One of my favorite gym memories steams from a conversation I had with my first coach, TB. I worked with TB for my Teen Bodybuilding Competition in 2005. He was one of those old school bodybuilders that had no use for new techniques or equipment. He barely touched the machines and maintained the same training schedule for as long as I knew him. He was also a short mountain of muscle and a regular competitor in back in his heyday. We constantly talked trash and joked around while we were lifting. As usual we got on the topic of the Upper Body Gymrats that were lifting beside us. I asked, “So Coach, how many days a week can you do arms and chest?” He just laughed and said, “Apparently five or six!” He then followed up with, “International Chest day is Monday. International Leg Day is someday.” It’s only funny because it’s true.
I personally have never understood leg day. Why would I train one half of my body two to four days a week and the other half one day a week? The legs are home to the biggest muscles, but get the least amount of attention. The main reason for this is the crippling feeling that comes in the days to follow. Sometimes it’s the day after. Sometimes it’s delayed until the second day. Pain can be a strong deterrent, but the only way to counteract this pain is to out train it. Instead of a physical attribute, I view strength as a skill. A skill requires consistent practice to master. In the words of Dan Gable, “If it’s important, do it every day. If it’s not, don’t do it at all.” Training any muscle group one day a week is not going to build the resistance to encourage growth. This means that one can spread out the work and make each day a little lighter. Not only will this help with recovery, but it will also increase the work capacity for the week.
My main focus for a new client is to make them functionally strong. This always begins with building leg strength. Most people sit for the majority of the day and this tends to deteriorate the muscles of the legs from lack of use. As the muscles atrophy, they tighten up and lose range of motion and the tendons lose elasticity. This leads to lower back pain and misalignment of the hips. Once the muscle begins to wake up again, the pain subsides and the individual feels more energetic throughout the day. This is usually done through circuits and focused sets until the client is strong enough for the serious programs. This is also true for clients that want to lose weight. As I mentioned before, the legs house the largest muscles in the body; which means they require more calories to function. The entire goal to losing weight is burning the calories which are stored on the body and making the metabolism more efficient at burning fat than storing fat. Every workout for these clients should involve some movements to activate the legs at least once.
So, what about the clients that are wanting to gain muscle mass? Train legs very often! There are a few common ways to increase natural testosterone production. The main training aspect of this is adding maximal effort lifts into the training program. These are compound movements that use the entire body for completion of the lift. The usual suspects are deadlifts, squats, bench press, overhead press, kettlebell swings, and sprints. These lifts, if done correctly, will use the legs in some way. Bench press and overhead press use the legs to stabilize the base and increase radiating pressure throughout the body. I like to split my heavy leg training with arms or shoulders to increase the rest between exercises, sometimes supersetting to increase rest between sets. This way I can hit every exercise with full force while being time efficient and maintaining a higher heart rate during the training session.
In conclusion, forget leg day; train them during every session. Working on shoulders? Switch out Shoulder Press with a Push Press and move some heavy weight. Back and Bis? Throw in some Barbell Bent Over Rows. Chest and Tris? Superset Bench Press with some Deadlifts or Zercher Squats occasionally and jump start some blood flow. Keep in mind, you don’t have to kill a muscle every workout to make it grow. Just give it a little extra incentive. The body will adapt to become more efficient to its most common stressors.
[Edit for clarification]: I am not suggesting that an individual should lift solely legs every day or that a leg specific exercise should be done during every session. It is still best to have a leg focused training day where a lifter can go heavy. An upper body focus day is also important for proportional development. My point is that activation of the leg muscle can be done through upper body lifts when performed properly. As I mentioned in the last paragraph, Bent Over Rows will hit the legs as well as the back and biceps. Correct form dictates the lifter maintains a hold similar to the movement of a Romanian Deadlift which will put a static hold on the hamstrings and glutes. Another way to incorporate more leg training is cardio. Going for a walk or run two to three days a week will help to strengthen the legs and reduce soreness from heavy legs days.