Never Skip Your Legs

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¯Challenging these larger muscles requires more energy, which means your body will be burning more calories.¯ Ladies and gentlemen of the gym, it’s time to talk about leg day. While so-called “mirror muscles” like your core, back and arms are typically more noticeable, you’re making a huge mistake if you’re only training above the belt. Your lower body is home to some of the biggest muscles in your body. Focus on workouts that challenge your bottom half and you’ll be rewarded with strong glutes, athletic quads, healthy hammies and toned calves. But it’s not all about looking good. As evidence, we present nine reasons to train your lower body. Because friends don’t let friends skip leg day.

1. You’ll be a better athlete.

The power generated from your lower half is essential for nearly every sport. Think of soccer players sprinting to the ball, basketball players jumping above the rim, or baseball players generating enough power to knock one out of the park. “A well-developed lower body will allow you to exert a maximal amount of force in a minimal amount of time, which in turn makes you faster and more explosive,” says Jen Sinkler, an author, personal trainer, former elite athlete and founder of Lift Weights Faster. “It’s very important for any athlete whose success depends on speed.”

2. You’ll reduce your risk of injury.

Lower-body strength could also be the difference between getting injured and staying in the game. Performing functional exercises, like lunges and squats, promotes stability in the knee, which, according to the American Council on Exercise, is your best bet to prevent an ACL tear. Sinkler, a former elite-level rugby player, says she recovered from a long-term cartilage injury (due to a muscle imbalance) by strengthening her posterior chain, otherwise known as the back of the body.

“Challenging these larger muscles requires more energy, which means your body will be burning more calories.”

3. You’ll burn more calories.

Whether or not weight loss is the goal, if you want to get the most bang for your buck at the gym, it all starts with the legs. “Working bigger muscles in multi-joint exercises like squats, deadlifts or lunges will require more ‘work’ from the heart and brain and higher levels of metabolism compared to exercising smaller muscle groups,” says Jon-Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, a Newfoundland-based personal trainer. Challenging these larger muscles requires more energy, which means your body will be burning more calories. Fun fact: Your gluteus maximus (aka your behind) is the largest muscle in your body.

4. You’ll improve your balance.

Giant biceps are no match for a patch of sidewalk ice. But having a strong lower body just might help you avoid a wipeout. Exercises like side lunges and deadlifts will increase your stability, develop your proprioception and help keep you ready for anything. Whether you’re an adrenaline sport junkie or a weekend warrior type, balance is essential for maintaining control of your body.

5. You’ll run faster and longer.

There’s more than one reason strength training can make you a better runner. Strength-based movements like squats and deadlifts will help develop your hips, which are typically a major source of injury for runners. Research also shows that strength training can help give endurance athletes a leg up on the competition. In one study, cyclists who strengthened their lower body demonstrated more power during the final sprint of a race than those who skipped the weights.

6. You’ll increase your metabolism.

Not only will leg day make you speedier on the track, but it can also speed up your metabolism. It’s no secret that lifting weights will help athletes build and maintain muscle mass. And when your body composition has more muscle, “your whole engine runs faster,” says Sinkler. Strength training outperforms running, cycling, rowing and other standard cardio exercises when it comes to keeping metabolism revved up, Sinkler says.

7. You’ll relieve lower back pain.

If you sit for the majority of your day, odds are good that you experience some back pain from weak hamstrings and short and tight hip flexors. “[Most people] blame tight hamstrings and attempt to stretch them,” says Sinkler. “In actuality, they would be better off stretching the hip flexors and strengthening the hamstrings, glutes and abdominal muscles.”

8. You’ll increase your range of motion.

Think flexibility has nothing to do with weight training? Think again. Olympic weightlifters, elite CrossFit athletes and pro-level athletes from nearly all disciplines need mobile joints in order to maximize their power output. Even if you aren’t a top competitor, learning the correct movement patterns for exercises like the squat, deadlift and lunge will improve your range of motion, says Sinkler. Once you’ve got the movements and proper mobility down, you’ll be able to safely tackle more weight and ultimately increase your gains.

9. You’ll have superhero efficiency for everyday tasks.

Kawamoto notes that even if you aren’t an elite athlete, giving your legs attention will pay off each and every day. Picking up boxes, carrying groceries, or moving furniture will be easier when your lower body is used to squatting down and hinging at the hips. Even if your arms are strong, you’ll be more efficient when lifting heavy objects if you squat down and engage those glutes and hammies instead of straining your back.

Tips for Leg Day

Is it squat o’clock? Here’s what you need to know about getting a leg up on your next lower-body workout.

How often to hit it: Your workouts should be different depending on your goals. Runners should incorporate strength training on low to moderate mileage days. For gym goers looking to change their body composition, Sinkler says it’s best to rotate volume (number of sets), heavy weight and speed so your body never adapts to the demands of your workouts.
Which exercises are most efficient: Sinkler and Kawamoto both recommend squats, deadlifts and lunges, as well as single-leg variations of those movements. Skip lower body machine presses since they won’t engage your core as much as free weight exercises. If you enjoy bodyweight training, make sure to find new variations so you’ll keep challenging yourself and seeing progress.
What not to do: It’s well-known advice but worth repeating: To maximize results and prevent injury, never add more weight or attempt to go for speed until you’ve got the movement patterns down. Beginners should pay special attention to squat depth, posture and knee alignment. When in doubt, schedule some time with a certified strength coach or trainer to nail down the foundations before going heavy.