Four Fantastic Strength Exercises for Your Legs

First, let me climb onto my high horse!

When making your selection of strength exercises for athletic purposes, your decision should be based on your understanding of the muscles that produce the action of completing a task and not on exercises borrowed from for example a bodybuilder’s routine.  Bodybuilders need to analyse and target individual muscles and exercise each one to get their desired results (which is to sculpt their bodies). This is not required for the development of strength for sporting movements. Here, you are aiming to strengthen movements as they pertain to a particular sport – not a muscle. This normally means targeting the prime movers (groups of muscles) of a joint or joints.

With that out of my system, let’s move on…

There are 656 muscles in the human body, all capable of performing a variety of actions and athletic skills. In this article we are only interested in those muscles in the lower extremities of the body, namely the hip and legs. I have chosen to talk about only four, and of course there are more than just these, but these are the four strength exercises for the lower part of the body that I use most often in my training sessions with athletes.

Strength Exercise #1 - Back Squat

This exercise is possibly the king of all strength exercises for the legs. The purpose of the squat is to strengthen the gluteals, quadriceps, hamstring, back extensors and the calf muscles. As you can see this is a gross exercise, involving multiple muscle groups. The exercise is executed in the following way:

  • The loaded barbell is placed behind the neck, across your shoulders. You should stand with your feet shoulder width apart with your toes turned slightly outwards.
  • Take in a deep breath and hold this in while you bend your knees in a slow controlled way to a point where your thighs are at the desired depth.
  • While you are bending, keep looking straight ahead, with your chest out and your back flat.
  • As you lower the load you should feel the weight towards the rear of your feet.
  • At the bottom of the lift your knees should be positioned over your feet.
  • Breathe out while returning to the starting point, remembering to keep your head up and your back flat.
  • A variation of the back squat is the single leg squat. It is executed in exactly the same way as the normal squat. However, one of the benefits of the single leg variation is that it allows you to preferentially load the hip and leg without the risk of overloading the spine!

Strength Exercise #2 - Calf Raise

No strength training program for the lower half of the body would be complete without the calf raise. The purpose of the exercise is to strengthen the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles situated behind the shin bone. The exercise is executed in the following way:

  • You would stand with a loaded bar placed behind your neck and across your shoulders. You should stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
  • Your forefoot should be placed on a platform two to five inches high and your heels still in contact with the floor.
  • Without bending your knees, you should press down on the raised platform with your toes in an effort to raise your heels from the floor and above the raised platform.
  • Slowly lower your heels back to the floor, again without bending your knees.
  • A variation of this exercise is to be seated and place a weight on your knees or thighs while performing the calf raise - this exercise targets the Soleus muscle more than the traditional calf raise.

Strength Exercise #3 - Leg Extensions

The purpose of the leg extension exercise or to be more precise, knee extension exercise is to strengthen the quadriceps muscles. These include the rectus femoris which is the central muscle, that is attached to the patella at one end and the hip at the other,  the vastus medialis the muscle on the inside of the knee and the vastus lateralis the muscle on the outside of the knee. The exercise is executed in the following way:

  • You should sit on the machine and adjust the resistance pad to a position just above the ankle at the front of the shin. The knees should be bent at a 90 degree angle.
  • You should push upwards against the resistance and straighten the knee without hyperextension.
  • Slowly lower the weight back to the starting position.

Strength Exercise #4 - Hamstring Curls

The hamstring curl is a strength exercise which targets the hamstring muscles at the back of the thigh. Depending on the machinery used - some gyms are equipped with stations that allow you to sit upright to perform the exercise. However, in this case let us assume you must lay face down. You would execute the exercise in the following way:

  • Lie face down on the hamstring machine and adjust the leg pads to a position just above the ankle;
  • Make sure your legs are not hyperextended in the starting position;
  • Slowly curl the feet slowly towards your buttocks – try to keep your hips from rising as you do so;
  • Slowly return the weight back to the starting position.

As a variation, you can perform this exercise single legged or curl the leg using two legs, then return it using only a single leg – alternating on each repetition.

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