FITNESS: 6 Key moves to improve leg strength

Nelia Harding is a Biokineticist with a special interest in Strength Training. She has a B.Sc. Degree in Human Movement Sciences and Nutrition, a B.Sc. Hons in Biokinetics, an M.Sc in Biokinetics and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist through the National Strength and Conditioning Association in the USA. We worked with Nelia who owns and runs H360 Strength to create a lower body strength routine for trail, XC, road, gravel, enduro, DH and E-Bike riders to dip in and out of all year round.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

Before you begin with this routine make sure you have qualified by mastering the exercises in this article because as soon as you add load to your movements, your big muscle groups which are the prime movers, take over and if those stabilizers are not firing first, you are at risk of injury. If you need some movement literacy in your life, a Biokineticist is the best person to see.

The next important reminder is of “The SAID Principle” if you remember that, you will know that it is very important to follow the order and well as the correct amount of sets and reps in order to get your gains. Don’t try do drop sets or as many reps as you can because that type of will put you at risk of overuse injuries and impede your riding. We are trying to build your strength to make you a boss on the bike, not a gym boss. Sometimes you may feel like you could have done more, but I assure you if you carefully follow these principles, you will get your gains.

WARM UP

To lower your risk for injuries, never ever skip the warm up. 10min on any cardio equipment or a skipping rope if you prefer. Next we prep for movement by using the exercises from the first program. Bird-Dog, Side Clam (new on elbow) and Glute Slides. You can do one set of each, 10 reps.


1. DEADLIFT

This is a hip dominant exercise, refer to Glute Slides for movement pattern.

EQUIPMENT — To set up for your Deadlift you will need an Olympic lifting bar 25kgs, safety collars to secure your weights (always secure your weights), and some weights. I strongly suggest that you remove your shoes for this one, keep on your socks if you like, the ones with the grip always work well. If your gym is strict on shoes, maybe consider getting yourself a pair of lifting shoes that do not have a heel to toe drop more than 3mm.  You don’t want any sponginess under your feet, the closer your shoes are to barefoot, the better. You definitely want something with a wide toe box that allows your toes to move freely.

SETTING UP — Walk up to your bar so that your shins touch the bar (if you have no weights on your bar put a step on each side to lift the bar off the floor), keep your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing forward. Find your tripods on your feet, neutral spine position and bump your bum back until you can feel your hamstrings and glutes engaging. Now lower down, keeping that neutral spine, knees stay above the ankles and not over the toes. Grab your bar with a hook grip ensuring that your palms are pushed into the bar and firmly wrap your hands around the bar with the first 2 fingers over the thumb to lock your grip. Don’t just use gloves and straps to compensate for a weak grip. If you can’t grip the weight, MAKE IT LIGHTER, so you can build your grip strength. Set your shoulders in their neutral position and engage your lats by pulling your armpits toward your hips to keep your shoulders open. Stabilize your spine with the lower pelvic muscles pulling up, the navel pulled in towards the spine and the ribs down. Follow all the steps for the neutral spine position that you have learned.

UP MOVEMENT — Push through the tripods of your feet to lift, the movement requires you to push knees back and hips forward, slide the bar up the legs until your hips are pushed against the bar. Keep the spine tall and in a neutral position, pretend like the stick is on your back. This movement is controlled, 2 seconds up.

DOWN MOVEMENT — Bump your bum back, reach for a chair behind you. The bar slides down your legs while your upper body hinges forward from your hips and your shoulders stay directly above the bar so that your hands and shoulders are in one line, perpendicular to the floor. Touch the floor and go back up. Control this movement down for 3 sec.

Leave your weights on the floor once you have completed your set, never drop a weight on the floor, I have rehabilitated backs because of foolish moves like that. Keep the tension in your muscles throughout your movement. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. The reps and sets are in the program at the bottom of this page.

TIP — Make your first lift super light and do about 6 reps to ensure good form throughout the movement, once you have the feeling, load it up! Do increments of 10kgs and do one repetition until you can feel like it is really getting tough to lift but easy to keep your form. If your form is not correct MAKE IT LIGHTER. You will be pleasantly surprised how quickly you can increase your weights every week if you do it in the correct form, that is where the gains lie. Your first time doing this program will take about 1.5hours. Once you know which weights to use, you should not be in the gym longer than 45min.


2.  BACK SQUAT

This is a hip and knee-dominant movement, therefore you will feel Quads, Glutes, and Hamstrings working together in a well-balanced manner.

EQUIPMENT — Same as above plus a safety bar on each side of the rack.

SETTING UP — Place the bar on a rack just below shoulder height. Step under the bar and rest it on the back of your shoulders and upper back. Hold the bar with palms facing forward. Reach your elbows back to create a “shelf” for the bar.

Stabilize your spine and find the neutral position. Lift the bar off the rack and take a step back. Please ensure that you have set up the safety bars on your rack, as shown in the picture. They are great to save you in case you lose your balance or if the weights are too heavy just leave the bar on them. They also give you a sense of safety so that you can move more freely and can be a point to reference for how low you should go down.

Place your feet shoulder-width apart and turn your toes out about 5 degrees. Keep a tall spine with the chin tucked in.

DOWN MOVEMENT —Bump your bum back slightly until you can feel the glutes and hamstrings engaging. Slowly sit back while your knees bend to drop you down. Because this movement is more knee-dominant than your deadlift, your knees may come forward, but your feet must stay flat on the floor. The bottom of your squat is reached once your thighs are parallel to the floor. You want the bar and the middle of your feet in one line perpendicular to the floor. The bar stays in that line all the way through your movement. Your hips go back, knees go forward and the upper body goes slightly forward to get to the bar above your feet in order to lower the weight. Go down in a controlled manner for 3 seconds.

Note how this is different to your deadlift because your knees move forward, but not too far, and you will feel your quads work harder with your glutes and hamstrings. In your deadlift, which is a hip dominant movement, your upper body hinges further forward and you dominantly feel the hamstrings and glutes working, while the knees stay above the ankles.

UP —Push through the tripods of your feet, the knees go back and the hips forward. Make sure your bar moves in the same line, up and down, no forward and back movement. You should really feel the spine stabilizers work hard here. This is one of the best core strengthening exercises you will ever do if your stabilizers fire during your movement. Control your movement up for 2 seconds.

TIP —If you struggle to sit back in your squat and can’t get your thighs parallel to the floor, place a box/bench behind you to sit back on. Make sure you still control your movement and only touch the box before pushing back up. Don’t flare your ribs up. Pretend that stick is on your back. Avoid just dropping to the bottom of your squat and then re-engaging your muscles to get back up, make sure you keep the tension in your muscles all the way through your movement.


3. SPLIT SQUAT

This movement is similar to your back squat movement. This movement is slightly more hip dominant because you have to lean further forward to get the bar above the middle of your foot and the knees don’t go further forward than the middle of you foot.

EQUIPMENT —Same as above plus a bench, box or step behind you. Make sure that that the box is secured by some weight so that it can not slide away.

SETTING UP —Before you pick up the bar, measure your distance from the box. You need to be able to comfortably sit back without your back leg taking all the weight. Your back leg is there for balance mostly and the front leg takes the weight.

Place the bar on the back of your shoulders and place your hands on the bar next to your shoulders. Push your elbows back slightly to form a shelf for the bar. Keep a neutral spine and put your leg back onto the box. Find the tripod on your front foot.

DOWN MOVEMENT —Start with a neutral spine position and make sure you stabilize. Stick your bum back slowly by hinging from your hips. Make sure you can feel the hamstrings and glutes activating. Keep the weight on your front foot as you sit back. Your shin stays perpendicular to the floor. You are only going down to 45 degrees here and then pushing back up. Three seconds down.

UP MOVEMENT —Push through the floor, using the tripod on your front foot. The knee goes back and the hip comes forward. The glutes should work really hard here. Two seconds up.

TIP —If you don’t feel your glute make sure that both your hips are pointing forward. Do not open the hip of the back leg by twisting your hips that way. Both hips should move back and forth together. You can try to move your front foot further forward to feel more hips.


4. HIP THRUST

As the name suggests, this is purely a hip dominant exercise. It takes some practice getting yourself set up and place the bar in a comfortable place, but please do not let this discourage you.

EQUIPMENT — A bench, secured against something. Bar, collars to keep weights in place, a towel to wrap around the bar or a pad for the bar. If your gym does not have this type of padding for a bar you can buy one at Sportsmans Warehouse for under R200.00. They are also very handy for front and back squats.

SETTING UP —It is important to already have some weights on the bar, even if they are light, in order to get under the bar easily. Place your shoulder blades against the bench and sit on the floor. Now roll the bar over your legs to your hips. The best position for most is to have the bar resting on their hip bones. Bend your knees and move your feet as close as you can to the bench. Place your elbows on the bench to give yourself a lift and then lie with your shoulder blades and mid-back on top of the bench. Lift up your hips and shimmy your feet to below your knees. Mostly you will use the same weight as your Deadlift here.

UP MOVEMENT —Now push your hips up by pushing through the tripods on your feet. At the top of your movement, your hips should be fully extended and you should feel your Glutes doing most of the work and your hamstrings assisting. Your head should be aligned with your spine and your eyes looking at the ceiling. If you only feel Glutes and no hamstrings, slightly shimmy your feet closer to the bench and test to see if your glutes engage. If you feel quads, slightly shimmy your feet away from the bench until you feel your glutes engaging. Hold the top position for 2 seconds before you go down.

DOWN MOVEMENT —Keep the muscle tension and slowly lower down. At the bottom of your movement, your neck should still be in line with your neutral spine position and you should be looking forward. Do not drop the weight to the floor, when the weights touch the floor, go back up.

TIP —Keep your spine in a neutral position and hinge through your hips. Make sure those stabilizers are activated around the lower back, you do not want your lower back doing the work here.


5. HAMSTRING RAISES

This movement is also hip dominant and you should feel your hamstrings working.

EQUIPMENT —Bench and mat on the floor.

SET UP — Lie on the mat with your bum close to the bench and your heels up on the bench. Keep your feet hip-width apart and your knees bent about 90 degrees. Your heels must be on top of the bench and toes pulled to your knees. Place your hands by your sides on the floor.

UP MOVEMENT —Dig the back of your heels into the bench and hinge your hips forward until fully extended. Keep it up for 2 seconds before you come down. If you don’t feel your hamstrings, move further away from the bench. Do 5 reps with both legs for your first set to avoid cramping up your hamstrings. Thereafter, you can start with your set. Lift one heel away from the bench and now go down.

DOWN MOVEMENT —Control down until you feel your bum touching the floor then go back up. This should take 3 seconds.

TIP —Make sure that your foot stays straight, not leaning inwards or outwards. If you struggle with one leg, just do it with both legs for the first few sessions.


6.  SINGLE LEG KB FRONT SQUAT TO SIDE

This is a typical squat movement with one leg stepping out to the side. The leg that stays behind should activate the inner thigh muscles.

EQUIPMENT — Kettle Bell

SET UP — Stand upright and hold the kettlebell by your hip. Swing it up and flip it over so that it lies in the pocket between your Biceps and Forearm. Push your elbow up to shoulder height to form a self for the KB. Tuck your chin in.

DOWN MOVEMENT —Keep your spine stabilized and in a neutral position. Step far out to the side with your toe slightly turned out and lower in the same way as you back squat. The bottom of your squat is reached once your thigh is parallel to the floor.

UP MOVEMENT —Push through the tripod of your squat leg to bring your foot back to the starting position.

TIP —Practice this movement with the stick on your back if you struggle or place a box behind you to help you sit back.


FINALLY

Here is your link to the program that you can print out and take to the gym. Please use this to write down your weight for each week. The Deadlift is done alone with rest in between, thereafter you do the Back Squat alone. Then you can do the Split Squat and the Hip Thrust as a superset and finally, the Hamstring Raises and the KB Squats as a superset. Concentrate on quick, explosive movements for maximum gains.

Do this program 1-2 times a week with 2 rest or easy days in between to optimize recovery. If you are doing interval days on the bike do those sessions on the same day as your gym session then take a full rest day after that. Concentrate your loading phase into one day, then take one or two easy days to recover as needed. The key is systematic overload and then proper recovery.


Follow Nelia @h360_strength


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