This article was written for two groups of people:
The first group are those of you out there grinding away everyday at your fitness goals, clocking in day in and day out with no let up. You convince yourself that because you are going to the gym you can’t be doing anything bad when you are there. But I’m here to tell you that sometimes you can be so focused on your routine and locked into what you’re used to doing that you develop “workout tunnel vision”. This is when you are so zoned in on what you have always done, that you become a robot that never adapts or evolves. Over time, this exercise monotony can lead to burning out or falling off of your program completely. The fun gets taken out of it when it’s just the same exercises, same reps, same weight. This process is all too familiar to the die hard gym-goers. And the problem is 100% preventable.
The second group are those that have a lot going on in their lives. Work, family, life is preventing you from being there on a consistent basis. I am saying for one second that this isn’t understandable. It totally is. Our brain works in a way that prioritizes what is most important in the immediate future rather than months ahead. Because most of our family responsibilities are in the present and our results from a fitness program are months away, you can guess which one is going to win out. When you DO get to the gym, the lack of time makes your exercise choices much more superficial. Only 30 minutes and not sure when you’re coming back? Chest, bicep, abs it is. Being in that situation, it’s hard enough to work in some leg exercises let alone squats. Aside from giving you the “legs are important” argument, the types of exercises you do are an equally valuable conversation.
A case for variation
Depending on which group you belong to, the theme remains the same. There has to be variation in your program to allow for growth and improvements to continue. The first group that always shows up to the gym is hurting themselves by hitting a plateau and becoming stagnant. The second group is neglecting certain crucial movement patterns that are key in progress and could allow them to get more out of the little time they have. Our bodies are in constant flux, never standing still.
Muscle tissue is either rebuilding stronger or wearing away, never resting. This process is decided by the signals we give our brains. By exercising, you are causing micro-tears in the muscle that send a stimulus to the brain to start a remodeling process. That’s right, an HGTV remodeling show goes on in your bicep when you are recovering from a workout.
This process includes sending hormones and cells to the damaged area to rebuild it back even stronger than before. When you don’t send these signals to the brain for a long time, a decision is made that your body doesn’t need that much calorically expensive tissue and your muscles start to wear away. That is why your muscles shrink after a year of not working out.
Confused on this still?
Ok, enough science.
From my experience working with athletes and non athletes alike, there is a tendency when doing leg exercises to do either the leg press machine or squats on the Smith Machine. By sticking to these exercises, you are avoiding anything that challenges yourself in the right way and you are relying on a machine to handle most of the work. Athletic Again is all about building a strong, balanced foundation. We don’t want to just “get to the gym”, we want to build ourselves to be brick-house, athletic people that have energy throughout the day.
So first, I recommend actual barbell, kettlebell, or dumbbell squatting. Second, I recommend you mix in other leg exercises besides squatting to continue to grow and avoid the eventual plateau that is inevitable.
Here are my top three recommendations for lower body exercises that would make a balanced routine for any goal you may have.
Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs)
This exercise is a modified version of deadlifts. The difference here is a shorter range of motion required to complete the movement than a conventional deadlift. Keep your knees slightly bent throughout the movement (avoid staying completely straight) and keep your shoulders pinned back to avoid them rounding forward during the movement. Make sure to place emphasis on driving your hips forward when completing the movement and keep your core tight throughout.
RDLs are a modified version of the deadlift that stops around mid-shin height. The one thing I constantly see athletes doing is going all the way down because they can. The issue there is that going all the way down is now considered a deadlift. Instead, we want to differentiate the two exercises and stop around mid-shin height and return to the starting position.
The reason for combining these two things together in the heading is because they are similar in nature. They are both a split stanced pattern that helps add stability and unilateral leg strength to your program. The difference is with lunges you are moving horizontal or lateral and step-ups allow you to train vertically. So, whichever you choose (or both) will be a nice complement to your other exercises. Make sure to keep the upper body nice and tall during this movement and focus on a quality movement as opposed to rushing through it.
Lunges cannot be overstated for their effectiveness and simplicity. They address mobility and flexibility issues as well as build strength in an important, often-used position in competitive sports. Walking lunges are still a go-to exercise no matter how strong you are.
The step-up is a solid unilateral lower body exercise that will help build strength, stability, and is a nice complement to a program. Like the lunge, it is super simple and very effective.
Hip thrusts may be listed last in this group, but don’t take them lightly. This exercise has become one of the most popular exercises on social media due causing more and more people to try it out. Bret Contreras has done excellent research on this exercise and found that it is extremely effective in building the glutes (check out his instagram @bretcontreras1). This exercise allows you to specifically target the area that sitting for long periods of time effects in a negative way. So, if you have a job where you sit a lot AND want a nice looking, strong lower body these are a must add. They can be done at home or in the gym and loaded with either a dumbbell, barbell, or done with no weight at all (aka glute bridges).
Hip thrusts have definitely grown in popularity the last 5 years due to research showing it’s ability to strengthen the glute region better than other alternatives. Start in the top position and finish by bridging the bar up into the position shown at the bottom. Remember to use a pad over your waist because the bar can leave a bruise on the pelvic bone.
Plan of action:
- First, get your butt to the gym. If not possible, your garage or living room is going to work just fine. No excuse.
- Second, outline the days of the week you are going to work out and decide how you are going to hold yourself accountable.
- Third, write out a tentative plan for which exercises you want to do on each day. This needs to include one of the exercises listed above as well as some pushup variation and rowing variation. If you are working out at home, substitute the rowing for a plank. There is no excuse.
- Fourth, continue changing up the exercise sets and reps as you become more comfortable and confident with the workouts. There is no such thing as in the middle you are either getting stronger or you are losing strength.