“You make me feel weak in the knees. Just kidding, yesterday was leg day.”
It’s Valentine’s Day and this is a blog about leg day. I couldn’t resist the above quote to kick it off.
Speaking of all things love, I love leg day. Especially the past few months, as I’ve been preparing for marathon season and a new strategy to build speed, I’ve really been pushing my leg workouts. I used to keep them pretty light and basic, and rely on running to keep my legs strong. In fact, I would regularly skip leg day while training for races and focus my energy on different types of distance and speed work.
I’m almost ashamed to admit that. Me, the person who loves and preaches lifting! But it’s amazing how much the mind can shift from a mentality of “lifting, cardio” to “miles, speedwork, MORE MILES!” when a big race is coming. I think any runner can relate. Not to mention the amount of energy it takes to keep up with all those daily and weekly mileage goals, often there’s not much left over to devote an hour to a good leg session. Plus, the fact there’s no room in the schedule to miss a run due to post-leg day soreness.
But I’ve become more and more addicted to leg day and it’s showing through in my runs, proving it’s something I have to work into my weekly training schedule. Rather than try to fit in a weekly 50-60 minute dedicated leg session, my strategy has been to shoot for one 30ish minute leg workout each week. Thus far, that strategy has been going well! So I’m excited to share some of my favorite leg day exercises. Putting all of these together, it would easily take more than an hour to complete so I’ve been picking a few exercises from each category to get a solid workout in just 30 minutes.
Those of you looking to mix it up or who aren’t sure where to start with a leg workout, do the same! Choose a few and it won’t take long to get in a solid lower body workout. I especially like this option vs. pre-built workout routines you have to follow exactly as they are – Day 2 & 5, these exercises, in this order, yada, yada, yada. Next week, it’s Day 3, 5 & 7, now these workouts, with these weights, blah, blah, blah. It’s hard enough getting people motivated to work out, let’s not complicate the workout to make it less enticing. So choose what you’re feeling (or what’s available at the crowded gym) and go! Just start with the heaviest weights and biggest muscle groups, and work you way down.
Disclaimer: Please excuse the simplicity and poor lighting of the demo photos. I’m uncomfortable taking gym selfies (and I judge people who do it for the sake of their own vanity) so I had Chris take these in our basement with his phone – which is also why there are no bars, weights or equipment, but I think you’ll get the idea.
The foundation of any lifting program is typically squats. Obviously, they’re awesome for your butt and legs, but did you know squats are among the best ab workouts too? Think about it: You have to keep your body perfectly stabilized and engage your core the entire time.
Just as with real estate it’s location, location, location, the key with squats is form, form, form! Good form is essential for getting the most out of your squat but, more importantly, to avoid injuries. Engage your core and imagine you’re about to sit down in a chair. That’s how you should squat. Stick out your butt, keep your chin and chest up, and don’t let your knees cave into each other.
1. Standard Back Squats
Load up a bar or grab a couple dumbbells and you’re ready to go. Keeping good form, lower into a squat, pause, then pop back up.
2. Dumbbell Squats
Grab a set of dumbbells, a little lighter than what you’d choose for a shoulder press, a bit heavier than what you’d choose for curls. Using an overhand grip, balance the weights on your shoulders, elbows out and perpendicular to the floor. Perform a standard squat, keeping your elbows stabilized.
3. Pulsing Kick Squats
A form of a goblet squat, these add a little extra “kick” for your inner thighs. Grab a dumbbell and hold it at your chest. Lower into a squat but rather than pop back up, pulse it for two beats, then explode up with all your weight shifted to your right leg, kicking your left leg out to the side, punching with your left arm. Come back to the start. Do your reps, then switch sides.
Another staple in most exercise plans, lunges are obviously good for your legs, but offer additional benefits. They’re great for balance, strengthen your hip flexors (crucial for runners) and some types are a functional exercise (i.e. walking lunges) that give you more bang for your buck.
As for form, it’s pretty basic. Keep your chin and chest up, and don’t let your front knee get past your front toe. When doing static lunges, approach them in a “train tracks” stance, meaning allow some room between your feet, don’t try to place your back foot directly behind your lead foot.
1. Standard Lunges
Again, load up the bar or grab some dumbbells and you’re set. Keeping good form, lower into a lunge, pause, then pop back up. Repeat for both sides.
2. Walking Lunges
That whole idea of a functional exercise? Here it is. Grab that loaded-up bar or some dumbbells. Step forward, drop into a lunge, then push up and end with your feet together. Alternate sides.
3. Curtsey Lunges
Stand feet hip-width apart, dumbbells at your sides. Keep right foot planted, swing your left foot behind you and lower into a “curtsey” motion, keeping your arms stabilized at your sides and your back straight. Pop back up and step back to starting position. Repeat for all your reps, then switch sides.
Ask any expert in the fitness world for his or her top three exercises, you’re likely to hear deadlifts on that list. These are among the best strength builders for your lower body but they offer some upper body benefits too. Plus, they’re a real-life exercise – what does that mean? Well, remember in school, when knew you needed to learn trigonometry but were unsure of when you’d actually use it in real life? The deadlift is the exact opposite of that. You’ll use that strength and motion all the time in real life – think lifting boxes, groceries, even your children.
There are a couple variations you can do; some add a little more focus to your lower back and balance.
1. Standard Deadlifts
Grab a bar or dumbbells and grab with an over or underhand grip, whichever is more comfortable (I prefer overhand, as it helps me keep my knees stabilized and from caving in). Keep a slight bend in your back, bend at your knees until the weights touch the ground. Then, pop back up.
2. Stiff-Legged Deadlifts
Don’t take the name too literally, you should have a slight bend in your knees when performing this exercise. Grab a bar or dumbbells; again, you can choose an over or underhand grip. Bend at the waist, keeping the weight very close to your legs. Slowly lower to at least your mid-shins or all the way to the floor, then pop back up.
3. Single-Leg Deadlifts
This variation of deadlift takes a lot of balance. You might want to start with no weights or just one weight until you get the motion and balance down. Hold a weigh in each hand. Place all your body weight on your right foot. Bending at the waist, lower the weights to the ground, while keeping your left leg straight. When your hands are at the ground, your back leg should be straight out. Pop back up, yet don’t let your left leg fully touch the ground unless you need a balance check.
This is one exercise where the motion is the same, it’s the equipment that can vary. One, you can vary the height of the box you choose. Two, the weight source and placement can vary. You can place a bar on your back, hold a dumbbell at each side or forgo weight entirely. Simply step one foot on the box and, in a controlled motion, swing your opposite knee up. Swing that leg back and step to the ground, then step down with the other. Switch your starting foot and do it again.
The donkey kick is a great booty-builder. There are a few different ways these can be done; the motion is the same so choose the one that fits your abilities and equipment availability (or lack thereof).
1. On the Dedicated Machine
Most gyms will have a machine that’s designed for donkey kicks. Choose your weight, grip the handles and don’t let your back sink in while performing the kick.
2. On the Smith Machine
In general, I’m not a big fan of workout machines, the Smith Machine included. For squats, shoulder presses or anything really, I feel you lose out on the added challenge of maintaining the stability you’re forced to have with free weights. But there are exceptions to every rule, donkey kicks is one of those exceptions. This is a great machine that allows you to load up the weight and be able to safely support it with one foot. Grab a mat and assume a cat-cow yoga pose with a flat back. Position your foot directly underneath the bar, then kick it up and slowly lower it back down.
3. On a Mat
Similar to the position and motion of a Smith Machine, but without the machine. You can do this at home a resistance band or something light weight. If you don’t have a band or weights at home, find something. I once read an article about a former anorexic who couldn’t lift even a 5-pound dumbbell at the gym so she started out by curling cans of soup – trust me, you can find something.
As you see, there’s nothing cutting-edge, complex or fancy here – squats, lunges, deadlifts, those are among the most common workouts and they have been around forever. But that’s because they’re so effective! Plus, you can do a ton of variations of each.
These are just a few of my favorites – what are yours? I’d love to know what you’re doing and I’m always looking to add new options to my leg day workouts! Post a comment or Tweet me, @runlikeagirl311.