Weight rooms the world over are filled with athletes building stronger legs with Squats, Deadlifts and Lunges. But are they really getting the most out of their training efforts? I'm all about training in the most bio-mechanically efficient way possible. That's why I've laid out three tips to help you build stronger legs without unnecessary joint strain—or the need to use weights that are so heavy you feel like your head is going to explode!
Strike up the bands
By now, just about every athlete and strength coach adds bands to lifts like Squats and Deadlifts to provide resistance. Presenting less load at the bottom of the lift and adding resistance as you approach the lockout position is an excellent way to work on increasing explosiveness and acceleration.
You can also use mini-bands for elastic resistance. Place the band around your thighs just above your knees to increase glute recruitment and promote better knee-tracking—especially if you tend to "knee-in" when you squat due to glute weakness and excessive pronation.
Because they call for a slight to moderate reduction in the amount of weight used, Mini-Band Squats and Deadlifts can also take a lot of stress off the lumbar spine area. This reduces lower-back discomfort from the anterior pelvic tilt used to hold the movement. Strain on the lower back can lead to chronically tight hip flexors and lumbar extensors—especially if you aren't good about following through on soft tissue work and mobility/flexibility training.
I've used the mini-band technique quite often, with good results. My athletes are amazed at how much harder their legs are forced to work—despite the load sometimes being reduced by as much as 50 to 75 pounds. Not only do their legs often tremble after particularly tough sets, but I never hear a peep about any sort of lower-back discomfort
Since many sports movements happen with most of your body weight supported by one leg or the other, doesn't it make sense to include at least some unilateral exercises in your program? Not only will exercises like Bulgarian Split Squats, Unilateral Romanian Deadlifts and Standing Cable Abductions lead to greater muscle recruitment (and less joint stress), but they also carry with them a whole host of other athletic benefits. Working one leg at a time requires better balance, coordination and spatial awareness—all of which will transfer well to your on-field efforts.
Take a pause
There's definitely a time for explosive movements in the gym. Things rarely happen in a slow, controlled manner out on the playing field, so at least some of your weight room training should be geared to meet those specific demands. That does not mean you should bounce, jerk, or otherwise try to propel yourself through the range of motion when using heavy loads.
Pausing at certain points during lower-body exercises like Squats, Lunges and Deadlifts can be an excellent way to increase the metabolic demand of the exercise and prepare your body for holding static positions under load. This will help when you have to hold a set position for several seconds before reacting to an auditory or visual cue on the field. Think of a linebacker in a low, athletic ready position as he awaits the snap, or a swimmer with her legs coiled and ready to push off the starting blocks at the sound of the gun. In both instances, these athletes need legs strong enough to hold their position without succumbing to fatigue, before exerting force into the ground to move.
Sticking the bottom of a squat for 2-3 seconds per rep—or holding the contracted position of a Glute Ham Raise for an extra couple of counts—are great ways to intensify these exercises. They also expose your muscles to the various demands they'll will confront when you're playing your sport.
The next time you're all set to hit the iron with reckless abandon, consider incorporating these tips. They're not meant to replace heavy lifting entirely, but they can be a great way to help you bust through stubborn training plateaus—while giving your joints a much needed break in the process.
- Lower-Body Workout for Bigger and Stronger Legs
- Why Your Legs Are Small and Weak, and What To Do About It
- Ask the Experts: How Can I Avoid the Feeling of Heavy Legs?
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