Squats have been called the king of exercises. Not only do they work a large number of muscles, they also cause a significant release of hormones because of that muscle involvement. But are they the only way to train for powerful legs? No. There’s a lot more to leg day than heavy squats. Here are some great exercises and strategies for leg training if you can’t do heavy squats or you just want to mix it up.
Some of the alternatives to the old fashioned squat workout are still squats. These variations just don’t require you to wrap your knees and step under the squat rack. Dumb bell squats are a great alternative if you’re lifting alone. Since barbell squats should only be performed with a spotter (to avoid misses, collapses and possible death) you can always switch to dumb bells which are easy to drop in an emergency and never go above your head. The dumb bell squat also tends to be a mix between squats and deadlifts since you can lean slightly more without a weight across your shoulders.
Single leg squats – also called pistols – can be a great way to build stabilizing strength in your knees. You can perform these free-standing or hold onto a bar for balance if needed. A bar can actually take pressure off of your knees by allowing you to sit back further than you could without a support.
Another great variation is the jump squat. Although many people use this term to describe tuck jumps or other high jumping movements, a jump squat only requires you to jump enough for your feet to slightly come off the ground. The point isn’t getting high off the ground, just adding enough explosiveness to the concentric portion of your squat to let you clear the ground.
A great way to build power in the legs is to perform explosive movements. This is where tuck jumps come in. Squat down slightly at the bottom and jump as high as you can, tucking your knees up at the top. This requires your legs to develop a lot of power and momentum. Remember, whenever you use plyometric exercises like this, keep your sets short and stop when you get tired. It’s easy to get injured if you continue explosive jump training when you’re overly tired.
Another plyometric movement for leg development is commonly called “Russians.” This exercise starts in a lunge/split squat position. As you explode up, switch your feet and land with the opposite foot forward. These are usually performed like jump squats, with the feet just clearing the floor enough to switch.
Box Jumps are one of the best ways to build explosive power. Make sure you use a sturdy object to jump onto and, if you are jumping down instead of stepping down, make sure the surface below is level and somewhat soft. Your box doesn’t need to be that high to be effective. Again, make sure you keep your sets short and don’t continue the exercise if you’re too tired to maintain perfect form and stability.
One of the simplest forms of leg training is sprints. Run a quick Google search for photos of Olympic sprinters and you’ll see right away the correlation between sprinting and impressive leg development. Make sure you do your sprint training on a level surface and wear good shoes to avoid injuries. You can mix up your training with a variety of different sprint lengths and intervals. You can also increase the difficulty of your sprints by wearing a sprint parachute or sprinting up a slight incline.