Knowledge

Top 5 tips for training the lower body

Christian Thibaudeau

Co-founder of Thibarmy, Trainer

Articles, Muscle gain, Strength and performance

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Top 5 tips for training the lower body

What is cool with Thibarmy is that we have coaches from many different backgrounds, so we can tackle a question from many different angles. For this article, I asked my team what was their best training tip to maximize lower body performance and development. Here’s what a Crossfit coach (Karim), a powerlifting coach (Alex) a functional rehabilitation expert (Mai-Linh) and myself think are our best tips to optimize lower body training.

Lower body tip no.1

The shorter your legs are relative to your torso, the more posterior chain work you need.

I could also say “the longer your tibias (lower leg) are relative to your femurs (upper leg), the more posterior chain work you need”.

In both cases (so even more if you have both short legs and a relatively long tibia), you will be anterior chain (quads) dominant. Meaning that when you do lower bodywork with any form of squatting, leg press, hack squat, etc. you will rely mostly on your quads, leaving the glutes and hamstrings relatively under-stimulated.

For that reason, the bulk of your assistance work for the lower body should be focused on the posterior chain. People who are quads dominant do not need a lot (if any) direct work for they quadriceps if they are working hard on a form of squat.

People with the opposite body type: long legs and a shorter torso and/or short tibias relative to femur will need less posterior chain work and more emphasis on quads.

Here is an example of how these two people might train differently (note that this is not a training prescription, it is for illustration purposes):

Short legs/Long torso lower body session

A. Back squat

1 x 7 , 1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 7, 1 x 5, 1 x 3

120 sec of rest between  sets

B. Romanian deadlift with toes elevated

4 sets of 6-8 reps

Slow eccentric (about 4-6 seconds)

120 sec of rest between sets

C. Long steps walking lunges

3 sets of 6-8 steps per leg

120 sec of rest between sets

D. Lying leg curl

3 sets of 6-8 rest/pause (do 6-8 reps to failure, rest 15 sec and go to failure again)

Slow eccentric (about 4-6 seconds)

120 sec of rest between sets

Long legs/Short torso lower body session

A. Front squat

1 x 7 , 1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 7, 1 x 5, 1 x 3

120 sec of rest between  sets

B. Leg press

4 sets of 12-15 reps

120 sec of rest

C. Backward lunges

4 sets of 6-8 steps per leg

120 sec of rest

D. Leg extension

3 sets of 6-8 rest/pause (do 6-8 reps to failure, rest 15 sec and go to failure again)

Slow eccentric (about 4-6 seconds)

120 sec of rest between sets

Lower body tip no.2

The type of squat you should use depends on your body type

I love the squat (I’m not saying this to sound hardcore) and I’m built for squatting (short legs, long tibia), so I get awesome quadriceps growth from only doing the squat. People with a body type opposite to mine will only get a fraction of my quads gains from back squatting because for them (because of their leverage) the squat is more of a posterior chain exercise, it’s almost a hybrid between a squat pattern and a hip hinge pattern. They will build their glutes, hamstrings and lower back from the back squat but the quads will get little love.

Does that mean that the longer limbed folks should not squat? No! But it means that they need to select the squat variation that best suits them.

Here is a quick guide on how to pic your main squatting variation:

Short legs and/or long tibia relative to femurs: these people are natural squatters. Any type of squat will emphasize the quads. The only type of squat they don’t do well on is the low bar back squat. Why? Because of their longer torso. They are built to squat with an upright posture, any forward lean (like in the low bar squat) gives them bad leverage: because of their long torso, the lower back has to work extra hard just to maintain proper posture. I would still recommend the back squat as their main squat variation, but use the high bar, upright style of squatting (like Olympic lifters do). This is the version of the squat that will allow them to use the most weight and since any squat will focus on the quads, then the back squat will allow them to put the greatest overload on the quads.

Long legs and/or short tibias relative to femurs (with adequate mobility and stability): Ok here’s the thing: if these guys are squatting just to move more weight (competing in powerlifting for example) they should definitely use the low bar back squat. Because of their relatively shorter torso, it will make them move the most weight. BUT, it will give them very little quadriceps development. If their goal is to use the squat to build the quads, and provided that they have no mobility or stability issues, the best squat variation for them is the front squat ( https://youtu.be/5Hrwcct4wAY ) or the Frankenstein squat (https://youtu.be/1LAjDobEMYQ ).  It allows these people to squat with a more upright posture without having bad mechanics. This loads the quads more.

Long legs and/or short tibias relative to femurs (with suboptimal stability): If the log limb individual has a weak core and has trouble maintaining proper posture then I suggest the lumberjack squat.

It decreases the need for stabilization while also being great overloading the quads. Of course you can’t load as much on that exercise as on a regular front squat so you might want to resort to intensification techniques like using a very slow eccentric tempo, doing a combination of partial and full reps or double contraction reps. Now, the goal for these people is to work up to a front squat. To do that they need to strengthen their core and the best option is farmer walks. My friend Dr. John Rusin mentions that you should be able to walk for 30 seconds, maintaining perfect posture, with your body weight in each hand (since we are testing/working on core strength, you can use wrist straps). So, that is the goal to work up to.

Long legs and/or short tibias relative femurs (with suboptimal mobility): Here I’m talking about the long-limbed lifter who can’t go down to a full squat position without having a butt wink (tail under position, losing lower back position). For these people the best variation is the box front squat or box squat with a safety squat bar. Ideally you measure the height of the box so that it is just above where you lose your lower back position.

IMPORTANT: There is a big difference between a powerlifting box squat and a box squat to load the quads or to improve the squat pattern (a powerlifting squat is as much a hinge as a squat). In powerlifting, you sit back on the box and your relax in the bottom to increase posterior chain firing. In the box front squat or safety bar box squat you are doing your exact squatting pattern, stop only briefly on the box, keeping tension, and then standing up. The goal is not to increase posterior chain firing but to allow you to do a squat pattern that focuses on the quads while respecting your lack of mobility. Of course, you need to work on improving squat depth since the goal for you should be to work toward doing a regular front squat.

Lower body tip NO.3 (Alex Babin)

Connect the upper and lower body for optimal performance and gains

Stop thinking that isolating a muscle means to relax the rest of your body. When performing a lower body exercise, whether it’s a compound movement such as a squat or a simple lying leg curl, you should always create some form of tension in the upper body.

Take the squat for example.  It’s a lower-body exercise, but for it to be optimal and safe you NEED to be aware of your upper body as well. Contracting your upper back muscles along with your lats will ensure a straight bar path and a better rebound out of the hole. You should also create intra-abdominal pressure and brace for your life.

Another great example is the role of the lats in the deadlift. One of my main coaching cues when teaching the deadlift is to contract the lats before ripping the bar off the floor. This prevents the bar from getting away from you & pitching forward resulting in your lower back taking most of the load. Keeping the bar close to you when deadlifting is one of the most important mechanics to master to improve your deadlift. By doing so, you ensure proper posterior chain recruitment throughout the lift and a better chance at locking it out at the top. And ALL of this is due to proper lat contraction.

When performing a compound movement, your whole body should work as one single unit with one common goal; moving the bar efficiently.  This is also true for isolation exercises such as leg extensions: you should brace, pull yourself down on the seat with your arms, and squeeze your upper back muscles. This keeps your butt from rising off the seat, doesn’t change the mechanics of the exercise and keeps the tension exactly where you want it.

Never underestimate the extra muscular contraction you will achieve in your legs if your upper body plays a role in the movement.

Lower body tip NO.4 (Mai-Linh Dovan)

Educate your clients on basic anatomy and biomechanics

No, I don’t mean that you’re going to start explaining detailed origins, insertions and force vectors.  But if you want your clients to move efficiently (while you are present and more importantly, when you are not), they need some basic notions on movement.  For the lower body specifically, they need a basic understanding of how the hips move in relation to the torso.  Your responsibility to educate your clients extends far beyond telling them “hinging works the hamstrings and glutes, and squatting works the quads”.  It also involves more than just telling them what to do.  I have had more cases of squat and deadlift-related hip dysfunction than I can count, as have you, I’m sure.

Among many other causes, the technique is key.  And part of the technique is understanding what is going on biomechanically from the feet, through to the hips, through to the torso, and how and why that differs for squats, deadlifts, lunges and step-up variations.  Simple notions of hip/knee flexion/extension and their associated muscle involvement are easy to understand, plus you should know them well enough to “dumb them down” if/when needed.

You will see far better results when your client has a basic understanding that although both are involved, a greater emphasis on hip extension targets the glutes/hamstrings and a greater emphasis on knee extension targets the quads, and that torso position will differ based on the chosen emphasis.

Take some time out to do this with clients and if possible, use video feedback.   Clean up any miscues they may have integrated into their lower body training.  For example, a cue like “squeeze your glutes” tends to send people into posterior pelvic tilt.  It may need to be replaced with something like “push through the floor to bring the hips into extension” to get them to understand and feel that this is the movement that contributes biomechanically to soliciting the glutes.

Lower body tip NO.5 (Karim El-Hlimi)

Isometric work before your workout

I was talking with my physio last week about training (of course), and I was telling him how hard it was for a majority of experienced athletes to « feel » their glutes when doing Bulgarian split squats. He talked about the intention of recruiting the right group of muscles, and that makes sense. 5 different individuals can perform this exercise the same way, but their level of glute recruitment will likely be different. That makes sense too.

How do you translate this into your own practice to optimize the right muscle group for a specific exercise? One of my answers would be isometric work. I love everything about isometric work. First of all, because there’s nothing much harder than a few sets of paused deficit snatch grip deadlift or paused front squat. There are many ways to train isometric strength, just have a look at Thib’s Strength Bible. But what I love the most is to use some light isometric work prior to your strength training.

Take that athlete that has a hard time recruiting his glutes in split squats. If he has a decent mind-muscle connection, keep him in the same working position and add a light band to his working leg such that his knee has to resist the band from pulling him into internal rotation. Have him hold the bottom position for 30 seconds, and he will likely feel his glutes firing properly for the first time.

You can do the same with Alex’s tips for the deadlift. Want to feel your lats? Use a traditional band pull down and hold the isometric contraction for a couple of sets of 30 seconds. If you have an advanced athlete, take a barbell and add a band to a post. Resist that band pulling the bar on the opposite side and hit your deadlift workout afterwards. Light isometric work will help you to build more mind-muscle connections and optimize your firing rate during your workout.

– THIBARMY