Training your legs is vital to any fitness goal, whether you want to build total-body strength, gain weight and increase your lean muscle mass, improve athletic performance, lose extra body fat, or elevate your levels of free testosterone, says Drew Little, CSCS, a performance specialist at Michael Johnson Performance, a training facility in McKinney, Texas, where athletes go to train for the NFL Combine, NFL, MLB, MLS, NBA, and more. You need to train intensely; but you also have to train smart.
"It's important to have a balance [in your workout] of your lower body's fundamental movement patterns: vertical drive (squat variations), horizontal drive (single-leg knee-dominant variations, like lateral lunges), vertical draw (deadlift and Olympic lifting variations), and horizontal draw (posterior chain-dominant variations lying on your back or stomach, like glute bridges)," Little says. "These movements ensure there's no over-dominance of one muscle group, so everything works synergistically, and you have a balance that reduces the likelihood of injury," he explains.
While the majority of the workouts below are lower body-focused, they contain accessory exercises that train your upper, middle, and lower back to provide a base for your upper body to handle more weight for squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lift variations. There are also moves that train your core, which is important for increasing your trunk stability during leg-heavy workouts. And there are moves that work small muscle groups, like your traps and forearms, both of which are necessary for getting stronger and throwing around more weight.
Complete this warmup before every workout.
Thermogenics (3-5 minutes)
Jump on a stationary bike, bound, skip, jump rope, do calisthenics, or even play pick-up basketball. "These are all great ways to increase your core temperature, increase blood flow, and stimulate a sweating response to get your body primed," Little says.
Dynamic Flexibility (5 minutes)
Perform dynamic stretches, like prisoner squats, knee-to-chest squeezes, leg cradles, hip swings, straight-leg kicks, and lateral lunges. "These are all great exercises to improve mobility and help your joints become more mobile so the exercises can be performed with a greater range of motion," Little says. "This will increase the quality of the training session and impact your goals."
Glute Activation Movements (5 minutes)
"Mini-band exercises (with a band around your knees) are a great tool to activate and stimulate your glutes and hip stabilizers—two strong and powerful muscles necessary for high-quality training sessions," Little says. Walk laterally, forward and backward, and in a single-leg stance (athletic position actively spreading the band apart); these are all good starting points. "Perform 15-20 reps of slow controlled movements or 10 seconds per leg on the single-leg stance," he suggests.
BEFORE YOU BEGIN
In order to train with percentages, you need to know your 1 rep max.
It's also important to perform warmup sets before you jump straight into any workout. "Some people may only need a few warmup sets, while others might need to complete many before they're adequately prepared, so listen to your body." Little recommends.
Note: Use caution with these exercises. "If you've never done one before, make sure you can perform the movement proficiently and correctly before you try and add weight," he says. "Trying to perform these exercises with improper form will open you up to potential injury, set you back on your goals, or keep you from becoming as strong as you could potentially be." If you feel any pain, stop!