Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Leg Training

I'm getting some questions in the comments on blog posts that I receive. Since I aim to please my readers, providing them with useful training information. I'm not really surprised that I've had some questions about how to train the legs using BW-only. The problem below the waist the is that the legs can't come close to replicating the same range of motion that the arms can. Plus, your legs are already used to carrying the rest of your weight on a regular basis. So, with a far more limited ways to to change the leverage combined with a fixed amount of weight makes leg training with Bodyweight a far more daunting task.

I recently came across a web site claiming that Bodyweight's real advantage over weight lifting is with training the upper body. For the lower body, you're best off to reach for the barbell. I can see the logic in this thinking based on what I just admitted. I'm not ready to write off lower-body BW just yet. After all, this blog has always been about how to work with less. So, if you don't have access to a barbell, or any other form of weight, what's the play?

Once again, we have to look back on all of the different ways there are to create resistance when training. It's good that people recognize the role of reducing leverage for increased resistance in training but there's more ways. The most often-mentioned method for leg training is single leg squatting, or doing pistols. I'll be the first to admit that these aren't easy and I've struggled to do them, never really getting above 10 reps per leg due to problems with my balance and lower back issues. I'm sure that there are a lot of people who can't do these at all.

The problem is that the progressions to the pistol aren't really well-advertised and aren't given their due as a legitimate way to train the legs. I think that the problem is that by treating them merely as a progression rather than a stand-alone exercise, their usefulness is diminished and subsequently ignored.

So, the answer to getting to a pistol is to play with the BW versions of split squatting. Start out by placing one leg on a bench, chair, or whatever you have that can hold your leg that height but make sure that it's stable. As this gets easier (I'd say 15-20 reps per leg easy), then you might want to grab your suspension trainer (you don't have one? SHAME ON YOU!) and do the split squat on that. After that progression, you're ready to do it free-standing.

Keep this in mind when you start doing these free standing: you're going to have to shift your upper body forward a little as you lower yourself in order to keep balance. Also, the key do doing these, and pistols, is that you can't crash-land in the bottom position, letting gravity do the work for you. You have to think of pulling yourself down to the floor with your hamstring. This will give you the needed balance to complete the move, not to mention get some hamstring work in. Pavel had a good reason for demonstrating these in his book "The Naked Warrior" in Converse shoes: you will probably find these true single leg squats uncomfortable if the shoe you're wearing has an arch in them. Go for less foot manipulation with your shoes. Or, better still, go barefoot.

Another great exercise that gets the shaft because it's mainly used in physical therapy is wall chairs, or wall sits. There are few exercises that I've consistently used over the years as I have these. Need progression? Don't forget this article that I wrote last year. In any form, these are great for injury prevention because they strengthen the muscles around the knees, thus adding to their stability. After all, how strong are you if you're injured?

Okay, so we've gotten to the point where we're down to the basic BW squat and Lunge. Let me ask you this: how often do you turn these into a plyometric workout? If you're not doing that very often, then you're just missing out on a brutal workout. There's been a routine that I've seen floating around for a while. I'm not sure who came up with it but the first time I saw it was in Juan Carlos Santana's writings. It's usually sold as a cardio finisher and I've seen it done with varying rep counts but done in multiple sets, it's just nasty-good!

Speed Squats (20-36)
Speed Lunges (usually 24)
jumping Lunges (usually 12 each leg)
Plyo jump squats (10-30)

What I've started doing when I use this workout is I've inserted either a set of high rep pull-ups or some rope climbing in between each set for a "break." I'm usually good for 3 or 4 sets of this. As always, start conservatively. It's easier to fix under training than over-training!

Is any of this going to get your legs as huge as they would if you were doing barbell training? Of course not, and I freely admit that. Frankly, I don't think that's a bad thing, or it's not for me anyway. During my muscle-building work in 2007, I thickened up my legs so much that I had to start going up a waist size in pants because most 30" waist pants didn't have enough room in the leg area to accommodate me. I didn't want to go overboard though. There are days when I have to walk lord-only-knows how many steps, many of them involve climbing ladders, walking through mud-like materials (to put it nicely), and carrying stuff.

I've read that a lot of hardcore guys with huge legs (Tom Platz comes to mind) intentionally moderate how much they walk on their "leg days." I can believe it that since I know first-hand that it's hard to train the legs to full-effect if you're walking thousands of steps a day. Walking after a hard leg workout is even harder! That's certainly not functional in my life, and if you are depending on walking as a part of living, then I don't think that it's functional in yours. Having some meaty legs is good. Not being able to walk with them isn't.

One thing that we can take from the squat-freaks is that we can work a lot of these exercises that I described for a surprisingly long time before they lose their usefulness to building max strength and size. 20 rep squatting for mass and strength gain goes all the way back to Mark Berry in the 1930's. I'll bet good money that there are a lot of my readers out there who would be hard-pressed to do 20 pistols on each leg. So, while it may not look like there's a lot of stuff you can do for BW leg training, you can certainly chew on them for a long time before they lose their merit.


John Cintron said...

Love your blog. Have you tried bootstrappers, burpees and sprints? I like doing these with a weight vest.

Gman said...

Justin check out steve cotters dvd mastering the pistol. if you want to try before you buy. you can find it on torrent sites.

its worth the money and shows a million progressions.

Ben said...

Hi Justin.

I love your blog, I've been reading for a while now and I've read most of the entries. Like you, I try to use primarily bodyweight exercises.

I was wondering, do you ever use exercises like the Glute-Ham Raise to train your hamstrings, Ross Enamait talks about it in his book Never Gymless.

Also, I think I read that your job involves a lot of physical labour, lifting and carrying, etc. Do you find that this helps train your lower back and hamstrings.

Thanks! Keep up the great work.

Marcus said...

Great post, leg training is one of the most underated areas of bodyweight training. Another version if you're not strong enough to do pistols is to hold on to something, lean back and do them. You can use rings, TRX etc, or if you don't have one of those, just drape a long towel over a pullup bar and hold onto that, works the grip aswell.

John Cintron said...


I also jsut saw your clip on you tube climbing the rope really cool video.

John Cintron

Justin_PS said...

Thank you to everyone for the great tips and feedback!

John, I've done sprints and burpee training quite a bit. I haven't done any with a weighted vest, partially because I don't have one per ce. I have a heavy duty backpack I use as an improvised weight vest. More on that to come later...

Ben, I've never done anything with the Glute-Ham raise yet. I don't have a set-up needed to do that just yet. As far as training the hams and glute specifically, I don't specifically target them but I do notice that having strong glutes and hamstrings is necessary for a lot of the work that I do.

Ben said...

Pistols are hard. Since just before Xmas I've been greasing the groove with them. I use a mini resistance band. It's not the strengh, it's the balance that I have a problem with. I'm 93kg though.

Ben said...

That's cool. Thanks for the response Justin.
I've only just started using the GHR. I've got 2 chin-up bars that screw into the doorframe. I set one of them up about 8 inches off the floor and with a rolled up yoga mat round it and I use pillow and another yoga mat as a cushion. With the other chin-up bar at the top of the bar so I can use bands for assistance.

At the moment, I'm trying to do mostly bodyweight with some odd-object lifts to aid my "functionality".

Anonymous said...

Hi, nice blog. Some other leveraged based options are quite possible. Someone already mentioned GHRs, but there's also kneeling squats and sissy squats and what I call lever squats. Kneeling squats are simple. Kneel on the floor, tops of feet on floor (as opposed to balls of feet). Form a straight line from knee to shoulders. Moving only at the knee joint, lean back as far as possible, then return to vertical. It's like a bodyweight leg extension. Sissy squats, for me, might not be technically correct. When I do them, I try to maintain a straight line from knee to shoulder and only move at the knee joint. Lean back, obviously your knees have to push forward of your toes in order to maintain balance. The lever squat requires you to strap your legs into something (there are easily made devices, but I just use an old karate belt looped around a post in my house and behind my knees). Again, keeping a straight line from knees to shoulders, lean back pivoting only around the knee joint.

There are plenty more, as you are probably aware, but those are three I like to do as a (mostly) BW only guy in addition to pistols and "airborn" lunges (plyometrics is a whole 'nother thing).

Take it easy,