts because you’ll feel it each time you stand up, squat down, or move your legs in any manner.
Unlike other things, the soreness from leg day actually does mean it’s working.
Importance of Warm-up and Stretching
Warm-ups and stretching are necessary, especially as you get older. Properly warming up gets your heart pumping, waking up those strong muscle fibers, and helps them limber up a bit beforehand. Think about how bad it really is to go from sitting down to squatting multi-hundreds of pounds or picking something off the ground. Your legs and back will be screaming if you aren’t careful.
Likewise, stretching after your workout helps cool down those muscles and wind them down so they can begin recovery.
Quality Lower Body Exercises
You obviously can’t make it very far with developing some tree trunk or toned legs that turn heads without doing the actual work. Since there are multiple muscle groups in your lower body, let’s lay out the best exercises for each.
Middle aged dads who haven’t seen the inside of the gym in years really have a monopoly on great calves. Since that is what most of us search out and try to build, let’s start there:
- Calf Raise: Stand straight, then rise up on your toes. Alternatively, sit down with some weight on your lap and lift up onto your toes. The two variations work slightly different ways and can go miles towards growing them out. Do it 15-20 times for 4-5 sets.
- Jump Rope: Jump rope for 1 minute at a time, or pretend to jump rope if you don’t actually have the skills to do it. Jumping is a great way to work those calves. Aim for 3-4 sets a few times per week if this is your thing.
- Stair Climbing: Climbing stairs will make your calves feel like they’re flying! Either find a lot of them in your building or jump on a stair master. Either work. Alternatively, hike uphill. That will stimulate growth in a similar fashion. This can be done pretty frequently since you are just using your own bodyweight and mimicking daily activity.
Glute Power Boosters
The bum is an area most people seem to focus on more than others. An undeveloped bottom isn’t very nice to look at. A well developed butt, for right or wrong, can open new doorways.
- Glute Bridge: Lie on your back. Push your hips up like you’re trying to reach the sky and extend until your back is straight and only the tops of your shoulders and your feet are on the ground. Aim for 10-15 sky touches in 3-5 sets 1-2 times per week. Add in some weight for an extra challenge. Alternatively, if your gym has one of the booty builder machines that you strap into you can use that.
- Donkey Kicks: On hands and knees, push one leg out and pull it back in slowly, like a donkey would do. Try 10 kicks for each leg, 4-5 sets 1-2 times per week.
- Squats: Stand, lower yourself down and pretend you’re sitting on an invisible chair, then stand up again. Do this 6-12 times for 3-5 sets. Squats are intensive, especially when heavily weighted. Shoot for 2-3 times per week for optimal growth and do compound exercises, like squats, first in your routine. Pretty much any version of squats work your glutes to one degree or another.
Quads Quadruples Strength
Quads. The big leg muscles that make up your thighs. They are neglected by a lot of people and make up a huge amount of power potential that just isn’t being tapped into.
- Front Squats: Front squats focus so much weight onto your quads due to where the weight is being carried. Almost nothing compares to the amount of quadricep activation as these. Hold the barbell in a front rack position, squat down until your quads are parallel and then stand back up. 6-12 reps over 3-4 sets 2-3 times per week should do the trick.
- Lunges: Step forward, then back, like walking in slow motion. Aim for 10 slow-motion steps with each leg. For added difficulty, add some weight.
- Sled Push: This is an underrated exercise that could catch you some looks in anything but a Crossfit gym. Put a plate or two on the sled, grasp the handles, bend forward, and push. You can either go for distance or time and should aim for 6-10 iterations. This is incredibly effective, but also incredibly brutal and will take a lot of you. I’d recommend once a week for this exercise.
Finally, hamstrings. The truly most neglected muscle in most people’s routine. “If you can’t see it, why train it?” is the approach a lot of people take with this one. But, people can see it just because you cannot. Do. Not. Neglect. Strong hamstrings can ‘fix’ low back pain in many cases, help with posture, and generally make you feel far more confident than you would otherwise.
- Romanian Deadlift (or any deadlift, really): Deadlifts are actually one of my favorite exercises. (Almost) Nothing better than lifting a barbell off the floor that is 2-3x times heavier than you. They are fantastic for hamstring development, but especially when you do the Romanian variety. They are incredibly hamstring centric. Toss them into your workout with 6-12 reps over 3-4 sets 2-3 times week.
- Leg Curls: Hop on the machine, add some weight, and curl your leg backwards. You’ll feel it in the hammies. Do 6-15 curls each leg for 3 sets 1-2 times per week.
- Good Mornings: Place a barbell on your back in the same position you would for squats. Then, lean forward and hinge at the hip. Start with just the bar until you can gauge your strength. Do these 12-15x for 2-3 sets 1-2 times per week.
Timing and Notes
Take 2-3 seconds to go through the concentric and eccentric portions of each movement. That means to go slow, take your time, and really feel yourself using the muscle. People who rush through any movement won’t make nearly as much progress. Time under tension is tried and true.
You might notice that I said to do the compounds 2-3 times per week instead of the 1-2 for upper body movements. That is because legs are stubborn. You use them more than any other muscle so they are used to the work and you need to give them more of a stimulus in order to grow.
If you are supposed to work them 2-3 times per week AND get 48 hours between leg days, how can you fit it in and still work out other body parts? Stack them. Get rid of the bro split where you only work one body part a day and instead work 2-3 body parts per workout. Maybe a Bis/Tris/Glutes, Chest/Back/Quads, Shoulder/Calves split works for you. Experiment around and see what works. Or, find a trainer to build a program for you.
Nutrition and Recovery
Obviously you won’t get far without doing the work frequently enough to grow. Without proper warmups you risk not being able to do the work. Not knowing where to start and what to focus on can set you back quite a bit. Even after getting all of that in check and working through it appropriately there are two puzzle pieces that if you don’t get in place you will make no, or even negative progress. Nutrition and recovery.
Nutrition and Muscle Building
Gym bros are always talking about protein because it’s important. Like, the most important aspect of muscle building. Without enough protein you will never gain any lean mass, especially in the legs, and you body may actually start cannibalizing the lean mass you already have. Protein helps rebuild muscle, build new muscle, or preserve muscle while on a calorie deficit.
The rest of your nutrition matters, too. What you eat and how much is important. Sticking to a whole foods based diet, or as close as possible, is important to building as much lean mass as you can without putting on an extra fat layer. Plus, whole foods generally have far more vitamins and minerals than processed foods will which gives you a whole bunch more benefit.
If you don’t know what to eat or how much, read THIS
Can’t talk about nutrition without a mention of water. Stay hydrated. It helps shuttle nutrients around and removes toxins from the body, both of which are necessary for proper health and lean mass gain.
Recovery: The Key to Consistent Growth
Downtime is needed by everyone. We all need vacations from work, time off from strenuous periods of life, and leisure to help reduce stress. Our muscles are the same way. We need to treat them in the same manner and give them time off on regular intervals.
This is why I said wait about 48 hours between leg day workouts. Your muscles need to recover and they do that when they have downtime.
You also should prioritize sleep. I know that is hard to do in today’s world, but sleep is still a necessity. Most of your recovery happens while you are asleep, so shoot for 7+ hours a night. This will allow you muscles and your brain to have plenty of time to recover and rebuild.
The Power of Understanding and Training Your Leg Muscles
Well, I hope you learned something new about how to gain leg muscle. Muscles like our calves, glutes, quads, and hamstrings need special attention and we have to ensure they get it if we want to have any hope. We can help them along the way by:
- Doing the correct exercises, correctly.
- Eating properly.
- Recovering appropriately in between workouts
Knowledge gives you power, and understanding how to properly exercise legs helps you to train them effectively.
Keep Going: Every Superhero Starts Somewhere
And remember, every great set of legs looked scrawny once. It’s a journey of a thousand steps, but guess what? You’ve already taken the first few and now you know how to gain some solid leg muscle.
The early stages are the hardest ones! Keep your chin up, continue to push through, and don’t forget to have enjoy the journey.
Let Us help You Out
At CONDITIONerd we are here to help you achieve better physical and mental health through exercise. Check out the plans we offer to our customers and see if you could benefit from working with our team. And if you have questions, you can always contact a CONDITIONerd team member.
Personal trainers, like those found here, can help guide you on your pathway towards reaching your fitness goals, whether that is getting bigger, stronger, faster, more lean, or just generally feeling better.
We can get you setup with a periodized workout plan, supplement information, and advice on nutrition to help you reach your goals.
The only thing you need is some motivation and a willingness to change some old habits.
Get into contact with us to find out what membership is right for you. In a CONDITIONerd program, you’ll be surrounded by others who can help you to get where you want to be.
Generally, our clients start to see some pretty awesome changes in 2-3 months time, some sooner.