If the pandemic has done us one favor, it’s getting people to exercise. Many people saw the pandemic as an opportunity to start exercising, as exercise rates increased, and many of them still need to build a strong foundation.
If there’s one type of foundational exercise, it has to be leg workouts. Our legs are the human equivalent of tree trunks, supporting our weight for hours at a time, but many of us still don’t know how to train them. Let’s talk about how to have a killer leg day.
1. Fuel Up
If you’ve heard the expression “eat like a horse, sleep like a baby, grow like a weed” in the bodybuilding community, then you know the importance of proper fuel. You wouldn’t expect a car to perform at its best with the wrong fuel, so why would you expect your body to? Nutrition is every bit as important as training, so don’t neglect it.
This is especially true with what you eat before your workouts, as this is the fuel for your performance. If you work out in the morning, then focus on eating some quality carbs with dinner the night before and try enjoying some fast-acting carbohydrates first thing in the morning before your workout, but keep it light. You don’t want to be overly full, especially on leg day, but you still need pre-workout nutrition.
For example, try eating a piece of fruit like an apple before going to the gym. A berry smoothie would also be a great option. If you don’t go into the gym right away, a couple of pieces of whole-grain toast or some oatmeal would be perfect an hour or two before your workout.
Ideally, you want to eat close to 15% to 20% of your calories from fat, 25% to 30% from protein, and the rest from carbohydrates. Complex carbs and quality fats will go a long way toward fueling your workouts, and protein will help your muscles recover.
Also, if you’ve never counted calories before, consider trying it just for a week. We know it’s a lot of extra effort, but it will give you a good idea of your daily caloric intake, and it will be much easier to judge if you’re eating a surplus or not.
2. Supplement Your Diet
Eating whole foods should be your top priority if you want to see the best long-term results for your health and fitness goals. Some supplements are great, but remember what they are; supplements. They are not a replacement for eating whole foods.
If you work out later in the day, you may already have all of the energy you need from the food you’ve been eating to crush a solid leg workout. However, if you feel like you can use a boost, there are options for you.
Pre-workout powders and other supplements can help give you a significant edge in the gym, but you’ll have to cycle with it. If you plan to use pre-workout powders with stimulants, consider drinking a cup of black coffee 30 minutes to an hour before your workout. It will save you money and you’ll avoid a lot of unwanted chemicals and fillers while still offering plenty of performance benefits.
A lot of the articles you’ll read online about “getting the most out of your workout routine” are usually trying to pedal supplements like these. Very few (if any) are FDA-approved, and their quality assurance is not always up to par. If you’re going to use a pre-workout powder, make sure you read all of the ingredients and online reviews ahead of time.
However, you may still find that you want a boost for your workouts, which is perfectly fine. If you want to use a stimulant-free pre-workout powder, consider using creatine monohydrate from a reputable distributor and use it as directed.
3. Start With a Plan
Before entering the gym, you need to have a plan of what you’re doing every day. This will help keep you accountable for your workout and ensure that you’re performing a well-rounded workout routine.
Also, plan ahead for any potential equipment shortages by having a backup compound and isolation exercise in mind if needed! From there, here’s what you need to do.
Assess Your Goals
Generally, the rep schemes and workouts you have are largely determined by your goals, whether you’re looking to build strength, size, or endurance. There is one exception to this.
If you’re a beginner, we strongly advise following a plan from a personal trainer that will go through this with you. This plan should start with muscular endurance and stability and gradually move onto hypertrophic (muscle-building) training before moving on to strength and power. After you’ve built that foundation, you can train for whatever you want!
Now, if you’re past that early stage, you should consider your goals before determining your rep scheme and exercises. We recommend avoiding the trap of doing the same workout regularly, as your body will quickly adapt to it and it won’t grow or build strength as optimally. Instead, change up your rep scheme, sets, volume, and exercises as much as possible.
If you’re training for size, we’d recommend throwing in a few weeks of strength and endurance training every cycle. During a 12-week muscle-building cycle, you can do this at the beginning, middle, and end, or you can do a few weeks in a row, or whatever you prefer! The same logic applies to whichever goals you prefer.
No matter what your rep scheme is, try your best to keep the volume high for the best results. What we mean is that if you’re training for strength and you want to do sets with lower reps, consider a plan like 7×2 (7 sets of 2 reps). If your rep schemes will be higher for hypertrophic training, consider doing 3×8 or 3×10 for each exercise.
Time Exercises Appropriately
We know that you should aim for a rest period of between 1 and 2 minutes between each set, right? Between each exercise, aim for around 2 to 3 minutes. What we mean is that if you rest for 90 seconds between your squatting sets, give yourself 3 minutes before switching to the leg press.
Also, think about the timing during your sets. If you’re training for size, we recommend “2, 0, 2”. This means 2 seconds on the way down (eccentric movement), no rest in between (isometric), and 2 seconds on the way up (concentric). For strength, power, and muscular endurance, these numbers will be different, but try to stay fairly consistent with your timing during your training.
Lastly, the sequence of your exercises is also critical, and it’s important to get a feel for this. Compound movements should always come before isolation movements.
It’s better to perform isolation movements when you’re fatigued than it is to perform a complex movement like a squat. This is both for safety and results. For example, a good leg day workout may look like this:
- 5×5 Squat
- 4×6 Good-mornings
- 3×8 Leg press
- 3×10 Bulgarian split squats
- 3×10 GHD back extensions
- 3×12 Leg extensions
- 3×12 Hamstring curls
- 3×15 Calf raises
Depending on your goals, you may not want to follow that exactly, but that’s a good example for someone training for size and strength. Always end with isolation movements.
4. Warm Up
Next, you need to do a good warmup. You could easily argue that leg day has the highest potential for injury, so it’s very important to be prepared for the challenges to come. You’ll likely be working with some of the highest loads your body is capable of since your legs hold some of the strongest muscles in your body.
If you prefer general warmups that won’t fatigue the muscles you’ll be using (legs, in this case), then start with something moderate like burpees or mountain climbers. Don’t go so fast that you feel like passing out. Go at a moderate pace until you start feeling a cardiovascular increase.
For a more specific warmup, feel free to hop on the treadmill, perform some bodyweight squats or lunges, and more. If you start on squats, do a set or two with just the bar and go as deep as possible, focusing on your form the whole way. If the bar is too much, do this with just your body weight.
Either way, this cardio/strength warmup should only last for 10 to 15 minutes until you feel like you’re ready to conquer the world. As a bonus, this is also a perfect amount of time to let your coffee kick in in the morning!
If you like to stretch before your workout (stretching after is great, too), then we strongly recommend active or dynamic stretching. Static stretching (holding for more than a few seconds) will decrease the strength of your muscles for up to an hour, which is the entirety of your workout. It’s great to loosen up your muscles, but not if it will kill your gains!
5. Change the Rep Schemes
Even if you are training for one specific goal, change your rep schemes as much as possible, and don’t fall into the trap of doing the same thing every time. If you’re used to doing 5×5 on everything, then do a couple of weeks of 3×8 followed by building up to your one-rep max (1RM).
From there, get creative. For squats, a popular option that is sure to have you sore in the morning is 1-10-1-20-1-30. That means you build up to your 1RM, then drop the weight down and do 10. Then, get one rep at 90% of your 1RM, then drop it down further and do 20. Then, aim for 80% to 85% of your 1RM, drop the weight further, and do 30.
There are plenty of rep schemes to choose from, so don’t keep doing the same ones expecting to see new results in the short term. Always keep your body confused and make it believe that you’re struggling to survive. Otherwise, it won’t adapt!
6. Choose Your Exercises
For most of us, our legs carry us around every day, supporting our entire body weight with the help of our core strength. For this reason, they’re pretty strong! However, there are hundreds of functional movements you can use to train them, and you should switch them up as much as possible.
An easy way to change your routine on leg day is to switch between front squats and back squats. These will target different areas of your thighs and core, but they both offer the same anabolic (muscle-building) results. We recommend starting every leg day with one of these.
From there, don’t go over to the leg press machine every time or your body will get used to it. Also, don’t ever worry about running out of exercise. Here are some great compound glute and thigh exercises to choose from:
- Front squats
- Back squats
- Overhead squats
- Goblet squats
- Leg press
- One-legged leg press
- Lunges (weighted or not)
- Split squats
- Bulgarian split squats
- Romanian deadlifts
- Stiff-legged deadlifts
- GHD back extensions
- Hip thrusts
The list goes on for miles. Remember to use proper form on all of these, switch up the rep schemes every couple of weeks, and use plenty of volume in the gym! If you follow these tips, you’ll see the results you want as soon as possible.
Of course, you’ll also have plenty of isolation movements to choose from, too! Don’t forget about your calves, as well, and you’ll never run out of options on leg day!
Now that you know how to get a killer leg day in, head to the gym and put these tips to use. Leg day is the best day for building functional strength, so use some of these leg workouts and get some huge thighs today!
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