Here’s the thing about leg workouts: When you’re moving, the majority of the time, it’s going to incorporate your legs. Maybe even every day! And how you train depends entirely on your goals, your current fitness level, your ability to recover between workouts, and how long you can realistically spend in the gym each day and week, says Kristy Zurmuhlen, C.S.C.S., a trainer at Soho Strength Lab in New York City.
That said, whether your goal is long, lean legs or super-muscular ones, you’re going to want to be lifting weights. Running alone won't necessarily do the trick. That’s because “traditional cardio is training [muscle]-fiber types and energy systems,” says Zurmuhlen. “It gives you a good base level of conditioning that will help support recovery and general fitness.” But to gain strength and muscle, “you need to focus on the main mechanism of muscle hypertrophy, which is the mechanical tension and stress we create from lifting weights.”
Zurmuhlen typically trains her own clients by targeting legs—meaning primary movers like the glutes, hamstrings, and quads—two to three times per week, either as part of a full-body workout, or part of a four-day upper and lower body split, where they focus on the lower body two times a week and the upper body two times a week. “I like to leave two days between leg workouts to ensure that my clients are recovering properly and not overtraining,” she adds.
When it comes to the lower body, movement patterns are either hip-dominant or quad-dominant, Zurmuhlen explains, and they’ll each affect your body in different ways. “If the exercise is a hip-dominant movement pattern, like deadlift variations, it will require a greater contribution from the posterior chain, lighting up the hamstrings and glutes,” she says. “Quad-dominant movement patterns like squat variation will require more work from the quads than the glutes and hamstrings.” It’s important to make sure you’re doing both types of movements for a well-balanced lower-body workout.
“A typical lower body-focused training day for me will include a squat or deadlift variation followed by single-leg work and accessory core work,” says Zurmuhlen. Squats and deadlift variations—big, compound movements—maximize mechanical tension across multiple muscle groups, which is key for getting stronger and building lean muscle. Accessory work targets weakness and imbalances that could inhibit larger movements.
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