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guy lifting a plateI’m going to say right off the bat that I normally am not a big fan of specialization programs which have a tendency to have a ‘one size fits all’ look to them. What works for one person may end up a waste of time for someone else. Ideally, I prefer that trainees get in the mindset of training MOVEMENT PATTERNS and not muscle groups. Not only in terms of establishing a balanced training program that will elicit a well rounded and strong body, but also to prevent nagging injuries.

Regardless, peruse most mainstream paper or online magazines and you will see hundreds of specialization programs designed to “chisel your chest” or “blast your biceps” or “scintillate your sternocleidomastoid.” Suffice it to say, most training programs you come across stress the upper body or focus on the ‘beach muscles’ that many frat boys look to fill out their UnderArmour shirts covet. Rare is the day when you find a program designed specifically to bring up your wheels (for those who aren’t familiar with gym talk, I am referring to one’s legs). And even rarer, is the day when you walk into a gym and see someone using the squat rack for its intended purpose or performing any form of posterior chain work. That being said, the following article is definitely geared towards novice or intermediate level trainees in mind, however I have a feeling that many quote-on-quote ‘advanced’ trainees will learn a thing or two along the way as well.


RIP Leg Extensions

A Dose of Reality

Walk into any gym on any given day and I guarantee you will see one of the following:

1. A teenage kid spending two hours in the gym training just his biceps or front deltoid.
2. A gym veteran performing endless sets of flat press, incline press, and decline press thinking that doing so, will hit his “upper, middle, and lower” chest.
3. An empty squat rack.
4. Someone using the leg press with 8-10 plates on each side using a ROM of 4 inches. As well as the token training partner screaming, “dude, you are a monster.”
5. Deadlifts? What are those?

The point is, most head to the gym with a mission on days they know they will be training their upper body (chest, biceps/triceps, etc), but those same people always seem less than ecstatic on leg days. Hence, why most leg workouts generally revolve around three sets of ten of leg press with a few sets of leg extensions and prone leg curls thrown in. I mean let’s be honest, for most people, lower body days consisting of squats, deadlifts, and/or various unilateral work: about as enticing as watching a marathon of Golden Girls on television for some.

Needless to say, I have grown weary of the lack of leg development in today’s gyms so I decided to take matters into my own hands and come up with a lower body specialization program that will undoubtedly alleviate the growing epidemic of ‘Chicken Leg Syndrome’ that seems to be running rampant in said gyms. However, what differentiates this program from most leg training programs you will come across are a few things:

  1. Absent are the staples of most lower body routines: leg press, leg extensions, prone leg curls, Smith Machine squats, etc.
  2. Because the above movements are absent and replaced with more “functional” movements, many will find that their ENTIRE body will grow and get stronger; not to mention athletic performance will improve.
  3. You will train heavy with compound movements.
  4. You will learn that three sets of ten is not the “end all, be all” of training parameters.

Well, let’s get to the program.

  1. Okay, I Lied

Actually, before I delve into the actual program, I want to first discuss some of the common mistakes that most trainees make when training their lower body or setting up a lower body specialization routine in general.

Not Using the Bread-n-Butter Movements

I am always amazed when I sit down with a new client and ask them what their goals are and all they can muster is the typical, “all I want to do is get big, I don’t really care about strength.” It’s sad to think that many feel that muscle growth and strength don’t go hand in hand, when in fact the two couldn’t be more interrelated:

FACT – a muscle’s ability to produce force is directly proportional to its cross sectional area.

FACT – strength training using compound lifts (generally in the 1-5 rep range), recruits the maximum number of motor units, recruits the ‘fastest’ motor units, and increases the frequency that these motor units are fired. All of which equate to a more efficient nervous system programmed to generate more intra and intramuscular force. In laymen’s terms: you will get stronger.

Granted, it is possible for someone to get stronger without necessarily adding much muscle mass (relative strength), but generally speaking, who do you think will be bigger: someone who can squat 150 lbs for ten reps or someone who can squat 250 lbs for ten reps? In order to get bigger AND stronger, you should perform movements that will actually make you bigger and stronger. You need to incorporate more neurologically demanding movements that will allow you to handle more weight while at the same time stimulating the nervous system to recruit high(er) threshold motor units which have a greater propensity for growth. .

Of course I am referring to various squats and deadlifts. These movements put the entire body under one huge isometric contraction forcing many muscle groups to work synergistically to help balance and stabilize you while performing these lifts. Something that leg presses, Smith Machine squats, back supported hack squats, leg extensions, and leg curls do not. When you put a bar on your back and proceed to squat, you are putting just about every muscle in your body to work. The same could be said for deadlifts. Look at anyone who has consistently deadlifted for a period of time. Notice the size of their back. It ain’t small is it?

Also, when you consider the fact that using a Smith Machine or anything else that forces you to perform a movement in a fixed plane of motion, causes many to develop what is known as Pattern Overload Syndrome (POS) – it becomes even more apparent why machines are inferior to free-weight movements. And while it has been highly debated on its efficacy and whether or not it actually plays a role in muscle growth, performing compound movements such as squats or deadlifts results in the body releasing increased levels of anabolic hormones such as testosterone, growth hormone, and IGF-1 compared to their machine counterparts. Thus, possibly explaining the reasoning why the ENTIRE body grows when focusing on such movements. Either way, these movements get people bigger and stronger. They should be a staple in everyone’s program and arguing as to WHY they work is minutia in my book.

Full leg development requires full range of motion. I say that with some reluctance, because most trainees either lack the flexibility and/or the posterior chain strength to properly execute a full squat or proper deadlift without looking like they are about to break their back in half. But I can’t stress enough the importance of trying to get a full ROM when performing all the movements in this program (specifically squats). I am not necessarily referring to an ‘ass-to-grass’ squat, but rather a squat where the anterior surface of the thigh (at the hip) is BELOW the top of the knees. Most weekend warriors and even the majority of gym veterans have a hard time grasping this concept and as a result, we have seen an epidemic of “QSS” (Quarter Squat Syndrome). No matter which way you look at it, a squat that is not deep is a partial squat, and in the end, the hamstrings and glutes get the shaft in terms of overall leg development.

Also, squatting with a full ROM allows the hamstrings and glutes to share the load and takes a lot of the burden off of the quadriceps and knees, preventing undue shear force on the patellofemoral joint. Think about it: which joint do you think is going to be able to handle more ‘stress’ or a greater percent of the load: the knee or the hip? Hopefully you went with the latter. So the simple lesson here, is to check your ego at the door and learn to squat with a full ROM with a load that allows to use proper form. Your knees will thank you.

An addendum: it’s inevitable that there will be numerous people reading this article that will shout, “But I heard that squatting deep is bad for the knees.” Ironically, these are the same people who proclaim that running on a treadmill is all they do to train their legs despite the fact that numerous biomechanical research has shown that the stresses imposed on the body by common activities such as RUNNING, jumping and hitting generally are far larger (by as much as 300%), than those imposed by powerlifting or Olympic lifting (1). Also, in a study done in 2001 on collegiate female athletes, the authors tested patellofemoral stress at different squat depths (70 degrees, 90 degrees, and 110 degrees). The conclusion: “Squatting from 70 degrees to 110 degrees of knee flexion had little effect on patellofemoral joint kinetics. The relative constancy of the patellofemoral joint reaction force and joint stress appeared to be related to a consistent knee extensor moment produced across the three squatting depths. The results of this study do not support the premise that squatting to 110 degrees places greater stress on the patellofemoral joint than squatting to 70 degrees” (2). How you like dem apples!?!

Unbalanced Split

This is a LOWER body specialization program. A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that “more is better” and continue to do the same amount of volume for their upper body when trying to bring up their lower body. Hello McFly?!?! How do you expect to make any sort of gains with your legs if you are wasting an inordinate amount of your energy still trying to increase the size of your upper body? Rest assured that limiting yourself to two 5×5 upper body training sessions per week will be more than enough to maintain your current strength levels and provide ample rest and recovery to allow your legs to grow like weeds.

As well, people tend to forget that the hamstrings/glutes (or specifically the posterior chain), are part of the lower body. This muscle group is probably the most neglected from a training standpoint and it is quite apparent when you walk into just about every gym in North America. Read or listen to most strength and conditioning coaches and the majority will proclaim that a strong posterior chain = a strong body and a superior athlete. Most people tend to have overactive quadriceps from training them predominately (leg press, leg extensions, squats, etc), while totally neglecting their hamstrings and glutes. This will not only lead to less than impressive legs, but will also more than likely lead to things such as chronic knee pain, lower back pain, tight hip flexors and tight hamstrings. All of which can cause a plethora of issues that will prevent you from being able to train in the first place. It is important to remember to have a BALANCED training split that incorporates movements that train the quadriceps and posterior chain equally. Doing so will help prevent and alleviate many of the above.

Isometrics: The Hidden Key to Muscle Growth and Strength?

For those who don’t know what an isometric contraction is, it’s a muscular contraction where the length of the muscle does not change. Think: pushing up against a wall. I give total credit to Brijesh Patel and Jeff Oliver of Holy Cross University for enlightening me on the topic. Essentially, there are several key theories (key word: theories) behind implementing isometric holds into a program:

1. Maximum Recruitment of Muscle Fibers: teaches the CNS to fire ALL muscle fibers.
2. Increased Strength at Weak ROM’s: albeit there is only a 15-25% carryover to other ROM’s.
3. Injury Reduction: little to no wear and tear on the joints.
4. Increased Tension: Time Under Tension is one of the key determinates of hypertrophy.
5. Mental Toughness: isometrics are mentally challenging and aren’t for the faint of heart.

I won’t go into too much detail, as the theory behind isometric holds as well as progressions/periodizations involved could constitute an article in of itself. But it stands to reason that they do seem to have quite a bit of merit in terms of having a place in any strength and conditioning program.

The following guidelines govern isometric training protocol: (3)

Intensity: maximal effort
Effort Duration: 5 to 6 seconds
Rest Intervals: approximately 1 minute if only small muscle groups, such as calf muscles are activated; up to 3 minutes for large, proximally located muscles (legs).
Number of Repetitions: usually three to five for each body position.
Training Frequency: four to six times a week with the objective to increase MMF (Maximum maximorum force); two times per week for maintenance of the strength gain.
Body Position: (a) in the weakest point of the strength curve, or (b) throughout the complete range of motion with intervals of 20-30 degrees, and ( c ) in an accentuated range of angular motion.

Not Taking Advantage of Unilateral Work:

This is probably the most important component that people forget about or are just too lazy to incorporate into their programs. Unilateral work serves several purposes. It helps to fix any weaknesses or imbalances that may exist between one limb or the other (in this case, one leg being stronger or weaker than the other). They also do a superb job at improving overall strength by forcing the hip adductors/abductors to fire and stabilize the body (namely the femur) while the body is breaking the frontal plane, which is especially beneficial for many athletes. This is also the reasoning as to why unilateral work helps to improve coordination and balance, which many people (athletes aside) drastically lack.

I see it almost everyday with the clients that I work with. Kids who sit in front of the television all day playing video games or older adults who have sedentary jobs in front of the computer, can’t perform a simple reverse lunge without falling over every other repetition. In the end, unilateral work has a HUGE carryover to sports. How many sports can you think of that take place entirely on two feet? And no, competitive eating is not a sport. Also, if there is anything that will help prevent the majority of knee problems that occur, unilateral work may be it. So do yourself a favor and start incorporating them into your programming. Your knees will thank you again.

Not Properly Warming-Up:

You’re junior high PE teacher was wrong for a few reasons. One: for wearing those super tight, thigh high shorts that made it look as if he were smuggling grapes across the border. And two: for requiring that you “warm-up” by taking a few laps around the track and then stretch for 5-10 minutes. Suffice it to say, I am willing to bet that the majority of you reading this article still follow this traditional, yet very archaic way of warming up. How does jogging on a treadmill for five minutes and performing STATIC stretching prepare the body for the rapid, more dynamic movement patterns of resistance training? It doesn’t. Instead, what many strength and conditioning coaches, as well as personal trainers, have been doing lately is to have their athletes/clients warm up by doing a DYNAMIC FLEXIBILITY routine prior to training. Basically what it entails is working on flexibility AND mobility through an active range of motion that targets the muscles and/or muscle groups that tend to be common ‘trouble spots’ for most people: mainly the hip flexors, hamstrings, glutes, scapula, and rotator cuff. Examples would include, walking lunges, overhead squats, Birddogs, glute bridges, scapular push-ups, and various hip mobility movements.

The idea isn’t to fatigue yourself, but rather, to break a sweat and prepare the body for movement. Doing so activates many muscles that tend to be ‘asleep’ in most people and does a superb job at stimulating the central nervous system. Simply hopping on a stationary bike and stretching for ten minutes doesn’t even come close to preparing the body for a serious training session like a solid dynamic flexibility warm-up routine does. For a great introduction, try to get your hands on “Magnificent Mobility” by Eric Cressey and Mike Robertson. This DVD will undoubtedly get you up to speed on the numerous advantages and benefits of dynamic flexibility. It’s in an easy to follow format with clear cut descriptions and demonstrations of over 30 different movements you can perform to help bring you to the next level of your training.

Okay, Enough Already

Let’s get to the program:
Monday: (Quad Dominant or Hip Dominant Day)

*Choose which one you want to start the week off with. I would suggest the hip dominant day, as most tend to have chronically weak hamstrings and it would be wise to train them when you are most fresh.

Tuesday: (Upper Body #1)

A1. Vertical Push (Dips, BB Push Press, DB Push Press, Standing military press (BB or DB), etc): 5×5
A2. Horizontal Pull (Seated Rows (various grips), DB rows, BB rows, Chest Supported Rows, etc): 5×5

NOTE: Throughout the duration of the program, make it a point to switch movements every 2-3 weeks

Wednesday: OFF

Light Aerobic Activity: 30 minutes of brisk incline walking would be ideal

Thursday: Opposite of what you did on Monday

*If you did your hip dominant day on Monday, today you would do your quad dominant and vice versa

Friday: (Upper Body #2)

A1. Horizontal Push (flat/decline/incline press (DB or BB), Close Grip Press, Board Presses, Floor Presses, etc): 5×5
A2. Vertical Pull (Pull-Ups, Chin-Ups, Towel Pull-Ups, etc): 5×5
NOTE: Throughout the duration of the program, make it a point to switch movements every 2-3 weeks.

Saturday/Sunday: OFF

*Eat lots of dead animal flesh, watch lots of sports and/or movies with Jessica Alba in a bikini, and call your mom you prick.

The Program (Phase 1: Weeks 1-4)

(QUAD DOMINANT DAY)

NOTE: Session should be preceded by a 5-10 minute Dynamic Flexibility warm-up.

 

Week #1

Week #2

Week #3

Week #4

Movements

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Back Squats

4

6

4

6

5

5

5

5

Walking Lunges

4

8

5

8

6

8

2

10

Natural Glute/Ham Raise

3

10

3

10

3

10

2

10

Isometric Split Squat Hold

3

20 sec

3

25 sec

3

30 sec

2

30 sec

Back Squat: For the first 2 weeks, use a load that is equal to your 8RM. For week’s #3-4, don’t be too concerned about leaving a rep or two in the tank on these. I’d rather you use your true 5RM, and focus on trying to complete ALL reps with one weight.

Rest Interval: 90-120 seconds

Walking Lunges: Pretty self explanatory: grab a pair of DB’s (or a barbell) and walk. Key points: chest up, shoulder back, land on your heels.

Rest Intervals: 60-90 seconds

Natural Glute Ham Raises: Obviously if you’re one of the lucky few who have access to a Glute/Ham Raise machine, use that. You can also do these with a partner’s assistance (he/she will just hold your ankles) or just pull a “MacGyver” and use a bench or a barbell to set your ankles under. Concentrate on lowering yourself as SLOWLY as possible, catch yourself in the push-up position and propel yourself back to the starting position.

Rest Interval: 60 seconds.

Isometric Split Squat Hold: (description from Neanderthal No More Series) (4). Position yourself as if you’re going to do a dumbbell split squat with the back leg elevated. However, instead of descending all the way to the bottom, we want you to hold at a position where the front leg is slightly below the 90 degrees knee flexion position.

Drive your front heel into the floor and squeeze the glutes and vastus medialis hard, keeping the chest high and scapulae retracted. Since the loading is pretty significant, you should fatigue, relaxing into a stretch for the hip flexors on the back leg. You may find it helpful to find some way to “fix” your back foot. The point between the back pad and seat on an incline bench works well, as do benches with built-in gaps (for switching from flat to incline). Or, you could just have someone hold your foot.

If you find that you are able to go longer than the prescribed times, feel free to add more time and increase by 5-10 seconds each week. If you’re able to go above 60 seconds, add resistance by holding onto a dumbbell in each hand.

Rest Interval: 60-120 seconds between each leg.

(HIP DOMINANT DAY)

 

Week #1

Week #2

Week #3

Week #4

Movements

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Romanian Deadlifts

4

6

4

6

5

5

5

5

Reverse Lunges

4

8

5

8

6

8

2

10

Split Squat

3

10

3

10

3

10

2

10

Isometric Squat Hold

3

20sec

3

25 sec

3

30 sec

2

30 sec

Romanian Deadlift: Make sure to keep the lower back arched and initiate the movement by bringing your hips back. Lower the bar to mid-shin level and explode up and squeeze the glutes at the top to finish off the movement.

Rest Interval: 90-120 seconds

Reverse Lunge: This movement is nothing but hamstrings and glutes. You shouldn’t feel it too much in your quadriceps at all. Just be sure to step back as far as possible and lunge down till your back knee just brazes the floor. Return to starting position and repeat with same leg. Once all reps are completed with one leg, proceed to opposite leg. Remember: chest up and shoulders retracted!

Rest Interval: 60-90 seconds

Isometric Squat Hold: Lower yourself into the proper squat position. Arms can be straight out in front of you, chest up, lower back arched, scapula retracted. Contract hard: drive your heels into the ground, hamstrings, quads, glutes, as well as your midsection should be firing. The object is to stay as rigid as possible while firing every muscle fiber you can.

If you find that you are able to go longer than the prescribed times, feel free to add more time and increase by 5-10 seconds each week. If you’re able to go above 60 seconds, add resistance by holding onto a plate across your chest.

Rest Interval: a tleast 120-180 seconds between sets.

Phase II: Weeks 5-8

(QUAD DOMINANT DAY)

 

Week #5

Week #6

Week #7

Week #8

Movements

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Front Squats

6

4

6

4

8

3

8

3

Bulgarian Split Squats

4

8

5

8

6

8

2

10

1-Legged RDL’s

3

10

3

10

3

10

2

10

Isometric Split Squat Hold (w/load)

3

20 sec

3

25 sec

3

30 sec

2

30 sec

Front Squat: The bar should lie across the “meaty” part of your shoulders, elbows should be pointing straight out (not down), and your chest should stay up throughout the duration of the movement. Also, it may be a good idea to make sure any children nearby have their “earmuffs” on after the completion of each set.

Rest Intervals: 90-120 seconds

Bulgarian Split Squats: Back leg is elevated anywhere from 4-12 inches; chest up, shoulder blades retracted. With a full ROM, lower yourself as low as possible without rounding your back.

Rest Interval: 60-90 seconds

One-Legged RDL’s: The important thing with this movement is to assure that your spine stays neutral! Focus on scapular retraction and thoracic extension and keep the back leg rigid with ~20 degree knee bend in the front leg. For people who seem to have a hard time with “rolling hips,” simply internally rotate the foot and that should solve the problem.

Rest Interval: 60-90 seconds

Isometric Split Squat Hold: Same as above, accept you are to use a load (DB’s or a hot girl on your shoulders)

Rest Interval: 90-120 seconds between each leg.

(HIP DOMINANT DAY)

 

Week #5

Week #6

Week #7

Week #8

Movements

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Sets

Reps

Conventional Deadlifts

6

4

6

4

8

3

8

3

Anderson Squats

4

8

5

8

6

8

2

10

Step-Ups

3

10

3

10

3

10

2

10

Isometric Squat Hold (w/load)

3

20 sec

3

25 sec

3

30 sec

2

30 sec

Coventional Deadlifts: For weeks 5-6, use a load that is equivalent to your 6RM. For weeks 7-8, use your true 3RM and let ‘er rip.

Rest Interval: 90-120 seconds

Anderson Squat: Set the pins at just above waist height. Feet should be spread out a bit further past shoulder width apart. Squat down with proper form (SIT BACK with the hips) to the pins and pause for 1-2 seconds. Explode up, pop the hips through, squeeze glutes and repeat.

Rest Interval: 60-90 seconds

Step-Ups: Only key points I will state here are to keep your chest up, shoulder back and drive through the heel.

Rest Interval: 60-90 seconds

Isometric Squat Holds (w/load): Same as above, accept you will add a load. Easiest way would be to use a weight plate and “hug” it across your chest.

Rest Interval: at least 120-180 seconds between each set.

The End

So, there you have it. A program that will produce some BIG wheels. For most, it will be a complete180 compared to what they are used to hearing or what they have done in the past. It won’t be easy, but I can assure you that if you put in the work, and bust your rump for 8 weeks, you will more than happy with the results.

References

1. Siff, Mel. “Facts and Fallacies of Fitness.” Mel Siff, PhD, MSc, 2003.

2. GJ Salem and CM Powers. Patellofemoral joint kinetics during squatting in collegiate women athletes. Clin Biomech (Bristol, Avon), June 1, 2001; 16(5): 424-30.

3. Zatsiorsky, Vladmir. “Science and Practice of Strength Training.” Human Kinetics, 1995.

4. Cressey, E, Robertson, M. “Neanderthal No More, Part IV. Testosterone Nation 2005. http://www.t-nation.com

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