How to develop a balanced approach to leg training without the King of Exercises
Strength Sensei CP
Unquestionably, the squat has been the most controversial exercise in the Iron Game and strength coaching community. Some will insist that “If you don’t have the squat in your program, you don’t have a program!” Others will say the exercise is overrated and that split squats will get the job done for just about any sport. Oh, and don’t get me started on squat depth!
Gym jawing aside, is it possible to get a good leg workout without squats? If your gym doesn’t have squat racks, is your leg development doomed? What about those suffering from chronic knee or back pain? Should they do water aerobics until they heal? Let me give you some effective options for leg day that don’t involve the “King of Lifts.”
One popular method of classifying leg exercises is if they are “quad dominant” or “hip dominant,” and workouts that do not contain squats should include at least one exercise from each of these groups. Hip dominant exercises would include back extensions, deadlifts, and reverse hypers. Quad dominant exercises would include split squats, lunges, leg presses, and leg extension. Let’s focus on leg extensions for a minute.
Deadlifts are hip-dominant exercises that can create a balanced leg training program when combined with quad-dominate exercises such as step-ups. Miloš Šarčev photos)
The leg extension belongs to a class of exercises called “open chain.” One way to think of open change is that the hands or feet can move rather than being fixed. With a leg extension, the force is applied to the shins, serving to isolate the quadriceps. With a squat, a closed-chain exercise, the feet are on the floor so that multiple muscle groups are synergistically involved.
Although closed-chain exercises train the muscles, they disproportionately recruit prime movers, causing relative weakness in stabilizers and neutralizers that help us run, jump, and perform other movements. Another way to say it is that the unidimensional actions of leg extension do not transfer well to normal muscle recruitment patterns that occur in athletic movements. Further, as the resistance is directed across the bone, leg extensions create shearing forces that try to pry the knee joint apart.
Quad-dominate exercises I do like are split squats, lunges, and step-ups. The range of motion the legs go through on these exercises can be varied, making them ideal for injury rehabilitation. For example, a split squat can be performed from a stationary position or with the front leg on a small platform to work the quads through a greater range of motion. As for leg presses, they should be used sparingly unless your primary goal is bodybuilding or if back pain prevents you from performing other quad exercises.
For hip-dominate exercises, deadlifts are my number one choice. However, consider that there are many variations of deadlifts, including sumo deadlifts (to emphasize the thigh adductors) and snatch-grip deadlifts (to work the legs through a greater range of motion). From there, back extensions (from various angles), glute-ham raises, and reverse hypers are great choices. The reverse hyper, an exercise that powerlifting guru Louie Simmons has championed, is a good exercise for the erector spinae muscles because it places minimal compressive forces on the spine.
Of course, there are many more leg exercises to add to your weight training toolbox. The bottom line is that when squats are not an option, or you just need a break from this result-producing exercise, you should adopt a balanced approach to leg training with a variety of exercises.