Never skip leg day! Are you one of those people in the gym taking a selfie on the leg press or next to the squat rack? I have a few Facebook friends like that, which isn’t a problem. However, I am always left to wonder…are you not missing leg day because you want muscular or toned legs and glutes or is it because you want more strength? I guess I am a nerd to think that way, but from my point of view, regardless of the purpose, I would look for modalities where the reward is greater than the risk (injury) and gives you the biggest bang for your training buck and will translate to running performance best.
In my day job as a dental hygienist, I have people from the general population ask me all the time “If I am worried running will ruin my knees?”. A few months ago, a patient came in and said to me, “I can’t believe you are still running, you are going to ruin your knees”. He proceeds to tell me that he hasn’t been going to the gym because he jacked his shoulder and he has too much pain in his knees from doing too much on the seated leg press (I’m not a fan of that machine, by the way). He told me he was leg pressing 900lbs. What is the point of leg pressing 900lbs? Was he training to squat down and lift a car off a trapped body underneath it? It doesn’t make sense; the risk was greater than the reward because now he hasn’t been working out at all in part because he has pain in his knees. One of my issues with the leg press machine is that it does allow you to move a heavier load you may not be able to squat otherwise, which is dangerous.
The back squat is a far safer choice than the leg press machine. But is the squat the best choice for you? Again, for my blog, I am looking for exercises that minimize injury risk and increase strength. In a 2015 issue of Journal of Applied Biomechanics, researches compared the traditional back weighted barbell squat to the barbell hip thrust in healthy, resistance trained adults. The results of the study concluded that there was greater electromyographic (EMG) activity in the gluteus maximus, biceps femoris (hamstring), and vastus lateralis during the barbell hip thrust compared to the squat. The latter is one of the quadricep muscles and a knee stabilizer. The barbell thrust is not only better at training the muscles of hip extension, gluteus maximus and biceps femoris, it is kinder and safer to your knees. The squat is good, don’t get me wrong, the hip thrust is just a better option. Do you remember reading my blog post on kettlebells? That was another superior exercise for hip extension. Without hip extension, you cannot get out of the chair you are sitting in and you will lack power and strength during push-off when running. Interestingly, in a 2017 issue of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, researchers discovered in 84 runners with chronic lower-back pain, hip extension exercises every other day reduced running induced back pain after 8-weeks. Get those hip extensors strong, knees stabilized, and back pain diminished, running friends!
My personal favorite leg exercise is the Bulgarian split squat. This is a unilateral exercise, which means you bare the majority of the weight on one foot. Therefore, this challenges your balance, which engages your core muscles more. Additionally, because this is an exercise that is done with one foot on the ground, it better mimics running, where a portion of the stride is spent in single leg stance and you need to go into triple extension at the ankle, knee, and hip for push-off. In a double leg squat, the legs share the load equally, whereas in the Bulgarian split squat, 85% of the load is assumed by the stance leg, creating a more challenging workout. Also, as you squat down, you get a really good stretch on the hip flexors of the rear leg. Try it out folks!
Check out this great link with hip thrust examples:
Bulgarian Split Squat: