The squat is the gold standard leg exercise either done with weights, no weights, tubing, and/or weighted balls. The benefits are many—from sports skills improvements to maximize caloric expenditure. However, if you don’t see muscular or well-defined legs after doing plenty of squats, or worse, have some knee and hamstrings aches, you may be over squatting.
When a muscle contracts, the opposite muscle has two jobs: it relaxes to allow the primary muscle to do its job, and also resists forces to stabilize the joint and help decrease the risk of injury.
Take a leg curl as an example. While the hamstrings (muscles on the back of the leg) exert the force, the quadriceps help to decelerate the hamstrings movement and stabilize the knee joint when you lower the leg.
Yet, if one of these muscles is stronger than the other—odds are the quadriceps—your performance will be affected and your risk of injury rises. And, aesthetically, you will have some muscle to show on the front of the leg, but nothing to show from the back.
Experts know if the quad strength exceeds hamstring strength then both the knee and the hamstrings are more prone to injury. “Many exercises, especially those involving squatting motions, typically involve the quadriceps to a greater extent than the hamstrings, thus further decreasing the hamstrings/quadriceps (Q) ratio,” confirms a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. Indeed, compared to two hamstrings exercises—leg curl and stiff-leg deadlift—the squat tackles just one-half as much hamstrings activity.
The good news: you can improve your H:Q ratio in just 12 weeks with a hamstrings/quadriceps strength training program done twice a week.
Runners and those who play explosive sports like basketball would benefit from increasing their H:Q ratio. This is because resisting actions produce more force than concentric actions, which puts the muscle in a higher injury risk. This is what the hamstrings do during the last 25 percent of the swing phase in running—resisting the force.
So to proper work both sides of your legs, you should include one hamstring exercise for every quadriceps one. But not any hamstrings move will have the same effect. Some need to emphasize more the concentric action—shortening the muscle—while others will stress more the eccentric action—lengthening the muscle/resisting the force.
Super Set Leg Workout
This routine is designed in a super-set format: two exercises that focus on working opposite muscles, done one after another without rest. Rest at the end of each super-set for no more than 90 seconds, and do this workout twice a week with at least one day rest in between.
When doing this routine, follow these tips:
- Perform a light warm-up and stretch at the end of the workout
- Perform 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps. After two weeks, do one week of 15 reps to shake up the workout
- Make sure to keep your back straight, chest up, and abdominals tights and do not let the knees pass your toes
- This routine can be done with dumbbells and/or barbells
- If you are at the gym, switch one Good Morning exercise for a leg curl once in a while
Super-set: Straight Leg Deadlift (top) followed by Squat (bottom): when doing the SLD, push your hips back and go as low as you can while keeping the bar close to your body and the back straight. Use the back of the leg muscles to lift up your body and not the back.
Super-set: Good Morning (top) followed by Step-Up (bottom): the Good morning should be done with care. You must resist the weight with your hamstrings and lift up your body using the same muscles—not the back muscles. As per the step-up, a study shows that a 30-40 centimeter high (12-15 inches) bench produces greater quad strength than a lower bench; however, progress slowly. If you have knee issues, consult with your physician.
Super-set: Physioball Hamstrings Curl (top seqence) followed by Lunge (bottom): when doing the physioball hamstring curls make sure you keep your hips straight and exert the force with the hamstrings. Do not relax the hips when going down. The tension should be felt at all times. For more of a challenge do one leg at a time.
Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.