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3 Keys To Building Better Leg Workouts

Change is never easy, doing something that is more difficult isn’t easy, but we should always be chasing for better. Sadly, many don’t like change or facing what they have been ignoring or at least not prioritizing could be the answer to many of their training goals. Especially when it comes to something like leg workouts. Not sure if many people have ever cheered the idea of doing their leg workouts as the leg training memes are plentiful.

Of course leg workouts are tough, they work the most muscles in the body and that means they often are going to have the biggest conditioning effect as well. However, there is more than just making your body sore and tired that can make leg workouts something we place a lot more emphasis on a lot more thought in how we use them. So, if we are going to make leg workouts something that is much smarter than “just squat”, then we have to understand 3 keys in developing them.

#1 Patterns Over and Exercises

Probably one of the most confusing things for many people is when we discuss movements, things can get murky. How do I mean? Well, it is easier to understand that a hip hinge pattern can mean a deadlift, a kettlebell swing, our Shoveling drills and so forth. However, when a pattern says squat doesn’t that just mean to squat like the exercise?

I completely understand why this would be confusing, add in lunging and we have the mess of movement patterns that are obvious (i.e. upper body pushing) and then some patterns that are named after exercises. What gives?! Well, a squat is a movement pattern as you “squat down” many times to pick something up. What differentiates the squat exercise and movement pattern?

We look at the qualities that make up the general movement. We want to see an upright torso because we want to achieve great mobility in our ankles, knees, and hips. Squatting with a more upright torso allows us build more mobility in those areas and overload the legs much more than the low back. For those that want to overload their glutes and hamstrings more in the squat they have two options. They can squat more deeply (which builds greater mobility) or they can hinge more at the hips like in many powerlifting squats (which places more load on the low back and doesn’t build anything close to the same mobility). My point is that you can see if we focus on the exercise of the squat we can lose the essence of what the movement is all about.

This impacts our leg workouts because if we focus on movement patterns we quickly realize that not all exercises are equal (like the example I just provided above).If we focus on movement patterns we start to see how we often go down the wrong path in our leg workouts. The squat is such an easy example to offer.

“You gotta squat man!” is a sentiment that is so eloquently offered in many areas of fitness, but what does it mean? Are all squats equal? Which squat should I use, where should my training take me to be?

Last year I got to spend some one on one time with renown physical therapist, Gray Cook. While we got to chat about a lot of different items, I loved his line of thinking (maybe because it so well fit with my own) that after establishing some foundation in the basic bilateral squat we have to sophisticate the movement. What does building foundations in the squat mean?

For us in DVRT it means building quality of movement and loading that movement until we can challenge it better in another way. DVRT UK Master, Greg Perlaki shows how we go about doing so in ways that make your lower body workouts smarter.

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Why are these squats different???⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀ Squats are often the least preferred knee dominant exercise especially for beginners. A lot of people have been put off by keeping the weight on their backs. It does compress the spine and that is something we don’t want even with great hip mobility.⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ The Dvrt System however focuses on creating tension in the core by breaking the sandbag apart. All the different holding positions help to create core tension which improves one posture. ⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ ➡️ Press Out Squat: hands and feet are all active here to grab the sandbag and squeeze the toes to activate both core/lats and gluteals. It’s not about the counter motion rather the core tension that helps to stabilise the pelvis ⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ ➡️ Bear Hug Squat: similar action is going on here and hugging the bag with keeping the shoulders back helps to maintain an upright torso⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ ➡️ Front Loaded Squat: actively pulling the Sandbag into the body keeps the posture upright again. On the way up elbows need to be elevated to drive straight up from the bottom. It’s my personal favourite really. Surprisingly difficult due to the bag awkwardness and again core is on🔥 ⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀ ➡️ Shoulder Loaded Squat: the bag is placed on the shoulder (like an active side plank) so the lifter needs to stabilise and prevent any unwanted movement to stay straight and keep that neutral pelvis.⠀ #dvrt #ultimatesandbag #functionaltraining #functionalmovement #squat #lowerbodyworkout #totalbodyworkout #coretraining #fitnesslondon #ukfitness #ukfit #trainsmart #trainsmarter #dynamic #sandbagtraining #unconventionaltraining #trainforlife #londonpersonaltrainer #london #movegb #movementismedicine #movementculture

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As you see, we add load to the squat but we never lose the essence of the movement pattern. Far too many times we sacrifice the quality of the movement pattern to use just another version of the exercise. So, in our lower body workouts, quality of movement is our base defining factor. If you are cynical that this just showed Ultimate Sandbags, don’t worry, we use other tools like kettlebells too. What about barbells?

Listen, if you want to front squat a barbell then cool, however, the barbell is the most limited tool in progressing the squat and much of our lower body workouts. That is because the barbell was designed to use for very specific exercises that didn’t have a lot of diversity in their movement patterns.

I can show you how we use kettlebells in our lower body workouts like squats in leading me to discuss another variable that gets overlooked in our lower body workouts, how we progress our training! Don’t miss the details of our movements as DVRT Master, Cory Cripe describes below.

#2 Just Go Heavier

Sometimes we get the reputation in DVRT that we aren’t about lifting heavier weights. Ironically, when people often try to pick up a 100 pound Ultimate Sandbag they want nothing to do with it. The reality is that going heavier is something we do want to do in our leg workouts, it is a tool we use, it just isn’t the only tool we have available and isn’t always the best tool.

If just going heavier was the best solution to most training programs then we would have people that could lift thousands of pounds in a lift, to my knowledge only the exceptional can lift over 1,000 pounds on something like a deadlift or squat. Intuitively I think we know that we realize that “just going heavier” is rarely a solution we can sustain and why having a system to our leg workouts and overall training is so much more important.

For example, after we get to higher levels of the squat in the bilateral position, changing our level of stability through our body position is where most should head in their training. Why? When we start to move away from the stability of the bilateral position we bring in other planes of motion. That means our body has to work hard to both produce and resist force at the same time. Such training has been shown to build more functional strength and injury resilience as spine expert, Dr. Stuart McGill explains in the picture below.

leg workouts

So you see in what Dr. McGill describes we don’t actually get to train as many muscles when we are in such a stable posture and position. The idea that just building a strong squat and deadlift doesn’t pan out in the actual science of strength training. This 2018 study showed this very idea strongly…

“Unilateral squats with the same external load per leg produced greater peak vertical ground reaction forces than bilateral squats, as well as higher barbell velocity, which is associated with strength development and rate of force development, respectively. The authors suggest using unilateral rather than bilateral squats for people with low back pain and those enrolled in rehabilitation programs after ACL ruptures, as unilateral squats are performed with small loads (28 vs. 135 kg) but achieve similar magnitude of muscle activity in the hamstring, calf, hip and abdominal muscles and create less load on the spine.”

Hmmm, we can develop similar force, build more muscle, and spare our spine if we are willing to think differently about our leg workouts. Of course what stops so many people is progressing to more single leg or unstable types of squats is a big leap that just leads to a lot of frustration, but the series below using our Sprinter Squat (which is an awesome way to introduce incremental instability) and using the right tools gives us many ways to build better progression and success.

#3 Single Leg Exercises Are Just For Stability

Well, hopefully seeing research like I shared above or this graph showing the muscles active in a single leg good morning vs bilateral good morning are helping change your view of what our leg workouts should be all about.

leg workouts

Having worked out since I was 14 and coaching for the past 25 years I know the real issue. Most people don’t have the movement skills to perform a lot of the more complex single leg workouts. That is understandable and why I love speaking about progression. I think one of the absolute best exercises that is progressive and perfect for smarter leg workouts is the step-up.

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How far is this leg exercise? Way behind squats and deadlifts? If so, we need to re-think how we see building a strong, stable, and mobile lower body. Step-ups are not only one of the best single leg exercises we can use, but one of the best leg exercises overall. They are highly progressive whether it is the height of the step, direction of the step, or how we load the body how @rdpaget and @dvrtfitness_uk show to emphasize different functional training qualities. _____________ What makes step-ups so powerful? From a muscle development perspective, they are highly underrated. In fact, compared to squats and deadlifts there are some interesting findings. Like “the split squat and step-up may present exercise variations that more effectively target the hip extensor, knee extensor, and biceps femoris long head muscles (than the squat), which may be relevant for the design of resistance training programs that specifically aim to strengthen these muscles as part of sports performance or injury prevention efforts.” (Kipp et al, 2020) ______________ “Unilateral squats with the same external load per leg produced greater peak vertical ground reaction forces than bilateral squats, as well as higher barbell velocity, which is associated with strength development and rate of force development, respectively. The authors suggest using unilateral rather than bilateral squats for people with low back pain and those enrolled in rehabilitation programs after ACL rupture” (Eliassen et al, 2018) _____________ These step-ups can emphasize qualities like frontal plane stability, cross patterns that connect the kinetic chains, and offer us so many chances to build strength, stability, and mobility all the same time. Building up knee resilience, functional muscle, and strength in all 3 planes while sparring the low back is something we should value more!

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What Greg and coach Robin Paget show above is some of the versatility of the step-up. We can change the height of the step, the direction of the step, and many different ways to load the squat to address great progressions in our leg workouts. Plus step-ups can lead into step downs as is shown as well which is a better single leg squat patten for most people.

Physical therapist Jessica Bento shows how we have way more solutions to building success to single leg exercises than we almost every utilize. Once we realize that we can build strength, stability, and mobility all at once why would we focus on leg workouts in any other form?

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I like to think a good coach of any sort (I even consider a therapist as a coach in a different capacity) is about solving problems for people. For @joshhenkindvrt and I that often means solving issues for coaches across our industry and developing better solutions for clients. One that I see a lot is that people know that single leg exercises are great and have potential to solve so many issues but people don’t know how to progress them and end up doing what you see me doing in the first slide, holding onto something and trying to do single leg. _____________ What is one to do if people can’t do single leg exercises? For one, we can make them progressive in different ways. Through this series you see my using sliders to give feedback upon the range of motion I can control. The @perform_better band helps give me feedback upon making sure I am using my feet to create stability from the ground up. _____________ The different holding positions of our Ultimate Sandbag allows me to train different stability patterns as well. The weight at my hips allows me to create tension by pulling the handles apart and getting my “plank” locked in while holding in the crooks of my arms allows me more core tension and I can work on controlling my plank to a higher level. The press out while trying to “rip” the USB apart gives me a great plank in a different way that allows me to have better hip mobility through better core stability. ____________ The point is that there are often far more solutions than we are aware of in making progress and teaching people concepts of functional movement that we think are too far out of their reach! Josh wrote a good blog about this in regards to upper body exercises, many of the concepts will apply to your lower body training too! ➡️Check out the 🔗 in my BIO

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We have to be willing to think smarter and look at the science to guide us than just what makes for an impressive social media post. The majority of fitness professionals get into the industry to help people and most people workout to make themselves feel better, not worse. So, I hope blogs like today’s help illustrate where even something that seems familiar in leg workouts can be made so much better if we understand what movement and understanding tells us about how we should shape our training. We can move, feel, and perform better all at the same time, but as Albert Einstein said, “we can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

Find out so much more in our DVRT Online education programs like our squatting, lunging, and hip hinging modules that you can find from our L.I.F.T. certification HERE where we show how to use great functional training tools to build better progressions. You can save 25% on these programs with code “save25” right now!