By Ciaran Fairman, MS, CISSN, and Bill Geiger
But the list of items to never do? Well, that’s a different matter.
A lot can go wrong on leg day, some relating to technique errors that never seem to get fixed, others with constructing your routine, and still more that pertain to your avoidance of the most-challenging (read: beneficial) movements. Pay attention, because many are linked with the kind of injuries that are preventable.
1. NEVER LOOK FOR THE EASY WAY OUT
A few brave souls embrace leg day with such passion that if they’re able to walk out of the gym unaided, they didn’t work hard enough. Those individuals clearly have dedication that we all admire, and the results usually speak for themselves. For the rest of us, leg day is the most dreaded workout of the week. It’s ungodly hard, it hurts, and it’s definitely no fun.
Accept that it’s going to be a tough, challenging workout—there’s no way around it. It’s just a necessary evil you have to endure for 90 minutes about every five days. Surely you can muster the necessary effort this infrequently for the bigger benefit of a more symmetrical physique!
Don’t trade hard exercise like squats for easier ones like leg presses, either. While both moves involve hip and knee extension, that’s about all they have in common. Research already confirms that free-weight squats generate a much greater hormonal response, owing to the greater degree of muscle mass engaged during the movement.1
The bottom line is that if you want to build better legs than you have now, you’re going to have to challenge them to a greater degree than you currently do. Leave your comfort zone. Choose more difficult exercises, like free-weight squats. Push yourself harder mentally. Heck, even get a workout partner, if only for leg day!
2. NEVER TURN YOUR FEET EXCESSIVELY ON CLOSED-CHAIN MOVEMENTS
A closed-chain leg movement is one where your feet are planted against a solid object, like the floor, rather than hanging in the air. In open-chain movements, like leg extensions and leg curls, your feet are free-floating.
Turning your feet slightly inward or outward on leg extensions and leg curls can help you direct the stimulus to emphasize particular areas of the quads and hamstrings, respectively. But when you’re doing multijoint movements like squats and leg presses with heavy weights, you never want to turn your feet inward or excessively outward because of the amount of pressure that will be absorbed by the knee.
To perform closed-chain leg movements safely, point your feet slightly outward. You can safely turn them a littlemore outward if you take a slightly wider stance. But the farther out you turn your feet with closed-chain movements, the greater the risk for knee damage.
3. NEVER ALLOW YOUR HEELS TO COME UP OFF THE SLED WHEN DOING HACKS OR LEG PRESSES
Watch some people do leg presses or hack squats, and you’ll see their heels rise from the platform as they reach the bottom of the negative movement. Either these heel-raisers have limited ankle mobility or they simply don’t position they’re feet high enough on the sled. Continue to address ankle mobility, and reposition your feet so that you’re pushing off your entire foot, not just part of it.
Unfortunately, your base of support becomes much smaller when your heels lift off, leaving you unbalanced and reducing your ability to perform a controlled rep. You also have much less force production than if you were to have your full foot in contact, which allows you to drive through your heels.
Finally, lifting your heels will increase shear forces on the knee. You won’t be able to lift as much, you won’t have as much control over the weight, and you’ll be putting more pressure on your knees than necessary — all of which sucks.
4. NEVER ALLOW YOUR KNEES TO STRAY INWARD
This is one of the most common mistakes seen in lower-body exercises, particularly the squat and leg press, and is typically more common in women.3,4 It should raise a big red flag because it increases your risk of injury, most often via anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears.
This often arises because of weak hip abductors, the gluteus medius in particular. This tendency of the knees to drift inward occurs most often during the upward portion of a squat, and it should be taken seriously and addressed immediately. To avoid this:
- Do banded squats. Placing a band around the top of the knee creates tension, a great cue to drive your knees outward during the movement.
- Work on strengthening the group of muscles that make up the back of the body, paying particular attention to the gluteus medius. Good exercises include deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, single-leg Romanians, and lunges.
- Jump on the hip-abductor machine to activate and strengthen the gluteus medius. The abductor machine is the one in which you push your feet out against tension.
5. NEVER DELAY ADDRESSING POOR-MOBILITY ISSUES
You’ve probably heard admonitions against squatting on heel boards because it pushes your knees over an imaginary line that comes up from your toes.
A common reason people squat on a heel board (or on small plates) is that they don’t have the range of motion in their ankles to enable them to reach depth without their heels coming up. Their “solution” is to ram something under their heels to elevate them. In reality, elevating the heels this way is nothing more than a Band-Aid.
If performance is your goal, consider scrapping the heel board and investing in a solid pair of weightlifting shoes. The elevated heel allows for greater ankle range of motion, which can increase depth while allowing your torso to maintain a more upright posture, reducing the shear stress on your back.5,6 Weightlifting shoes also have a solid heel, which allows for a greater amount of force to be transferred from you to the ground. This allows for more force as you drive back up.
We’ve been told that it’s a problem when your knees pass beyond your toes because it increases shear stress to the ligaments surrounding the knee. Over time, that may cause damage, or worsen a pre-existing knee problem.
Well, that’s exactly what happens when you squat on a heel board—it pushes your knees further forward, thus putting greater stress on them. While this shouldn’t be considered problematic in the short term, we can make no assurances regarding knee health when you do this over the long term.
Then there’s the issue of squatting depth: Should you go as deep as possible, or should you stop when your thighs reach parallel to the floor? You may have been warned to refrain from squatting “ass to grass” because it’s bad for your knees.
A discussion of the differences between each individual’s anatomy and physiology and how they affect the biomechanics of a squat is beyond the scope of this article. Put simply, people differ in their flexibility, mobility, hip structure, limb length, and torso length. All of these differences affect how we squat, and how far we need to go.
Posterior pelvic tilt, or the infamous “butt wink,” can be quite common, particularly at depth. Essentially, this rounding of the lower back under a heavy load can increase the shear forces on the lumbar spine, which can dramatically increase the risk of lower-back injuries.7,8 Some people feel this relates to hip flexibility, but anatomy (particularly at the hips) plays a big role as well. Bottom line: Squat as low as you can go. Parallel or lower is ideal, particularly for muscle engagement, but it’s not mandatory.
In terms of muscle activation, research suggests that quadriceps activity peaks at 80-90 degrees, while glutes and hamstrings peak around 50-70 degrees.9-10 Go as low as your body will allow, but once you’re at parallel, you’re not losing out on Too much by not going “ass to grass.”
6. NEVER SKIP HAMSTRINGS
You may think the hamstrings, which are technically a group of three muscles on your rear thigh, are optional on leg day because they’re one of those out-of-sight muscle groups, but that would be a critical mistake for knee integrity.
Hamstring injuries are common among athletes. One reason is that your hamstrings are weaker than your quads, the antagonist muscle to the hams at the knee joint. This disparity may explain the high incidence of ACL injuries and hamstring strains. Women naturally have a lower hamstring-to-quad strength ratio than men—and female athletes have been shown to have even lower ratios—so they’re at even greater risk of hamstrings strains and ACL injuries.
To keep your joints stable and your knees healthy, you need your quads to be stronger than the hams by about a 3:2 ratio. You can find out by testing to see if your 10RM on the lying leg curl is at least 2/3 what your 10RM on the leg extension is. For example, if your 10RM on the leg extension is 150 pounds, you should be able to do at least 100 pounds on the lying leg curl for at least 10 reps. If you cannot complete 10 reps on the leg curl, your knee joint may be more vulnerable to injury.
You may have been under the impression that all those squat exercises covered ham work, and that’s partially true. As you control the descent during hip flexion (toward the bottom of the squat), the muscle fibers of the quads are being stretched while those of the hamstrings are contracting. The deeper you go, the more muscle fibers of the hamstrings are recruited.
But don’t assume squats and other hip-extension movements are sufficient for working your hams. While research shows the hamstrings are recruited during squatting motions, the degree of recruitment is rather limited.11
Hence, you’ll want to add dedicated hamstring exercises on leg day, including exercises in which you bend at the knees (these are called leg-curl movements) and at the hips. This would be a Romanian deadlift, a movement very different from the stiff-legged deadlift, so know the difference. They’re all useful in strengthening your rear thighs.
7. NEVER ROUND YOUR BACK
Everyone knows you’re not supposed to round your back during a movement, but many people guilty of this sin haven’t the foggiest idea they’re committing it. And if you’re a beginner, it’s almost a rite of passage to have trouble learning to keep your back flat.
Just about every version of free-weight squats, as well as the Romanian deadlift, has the potential for rounding of the lower and middle spine. To protect this delicate architecture, the goal is to always keep your spine neutrally aligned to slightly arched. Rounding produces greater—sometimes much greater, depending on the load—force on the disks that give the spine its flexibility. Many longtime lifters discover significant damage has accumulated over the years, until one day, boom—an injury occurs.
Disk injuries can be incredibly painful and very expensive, often running into six figures. And even with the best medical care in the world, damaged disks are never the same. It’s basically a question of how impaired you’ll be moving forward and at what rate further degeneration will occur.
Again, thinking you’re doing it right doesn’t mean you are. Get an expert’s take on your form during various squatting motions and RDLs early in your training career, and work on precision form.
Just for the record, you’re not exactly home free with machine movements. When descending deeply on leg presses or lying machine squats, halt the movement before your glutes come up off the pad, because that puts pressure on those lower disks. Stop the movement just above the point where your glutes lift off.
8. NEVER LOOK UP
Now let’s shift our focus to the upper spine, into your neck. Looking up while you squat may seem like no big deal, but it could have catastrophic consequences. When you’re squatting with hundreds of pounds across your upper traps, you’re putting a significant load on tissues right near your spinal column and the disks of the upper spine.
Tilting your head up to look toward the ceiling disrupts good spinal alignment by rounding your cervical (upper) spine, putting a significant amount of pressure on those disks.12 Looking up can also affect your balance, which may result in you losing control of the bar.
Another bad idea: Suddenly turning your head to the right or left with a heavy load on your back. This has led to a number of cervical-spine injuries among lifters.
The safest head position is one in which you’re simply looking back at yourself in the mirror. That keeps your head in a safe, neutral position in which your neck is neither extended nor flexed, again protecting those disks.
9. NEVER UNDERESTIMATE HOW INTENSE CARDIO CAN AFFECT YOUR LEG WORKOUT, AND VICE VERSA
Cardio activity and leg workouts use the same kind of fuel: stored muscle glycogen. This fuel can become depleted after doing just one activity, let alone both done back to back. Whether intense, extended cardio or weights comes first, what follows will suffer from the dip in fuel reserves.
Because the lower-body musculature is so extensive—four quad muscles, two glute muscles, three hamstrings, and two calf muscles in each leg—topping off your energy stores takes replenishing with carbs, as well as time. If you’re going to do a long bike ride or run a 10K over the weekend, push your leg workout a few days into the week.
Likewise, it’s tough to go from a hard leg workout to intense cardio. Given the pumped state of your legs and elevated lactate levels in the working muscles, chances are high you’ll find it difficult to do much of anything in the short term afterward.
Some light cardio may help enhance blood flow—just don’t expect to attain the kind of intensity you’d normally achieve if you hadn’t preceded it by a leg workout. HIIT cardio is most likely off the table, though you might be able to do some low-intensity steady-state work immediately afterward.
10. NEVER TRAIN LEGS ON A FRIDAY
If you’ve ever gone dancing over the weekend—or hit the trail or the slopes—you know sore muscles are a more than just a nuisance. Shake more booty on Saturday by moving your leg workout to Tuesday or Wednesday.