Strong shoulders, carved chest and abs, chicken legs. You’ll see more men in the gym with this lopsided trio of features than not.
That’s because we so often we neglect the muscles a pair of gym shorts or swim trunks cover: the hips, glutes, hamstrings and quads (puny calves, though, remain in full view). This isn’t merely a problem of vanity. Fail to target these muscle groups, and you create major imbalances in the body that can lead to pain and injury (legs that aren’t as developed as your lats, for example, can cause chronic low-back pain; underdeveloped hips and glutes can bring on knee problems). What’s more, when you skip leg day, you pass up a guaranteed boost to your metabolism. Working these lower-body muscle groups — some of the largest in your body — burns more calories than isolation work like biceps curls and crunches, and will give you a far bigger afterburn. In a nutshell? Hitting the legs is your ticket to getting and staying lean. The most effective way to work them is with functional, compound movements that incorporate several muscle groups at once. Here, you’ll find the six best moves.
Barbell squatting in any variation (front squats, back squats, box squats, Zercher squats) is probably the single move to build leg size and strength. Because it is the leg exercise you’ll be able to lift the most weight with, you’ll also get the most strength gains. Plus it’s a closed chain movement, involving all parts of the leg working simultaneously. That beats a leg extension machine any day of the week as far as joint stress is concerned.
Walking lunges are a better choice than stationary lunges mainly due to the fact that the glutes get to work harder in the dynamic component of the exercise. The full hip extension gets to be completed on the stride through, avoiding an overload to just the quads.
Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat
This is your best stationary lunge alternative. The elevated leg allows for added depth which can really help to open up a pair of tight hip flexors (if you’re stuck in an office chair for much of the day, you probably suffer from at least a mild case of this). Added to this, the quads, inner thighs, and glutes get put through the rigors. Remember, it doesn’t take much weight to get a good workout from these, and adding too much load can cause form to break down. Focus on sets of 8 to 10 reps per leg.
You can’t get much better than this for a complete posterior chain workout. The Romanian deadlift is performed with slightly straighter legs than a conventional deadlift, but with an equally straight spine. If you have issues assuming this position, set the weights on an elevated surface (like a pair of plates laying flat, or step platforms) until you achieve the requisite flexibility to perform the lift with a neutral spine.
Trap Bar Deadlifts
Trap bar deadlifts create a different geometry than a typical barbell deadlift. The fact that a lifter is able to lower his seat position and angle his knees forward and toes outward creates a world of change for the quads, inner thighs, and glutes, while simulating a lift that enables a tonne of weight to be lifted. Tall lifters and long legged lifters looking to improve pulling strength can also benefit from this as a by-product. Moreover, if you’re a guy who has a history of back problems, and is looking for a way to develop the legs without the risk of back squats or barbell deadlifts, this variation’s for you.
There are very few leg exercises that work the complete group of hip flexors. Hitting the psoas muscles requires getting the knee and upper thigh up to parallel with the ground. Few exercises simulate this by concentric contraction. Sprinting is a great way to bolster your hip flexor strength and function. If you’re not a good sprinter, start by learning the coordination of an arm drive, tall body, and high knees.
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