Ask dedicated weight trainees the following questions, and their answers will invariably be the same:
What are the hardest exercises for you? Legs and lower back.
What are the most productive exercise in your entire routine? Squats, leg presses and deadlifts.
What exercises present the greatest risk of injury? Squats, leg presses and deadlifts.
When your training isn't going well, what exercises do you dread? Squats, leg presses and deadlifts.
It's not hard to see the pattern here. The basic lower-body movements are both revered and dreaded-and with good reason. Over the years I've had a lot of success with lower-body training, and I'm probably one of the few longtime bodybuilders who can honestly say (well, most of the time) that I look forward to a hard lower-body training day." I'll admit that the ability to use heavy weights and higher repetitions on lower-body exercises came pretty naturally to me. Even so, in my middle 40s I seem to be getting stronger in that area.
During the past year I've done the following top sets at a bodyweight of 145 pounds: squat, 300x31; safety squat, 430x8; old-style vertical leg press, 750x20; stiff-legged deadlift, 300x20; Nautilus leg extension, 250x10. In addition, and probably more important, is the fact that I've had only one injury from lower-body exercises in more than 30 years of training.
Based on these experiences, I've developed the following step-by-step guidelines for effective lower-body-training sessions. I believe that this approach will work for everyone regardless of present ability level or aspirations.
Schedule specialization days. For hard workouts I prefer to do lower-body exercises only and not work any other bodyparts. Although some people favor total-body routines, even this low-volume half-body workout leaves me with little or no desire to do anything beyond my squats, leg presses and deadlifts. Dividing up my bodyparts this way also enables me to get in very hard, focused lower-body sessions in 45 minutes. That is the major advantage of split routines.
Focus. Lower-body training is difficult and requires a lot of concentration if you're going to accomplish more than just going through the motions (a practice that's not productive and is, in this case, dangerous). I'm not suggesting a long period of deep meditation before each session, just that you use whatever tactics help you to get relaxed and focused. If on any given day you're distracted and disinterested, you're probably better off postponing your workout.
Warm up carefully. Lower-body training required a well-planned warmup because most people use very heavy weights in lower-body movements A warmup like the one I use, which proceeds from general to specific, should prepare you physically for the heavy session as well as enhance your concentration. For lower-body sessions I generally extend my usual warmup practice, starting with four easy minutes on the Air-Dyne. Next I do 20 reps with just an Olympic bar on four movements-overhead presses, squats, stiff-legged deadlifts and rows. All this provides a good general warmup, and I follow it with a few simple upper- and lower-body stretches.
Now I move into my more specific warmup. I do a lot of sets here but using descending reps. After all, the purpose is to warm up but not drain yourself. Here's an example of my warmup sets if I'm planning to do 350x10 in my work set: 135x10, 205x5,275x3, 305x2, 320x2, 335x1, 350x1.
Notice that I end by doing a single rep with the poundage I'm going to handle in the work set. This really prepares me for the heavy weight. After this warmup I'm sure I can handle it, and I get my position just right. If I have any doubt, though, I'll either repeat the one-rep warmup or reduce the weight I'll use that day. This final one-rep warmup is so important that I even include it in sessions at which I plan to do 15 to 20 reps on my work set. Note also that if I wanted, I could claim that I perform seven sets of squats (six warmup sets, one real work set) while doing high-volume training. If you warm up properly, however, your warmup sets will be very different from the one or two real work sets you do.
Find your best squat position. Although there are ideal positions for doing squats and related exercises most effectively, keeping your body very straight and squatting deeply, not everyone has a physique that can fit into these ideal positions comfortably or safely. While you should never sacrifice form for the sake of adding more weight, it also doesn't make sense to attempt to use a form that feels unnatural to you.
A more general rule of thumb is to avoid very exaggerated movements. For example, you're better off keeping your upper body relatively straight when you squat and only squatting to slightly below parallel rather than squatting very deeply and not holding your body so straight.
To this end you also want to avoid using lifting suits, wraps and other paraphernalia. These accoutrements only allow you to lift more weight than your structure can support. Of course, you can lift more-but with a much greater risk of injury. The only exception to this guideline is the use of a lifting belt, which helps hold the torso straight.
Training experts debate the merits of placing a half-inch block under your heels for keeping yourself upright vs. squatting flat-footed. If you can stay reasonably straight in the flat-footed style, you're better off. There's less stress on your knees and less likelihood of slipping compared to getting into position on the block.
Limit your work sets. Since lower-body work is so hard when done correctly, one or two sets on any major movement is enough. There's an old adage that I think makes this point very well. If in a hard workout you really want to and can do another very hard set of squats or deadlifts, then you probably haven't done the first set hard enough!
If you've been doing a lot of multiple-set routines on lower-body movements, try reducing your session to one hard work set or several quad exercises and one hard set of one or two lower-back exercises. The shorter routine means more focus and effort and probably better results.
Warm up for every exercise. Movements are very specific. Even if you start your leg routine with squats and a similar warmup to the one described above, it's still a good idea to do one or two warmup sets on your other quad movements as well. For example, if I'm planning to do leg presses and leg extensions after the squats, I do one or two warmup sets of two to three reps for each exercise.
The brief time spent on these warmups adjusts your body and mind to the movements and also reduces your risk of injury. Although the rep range I use for quad exercises depends on the training cycle I'm in, for the sake of safety I usually do somewhat higher reps for quad and lower-back work than I do for my upper body. For example, I often do 20 to 25 reps for lower body when I'm in the endurance phase, 15 reps in the strength/endurance phase and 10 reps in strength phase.
Rest between sets. If your training goals include strength, it doesn't make sense to limit the time you take between sets of heavy lower-body work. I'm not suggesting that you rest five minutes or so between sets, but I am advising a two-to-four-minute interval. Besides enabling you to use more weight, taking a rest of that length offers another advantage. Your training won't become painful and something you begin to dread. Any benefit of taking minimal time between sets will be negated by your unwillingness to continue that kind of intense training for very long. Keep things hard and focused-but not aversive.
Include stiff-legged deadlifts. I almost always deadlift after quad exercises and, except on rare occasions, I do the stiff-legged variety. Compared to the regular deadlift, it provides greater range of motion with the added benefit of hamstring involvement. If you bend your knees slightly, you avoid most of the injury potential of this movement while still getting most of the benefits. In addition, unless you can easily touch your palms to the floor with your knees slightly bent, do not perform stiff- legged deadlifts from a bench or high platform. If you don't have the requisite flexibility, forcing yourself into an exaggerated position sets the stage for a very major injury.
Because deadlifts follow quads and because they are so difficult, I use a different type of warmup for them. I only do one-rep sets. For example, I might do 200x1, 250x1 and then a work set of 300x20.
I do use grips for deadlifts. I guess this breaks the paraphernalia rule, but with small hands and wrists I'm pretty limited in what I can do without grips. The grips allow me to deadlift more weight, so I can better develop my lower back and hamstrings. Deadlifts are so hard that I almost never do them in easy workouts. Instead I do nothing for my lower back at easy workouts, or perhaps I do hyperextensions.
Move on to leg curls. Not surprisingly, I do leg curls for hamstrings after my deadlifts. Form and feel are everything on this exercise. You must feel yourself perform a very full, complete movement. Otherwise it's a waste of time and effort. Furthermore, incorrectly performed leg curls-for example, when you use too much weight-inevitably result in strained or pulled muscles.
Another great exercise for ham-strings is the glute/ham bench. This is probably the only way to get an absolutely complete hamstring movement; that is, a full stretch and a full contraction. The movement resembles a hyperextension but involves your hamstrings in propelling you from a complete stretch position, as in the start of a hyperextension, to a point where your upper body is at a right angle to your quads. This is a difficult exercise and, again, if not performed correctly can easily lead to injury. For this reason I only use the glute/ham bench in easy workouts when I'm very focused on form.
Use the same approach on your calves. I believe in training calves the same way I train all my other bodyparts. The old argument that calves need very-high-volume sessions because they get a lot of work in everyday activities doesn't make sense. Everyday activities may provide considerable low-intensity volume work, but they just don't entail periodic calf raises with very heavy weight!
My advice is to train your calves exactly as you train your quads. Warm up very carefully on your first exercise and then do one very hard set with strict form-all the way down, all the way up, no bouncing. Next, move on to two or three other calf exercises, performing a one- or two-set warmup and then one hard work set for each. You'll be surprised at what three or four strict, hard sets of calf raises can do for your lower legs.
Include obliques on a lower-body training day. Obliques are tied into the lower back, and by doing deadlifts I've already warmed up for the major oblique movement, heavy dumbbell side bends. I used to perform multiple sets of this exercise, but it's a very difficult movement, and I've found I can put more into it by just doing one hard set. Then I move on to one or two other oblique movements, such as twisting cable crunches. A recent addition to my workout is the twisting side hanging crunch. This is a difficult exercise, but when you learn to feel and control it, it's very effective.
Cool down when you're finished. A hard lower-body session also needs to end in a special way. I go back and ride the Air-Dyne at an easy level for four minutes. After that I slowly stretch for at least five minutes. A lower-body day actually gives your whole body a pretty good going-over. Therefore, it's important to stretch your whole body. If you have time, I also suggest a slow, brief walk of 10 to 15 minutes. This cool-down and stretching will really facilitate your short- and long-term recovery.
Effective lower-body training is an absolute necessity for almost any goal, from minimal condition to world-class athletic performance. With proper preparation and precautions you can get the most effective leg and lower-back training from short, hard, focused sessions and correctly performed exercises.