Legs are the largest and most powerful muscles in the human body. They have deep muscle bellies and adapt well to both cardiovascular conditioning and power training. When it comes to strength training or powerlifting you will find it very difficult to excel without strong, stable and balanced leg power.
Think about the amount of strength required to pick 500-600 pounds off the ground. You need to have balanced strength from your feet to your hands – any broken link will cause weakness and an insufficient lift. This is why we recommend building your legs for power and strength.
Before you jump into the training principles and exercises for developing strength it is important to know that the legs are a little more complex than many people might think. For ease of information’s sake, we’re going to break down the legs into 2 main systems; pushing and pulling.
These are muscles that push away from the forces of resistance. Generally, these are muscles that extend the knee and flex at the hip – aka, the quads, calves and hip flexors. Not only are these muscles quite powerful, but they also help to stabilize the knee in lateral movements.
Strong quads, calves and hip flexors mean explosive strength and great stabilize in complex movements.
There are your real power muscles. Although the quads are very strong and complex muscles, when it comes to pure power – nothing beats the hamstrings and, most predominantly the glutes. After all, the glutes are the strongest set of muscles in the human body and work to extend the hip for all running or pulling movements.
Powerful glutes and hamstrings define an athlete. If you want to be explosive you will need to develop raw power through the hip and mobility in the hamstrings to let the glutes work effectively.
How To Train For Anaerobic Power
This brings us to our next point – how do we train these muscles to be strong and powerful? There are a series of methods and strength programming we can use to boost strength and power through a full range of motion.
The first and most popular method is through muscle hypertrophy – that is, literally stimulating the muscle fibres to grow larger. This is generally done through heavyweight and lower weights to emphasize the most muscle recruitment in the shortest period of time.
A relatively new method for training for power, plyometrics works on the platform of muscle tensegrity and plasticity. In this case, you need to think of your muscles as elastic bands – stretching and relaxing in the most effective way possible will help to increase power and strength output. This is generally completed with minimal reps with very high intensity.
The last and perhaps newest method for training for strength is through volume. The idea here is to maintain the muscle under tension for the longest period of time possible. Slow muscle contractions are the name of the game here – and although this may not be the most practical method for developing specific strength, volume training can be a great way to deload the muscle (on deloading weeks) and can also stimulate hypertrophy almost as well as true heavy training.
Five Best Basic Leg Exercises to Develop Pure Power
1: Front Squat
Let’s put it this way – have you ever seen someone who is not strong pumping out 2 plates on front squat? This exercise could be considered the king of strength when it comes to complex squatting exercises. The bar position allows for a deeper range of motion and higher requirement of the quad muscles – great for cyclists of hockey players.
2: Box Jump
When you complete box jumps your aim is to always maintain the best possible form, light feet and high power. This means training at high intensities – so don’t be afraid to fall on your face; most boxes come with padding anyways.
We’d recommend keeping the reps lower and really training for complete power in each repetition. This means using sets like 6×3 or 4×4 (for single leg).
3: Power Clean
The king of all exercises. Nothing comes close when we talk about the true translation of strength to barbell training. In this exercise, you must lift the weight from the ground to the shoulder (front squat position) in one motion.
If your goal is to increase strength through the power clean you should ensure you have optimal form before using any weight heavier than your bodyweight. This means great dorsiflexion, great hip thrust power and even better bar-catching skills.
4: Sumo Deadlift
When it comes to overloading the muscles with as much weight (as safely as possible) nothing beats the sumo deadlift. The position of your feet to the bar makes the weight very easy to lift off the ground while recruiting the mass and strength of the glutes.
Before you go heavy on this exercise, ensure you have a strong foundation – this means training your feet before going heavy; you don’t want to end up messing up your arches.
5: Weighted Lunges
Perhaps the most versatile leg exercise for power and strength on our list. Weight lunges can be done walking forwards, backwards, with weights in hand, or on the back – or for extreme athletes, you can use a Bulgarian lunge to achieve a deeper range of motion and optimal strength translation.
Lunges are a very natural movement for humans that train strength in the legs while training stability and balance in the feet and core.
Weighted lunges should be completed with a relatively light weight (less than half your bodyweight) and should be completed with a moderate rep-range. 8-12×3 should be perfect for most to develop the strength and stability required to adapt for heavier weights.
Building Leg Power and Strength
Building strength in any system will take time – but building strength and power in the legs will take more patience than anything.
You must remember that the heavy stress you have the muscles placed under is not just on the legs – heavy barbell training also puts stress on the back, shoulders and neck. For these reasons, you must remember to keep your body aligned and deload every couple of weeks.
There is no reason to run into injury just to crank out that last rep (especially if you have form breakdown). Understand that the legs will develop best with heavyweights, but train safely to avoid injury.