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Strong Legs, Hip Mobility, & Healthy Knees

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Leg exercises I think are rarely anyone’s favorites, especially the really good ones. That is because they engage so many muscles at once they are often a lot more work than their upper body dominant counter parts. Some people may not think that putting in such effort is necessary to achieve their fitness goals as building strong legs may not be something they care a lot about. However, the best leg exercises do more than just building strong legs, they can also improve our hip mobility and help problematic knees.

What do I mean by the “best”, of course, that is a bit relative because it largely depends on what we are trying to achieve with the drills. I am referencing best as is exercises that build strong legs and SO much more at the same time. Isn’t the answer just squat and deadlift more?

I’ve not found this to be the case in coaching for 25 years with a very diverse clientele base as well as competing in many sports from basketball to many iron sports. Do squats and deadlifts have their place and help? Of course, anyone who says otherwise is trying to sell you on something. My point is that we largely don’t put squats and deadlifts in the right context. Here is a quick example and how “strong legs” is something we have to question a bit more with where we go in our training.

Renowned physical therapist, Gray Cook, I think puts it so well…

“Squatting is not an exercise; it is a movement pattern. The movement is part of growth and development as a transition from the floor to standing. Squatting can be used as an exercise but is first and foremost a movement pattern.

791a baby deadlift squat - Strong Legs, Hip Mobility, & Healthy Knees

Credit to Functional Movement Screen

This is a great example of fundamental movement patterns in relation to growth and development. This child has no prior experience or world class strength coach teaching him to squat and deadlift. It happens naturally as we begin to explore our environment and when specific tasks are placed on us.

Now, a rounded back and feet pointed out during a relaxed squat is not necessarily a bad thing either. But you being to appreciate the level of learning and awareness these two pictures resemble. How did this child know to keep the tibia’s verticle, spine in a neutral position, to hip hinge fully? It’s quite incredible, but most of us cannot access this pattern, but when we do we find it hard to even look like this.”

What Gray’s quote refers to is many more nuanced ideas that firstly, squatting has to be seen as a movement pattern and not an exercise. This can be confusing to many as people are so used to squats in their workouts they don’t get what that means. As Gray notes, elements of squatting are innate to humans, no, not how we squat under load or in a workout, but how we would naturally function in life. Such a topic is a blog in itself that I’ve tackled many times as there are elements to squatting that most don’t think about that are essential to the results we achieve.

The bigger point about Gray’s statement is how really detached even our fitness is often from what we actually need and what we should focus upon. The idea of exercise as we know it is less than 100 years old and probably closer to just 60-70 years old. That is obviously nothing in the perspective of the time of humans. The youth of such an idea often leaves the most marketable ideas as the dominant ones, not necessarily the best ideas.

strong legs

Coach Alwyn Cosgrove recently shared how this old Bob Hoffman book prioritized lower body exercises that build many of the qualities we are discussing.

So, to come full circle why do I think the leg exercises I am going to show you are the best in building strong legs and so much more? For one, the key of a good squat and deadlift is actually strong feet, they control what happens up our entire chain and the position and postures we often get to in such movements. However, since most people are detached from knowing how to use their feet (which is much more than just going barefoot), we need exercises that not only build strong legs but show us how to also build strong feet.

What Physical Therapist, Jessica Bento shows are leg exercises that both teach how to develop strong legs, but feet as well. This will lead to healthier knees, more mobile hips, and better backs.

As you can probably tell, I prefer lower body exercises that make us work from a variety of stances and planes of motion. People can like these drills too, but usually, they are not seen as “strength” drills because the weight is typically so much less than we can use in the more familiar squats and deadlifts. Well, yes, that is true, but why we use so much weight is because we are far more stable. The assumption (a rather faulty one) is that this leads to stronger legs and overall a stronger body. Without the context of the position we are lifting from or the direction we are moving, that would be true, but as we give more context to these movements, that changes quite a bit. As Jessica shows below, these lower body DVRT drills build really strong legs but train the body in so many different ways of developing strength.

The truth is that most people actually don’t know how strength is built or what it means, sounds funny right? However, this is something I lecture all the time upon, and when you explain to people what strength really means to how we function, the light bulbs really go off. So, just looking at weight is an incomplete story, it isn’t bad to want to go as heavy as possible, we just need to know a lot more about what we are doing.

People often don’t like exercises as our DVRT Japanese Master, Taizo Omuro, shows below because they are REALLY hard! Such exercises don’t allow you to cheat a movement with your low back, you can’t hide any issues of your stability and mobility. The research also points to that the force production in single leg exercises can compare with the force production and often result in more muscles being used (because some of those muscles are stabilizing our body) overall.

I’m not saying you can’t squat and deadlift, they serve as important foundations for our movement. However, where we go with our training should think more broadly and deeper about the qualities we are developing. We can have really strong legs, help our hip mobility, and improve issues like knees and low backs if we think about strength in a much bigger sense. We cover a lot of these ideas and progressions in our DVRT Online certifications/courses you can find HERE like physical therapist, Jessica Bento’s “DVRT RX Knees” course, or any of our certifications. We lead with education because it truly is power.

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