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Top 4 lower body movements for athletic strength

June 22, 2017

If you're serious about training, it's time to abandon the "bodyweight only" dogma. 

By and large, bodyweight based programming (esp. on the rings) is very beneficial for the upper body: the degree of scapular control, shoulder stabilization, and proprioception is unparalleled with regard to other training modalities. 

It's the opposite for the legs.


"Movement" training is great, but if you want to develop strength, speed, and power in your lower body, nothing beats the weights. Quads, glutes, hamstrings, and hips all benefit from heavy loading: the best sprinters, vertical jumpers, and professional athletes all use (mostly) weighted work for the lower body.

Plus, developing explosive strength (optimizing rate-of-force development) is contingent upon a high level of maximal strength in the first place - in a nutshell, don't expect to be fast and explosive if you're weak. Pistol squats might feel hard, but they don't even come close to adequate loading. 

And then there's the bulletproofing. By subjecting the lower body to such an intense stimulus, you increase the resilience of ankle, knee, and hip joints in response to crisis, falls, hairpin turns, or physical damage. If you've conditioned your body to handle large weights, you're less likely to break in response to a black swan. 

Bodyweight can only get you so far; rather than being married to one dogma, why not pick & choose what works?

Here are some of our favourite lower-body movements to use in building strong & explosive athletes: 

1. RFESS + Deficit:


RFESS stands for "rear-foot elevated split squat", AKA, the "Bulgarian split squat". We like these for a few reasons:

A) Single-leg strength. The RFESS narrows imbalances between the legs, preventing injuries and allowing greater bilateral loads. Also, it's easily loaded with lots of external weight (unlike pistol squats), allowing you to really overload the legs while maintaining a vertical force vector.

B) Knee stability. The posterior chain is great, but it's important to remember the quads - and their role in stabilizing the knee capsule. Unstable knees (and weak quads) can leads to ligament tears, dislocations, and a whole host of injuries. Plus, greater stability in the knee complex =  greater ability to express force in the knee complex. 

C) Sport-specific vertical force vector. That's the fancy way of saying that you're exerting force vertically, an essential quality for initiating & landing jumps, sprinting speed, and overall athleticism. Single-leg training also tends to be very applicable to the real world: rarely, if ever, is movement initiated from a perfect, bilateral starting position. 

Normally, the RFESS is done with the squatting leg flat on the floor, but we like to add a deficit.


With a regular RFESS, the range of motion only allows you to squat to parallel. While there are benefits to parallel squatting - and some people should only be going to that level - it's generally better to go as far down as possible to receive the best training stimulus. 

With the added deficit, there's also an increased emphasis on the glutes, hamstrings, and hip flexors - usually tight, weak, and de-conditioned in a majority of athletes. 

Plus, it leaves you sore for days afterwards. 

2. Heavy T-Handle Swings

I first learned about this exercise from coach Ross Enamait (a huge inspiration).
He developed a piece of equipment called a "T-handle" - a plate-loaded kettlebell used for swings. 

Kettlebell swings are a great movement for conditioning, posterior chain assistance, and explosive strength. Unfortunately, kettlebells have serious limitations:

A) Loading. Kettlebells are traditionally measured in weight by pood, 16.38kg increments. I shouldn't have to explain why that's a big jump. The T-handle solves this by allowing incremental loading in 2.5lb increments. 

B) Weight. It's hard to find really heavy kettlebells, and when we do, they're really expensive (especially paired with issue A above). The T-handle solves this with plate loading, as you're able to put as much or as little as you'd like on the bar. 

So why use heavy swings? 

They're one of the best exercises for building explosive hip extension, particularity relevant for the improvement of sprinting speeds (concentric, high-velocity hip extension strength in a horizontal force vector): 

Early research indicated that the hip extensors might be among the most important muscles for sprinting ability. Mann (1980) observed in a group of elite sprinters that the best athletes displayed the greatest hip extensor (and knee flexor) net joint moments.

Later similar research confirmed this, as the increases in hip extension net joint moments with increasing running speed were found to be greater than the increases in knee extension net joint moments, or work done (Simpson & Bates, 1990; Belli et al. 2001; Kuitunen et al. 2002; Schache et al. 2011; 2014; 2015).

In other words, the hip extensors get proportionally more involved in the sprinting action, with increasing running speeds (Beardsley & Contreras, 2014).

The importance of the hip extensors was also confirmed by electromyography. Hip extensor muscle EMG amplitudes are high in sprinting (Jönhagen et al. 1996), and levels increase steeply as running speeds increase (Mann et al. 1986; Wiemann & Tidow, 1995; Bartlett et al. 2014). Bartlett et al. (2014) reported that EMG amplitudes in the superior and inferior regions of the gluteus maximus increased by 166% and 111% from walking to running, and by 562% and 451% from walking to sprinting.

3. Deadlifts & Squats:

We'd be remiss to neglect the classic squats & deadlifts. These have been used for generations to build strong, capable athletes. They're the classic movements targeting the entire lower body complex. 

The real value of these exercises is that they allow very high loading in a vertical strength vector. Unlike heavy swings and the RFESS, they're less chaotic and lend themselves to building large amounts of strength in a relatively linear pattern. 

Two variations I'd like to highlight are:

A) The trap bar deadlift. I won't go into too much detail, as Greg Nuckols already wrote a fantastic article on why trap bar deadlifts are better for athletes vs traditional bar deadlifts:

[When compared to a classic barbell deadlift] it allows for more flexibility in the movement, doesn’t require a mixed grip, is easier to learn, allows for higher velocity and higher power output (all other things being equal), and is safer for a lot of people.

Nuckols mentions a few caveats; notably, for this article, is that trap bar deadlifts require less terminal hip extension. If you're doing heavy swings this isn't a problem, as they tend to be more optimal in that regard when compared to any kind of deadlift. 

B) Front Squats. Front squats are harder on the anterior core, they impose less shear force on the spine, and they tend to be easier to coach and harder to screw up. Unlike back squats, front squats tend to cure excessive arching of the back and impose a greater demand on the anterior chain. Plus, they're great for loading the quads - which aren't any less essential than the posterior chain! 

4. Cossack Squats & Pistol squats:










The two "bodyweight" movements to grace the list. Weights will always be optimal for developing the lower body, but there's more to athleticism than strength. This is where cossack squats & pistol squats shine. 

Cossack squats offer stunning mobility for the hamstrings, calves, adductors, glutes, feet, and ankles. Strength is great, stability is great, but so is elasticity. Being just a little bit more mobile and flexible can work wonders on the fields or the court. 

They're also a great way to build and maintain functional strength in the lateral plane. Aside from flexibility, training in this plane is a great way to bulletproof the knees from ligament tears, maintain knee health, and build strength in a very range of motion. Just take a look at these:



Pistol squats offer similar benefits. You simply won't be able to do them without a solid base of mobility, particularly in the hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors. They condition the knees for deep flexion, strengthen connective tissue, and improve proprioception. 

They develop strength, to some degree, but the real value lies in their chaos: they require you to express force in an unstable, unilateral environment. That's excellent for preventing injuries and building balance. Plus, they look really boss...




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