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The Better Leg Exercises?

sandbag training

You can’t do it in fitness, can you? That is, challenge popular ideas that are pretty much cemented in the fitness mindset. One of the biggest is that if you want to get strong, seriously strong, you gotta do a lot of squats and deadlifts. Listen, I can’t make fun of this mentality, it use to be mine as well! My mind started to change at the oddest time in my life.

After rehabbing myself after my low back caused me to retire from college basketball, I did the reasonable thing which was start Strongman training (yes, enter extreme sarcasm here). At the time it made sense to me, I missed being a competitive athlete which I had been for most of my life at that point. Much of my rehab was based around my new understanding of movement and that included some techniques of old time strongman training. Mostly based around the use of odd objects which got me into the world of sandbags.

In order to compete with the giant tire flipping, stone lifting, car deadlifts, and more, I followed what the other athletes were doing. Being new to the sport, I thought follow the advice of those that were successful right? Well, in their mind, the MOST important leg exercises were squats and deadlifts. Made sense, if you want to lift big weights in competition, you better lift big weights in the gym.

My other great idea was at a bodyweight of 235 to compete against athletes 300 pounds plus. This was one of my most humbling days. 

This led me to doing my best to try to improve both of these lifts as much as I could. I ended up having a decent squat and pretty nice deadlift (over 400 on squat and almost 600 on deadlift). The problem arouse as even though I had reached some respectable numbers (especially being one of the few drug free athletes) I moved worse and worse. Not only did my quality of everyday movement suffer (I started to woddle more than walk), my back and whole body started to hurt more and more everyday.

Even as a young guy in his mid-20’s, this started to have an impact on me and even my performance. Once I hit those numbers, I couldn’t go much further. Heck, even many days I couldn’t come anywhere close to training that hard because I hurt so much. You might think, “okay Josh, sample size of one.” However, the longer I was in the sport, the more I saw my competitors hurt more and more as well.

Hurting everyday stinks! It makes everything worse and I wanted to start to re-evaluate my training because I still wanted to compete (eventually I would re-evaluate my sport choice as well). How could I get strong, but not hurt? Isn’t that what we all want to know? After all, the number one predictor of injury is past injury. Having a pretty significant past history of injury, I knew my choice in training my leg exercises had to change too!

What is one to do? Ugh, I had to make the hardest decision. That was to prioritize the leg exercises I wasn’t good at! For me, that meant a lot more single leg exercises. I had used many of these exercises for clients who just couldn’t handle going heavy in squats and deadlifts, but I didn’t really value them as strength drills, but good “stability” exercises for clients. The funny thing is I was right and wrong at the same time.

Do single leg exercises help stability? Absolutely! Do they build strength? Absolutely! The hardest part about convincing people of this is that the load that people end up using tends to be so much less of their squat and deadlift. They can’t imagine that less could equal more! However, research shows us otherwise!

The Better Leg Exercises?

The above table is from one of my favorite studies to share that shows that a bodyweight lunge actually trained MORE muscles in the lower body than loaded squats. Researchers even went on to say, “By training the athletes in the body weight lunge, they can obtain the same results of that of squat to 90̊ training. The lunge allows the athlete to be in a more sport functional position. From the basic lunge position of the knees flexed to 90̊ we can begin to train explosive recovery moves, which would transfer over to competition. Ideally, athletes should be training their kinetic chain fluidly and dynamically; the more dynamic the activity the more fluid the athlete’s movement and posture will be in competition. As a coach, personal trainer or athletic trainer, we should begin to worry when movement gets ridged because of the susceptibility to injury.”

Even if you aren’t an athlete, there are some compelling real world strength training qualities mentioned. Is that just one wacky study though? If we look at the chart below from another study we see an interesting result.

The Better Leg Exercises?

Again, when it came to looking a glute activity of lower body exercises, more single leg based drills outperformed squats and deadlifts. This is NOT what most people would assume. However, WHY is this the case?

Because single leg exercises require a combination of stability and strength our muscles have to work hard to both stabilize and produce force at the same time! This isn’t weird though, this is HOW our muscles are designed to work. For example, our glute medius isn’t designed to kick our leg out to the side, but is suppose to keep our pelvis from excessively shifting to the side and balance us as we walk. Our core muscles are about resisting movement and being a communication system from the upper to lower body. So, resisting movement is a big part of what our body wants to do during movement.

The challenging part is how do we build success in these lifts? I recently wrote about HERE some of the most common mistakes people make when building step-ups. An exercise that has awesome potential but people either struggle with performing correctly, or knowing how to progress.

What you hopefully see is the value of foundations and progressions. The reason I couldn’t get better at these exercises for so many years is that I didn’t have a plan or path to construct success. That is why I am so motivated to share these ideas with others. For example, lunges don’t have to be scary or overwhelming. One of our favorite ways to build success in lunges and get more out of your leg exercises is what DVRT Master, Cory Cripe, shows in Up Downs.

Even some may find stepping too much, DVRT UK Master, Greg Perlaki, shows how we can use the half kneeling position and progress to using feedback to build the lunge. Most underestimate what they need to teach about proper movement to benefit from these exercises. That is why using such progression can be so game changing to how you see training and building better movement strength.

Our goal is to bring science to life. While squats and deadlifts are not bad, we want you to see the whole picture when it comes to building better functional fitness.

If you want to learn more about how to build, progress, and implement these concepts don’t miss our NEW L.I.F.T. certification modules (loaded integrated functional training). You can get our Squatting and Pulling Modules PLUS a FREE Ultimate Sandbag with coupon code “strong25” HERE or get ALL 5 modules a FREE Ultimate Sandbag and Lever Bell with coupon code “lift20” HERE and get a jump on your education that will change the results you get from smarter coaching!