Building lower-body strength is of paramount importance for athletes. However, you have to do it with methods that are safe and effective and that demonstrably improve sports performance. The problem is that many commonly-performed lower-body exercises don’t meet those criteria.
Exercises to Avoid and to Do
In a previous article, I broke down four upper-body exercises athletes should not perform. Below, I reveal my top lower-body exercises athletes should avoid—and the performance-boosting ones they should do instead.
Avoid: Leg Extensions
Leg extensions are popular among bodybuilders, because they are a great way to increase quad size. However, they offer no benefit to athletes. In fact, Leg Extensions can decrease athletic performance and put you at risk for a knee injury. They also fail to engage the hamstrings, glutes or lower back, which are active in most athletic movements.
For athletic benefits, perform Lunges instead.
Lunges are an excellent way to improve hip stability, overcome muscular imbalances and strengthen the quads to run faster and jump higher. Lunges are extremely versatile—you can perform them forward, reverse or walking, and you can load them with weight at your side, in the rack position, on your back or overhead.
- Begin in athletic stance holding dumbbells at sides
- Step forward to comfortable distance and lower into lunge position until back knee is just above ground
- Drive back into start position by pushing through heel of front foot
- Repeat with opposite leg; continue alternating for specified reps
Sets/Reps: 3-4×6-10 each leg
Avoid: Leg Curls
Leg Curls are commonly used to develop the hamstrings. The problem is that the hamstrings are never isolated when playing sports. They are designed to work with the glutes, quads and lower back when jumping, sprinting, cutting and performing most other athletic movements.
For athletic benefits, perform Glute Ham Raises instead.
Do: Glute Ham Raises
Glute Ham Raises are one of the best ways to strengthen the backside of your body, particularly the hamstrings and glutes. They will help you run faster, jump higher and prevent injuries associated with weak hamstrings.
- Assume position on glute/ham machine with legs locked in place
- Raise torso upward until chest is parallel to floor
- Drive knees into foam pad until they are at 90-degree angle and body is upright
- Lower with control; pause for one second and repeat
Avoid: Smith Machine Squats
Smith Machine Squats should be avoided, because they obviate the need to stabilize your joints and core—a must for athletes. The fixed plane of motion also puts your body in an unnatural position, which can cause joint issues.
For athletic benefits, perform Squats instead.
You’ve heard it a million times: “Squats are the king of all lower-body exercises.” No need to sugarcoat this—no other lower-body exercise will develop your hamstrings, quads, glutes and lower back like the Squat. It should be a staple in your program if you want to train like a beast and boost your athletic performance.
- 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
Avoid: Leg Press
While the Leg Press is an effective exercise to improve lower-body strength, it locks you into a fixed position, which does not correlate to sports performance. This is one reason why you can Leg Press more weight than you can Squat. Also, the Leg Press puts excessive pressure on the lower back, which can lead to back injuries over time.
For athletic benefits, perform Step-Ups instead.
Step-Ups are a great exercise to improve overall lower-body strength, promote hip stability and overcome muscular imbalances. Because of their vertical motion, they are also great for increasing jumping height—a key component of athleticism.
- Holding dumbbells at sides, assume athletic stance six inches from knee-high box or bench
- Place right foot flat on box or bench
- Contract right quad and glute to explosively drive body upward
- Drive left knee up until thigh is parallel to ground
- Bend right knee and hip to lower left leg to ground and return to starting position
- Repeat for specified reps; perform set with opposite leg
Sets/Reps: 3-4×6-12 each leg
Joe Meglio is a strength and conditioning coach at the Underground Strength Gym in Edison, N.J. Mentored by one of the brightest minds in the strength and conditioning industry, Zach Even-Esh, Meglio has worked with athletes at the high school, college and professional level. He specializes in training baseball players. Besides being a strength coach, Meglio competed in his first powerlifting meet in 2010, setting the New Jersey state record for Squat, Deadlift and total in his weight class and division. He graduated from Fairleigh Dickinson University in May 2011, following his final season as captain of the baseball team. For more information, please go to MeglioFitness.com.