Leg Workouts That Increase Size and Strength (14 Studies)

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Aside from not training legs at all, the most common mistake people make is failing to focus on the development of all of the major leg muscles. This post will teach you the best leg exercises and leg workouts based on scientific research and our understanding of the leg muscles.

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Let’s begin by learning about the anatomy of the leg muscles. Are you a fan of workouts that are based on scientific research and a grasp of the anatomy of muscle groups? Then you’ll be in love with the Unorthodox Training Membership Program. I’ve created the program for all ages. I’ve mixed in some fun exercises and workout routines based off different topics and interests that can be added in occasionally to replace the main workout programming.

leg-muscle-anatomy

Anatomy of Legs

The quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes are the three major muscle groups we will concentrate on.

The quadriceps are a collection of four muscles that make up the majority of the front of the thigh muscle.

Vastus Medialis

Rectus femoris

Vastus medialis (Vastus Medialis)

Vastus lateralis

These muscles work together to extend the knee, and one of the four muscles, the rectus femoris, helps with hip flexion. They are located on the leg as follows (the vastus intermedius is deep to the rectus femoris):

The hamstrings are a group of three muscles located on the back of the thigh.

The biceps femoris muscle

Semitendinosis

Semimembranosis

These muscles act together primarily to extend the hip and flex the knee.

The glutes are made up of three muscles that all do different things. Hip extension and trunk extension are examples of this.

hip external rotation posterior pelvic tilt

rotation within oneself

hip flexion (upper fibers)

Despite the fact that they perform a variety of functions, they are most active during hip extension.

Now that we’ve learned a little bit about the structure of the legs, we can look at the best exercises for each of these muscles.

Exercise 1: Back Squat with a Barbell

It’s no surprise that barbell squats are included. They are a wonderful exercise for exercising almost all of your lower body musculature at the same time.

This exercise’s major focus is on the quads and glutes. Throughout the movement, the hamstrings and other muscles operate as dynamic stabilizers.

In terms of squat depth, Morse et al. discovered a two-fold increase in muscle size in patients who performed full range of motion squats as opposed to partial squats during an 8-week period.

Furthermore, as demonstrated in this work by Bruno et al., full range of motion appears to cause more muscle injury than partial range of motion, even when more volume is lifted in the partial range of motion.

If your goal is leg hypertrophy, you should definitely use a full range of motion, which implies coming down to at least parallel when performing the squat.

When comparing barbell squats to smith machine squats, one study by Binsted et al. found that barbell squats generated 43 percent more average leg muscle activation than smith machine squats.

To summarize, for the best results, stay to full-range-of-motion barbell squats!

Front Squats are the second exercise.

I’ve included front squats in this exercise for a variety of reasons.

They not only hit all of the key muscular groups in the legs, particularly the quads, but they also emphasize a lot of upper body musculature that individuals tend to be weak in.

The serratus anterior, lower traps, and rhomboids are among the muscles that work to maintain the bar up and prevent you from falling forward.

These muscles are necessary for maintaining optimal posture during lifts as well as for correcting posture outside of the gym.

Furthermore, unexpectedly, studies demonstrate that overall quadriceps activation is nearly same between front and back squats. Front squats may additionally highlight quad muscles that aren’t as strongly recruited during back squats, according to research.

For example, according to this table from a study by Tillman et al., certain quadricep muscles, such as the vastus lateralis and the rectus femoris, are less active during the back squat and more activated during the front squat.

As a result, completing both front and back squats may give more balanced quad growth.

However, if you believe that including both in one session is too exhausting, you can place them somewhere else in your workout split. Another alternative is to substitute hack squats or leg press, which both produce comparable effects in terms of hitting all quad muscles.

Bulgarian Split Squats are the third exercise.

This is an exercise that I believe everyone should do at some point in their lives. This exercise, once again, targets all of the major leg muscles but is more of a hip-dominant workout (meaning it will target the posterior chain more heavily).

According to research, this exercise engages the hamstrings and glutes more than the squat. Because these muscles aren’t as well stimulated during the squat, it’s critical to incorporate them in your leg exercise for development.

Furthermore, Turner et al.’s research reveals that the split squat may be just as effective at boosting back squat 1RM as the back squat itself, while putting less strain on the lower back.

That is, it is an excellent complementary exercise to squats in terms of muscle and strength development. Furthermore, the fact that it is a unilateral exercise helps to balance out asymmetries that would otherwise emerge if just bilateral exercises like squats and leg press were used.

Keep in mind that when it comes to hamstrings, Romanian deadlifts reign supreme in terms of EMG activation (as shown over here).

As a result, you should incorporate them into your routine. It can be done on your back day or another leg day to balance off their development with the quads.

I wouldn’t recommend including them in this workout unless you’re used to high-intensity workouts.

Weighted Hip Thrusts (Exercise 4)

The following exercise is required to activate and hit the glutes to a higher extent than the squat. The glutes are the main muscle used in this exercise, although the hamstrings will also be involved.

Brett Contreras, a researcher, has done significant research on why they are important for glute development (the “glute guy”). He discovered that the average activation of the glutes during squats is quite modest, only approximately 50-70 percent of your maximum voluntary contraction.

Mean activation is exceptionally high for hip thrusts utilizing the same relative force. Around 100 percent of maximum voluntary contraction AND it better engages the gluteal upper fibers.

As a result, they should be utilized in conjunction with squats for optimal glute growth. If you haven’t done these before, I recommend starting with no weight to get the movement and activation down. Then you can advance by adding weight.

Based on fiber composition, the optimal rep range for leg exercises

In terms of the ideal rep range for legs, research suggests that the legs are almost evenly divided between type I and type II muscle fibers. However, there is a minor proclivity for a higher fraction of type I muscle fibers.

High reps with low weight are supposed to increase type I fiber growth, while low reps with high weight are thought to maximize type II fiber growth. Some research support this, while others show that regardless of the rep range utilized, both fiber types will increase.

However, I believe that research is still moving toward combining a combination of low and high rep exercises for legs.

Given their fiber type distribution, I believe that would be the greatest option for hypertrophy.

Workout Example

3 sets of barbell back squats (2 sets 6-10 reps, 1 set 12-15 reps)

3 sets of front squats (2 sets 6-10 reps, 1 set 12-15 reps)

3 sets of 8-15 repetitions of Bulgarian split squats

3 sets of 10-15 reps of weighted hip thrusts

One thing to remember is the order in which you complete the exercises. Several studies have found that lifters achieve more hypertrophy and strength when they perform workouts early in the session. That is, you want to prioritize activities based on your talents and weaknesses.

Do the above-mentioned workout if your quads are lagging.

Do the workout in this order if your hamstrings and/or glutes are lagging. I would also recommend including an additional hamstring isolation exercise, such as laying leg curls or Nodric hamstring curls:

3 sets of 8-15 repetitions of Bulgarian split squats

3 sets of 10-15 reps of weighted hip thrusts

3 sets of barbell back squats (2 sets 6-10 reps, 1 set 12-15 reps)

3 sets of front squats (2 sets 6-10 reps, 1 set 12-15 reps)

This will help you prioritize your shortcomings and balance your overall leg growth. And, as usual, keep individual differences in mind. Individuals react differently to different types of stimuli (e.g. high rep vs low rep). So experiment with rep ranges, workouts, and volume to determine what works best for you. This workout is merely a suggestion and something for you to try that has scientific support.

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