Never Miss A Leg Day

Strong legs are the key to athletic achievement and active longevity in your golden years.

It used to be the case that if you googled ‘Never miss a leg day’. You’d get photos of impressively-muscled upper bodies with comically under-developed legs. You still do, it’s just that these days the photos are more-than-likely photoshopped for even more startling results.

Overwhelmingly these photos were of men; obsessed with the ‘money muscles’ in the arms and chest, without having given enough thought to their overall look. But strong legs not only look good, they’re key to keeping you active in your golden years.

In my early 40s, I had recovered from two back surgeries and the recuperation had gone so well that I was itching to get back on the football field. Once I did, the back held up nicely but the hamstring went at the first time of asking and it wasn’t long before my calf, groin and even the rectus femoris muscle (upper, front area of the thigh) were tearing. These led to frustrating periods of recovery, inhibiting my chance to progress in what at times seemed like a vicious circle.

I shared my exasperation with a sports physio, unable to comprehend why my torturous stretching routine wasn’t preventing these disruptions. It’s less about stretching and more about strengthening, I was told. And that was it – a new and exciting path to leg work ensued, which not only felt better but made my look better too.

So, having spoken to athletes, physios and listened to my own body, what are the three great exercises you can incorporate into your Gym Pod leg day work out?

1. Squats
This is the first exercise the physio therapist asked me to do and seems to activate every muscle in the lower body. By standing up straight, with feet planted shoulder width apart, bend the knees to about a 90-degree angle, then pop back into to the upright position. That’s one squat. 

Building up your repetitions is the goal but variations include: (a) weight assisted squats, where you might hold a dumbbell with both hands; (b) power squats, where you the upward pop is enhanced with more drive, such that your feet leave the ground with a jump (this can be on every squat or perhaps every five or so); and (c) my favourite, where instead of knocking out a mind-numbing 60 squats, you go for 100 by first completing 20, then shake it out with a walk for 20 seconds, then go with another 20 and so on.

2. Lunges 
These are perfect for that ‘good’ pain you get 24-36 hours later; the pain that means you’ve pushed yourself hard enough for those all-important micro-fibre tears to morph into repair mode and build stronger muscles. It’s all about the glutes (gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and the gluteus minimus i.e. your butt). If you’d just played squash yesterday for the first time in ages, you’ll be feeling stiffness in the same area. 

Stand tall just as you would for a squat. Now take a big step forward with right leg letting your heel hit the floor first. Lower your body until right thigh is parallel to the floor and right shin is vertical. Finally, press into that right heel to drive back up to starting position. Repeat with the left leg. 

3. Dead lifts
Former UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin says the dead lift is his favourite lift of them all. Be careful with this one though. As well as being great for the hamstrings and butt, it greatly strengthens your lower back. But that means it could also damage your lower back if you have an issue there or your form is wrong.

A dead lift involves lifting a bar from the floor, with straight arms, up to the waist and then replacing it on the floor. In short, the correct form is about preventing your back from hunching. Instead, keep your chest out and stick your butt out, such that you probably don’t want anyone standing behind you. There’s a fine line here between doing it right and doing it wrong. My advice is to take a look at some YouTube videos then get a qualified instructor to take you through the movement and guide your form. Start without any weight and just get that form right. Introducing a weight stick or something similar and eventually a curling bar or an Olympic bar with weights will be your goal. 

It’s an investment that your back and legs will thank you for but get that important help first to prevent injury.

Finally as a bonus tip, think about the stability of your knees. Have some support on hand for you to grab hold of and see if you can balance on one leg, with the knee very slightly bent for 30 seconds. In time, you can ramp this up by holding a dumbbell on one side of your body, thereby forcing your knee to compensate. Ensuring good stability in the knee will help prevent injuries and promote activities that go a long way to ensuring the lower body strength you’ll need to have an active future.
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