In previous fitFLEX articles, we wrote that the lunge was the best substitute exercise for the full squat. Many have problems with this exercise too. Some simply don't like lunges. I've found one of the major reasons why people do not squat
or lunge is that they have a physical situation in their shoulders that prevents them from racking a barbell on their back. Of course, you can do lunges and squats with dumbbells, but the barbell is more effective for building strength.
Luckily, there are other ways to strengthen the lower body. One of the best exercises is the conventional deadlift. The deadlift works the same groups as the full squat and lunge, but in a slightly different manner. This feature makes it an ideal lower-body exercise for the individual who wants to improve his hip and leg strength but cannot squat or lunge. For the deadlift to be a productive hip and leg exercise, the bodybuilder must keep his hips very low at the start. Beginning with the hips high makes it more of a back exercise.
The form on the deadlift is simple, but I will go over some basic points in regard to doing it to enhance hip and leg power. Step up close to the bar - so close that it touches your shins. Use a standard overhand grip rather than a reverse grip unless you are planning to enter a powerlifting contest. The reverse grip places an uneven stress on your back and it doesn't allow you to bring your traps into the finish as readily as the overhand grip. Use straps if you are doing deadlifts as a core exercise.
With a very flat back lower your hips and keep them low as the bar moves off the floor. Your hips should come up at the exact same rate as the bar. If you are doing deadlifts strictly as a back exercise, this form point isn't as important. If you are doing them to work your hips and legs more than your back, make sure you use a low starting position on every rep.
Keep the bar close to your body on the way up, pause at the top, and then lower it in a controlled manner. As you lower the bar, lower your hips as well so that when the bar touches the floor, you are in perfect position to do the next rep with ultra low hips. Lowering your hips on the descent helps to activate the groups you are targeting much more than if you lower the bar with straight or slightly bent legs.
I like to change the reps on the deadlift every time I do them. An effective sequence is 5 sets of 8 at one workout, 5 sets of 5 at the next, and 3 sets of 5 followed by 3 sets of 3. The triples pull the 8's up and the 8's and 5's help build a broader base.
Another useful hip and leg exercise is one that has been largely forgotten, but it was a part of every strongman's program in the early days of bodybuilding: the hack lift using a barbell. I will get to the hack machine later on, but that is an entirely different movement from the hack lift off the floor. The hack lift described here is also known as the straddle lift in some parts of the country.
The hack lift is said to have been named after George Hackenschmidt, the professional strongman of the early 20th century. Born in Estonia, he was known as "The Russian Lion." He invented and popularized the exercise known as the hack lift and claimed this single exercise was responsible for his powerful lower body and massive leg development. In 1902 he reportedly did 50 reps in the hack lift with 110 pounds.
The hack lift is great to put some variety into your lower-body routine. Since it's different from any other exercise, it will activate some new muscles and this is always advantageous. Like the deadlift, it is a simple movement, but you'll need to practice a bit before you will feel comfortable doing it.
Perhaps you have never seen a photo of anyone doing hack lifts, so I will explain in detail the technique. Straddle the barbell, facing a plate. Your feet will be shoulder width apart, toes turned slightly outward-the same position you would assume before doing a squat. One hand will grip the bar in front and the other behind. Squat down and grasp the bar firmly. You'll have to use some trial and error to find out exactly the correct spot, so that it's balanced properly when you lift it. For most people a grip about a hand's length from the center smooth part works well.
Keep your back rigidly flat and your torso erect. Do not lean forward at all. If you lean, the movement becomes a back exercise, and there are much better ways to work the lumbars. The purpose of doing hack lifts is to specifically hit the hips and legs, so keep your upper body perfectly upright throughout the movement.
Once you have secured your grip, lower your hips and push through the floor with your feet, all the while keeping the rest of your body tight. The bar will come up between your legs and touch your crotch. Pause at the top and lower the bar to the floor in a controlled manner. Don't let it crash downward because this impetus will carry you out of the correct body position. The slow lowering movement, as in the deadlift, helps build strength in the hips and adductors.
Start with moderate reps, 8's or 10's. If you do your first set with your left hand in front, change over and do the following set with your right hand leading. Looking straight ahead and putting most of the pressure on your heels will help you stay erect. Take a short break between working one side and then the other. I consider each hand position to be a set. You don't want to do hack lifts if you are breathing hard, especially while you're learning the form. You want to be fresh for each set so that you can concentrate on the technique.
The best practice is to exhale, inhale, then hold your breath at the top, but when you get into higher reps, you will be forced to pause at the bottom and take another breath. I start athletes with just the bumper plates on an Olympic bar: 90 pounds. They do 8 reps per grip, and start adding a couple of reps each time they do them until they reach 20 reps. Then they can use the same set and rep formula 1 suggested for deadlifts. Some trainers prefer to stay with 20 reps and add a couple of extra sets to increase their workload. Others like to do their hacks after they have completed their deadlift workout, 1 set per side. They use them as a back-off set and to hit their pulling muscles differently.
Another exercise which will allow you to work your hips and legs in a diverse manner is the wide-stance or sumo-style deadlift. This form of deadlifting has the lifter assume a wide stance and grip the bar inside his legs. It is useful for building strong hips and legs because you can assume an upright posture rather easily and do the lift more correctly when the hips are set very low at the start.
As in the hacks, looking straight ahead helps. You don't want your hips to come up quickly. They should move at the same rate as the bar. Wide-stance deadlifts are particularly helpful for improving strength in the adductors, which I consider key groups for building hip and leg strength.
If you've never tried sumo deadlifts, you might be surprised to find you're stronger doing them than in conventional deadlifts. Many of the top powerlifters utilize this style with great success. The form points are as follows: flat back, start low with the bar tight against your legs, and keep it extremely close to the finish. If it runs forward, you lose your leverage. The bar climbs up your legs and you should place it back on the floor in the same way.
Here's a form point I find helpful. When you grip the bar, hold it snugly against your shins, flatten your back and lower your hips, but don't think about pulling the bar upward. Rather, try to push your feet down through the floor while maintaining your solid starting position. Push down and out with your feet and the bar will glide upward almost magically. Once you break it off the floor, you've done most of the job because the meat of the sumo deadlift is in the first six inches. The rest is relatively easy. Don't get in the habit of rebounding the plates off the floor. This practice defeats the purpose of the exercise.
In addition to the exercises done with a barbell, you can improve lower-body strength by using machines. I like the hack machine more than any other, but there are good designs and not-so-good designs. The ones which are in combination with leg presses aren't nearly as useful as those made just for doing hacks, which really aren't hack lifts at all, but they go by that name in most gyms. For anyone nursing an injured back, hip or shoulder, those machines which allow you to assume a horizontal position and not have to grip anything with your hands are the best. Unfortunately they are rarely found in commercial gyms. Training rooms in colleges and rehab centers usually have them.
I also like hack machines that glide up and down smoothly at a 45-degree angle. These are beneficial to anyone with shoulder problems since you don't have to hold on to any part of the machine with your hands. You can place hands on the thighs, thus eliminating any strain from the exercise. I want a wide foot plate so that 1 can vary my stance from set to set.
I don't care for machines that start out with a fairly heavy weight, even before you add any plates. They can be downright dangerous. While on vacation a few years ago, I trained at a new gym where I decided to work my hip on the hack machine because it was giving me grief. I wanted to do high reps with a light poundage so put 25 pounds on each side. I didn't know the machine itself weighed 225 pounds, making my first set 275. It drove me to the floor like a guillotine. I was crunched up in a ball, but the stop pins were a few inches lower. After much squirming I squeezed out and decided to try something else.
Adjustable stop pins can help you feel secure when doing the exercise. They are particularly useful to the man who is using the machine to rehab a knee or hip and wants to slowly increase his range of motion.
Alternating sets and reps at subsequent session works well for hacks - 8s, 5s and triples - if you want to use them as a pure strength exercise. If you plan to do them as an auxiliary movement, do 2 sets of 20.
Leg presses are not my favorite lower-body exercise, but they do have their place if done sensibly. By sensibly, I mean using poundages that allow you to go low so that you involve all the groups of the hip and leg, rather than doing a short stroke with massive weights which work only the quads. Bodybuilders who pile every 45-pound plate in the gym (for show) on the machine and do partial movements, usually with a great deal of screaming (for attention), are not working their lower bodies nearly as much as those who use poundages that require them to work hard, but allow them to do full-range movements.
Even more ridiculous are those who stack on hundreds of pounds, move the stack a foot or less, then have a training mate, or two, assist them. This is like having someone carry you and then saying you're running.
When asked, most people who train with weights would say the leg press is less stressful to the knees than full squats, lunges or hacks. Not so. During the performance of a leg press, the knees are locked in position. Quite often this is not a good position for them. In contrast, the knees can move freely when doing a squat, lunge or hack. The problem is greatly magnified in the leg press if the person stops above parallel. He forces the knees, rather than the more powerful hips, to do the halting of the weight. More people injure their knees doing leg presses improperly than from any other leg exercise.
I am suggesting you use weights that let you go deep and maintain good mechanics. If your lower back rounds off the pad, take some plates off. If you feel undue stress in your knees, make the leg press an auxiliary movement rather than a primary one. I believe everyone would be better off using moderate weights for 8,10 or 12 reps.
Which of these exercises I've mentioned is the best for lower-body development? There is no best; the choice depends on the individual. I recommend you try them all and see which one makes you the most sore. Soreness indicates the exercise hit some unused muscles, and this is good. There's no reason why you can't include all of these movements in your yearly program. Just don't use them all at the same time. You might do sumo deadlifts and work the hack machine for a few months, then switch over to regular deadlifts and add in the hack lift with a bar ... or some other combination.
I don't believe you should do more than one of these exercises as a core movement in the same workout. I know many of the top bodybuilders present their routines where they do several of the exercises I mentioned in one session, but you have to keep in mind that bodybuilding is their profession. Most readers train as an avocation.
Another point I must make in my advice is for the non-juicer. When a person is using any form of juice, the rules change drastically. He can do much more work and recover faster. The average bodybuilder who goes to the gym three or four times a week to improve his strength and physique isn't afforded this advantage.
So work one lower-body exercise hard and follow it with another one for higher reps. This plan will help you grow in size and strength while keeping you from becoming overtrained. If you include squats in your routine, you can still use these suggested exercises as secondary movements to elevate your lower-body strength and improve your squat. What about the other leg machines? 1 recommend them, but they belong in the auxiliary category. Leg extensions, leg curls, calf raises and working on the adductor machine are all helpful. You can do a light set of these before working your primary lower-body exercise, but don't do several sets first or you'll tap into your leg workout too much. I advise using only two other leg machines per workout. Otherwise, your session will run too long.
Following your core lower-body exercise, bang the auxiliary work out quickly, in a circuit. Rapidly do 3 sets of calf raises alternated with 3 sets of adductors. Same with leg extensions and leg curls. If you're looking for a little variety in your lower-body program or are unable to squat or lunge, give these exercises a try.