leg day

Posted 2 years ago

Designing your leg day

Program design can feel like a tricky and complicated process. Not only are there a lot of factors that need to be taken into consideration, but there are also hundreds of different methods and opinions out there. This can leave you feeling confused and questioning whether you’re doing everything “right”.

You might even be wondering where to start?

In this article, I have written down the thought processes that I engage in when designing lower body sessions for my clients. If you read on, you’ll see my top tips for helping you design your own program too! So, for now, drop your shoes, grab a notepad/logbook, and read on.

Muscle groups

We need to establish what muscle groups you are wanting to prioritise on that day and across the week (volume and frequency) based on your own individual needs. Do your glutes lack size compared to your quads or vice versa? Knowing what muscle groups require further work will allow you to determine where more volume (total sets per muscle) should be prioritised across the week and even during a session.

As a general rule of thumb, females can train their legs more frequently than us males due to differences in recovery capacity (you can read more about that HERE). Given that females also want to develop their glutes more, it will often mean that they’ll train their legs three times during the week, and their sessions might look like: glutes and hamstrings, quads, glutes and hamstrings. For males, a typical training rotation will include two lower body days, split into one glutes and hamstrings session, and another quads and hamstrings session.

Exercise selection

Once you’ve decided which muscle group(s) you’ll train on each given day, it’s then time to choose what exercises you’d like to include in your program. As always, exercise selection will and should be person dependent, and factors such as biomechanics, ability to contract muscle, exercises you connect well with, and personal likes/dislikes will play a large part in this selection process.

For example, if you hate barbell squatting and you get sore knees every time you do it, then don’t program it in. If you connect well with the hack squat and feel every muscle fibre in your quads, then opt for this exercise instead. The bottom line is that there is no right or wrong exercise selection, there is only effective or ineffective exercises.

Rep ranges

When it comes to training your legs, I’d strongly recommend working in a 6-12 rep range for the majority of your exercises, as this has been shown to deliver the best hypertrophy results. This is mainly because that rep range will allow you to go heavy and create the most amount of muscle damage you possibly can in each set; in turn, your body will recover from that damage and grow new muscle mass over time.

However, there are some exceptions. For example, you might see one of my clients perform a leg press with 2 sets of 15-20 reps, plus a couple of drops or a rest pause style set at the end. This is to take advantage of a different mechanism of muscle growth: specifically, metabolic stress/cellular swelling. The change we see from this type of stimulus is small when compared to that of heavy weight and lower reps. As such, although there, it will only compromise a small part of the workout.

Total sets

For the majority of exercises you perform on your leg day you’ll be looking to perform 2-3 working sets. By working sets I mean a set in which you have your maximal load on for the target rep range and are nearing muscular failure by the end of each set. In short, your warm-up sets don’t count. Following this model of training, alongside progressive overload, will allow you to keep your working sets low and get more bang for your buck. If you do not train to failure, or if you realise that you are not progressing the load over time, then it’s likely you’ll need more sets.

Remember the rule of thumb: as alluded to earlier, given that females have quicker recovery capacities than males, they’ll be able to do one more working set for an exercise relative to their male counterparts.

Exercise order

Most people assume that a workout should start with the biggest or more taxing / compound exercises first – and to be honest, for the most part, this is correct. This is because these exercises demand the most amount of energy and create the most amount of muscle damage. Therefore, we want to be as fresh as possible and carry the least amount of fatigue possible when we approach these moves.

However, there are some instances in which we might put an isolation exercise in first. Not only can this help you warm up the muscle and get the mind-muscle connection fired up, but it can also take advantage of not being fatigued. For example, you might want to consider programming the leg extension in prior to the hack squat. This is because the leg extension move allows you to get your quad into its fully shortened position (with your legs straight at the top). As you fatigue, your ability to get the quad short diminishes, which would mean that performing leg extensions at the end of your quad workout would be less efficient than doing them first thing.

Equipment available

It goes without saying that any exercise your coach programs in for you should first take into account equipment availability. Although I love seeing clients giving it the beanz on the hack squat, if their gym doesn’t have a hack squat, then we just modify that exercise accordingly. There are a multitude of alternatives for most exercises that target the same muscle groups in the legs, so always ensure that your program matches your kit.

At the time of writing this article, the UK is experiencing a national lockdown, which means you may only have limited equipment at home. Although it is frustrating, all you need to do is get creative with some of your exercises. There is a lot you can do with some dumbbells or a barbell and plates; it might just require you to think outside the box. If you are unsure of how to perform or modify any exercises or want some new ideas check out our YouTube channel for all our home-based exercise tutorials.

In summary there are lots of factors to take into account when designing a leg day. It might require a lot of thought, but if you put the time and effort into doing so then I can assure you that the results you get will be far greater than following a simple cookie cutter plan.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by it all then click the button below and let the team do the programming for you!

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons