Grinding out repetition after repetition in the leg press fully stacked with weights until total exhaustion - this is what crosses most people’s minds when they hear ‘Leg Day’. The squat is also essential for muscular legs and is considered the ‘King’ of leg exercises, but what other exercises can help us add that extra inch to our thighs?
Here you will find five exercises and exercise variations that can give your Leg Day the extra kick:
1. 1+ 1/2 Reps Bulgarian Split Squats
Bulgarian Split Squats should be a main staple and regular component of leg training. As a unilateral exercise they help to address any muscular imbalances in either leg, as each leg is trained individually, and therefore the stronger leg cannot assist as it could with exercises using both legs at the same time. The Bulgarian Split Squat also leads to a very balanced load to the front and back of the thigh musculature. The exercise becomes even more effective if each repetition is carried out with an additional half repetition at the turning point of the movement (therefore the name: 1+ ½ Reps Bulgarian Split Squat): The knee at the back is lowered until it touches the floor. This is followed by going up ‘halfway’, and then going down until the knee touches the floor again. Only then does the movement continue until the starting point is reached again (completely upright); then the 1 + ½ repetition is completed.
2. Deadlifts with a 4 second eccentric phase
It’s obvious that deadlifts are not a newly discovered exercise. However, through emphasis on the eccentric phase it is possible to set a new stimulus for hypertrophy. The slow lowering of the barbell (eccentric phase) isn’t just there to get you into the good books of the gym owner, but is also recommended for the deadlift. During this phase you can achieve a nice stretch of the hamstrings, and the longer eccentric phase means the muscles have to do more work. This ‘extra’ bit of work leads to a higher training stimulus for the hamstrings and glutes, even if less weight than usual is used for these deadlifts.
3. Belt Squats
Belt Squats are a nice variation that allows you to completely deplete your legs. They can be used as an alternative to the leg press (if there isn’t one available), or if you want more variety in your leg training. The Belt Squats not only help you get stronger legs, but the movement pattern of this exercise simultaneously prepares the muscles optimally for barbell squats. Belt Squat machines are still very rare in Germany, but the following alternative is as effective: you load the dip belt with weights and stand on two benches. Then you can perform a normal squat with the weights dipping in the gap between the two benches during the squat. It is possible to go until complete exhaustion without compromising the technique. As the weights are hanging from the belt and aren’t supported by the shoulders or the hands, this exercise is especially spine-friendly.
4. Step ups mit Resistance Bands
Steps ups are a classical leg training method. The challenge of this exercise is that the most demanding point, i.e. the initial knee flexion, is right at the beginning of the movement. In order to complete the Step Ups in a technically clean manner it is therefore necessary to select a weight which is actually too low for the upper portion of the movement. In order to overcome this deficit in load it is beneficial to add resistance bands to the barbells and to fix these to the powerrack. As the tension of the band increases during the movement it accommodates the load optimally during the strength curve. This enables total loading of the front of the quads / thighs.
5. No lockout Squats
This variation of the squat helps to achieve defined upper thigh muscles and is mainly known from videos of Chinese weightlifters. Here a normal squat is performed, but before the end of the extension at the hip and knee joint the next repetition is already initiated. This permanent muscular tension decreases the blood flow to the legs during the set. This leads to a higher metabolic cost, and therefore not only a burning sensation, but also more hypertrophy.
Leg Day Workout Plan
The golden rules of hypertrophy also apply to leg training. Therefore the following structure for a training session is recommended:
- A short warm up will get the body up to the optimal working temperature. This improves the working capacity of the muscle and reduces joint friction.
- Start with a main lift (e.g. squats or deadlifts) with 3-5 sets @ 3-6 repetitions. Following this should be one or two of the 5 exercises presented here, with 3-5 sets @ 8-12 repetitions. Those who want to (and still can), can add one to four so-called isolation exercises (e.g. leg extension, leg curl, abductors, calf raises) with 1-5 sets @ 12-20 repetitions each.
If you’ve done everything correctly you’ll want to take the lift instead of the stairs after training!
Author: Sebastian Kaindl. Sebastian is a Sports Scientist (hons), head coach at Kaindl Athletic System, state coach for powerlifting and is himself an active member of the national team.
Disclaimer: The exercises, training and/or nutritional information and recommendations presented in this article/video are to be followed at your own risk and do not substitute personal and/or individual advice. Medical advice should be obtained beforehand by anyone under 18 years of age, by individuals with health restrictions (especially orthopaedic or internal complaints/conditions), and by women who are pregnant or breastfeeding. If problems are encountered when applying the training and nutritional methods, a doctor should always be consulted immediately. No liability is assumed by Active Nutrition International GmbH.