We’ve all heard the jokes about how guys stay “home sick” on leg day or friends don’t let friends skip leg day. There are numerous nicknames for lackluster lower bodies and inconsistent training practices, and most of them seem to be aimed at men. Women never seem to have a problem training legs.
Most guys would prefer to have people refer to our lower extremities as “Oaks” or “Springs,” or look at our legs with assumptions about how fast and explosive we are. These badass sounding nicknames and notions imply that our legs either look good or work really well. Maybe to your surprise, we don’t have to settle for one or the other. Why not have legs that look good and work even better?
It can be done. We don’t have to decide between performance and aesthetics when we can have both.
Let’s face it. No one wants to be that guy who wears sweatpants in 90 degree weather. That “big-up-top-but-nothing-below” look isn’t that cool. Who wants to look like a human corn-dog? (Yeah, picture it for a minute).
It’s also depressing to workout five days a week, get big and not be able to move on the court or perform athletic movements without looking like a Goon or hurting yourself.
A lot of people that workout regularly also enjoy participating in sports once in a while. And, while it feels great to look good on the beach, it feels just as good to tear it up on the beach volleyball court. Girls want to have beautiful legs that turn heads and can still kick ass. Guys might be just playing a pick-up basketball game or a beer-league softball or hockey game, but if we’re going to put all that time in at the gym, nobody wants to move like the Tin Man on the court.
Well, here’s your “oil” Tin Man….
Most of the programs we see for legs are strictly for mass building or putting up powerlifting numbers. These workouts serve their purpose, and if your goal is to get bigger or put up huge numbers, go for it. Increase the volume, use eccentrics, hit those higher reps sets and don’t waste precious energy on anything else.
You also don’t need to mimic the running and jumping routines of Olympic athletes just to play in the local flag football league. It’s not necessary for most of us, and we’re not trying to win any medals anyway. We just want to maintain a decent level of athleticism.
If you want to get stronger, put on some mass and still move like the athlete you know you are, a balanced approach is exactly what you’re looking for. It’s also a lot more fun than just lifting weights.
Understanding Some Basic Science
Research has shown that speed/explosiveness is a very different attribute than maximal strength. Hypertrophy is different than both of those. That means that you can have one of these without having the other two.
It’s why we see powerlifters who can put up huge weight, but move like rocks. Their nervous systems are adept at producing maximal force, but general coordination and athleticism aren’t part of many of their routines.
And, we’ve all seen the massive bodybuilder who can barely walk, let alone run or jump. Most of their time is spent on building mass, so athleticism and functionality is completely forgotten.
Looking and performing equally well doesn’t have to be complicated or take a ton of extra time, but it does require a balanced training approach. For most of us, that means adding a little movement work and planning your lifts in advance so you are covering all your bases.
The Balanced Program
A 4-day, upper/lower split for this approach works perfectly. This split allows for enough time between workouts to use decent volume without completely over-training. It gives your legs plenty of time to recover between training sessions so you can add the power and movement work. The timing also allows enough frequency to elicit neuromuscular adaptations that create greater explosiveness and athleticism. It also gives you three days off from lifting each week so you can do something athletic.
Because we’re focusing on the lower body, I’m not even going to address the upper body. I’m sure you can find plenty of other routines for that, so here is the balanced lower body program along with videos of each exercise featuring Green Bay Packers defensive end Andy Mulumba:
2 x 20 2-leg line hops forward & backward
2 x 20 2-leg line hops side to side
2 x 20 1-leg line hops forward and backward
2 x 20 1-leg line hops side to side
3 x 10 1-leg 6” box jumps
4 x 5 Mid-thigh clean high-pull
4 x 5 DB Squat Jump onto box
4 x 8 Back squat
4 x 8 Super-set
3 x 6 Leg Press, Up with 2 legs, Lower slowly with 1 leg
3 x 20 Calf Raise
6 x 10 yard sprints
3 x 6 Lateral Jump Sprints
4 x 50 Jump Rope
3 x 6 Trap-Bar Deadlift
3 x 10 KB Swings
4 x 10 Super-set
Stability Ball Leg Curl
3 x 8 Super-set
1-Leg Glute Bridge
5 x :30 Incline Backpedal on Treadmill
Day 1 focuses more on jumping and explosive power, while the focus of Day 2 is more on speed/agility/movement. Both days will absolutely trash your legs if you use appropriate weights on the lifting, so it’s up to you to choose the correct weights that allow for adequate intensity while maintaining proper form.
Use gradual progressive overload to increase the weights when all sets can be performed properly.
Breaking Down Day 1
• The line hops are for foot-speed and ankle conditioning.
• The 6” box jumps are for lower leg stiffness which allows you to more fully utilize power during sprinting.
• I picked the Mid-Thigh Clean Pull instead of a traditional Olympic lift for several reasons:
o 1. It is your “heavy explosive” movement for the day.
o 2. A study in the U.K. by Comfort, et al clearly showed that the mid-thigh clean pull produced greater peak power and ground reaction forces than a full clean so you’re maximizing power production.
o 3. It requires much less technique than fully racking the weight in a clean.
o 4. I like the high pull better than the power shrug because it starts to integrate the timing of the lower and upper body during the movement.
o 5. If you’re not going to do any serious Olympic lifting, THIS is your movement. It is much less dangerous and technique intensive because you eliminate the rack position, yet you still get all the benefits of explosive lifting.
• The squat is your strength move for the day.
• The super-set of lunges and glute/ham leans will increase size and functional strength.
• The eccentrics on the leg press are for hypertrophy (see my article on Getting Big Using TUT for more in-depth explanation)
• High-rep calf raises seem to increase size better than low-rep sets, and skinny calves don’t look good on anyone.
Breaking Down Day 2
• Focus on accelerating as fast as possible on the short sprints. Take long breaks to ensure high-quality reps.
• The Jump-Sprints increase quickness and take advantage of the stretch-shortening cycle when you land just before a burst. This drill also works on deceleration and overall coordination.
• Jumping rope is for lower-leg muscle stiffness.
• Trap bar squat is your strength move for the day.
• KB Swings are a great explosive posterior chain movement.
• The first super-set will fry your legs.
• The second super-set will hit your glutes and groin.
• The leg extension is put at the end so you don’t have to use heavy weight, and I only use the top 45° to maintain tension and reduce shear force. Leg extensions certainly aren’t very “functional” but as long as they don’t create any knee pain, they can really help increase quad size.
• The incline backpedal on the treadmill is for coordination/movement and will make your quads scream. Start out at 15% incline at only 2-3 MPH and go for 30 seconds per set. Try to stay low and take long strides. On the last set, go as long as you can without falling.
These workouts should take less than one hour, and will give you everything you’re looking for – size, strength and explosive athleticism. You’ll be looking good and working even better.
If you haven’t been doing anything athletic or explosive, I recommend slowly working your way up to the full workout. In fact, most people should probably start out with HALF of the jumping/movement sets. So, instead of two sets of line hops, start off with one. Instead of 4 sets of clean pulls or box jumps, start off with two sets.
If you’re the upper-body-dominant kind of guy who rarely trains your legs very hard, you should also cut all of the lifting sets in half when you get started. Guys who don’t do much for their legs are going to be fried, so don’t feel like you have to jump right into it. I’d rather see you gradually work up to the whole program than jump in full-steam-ahead, and quit two weeks later because you’re so sore you can barely get yourself off the toilet.
As with any strength training program, you need to be progressive with the weights. For example, when you can complete all three sets of 6 reps on Trap Bar Squats, it’s time to increase the weight by five pounds. Increase the weight in small increments so your body barely notices, and record your reps and weight for maximum effectiveness.
Pain with any of the jumps or movements means you should stop and find a suitable alternative that doesn’t hurt. Real big dudes may feel some of this in the knees at first, so ease into it. If you’ve had some issues in the past, that’s an even better reason to go slow with this kind of program.
For those of you who are total bad-asses and have no orthopedic issues, go for it. Give it a shot and enjoy the results.
You’re going to enjoy the feeling of explosiveness you start to feel after a couple of weeks. You’ll be able to jump higher, run faster, and cut quicker. And, you’re legs will start to look better and more defined than ever.