Exercises to Build Muscular Legs

Unilateral Training for Mass Gains

The secret of making consistent gains is to keep your body’s stress adaptation system off balance. This is easy. Change the way you train, even slightly, and you’ll continue making gains longer. Unilateral training – working out one side of the body at a time – is a very effective and alternative training method that will put you back on the road to making gains in mass and strength. Unilateral training takes more time than training both sides of the body at the same time. But, it has some advantages that will make it a worthwhile alternate training method.

An example of unilateral training is doing one-leg squats; you work the right leg for 10 reps and then the left leg for 10 reps. This will give you a super overload that will help balance your muscles and speed your progress. Unilateral training shocks the muscles so they develop quickly. The method works and is backed by solid scientific research.

Why Unilateral Training Works

Here’s why unilateral training, or working out one side of the body at a time, works so effectively:

• Unilateral training helps isolate muscles better than training both sides of the body at once. San Diego State researchers found that doing one-leg squats overloaded the glutes better than doing two-leg squats. This type of training shocks your muscles, which makes them adapt faster.

• Unilateral training creates more muscle involvement because of bilateral deficit. This means the total weight you can lift with each limb working independently is greater than two limbs working together. Scientists call this bilateral deficit. An example is the leg press. Adding up the weight you can lift with each leg is greater than the total weight you can lift with both legs. Consequently, training with one side of the body at a time loads the muscles more than working them together.

Unilateral training increases the strength of the inactive side. This is a little-known fact of muscle and nerve science. If you do knee extensions with your right leg, your left leg gets a small training effect – without doing anything.

Lower Body Unilateral Training Exercises

You can use unilateral training for the upper or lower body. Here are lower-body exercises using unilateral training methods. 

One-Legged Squats on Smith Machine

One-legged squats are best for working the glutes and isolating the quadriceps and hamstrings. Doing them on the Smith machine helps you keep your balance and protect your knees from injury. Adjust the height of the bar so you have to bend your knees slightly to stand under it. Use a towel or squat pad on the bar to keep it from digging into your upper back. At first, don’t use any weight on the bar. Place both feet shoulder-width apart and about 12 inches or so in front of the machine so you lean into the bar. Put as much weight as possible on the right leg. Squat down – keeping your weight on one leg – until your leg breaks parallel. Do three sets of 15 repetitions with each leg. After you finish the exercise using the right leg, immediately do 15 reps using the left leg. One complete set means you did 15 reps using your left and right legs. Rest one minute between sets.

After you feel comfortable doing one-legged squats with both feet on the ground, do the exercise with one leg on the ground and lift the other leg behind you. This will isolate and work the leg muscles even more. Change your foot placement if you feel any knee pain. Add weight and drop the reps to six to 12 as you become better trained.

One-Legged Knee Extensions

Use a standard seated two-leg knee extension machine. Begin with your right leg and use a weight that allows you to complete 15 reps easily. Do this exercise slowly and strictly. After you finish doing it with the right leg, immediately do 15 reps with the left leg. Rest one minute between sets. Do three sets of 15 repetitions with each leg.

Progress slowly on this exercise. Many people develop kneecap pain from doing knee extensions. Prevent pain and injury by adding weight very slowly and by doing the exercise strictly (don’t jerk your upper body trying to complete the repetitions). You should feel a burn in your thigh muscles, particularly during the last two sets. Add weight and sets and drop the reps to eight to 12 as you become better trained.

One-Legged Leg Curls

Use a prone bench-type hamstring curl machine (the kind where you lie on your front side). Place the back of your right foot on the pad and draw your right foot toward your butt, while keeping your abdomen, hips and thighs on the bench. As with the other exercises, do three sets of 15 reps with each leg with a one-minute rest between sets. Don’t cheat – let your hamstring muscles do the work. Add weight and sets and drop the reps to eight to 12 as you become better trained.

One-Legged Calf Raises

Use a standing calf raise machine. Stand on your right foot between the shoulder support pads. Slowly, drop your right heel until you feel a stretch in your calf muscle, then rise up on your toes as high as possible. Do three sets of 15 reps with each leg, with a one-minute rest between sets. Start off with a light weight and progress slowly. Do your reps slowly and under control. Add weight and sets and drop the reps to eight to 12 as you become better trained.

Single-Leg Press

Using a standard leg press sled, begin by pressing the load off the stops with both feet, then find a stance that won’t allow your knee to travel forward of your toe tips on the way down. Let go with one leg and let it rest on the floor. Using the other leg, slowly lower the weight until your knee comes as close as possible to your chest without lifting your butt off the seat. Come to a complete stop, and then begin to raise the weight with controlled, concentrated effort until you reach the top without locking your knee. Contract your glutes and quadriceps tightly at the end of the movement and come to a complete stop before beginning another rep. Select a weight that allows you to do 12 to 15 reps with good form. Repeat with the other leg. As you become more fit, add weight and build up to four sets, resting about a minute between sets.

Hack Squats

Using a standard hack squat, begin by pressing the load off the stops with both feet, then find a stance that won’t allow your knee to travel forward of your toe tips on the way down. Let one leg drop back behind you; then slowly lower the weight with the other leg just until your quad breaks parallel. Come to a complete stop, and then begin to raise the weight with a controlled, concentrated effort until you reach the start position without locking your knee. Contract your glutes and quadriceps tightly at the end of the movement and come to a complete stop before you begin another rep. Select a weight that allows you to do 12 to 15 reps with good form. Repeat with the other leg. As you become more fit, add weight and build up to four sets, resting about a minute between sets.

Lunges

Begin by standing about two feet away from an eight to 12-inch high block with your feet shoulder-width apart. Place both hands on your hips and lunge forward, placing one foot on the block in a position that won’t allow your knee to travel forward of your toe tips on the way down. Come to a complete stop when your thigh is parallel to the floor. Contracting your quadriceps and glutes, push back up toward the start position. Complete 12 to 15 reps with good, controlled form. Repeat with the other leg. Once you get the hang of the movement, you can add weight by holding a dumbbell in each hand down at your sides. Gradually increase the weight, and build up to four sets, resting about a minute between sets.

References:

Henry FM and LE Smith. Simultaneous vs. separate bilateral muscular contractions in relation to neural overflow theory and neuromotor specificity. Res Q Exerc Sport 32: 42-46, 1961.

Herbert RD and SC Gandevia. Muscle activation in unilateral and bilateral efforts assessed by motor nerve and cortical stimulation. J Appl Physiol 80: 1351-1356, 1996.

Howard JD and RM Enoka. Maximum bilateral contractions are modified by neurally mediated interlimb effects. J Appl Physiol 70: 306–316, 1991.

Jakobi JM and E Cafarelli. Neuromuscular drive and force production are not altered during bilateral contractions. J Appl Physiol 84: 200-206, 1998.

Kawakami Y, DG Sale, JD MacDougall and JS Moroz. Bilateral deficit in plantar flexor muscles during isometric contractions (Abstract). Can J Appl Physiol 20, Suppl.: 26P, 1995.

Sale DG. Neural Adaptation to Strength Training. Komi, PV (ed.) Strength and Power in Sport. London: Blackwell Scientific, 1992.

Vandervoort AA, DG Sale and JR Moroz. Comparison of motor unit activation during unilateral and bilateral leg extension. J Appl Physiol 56: 46–51, 1984.

Vandervoort AA, DG Sale and JR Moroz. Strength velocity relationship and fatiguability of unilateral versus bilateral arm extension.Eur J Appl Physiol 56: 201-205, 1987.

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