Here's the hard truth: Not all leg exercises are created equal. Whether your goal is to get gorgeous gams, build lower-body strength or increase your endurance as a runner, you don't want to waste your time or energy or risk a potential injury on ineffective, inefficient leg exercises.
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Here , Geoff Tripp, CSCS, certified personal trainer and head of fitness at Trainiac, shares five ineffectual moves to cut from your leg day, plus what to do instead for a fitter, stronger, more powerful lower body.
1. Leg Extension Machine
What the leg extension machine lacks is functionality, Tripp says. "There aren't many times in the day when we sit locked in a machine and extend our legs in an isolated fashion," he says.
Conversely, we usually do complex movements that involve many muscles in our quads, hips and glutes. Think: lunging forward to pick something off the floor or climbing the stairs. That's why "performing multi-joint exercises for your lower body muscle needs is ideal," he says.
Instead: A great replacement is a squat, Tripp says. The mother of all functional exercises, squats are compound movements that recruit many muscles, help you build strength for the physical demands of daily life and lower your risk of injury.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Push your hips back as you bend your knees and lower as if you are sitting into a chair.
- Keep pressure in your whole foot and your knees in line with your big toe. Do your best to squat to 90 degrees.
- Push through your heels to stand.
2. 45-Degree Leg Press
"Another move that takes a functional movement pattern and locks you in place, the leg press is great for pushing a lot of weight but doesn't transfer into real life unless you are lying on your back and pressing cars all day," Tripp says.
Plus, people have a habit of overloading the weight, which adds to the potential for injury.
Instead: A fantastic functional exercise, goblet squats will work your lower body in a multi-joint way, plus the movement translates to everyday situations, he says. Anyone who's ever bent down to lift something off the floor will understand.
And there's a bonus: you'll get a good ab workout too. A June 2013 study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that performing multi-joint moves like squats is a more effective way to train your core than abs-focused movements.
- Stand with your feet just wider than hip-width apart.
- Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell at chest level close to your body. Keep your chest up and look straight ahead.
- Brace your core as you slowly lower, pushing your hips back.
- Keep pressure in your feet and your knees in line with your big toe. Don't let your knees cave in at the bottom of your squat.
- Drive through your heels to stand.
3. Lying Leg Curl Machine
A machine like the lying leg curl only isolates a muscle at a specific joint and range of motion, Tripp says. That's why the leg curl is great when incorporated as a tool for rehabbing a particular muscle. However, it's not for those looking to build muscle or improve their overall fitness.
If you're not recovering from an injury, you should focus on functional, compound lower-body movements to target your posterior chain muscles (the ones that run along the back of your body). And to do that — and train your hamstrings and glutes effectively — Tripp says you need to be standing on two feet, not lying down on a machine.
Instead: Deadlifts (and their many variations) are the best move for multi-joint, lower body posterior muscle recruitment, Tripp says. Doing deadlifts helps you develop the strength you need for everyday bending and balancing.
- Start with your feet just narrower than hip-width apart and a weight in front of you on the floor (barbell, kettlebell or pair of dumbbells).
- Hinge at your hips, bending your knees slightly, and lower to pick up the weight. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings and tension in your hip muscles as they load up.
- Engage your abs, glutes and hamstrings as you straighten your knees to stand. Avoid rounding your back and look at the ground to keep a neutral spine.
Remember, it’s all in the hips. “If you feel your back working too much in your deadlifts, then you’re likely not hinging properly at your hips,” Tripp says.
4. Standing Calf Raise Machine
Unless you're rehabilitating a strained calf muscle, there's no need to train your calves in isolation, Tripp says. "Again, isolated movements like these don't teach your body proper muscle recruitment," he says.
Instead: To be efficient with your time and training, try incorporating more plyometric movements into your workout. Plyo moves like jump squats require extension of the ankle joint, which engages the calf muscles, Tripps says. That's why these exercises are great replacements for the standing or seated calf raise machine.
Dynamic moves like squat jumps also get your heart pumping and recruit multiple muscles. "There's a lot of force at play, both at takeoff and at landing," he says. Plus, you can control the difficulty level of the exercise — the higher you jump, the harder it'll be.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Push your hips back as you bend your knees and lower as if you're sitting into a chair.
- Keep pressure in your whole foot and your knees in line with your big toe. Before takeoff, you want a clean squat position between 45 to 75 degrees in depth.
- Push through your feet and spring out of the squat into a jump.
- Aim to land lightly with knees slightly bent to absorb the energy of the impact before lowering into your next squat.
5. Seated Thigh Machine (Adductor and Abductor)
"This machine does a great job at isolating the muscles at the joint but does little to teach the body how to use the muscles in a practical way," says Tripp. "The adductor and abduction muscles are used to support the hips during multi-joint movements, so we want to try our best to work them in a functional position, i.e., standing."
Instead: Tripp recommends the standing cable machine for abduction and adduction exercises. "Here we promote stability in a standing position as well as recruitment of these muscles and awareness of how they work to stabilize the hip," he says.
If you don't have access to a cable machine, you can substitute with a resistance loop.
Move 1: Hip Abduction
- Using a cable machine with the arm in the lowest position, place the ankle attachment on your outside (working) leg. Alternatively, you can wrap a resistance loop around both legs at your ankles.
- Stabilize your inside leg (use the machine for balance support if you need it), and lift your outside leg away from your body, engaging your hips and glutes.
- Then in a controlled movement, slowly lower to starting position.
Move 2: Hip Adduction
- Place your ankle wrap on the inside leg. Or anchor your resistance loop to a sturdy object like the leg of a table or chair.
- Stabilize your outside leg as you pull your working leg in toward your body (engaging your inner thigh muscles) and slightly in front (across) your supporting leg.
- In a controlled movement, slowly return leg to starting position.