Lower-Body Exercises for Optimal Athletic Performance and Injury Prevention

Get better at the sports you play and the life you lead at STACK. Improve your training, nutrition and lifestyle with daily

Squat

Many lower-body exercises enhance athletic performance, including Squats, Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Lunges, Step-Ups and their variations. But before you work out, first you must look at what should be your primary goal.

The primary focus of any strength and conditioning program is injury prevention, and second, performance enhancement. Thus, you should begin by getting an analysis of your movement patterns. Have a coach or trainer watch you work out. Do you favor one leg over the other? Do you bend over with a rounded back? Is there a delay in crossover from one weight-bearing leg to the other? These are all examples of disproportional strength or balance issues, which can impede performance or even lead to an injury.

Your lower-body exercises should engage your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles in their full range of motion. Incorporating lower-body exercises that work these muscles proportionally will go a long way toward reducing the risk of injury and enhancing your athletic performance.

Since it involves all of the major lower-body muscles, the Squat is one of the best exercises for improving athletic performance. Variations include Front Squats, Dumbbell Squats or Lunges, Split-Squats and Bulgarian Squats. If you demonstrate an obvious difference in strength between one leg and the other, single-leg exercises like Lunges and Split-Squats will address the imbalance.

The Deadlift is like Squatting with weight held at arm's length while you stand up. It is also an effective exercise, offering all the benefits of the Squat while also requiring upper-body strength and correct posture.

The Romanian Deadlift (RDL) is a superior lower-body exercise for developing the hip extensors, hamstrings and glutes. In some anatomy texts, hamstrings function as knee flexors, whereas in fact they are powerful hip extensors and knee stabilizers. The overemphasis on knee extensions might explain why we see so many hamstring injuries in sports. When performed correctly, the RDL and its variations strengthen the hamstrings in ways that are functional, boosting performance and helping to prevent injuries.

Following a program of lower-body exercises that allow full range of motion—like Squats, Deadlifts and RDLs—will boost your strength and help you avoid injuries. Working to balance opposing muscle groups will drive better athletic performance. Include these three exercises in your program to reap the following benefits:

  • Concurrent increase in speed of movement
  • Greater neural adaptation,which translates to more sport-specific strength gains
  • Improves congruity of knee joint by increasing compressive forces, resulting in greater knee stability against shearing forces (less chance of injury)
  • Increases in tendon and ligament strength (connective tissues)
  • Increased bone density and strength of supporting musculature
  • Enables you to produce more force
  • Reduction in rate of injury incidence
  • Improves overall strength of the hips, lower back and knees

Sample Lower-Body Workouts

Allow one day of rest in between workouts.

Day 1

Dynamic Warm-Up

Squat

  • Assume athletic stance with bar on back and feet slightly wider than hip-width
  • Keeping back straight and knees behind toes, sink hips back and lower into squat until thighs are parallel to ground
  • Extend hips and knees to drive up out of squat position
  • Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 8-12x1-2 (use light weight as a warm-up); 3x10 at 50-55 percent max

RDL

  • Hold bar, dumbbells or kettlebells just above knees
  • Keeping core tight, back flat and feet flat on floor, bend at waist to lower weight down in front of legs as far as flexibility allows
  • Rise up to standing position

Sets/Reps: 3x10

Walking Dumbbell Lunges

  • Step forward and lower body until front thigh is parallel to floor and trailing knee is just above the ground
  • Keep straight back and core engaged
  • Push through heel and walk opposite foot up to front foot
  • Alternate with other side

Sets/Distance: 3x length of weight room

Cool Down


Day 2

Dynamic Warm-Up

Deadlift

  • Start in squat position with feet shoulder-width apart and bar on ground
  • Grip bar one palm in, one palm out
  • Keep feet flat on ground and low back tight
  • Extend at ankles, knees and hips
  • Lift bar until standing upright

Sets/Reps: 3x6

Squat

  • Assume athletic stance with bar on back and feet slightly wider than hip-width
  • Keeping back straight and knees behind toes, sink hips back and lower into squat until thighs are parallel to ground
  • Extend hips and knees to drive up out of squat position
  • Repeat for specified reps

Sets/Reps: 3x6

RDL

  • Hold bar, dumbbells or kettlebells just above knees
  • Keeping core tight, back flat and feet flat on floor, bend at waist to lower weight down in front of legs as far as flexibility allows
  • Rise up to standing position

Sets/Reps: 3x8

Cool Down

If you are still looking for a little help to put together your strength workout, check out our Strength Training Guide.

Photo:  menshealth.co.uk

Darriel Kitchens, CSCS, is a human performance and fitness specialist with more than 20 years of experience. He is also a USAW club coach. He holds a degree in exercise and sports science from The Citadel.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: LOWER BODY | WORKOUTS | EXERCISE | INJURY | STANCE | BODY EXERCISES | ATHLETIC PERFORMANCE