I want to kick this off by saying that if you could train only 1 region of your body, make it the lower half.
How many times have you heard from your parents, grandparents, teachers, and elders about their achy hips, knees, ankles, and feet?
How many times per day do you get up, sit down, walk, or need your legs to do something? See why they are so important?
Girls- Most of you already like or can at least tolerate training your legs. You are genetically inclined to feel your center of movement and mobility through your hips, and are innately, proportionally stronger in your legs than guys are. You already have a HUGE leg up on guys (pun is definitely intended) on training because you tend to move your hips and knees more naturally than we do.
Guys- If you want to keep yourself from doing ONE THING when you are working out, it is from becoming an upside down pyramid. No one likes to see a huge chest, back, and shoulders that fade into shrinking quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. If you want to look like a spartan, prevent injuries, and impress others, start training your lower body.
Why You Should Give a Squat?
Take it from a guy who hasn’t paid enough attention to strength before fitness became my career (Me slowly raising my hand at the back of the class), I should’ve pushed my quads harder to get stronger. My biggest problem was that I was running so often that most of my calories burned were going toward fueling long runs, NOT toward developing and strengthening muscle fibers.
I have always been a big fan of 4 day per week split training programs that incorporate 2 lower body/core days and 2 upper body days, but one of my biggest regrets is not working my legs to their full potential earlier in my training years.
So why is lower body training so important?
You name it, and it will probably help it!
- Injury prevention
- Stronger knees *(one of the most commonly injured joints)
- Hip mobility and flexibility *(another commonly injured area)
- Burns more calories! (*They take the most energy to MOVE!)
- Cardiovascular and muscular endurance
- Prevents osteoporosis and osteoarthritis
- Postural correction
- Reducing or eliminating low back pain
Variety in Lower Body Exercises
Squats and deadlifts are the two biggest staples in lower body training, but adding some variety to your training happens to be the spice of life and strength. Here are 9 of my favorite lower body exercises for building muscle, strength, and balance in your lower half.
We just got done talking about how we would be discussing more than just squats, but if we you can’t get the basics right, how are we supposed to progress?
- Hinge your hips backward as if you were sitting back into a chair
- Keep your spine neutral (flat back)
- Weight in your heels so that your knees don’t flex out in front of your toes
- Squat as low as you can comfortably in the beginning, and work on getting deeper from there
You may find some variance in how open or closed the hips are, but if you can squat with just your body weight using the key components above, you are going to have a solid foundation for building strong, sculpted legs.
Push your hips forward at the top of your squat and tighten your glutes so that you can incorporate your posterior muscles when squatting.
2) Deep Squats
Once you have mastered getting to 90 degrees with your body weight squat, it’s time to start working deeper into your quads and hips. Balance is going to be your best friend when you are working on getting your butt to the ground in a deep squat.
Make sure you are keeping your knees behind your toes all the way down. What I like to do to get a feel for my deep squat when I warm up is to get to the bottom of my squat and sit there for a bit to warm up my quads and hips. Then I will slowly wiggle my hips and shift my weight from one foot to the other before I come back up to the top of the squat.
Once again, make sure to push your hips forward and engage your glutes at the top of your squat.
3) Split Squats
Doing these squats weighted or unweighted may be one of your least favorite and MOST effective lower body exercises that you will do unilaterally (one leg at a time).
By using these squats in a split stance you are going to be able to identify muscular imbalances and double your leg muscles’ time under muscular tension which will increase the amount of calories that you burn during your workout. It sounds like a blast for sure, but split squats are anything but easy. Taking one of your legs almost entirely out of the equation dramatically increases the intensity of this exercise by putting most of your body weight on one leg.
Things to remember when performing a split squat
- Keep your upper body perpendicular to the ground
- If you can’t touch your back knee to the ground, think of your squat standards: Go as low as you comfortably can.
- When you lower your back leg, both of your knees should be at 90 degrees.
- Make sure that when you push up from the lowered position of the split squat, focus on keeping the weight in your front foot back in your heel.
- Push from your front quadricep and pull from your glutes to raise off of the ground
- Make sure your legs are fully extended at the top of this exercise
***Important Note: Anything performed in a split squat or lunge stance if going to be more difficult the more you keep your legs inline. If you are worried about your balance, start with a wider split squat stance, and work on closing that gap as your muscular stabilizers get stronger.
4) Bulgarian Split Squats
Taking your standard split squat to the next level, we are going to elevate your back foot to increase the depth that we can get from your split squat. Think of this like your squat vs. your deep squat.
Keep your back as straight as you can and keep your chest out. Make sure that your front knee stays behind your toes and that your weight in your front foot is focused in your heel, NOT your forefoot and toes.
Sound familiar? I hope so!
5) Walking Lunges
By far, one of my favorite leg exercises to work in when I am working out outdoors or on the go. Don’t feel like you need to rush through the motion of this exercise. Technique is king, not speed.
Focus on standardizing your steps so that every time you drop down for a squat you can feel that both of your knees are at 90 degrees.
6) Glute Bridge
You may think this sounds ridiculous for a guy to say, but I am not at all ashamed to say that I have really been working on my butt muscles for the last 8 months. My dad’s side of the family has been given the curse of no-butt-at-all syndrome, which makes it really uncomfortable to sit for long periods of time on hard chairs, benches, and bleachers. Ouch!
More importantly though, weak glutes and glute imbalances are some of the most common causes of poor posture and a weak back. See why it is so important to have a strong booty? Now you know why the Brazilian Butt Workout guy has gotten so popular.
Glute bridges can either be performed as static holds for a designated period of time, or for reps. Make sure that you squeeze your glutes at the top of the bridge so that you can maximize engaging your glute muscles. Keep your weight focused in your heels, NOT in your forefeet. For reps, make sure you hold 2-3 seconds at the top of the glute bridge.
If you want to take this exercise to the next level, you can increase the range and depth that this exercise hits your glutes by either elevating your feet, OR keeping your planted feet on the ground and elevating your shoulders on a bench, ledge, chair or platform.
7) Single Leg Glute Bridge
The single leg glute bridge is an awesome way to isolate one glute at a time, increase your work load, and double your time under tension. Focus on pressing one of your feet up toward the sky, and tightening your glutes at the top of the hold.
8) Kettlebell Swing
What can possibly get your glutes, hips, and quads stronger while increasing on your grip strength, sculpting your arms, and burning fat by elevating your heart rate? Well there is a few different options for that actually, but the kettlebell swing is BY FAR my favorite for putting it all together.
The aspect of this exercise that you need to keep in mind is that the power here comes from the hips, NOT your arms. So more accurately, the “kettlebell swing” should be called a “kettlebell thrust.” You can wear out your arms and shoulders for days doing this exercise incorrectly, or you can get hip-centric with your swing movement and get a lot more out of it.
- Stand with your feet slightly opened at about or a little wider than shoulder width apart.
- Retract your shoulder blades and push them down as if you were trying to tuck them in your back pocket
- Start moving your hips back and forth to get the kettlebell swinging.
- Thrust your hips to see if you can get your kettlebell to about chest level.
- Let the kettlebell fall back to you so that the insides of your forearms hit your inner thighs.
- Let your hips naturally move backward with the kettlebell as if you were sitting back into a chair.