The Ultimate Guide to Leg Workouts
By Tyler Woodward
You know the motto, everyday is leg day. Let's be honest, everyone wants big arms and a thick back, but there's nothing more envied than some sleek legs, calves and a nice ass. Here's everything you need to know about how to get a complete principle-based legs workout.
Leg Anatomy 101:
Let’s talk legs! For the purpose of this article we’re going to divide the leg muscle into three categories:
- The Lower Leg Muscles
- Calves - Gastrocnemius & Soleus
- Shin Muscle - Tibialis Anterior
- The Upper Leg Muscles
- The Quadriceps - Front of Leg
- The Hamstrings - Back of Legs
- The Adductors (groin muscles) - Inside of Legs
- The Hip Muscles -The hip muscles are those attach to and around the pelvis. The muscles that attach in front of the hips and pelvis are known as the hip flexors, while the hip extensors are located behind the pelvis
- Hip Flexors - Responsible for bringing your legs up towards your chest
- The iliacus
- The Psoas
- Hip Extensors- Responsible for bringing your “extending” your legs back behind your body
- Gluteus maximus
- Gluteus medium
- Gluteus minimus
The Lower Legs:
The lower leg muscles are much simpler to view, so let’s start with those. The calf muscles, the gastrocnemius and soleus, are responsible for plantar-flexing the feet aka pointing your toes. The gastrocnemius muscle crosses over the knee-joint, so when you perform a seated calf-raise it is in a severely disadvantaged position and the soleus muscle is forced to take over. All other calf raise straight-knee calf raises variation will use both muscles. The tibialis anterior is often called, “the shin muscle” and is responsible for dorsi-flexion , bringing your foot up towards your shin.
The Upper Legs:
The upper leg and hip muscles get a bit more complicated as there is a large amount of overlap between them and they generally have multiple functions.
- The Quads - the muscles in front of the leg, are mainly responsible for knee extension or straightening the knee. The quads will primarily dominate in the squat, lunges and knee-bend type movements. The more your knee bends, the more “quad-dominant” the exercise will be.
- The Hamstrings - are the muscles in the back of the leg and are mainly responsible for knee flexion and hip extension. Knee flexion occur anytime you bring your feet towards your glutes, typically referred to as a hamstring curl. Hip Extension occurs in “hinge” movements or basically when you stick your ass out as far back as possible behind you.
*Note* - It might be beneficial to think of the quads and hamstrings like the triceps and biceps of the lower body respectively. They function in a nearly identical manner and both cross two-joints or are “bi-articular” muscles.
- The Adductors - The muscles inside of your legs and are responsible for “adducting” the legs or bringing the upper-legs in towards the body/midline. The wider your feet are in a squat or deadlift, the more adductors will be involved and generally the less glutes.
- The Gluteus Maximus - The primary hip extensor of our body and is responsible for “extending” our legs behind our body. Think along the lines of a step-up or a hinge type movement in which the upper-leg is moving a lot, but the shins stay vertical (not a lot of knee extension/quads).
*Generally, at least two of these muscles will be working at the same time during most leg exercises. *
- The Gluteus Medius - The gluteus medius is also hip extensor, but works more at about a 45 angle, kicking the leg out behind our body and slightly to the side.
- The Hip Flexors - The hip flexors are the exact opposite of the glutes and are responsible for hip flexion, pulling your legs up from behind our body towards your stomach. One of the four muscles of the quadriceps, the rectus femoris or rec fem, also attaches to the pelvis and therefore functions in part as a hip flexor.
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Muscle Physiology 101:
As a child if you ever played around with the chinese finger trap toy, this is exactly very similar to how your muscles work. Your muscles are attached to a bone on either side, bridging the gap between them. Just like with the chinese finger trap as one bone moves towards the other, the finger trap begins to shorten. The same thing happens when you flex your bicep, creating the notorious bicep bulge. When the bones are moved away from one another they stretch apart, again just like the chinese finger trap.
Last to grow your muscles you must put enough stress onto your muscles to break them down in part, so they can grow back stronger. We often think of muscles just as one big unit, but in reality they’re made up of hundreds to thousands of individual muscles. So when you perform low intensity movements like scratching your head you’re only using a few of these muscle fibers. In order to grow muscles, we need to use our “strongest” muscle fibers which only activate when we approach failure within a given set or exercise. These are known as your high-threshold motor units. As you get stronger it takes more weight and intensity in order to recruit these last-standing muscle fibers, this is known as progressive overload.
Read More: The Ultimate Guide To Shoulder Workouts
There are a few ways or adaptations that can occur in our muscles cells that result in increased size and strength of our muscles:
- Myofibrillar Hypertrophy - Myofibrillar hypertrophy is the process of increasing the amount of contractile protein in our muscle fibers, so our muscles are capable of producing more force. This occurs predominately during heavier resistance training in a muscles lengthened position.
- Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy - Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the increase of fuel storage, aka glycogen, within a muscle. This is often referred to as "cellular swelling" due to the increased water and sugar that is stored alongside the glycogen. We can bias sarcoplasmic hypertrophy through "pump" training, overloading a muscle in its shortened position with shorter rests between sets.
Having a basic understanding of physics is key to understand when an exercise is hardest. If you can tell where an exercise is hardest then you will understand at what point within a muscle's range of motion an exercise overloads and write your owns program accordingly. Torque is often referred to as the "rotational force" that is produced at joints, the same force that allows you to do a bicep curl as tightening a screw with a wrench. Luckily, there's a cheat code to physics in the gym. Whenever you are lifting free weights the exercise is always hardest/ torque is the greatest when the load (the weight) creates a 90 degree angle relative to your body. For example, when you knees are at paralel in a squat, the bottom of a bench or shoulder press, or the top of a dumbbell lateral raise. When you perform a cable exercise, the exercise is always hardest when the cable or load is the furthest from your body. This happens at 45 degrees in a cable lateral raise or at the top of a lateral raise. It gets a bit more complicated when addressing machines. Machines use a special mechanism use to change the resistance throughout the movement, so I won't go into those right now.
The Ultimate Leg Workout:
In order to build the ultimate leg workout we need to abide by the following principles:
- Take each of the leg muscle through their full range of motion while applying adequate resistance
- Utilize both mechanisms of hypertrophy to maximize your results
Notes - Because the leg muscles are so big and so strong it’s virtually impossible to hit all of them in one workout without overly fatiguing yourself. For this reason, on top of the overlap between the muscles, I always recommend splitting up leg training into at least two days mixed with other muscle groups.
Leg Training 2-day Myofibrillar
Hack Squat - 3 X 6-8 reps, 2-3 minutes rest between set
45 Degree Extension - 3 X 8 - 12 reps, pause for 2 seconds at the top, 2-3 minutes rest between sets
Seated Calf Raises - 3 X 10-12 reps, 1-2 minutes between sets
Romanian Deadlift - 3 X 6-8 reps, pause for 1 second at the bottom, 2-3 minutes rest between set
One Leg Cable Hip Flexor Curl - 3 X 10-12 reps alternating sides, 1-2 minutes between sets, no rest between legs
Leg Press Calf Raises superset Tibialis Raise - 3 X 8-10, 10-15 reps, 1-2 minutes between setsm no rest between the exercises
Leg Training 2-day Sarcoplasmic
Leg Extension Machine - 4 X 8 -12 reps, 30 - 60 second rest between sets
45 Degree Extension - 4 X 10 -12 reps, 30 - 60 second rest between sets
Seated Calf Raises - 4 X 10 - 12 reps, 30 second rest between sets
Lying Hamstring Curl - 4 X 8 -12 reps, 30 - 60 second rest between sets
Cable Hip Flexor Curl - 4 X 10 -12 reps, 30 - 30 second rest between sets, no rest between sides
Leg Press Calf Raises superset Tibialis Raise - 4 X 10 - 12, 10-15 reps, 30 second rest between sets, no rest between exercises
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This article is a demonstration of my understanding of the rules that govern our existence as humans, as we exist today. I don’t make the rules, I’m just trying to understand them and it should be noted that these ideas and beliefs may change over time as we learn more about the human body. My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across on this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. And please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.
Thanks for reading!
Until next time… be good
B.S. Physiology & Neurobiology