In this article I outline what I believe to the 7 best lower body exercises on the planet. Seriously, they are that good — so get them in your program.
When I first stepped foot into the gym, I did very little lower body strength work.
In fact, I did none.
I was adamant that running was enough to ‘keep my legs strong’.
To be honest, I was only in the gym to build some muscle, and lets face it — who cares about legs?
How naive I was…
But fortunately, things change, and as a result I began to see the benefits of training my lower body.
Over the years my love for lower body strength training has blossomed into a bit of a fetish. I am a vocal believer that everyone should strength train. And more importantly, I believe that everyone should prioritize exercises that strengthen their lower body.
As you age, your lower body strength is one of the first things things to decline. It is this decline that impairs your ability to perform normal tasks of daily living, lowers your quality of life, and simply makes everything harder.
Additionally, lower body strength is the foundation from which all other areas of performance are built. This means that if you want to sprint fast, change direction rapidly, run or cycle long distances, or play any type of sport, lower body strength is essential.
Which is why I am sharing what I believe to be the 7 best lower body exercises on the planet.
Now, just to be clear, these are not in any particular order. In fact, they are all great exercises in their own right, and they all deserve a place in your training program.
So, without further ado – the 7 best lower body exercises.
1. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat not only has a cool name, but also offers a great way to improve lower body strength and single leg stability. In this manner, it is one of the most bang for your buck exercises on the planet.
This makes it perfect for anyone who wants to sprint faster, change direction quicker, or simply navigate life’s many daily challenges easier.
As a bit of a bonus, it can easily be loaded with barbells, kettlebells, or dumbbells, making it super versatile.
2. Front Squat
Many people describe the barbell back squat as the king of all exercises — and its not far from the truth.
However, for 99% of the population, I prefer its handsome younger brother, the front squat.
With the front squat, the bar sits on the front of the shoulders, rather than on the back. This allows you to maintain a more upright position during the movement, making it more back friendly. This also forces more core engagement, and typically helps people sink a little bit lower.
As a result, it has great carry over to almost any real life task you can think of — especially those related to athletic performance, such as jumping and sprinting.
in short, front squat it like its hot.
3. Trap Bar Deadlift
Anyone who knows me knows I like to deadlift. I honestly think everyone should deadlift in some way, shape, or form.
It is the perfect exercise to build lower body strength. It places a premium on all the muscles of your posterior chain (think glutes and hamstrings). It even hammers all the muscles of your upper back.
As a result, it not only offers a great way to strengthen the lower body, but also improve your posture.
However, the traditional barbell deadlift can be quite challenging for a lot of people.
Which is exactly why I like the trap bar deadlift.
As the bar sits slightly higher than a normal barbell, it is more accessible (especially for those with mobility limitations). Additionally, the shape of the bar helps you keep a slightly more upright posture, which places less load on the lower back.
What more could you want?
4. Reverse Lunge
I am massive fan of exercises that not only build strength and stability, but also do so in a functionally relevant manner.
Which is exactly where the reverse lunge enters the discussion.
Like many other single leg exercises, the reverse lunge improves single leg stability. However, as it has you driving forward from the bottom position, it better replicates things like running, sprinting, jumping, and walking up stairs.
Even better, because it has you stepping backwards to initiate the movement (rather than forward like many other lunging variations), it makes it easier to load into the hip. This means that it tends to increase the work done by your glutes, while reducing the load on the knee.
5. Lateral Step Down
The lateral step down is the perfect way to improve single leg stability while moving in a lateral direction. With this in mind, it offers benefits for almost anyone on the planet.
The key with this exercise is to leave your ego at the door!
The load does not have to be heavy — in fact, it probably shouldn’t be. The key is to focus on slowing down the descent and keeping it smooth and controlled.
6. Single Leg Deadlift
As if I was going to leave this guy out.
If you have ever trained at iNform, then you would know that we are a big fan of single leg deadlift variations. They are the perfect way to improve hip strength and single leg stability, which is why they appear in so many of our programs.
To add to the appeal, they an be loaded using almost any piece of equipment, and can be performed assisted if balance is an issue.
Talk about versatile.
7. Barbell Hip Thrust
Last but not least, we have the hip thrust.
Popularized by the glute guy himself, Bret Contreras, this is a great exercises that absolutely smokes the glutes.
As a result, it offers a great way to improve athletic performance, help improve lower back pain, and build a sweet booty.
Seriously, what more could you want?
Take Home Message
Improving the strength of your lower body is a surefire way to improve your performance, function, and even quality of life — and the key lies with making sure you do it right.
Which is exactly why I have outlined what I believe to be the best 7 lower body exercises.
Start incorporating these guys into your training ASAP, and reap the rewards.
Did you know that if you start running, there is a 30% chance that within 6 months you will stop.
But evidence from studies such as this one from Fokkema et al (where I pulled that number from) can help people like me understand why, so I can share it with people like you!
So firstly, why do people stop. For the participants of the study linked above, the main reasons were:
Development of an injury.
A low perception of physical capability prior to commencement.
A lack of direction following an initial intro-to-running program.
The good news is that these pitfalls can be avoided if you acknowledge the fact that they exist before you start, and you implement strategies to get over them.
So here is what I recommend before you start running.
Listen to your body. Running is hard on the body, but this is not a bad thing. Our body responds favorably to loading but if this load crosses a threshold injury can occur. So build gradually. If you start getting sore, walk it off. If you pull up sore the next day, roll your legs over on a bike. Prioritise sleep as that is when our body heals itself. Drink lots of water and eat nutritious food. Basically treat yourself well.
Get Strong! If you doubt your physical capabilities, improve your physical capabilities. Getting stronger is simplest way to do this. Consult with a trusted Exercise Physiologist or Strength Coach and they can help you get stronger in a safe and appropriate manner.
Think long-term. Most running programs for beginners aim to get you from 0 to 5km in about six weeks. Plan a six month goal. A 10-12km event is appropriate for that time frame. Search for an event that you would like to do in six months of around that distance and commit to it. Seek out a reputable Coach who can help you plan from week-6 to month-6 and beyond. Running gets easier with increasing experience. And the easier it is, the more enjoyable it is and more beneficial it will be to your long term health.
For more information on this topic check out these blogs:
Do you find it difficult knowing how hard to exercise? The reasons could be many, but one comment I hear time and time again from our clients as they start their journey back to exercise is: I want to get back to it, but I want to make sure it’s safe. I want to be confident that I don’t hurt myself or overdo it.
We all know that exercise is good for us, and that probably we should do more of it. But there’s often a large bridge to build between that knowledge and actually having a plan to implement. And often a larger one when it comes to actually implementing the plan!
As exercise physiologists we are great at delivering tailored exercise sessions face to face with clients, considering all your specific needs. We are are also good at writing and teaching you programs that you can follow on your own in between sessions (regardless of the time gap between our contact with you), be it using your own gym, or home programs, or running, etc.
What we often hear though is: “I wish I could have you with me 24/7 to keep me accountable!”, and “but I wasn’t sure if I should exercise because of how I was feeling”… and this could be due to fatigue, sickness, etc.
Knowing how hard I should exercise
So our biggest challenge has been to find a way to help you know how hard you should exercise, and when. How to progress your exercise and activity based on your specific current fitness, energy levels, etc.
As university trained exercise professionals we know what you should be doing, and we can draw a very good line on a graph to suggest how that exercise should progress. But let’s face it: what sounds good in our studio may be very different to implement once the rubber hits the road for you; once you have to choose on a daily basis if, when, and how hard to exercise.
But wouldn’t it be great to have an exercise coach at home with you 24/7 – ok, maybe not one that will be nagging you consistently! – but one that can encourage to be more active, that can tell you its safe to go that bit further, to push a bit harder?
Well, after years of posing this challenge to ourselves, waiting for technology to catch up with our plans and desires; and months of in-depth research of the tools currently available to us, we have found the right partner for our collective needs! And it comes in the form of an unobtrusive, yet incredibly powerful wrist band called Whoop!
Whoop – my exercise coach at home
In a previous blog I described the way the Whoop band, worn around your wrist as in the picture featured above, monitors your sleep, and hence your recovery levels. It then uses that information to recommend how much exercise you can do that day based on your recovery.
What I love about the Whoop system is that it also takes into consideration the overall ‘load’ – they call it ‘strain’ – that you are under. In that blog I explain how all your life commitments, activities and pressures result in a measurable physiological ‘stress’, or strain. So Whoop takes into consideration how tired, fatigued, stressed – or full of beans (!) – you may be, and recommends the right level of activity you can do that day. This makes sure you progress appropriately to ensure it is safe!
My motivator to push a bit harder!
The picture below shows the display that Whoop gives you when you are exercising, if you chose to record an ‘activity’. What you see in the middle is a number showing you the amount of ‘strain’ (physiological load) that you have accumulated during that session. Around it is a guide showing you what the optimal level of strain for that session should be, based on your overall daily strain levels, and your recovery over the previous night – genius, right?!!
What you can see is that I was well within my optimal levels. So what that display did was to encourage me to push a bit harder, to go a bit longer, as I knew I could get away with it. It indicated that I could maximise that exercise session to get the best outcome from it without risk of overdoing it.
So now we have a perfect partnership. Our team of exercise physiologists can teach you the right exercises to do, specific for your needs. They can guide you through how to progress those exercises and when. And your Whop band can assure you of how hard you can exercise. And if your goals are to get fitter and stronger, Whoop can guide how hard you should exercise to maximise your outcome.
Because your Whoop band and phone app can unobtrusively guide your activity levels, by showing you your current levels of ‘strain’, it can be a great motivator to encourage you push that little bit harder to achieve your goals.
I would love to chat further with you about how this great piece of technology can you assure you that you are doing the right amount of activity, but most importantly, how it can motivate you stay on track!
Moreover, the way in which the bar is positioned during a deadlift (in front of your body) means that it naturally places a lot of shear stress on your spine.
Now, to be clear, this is not a bad thing.
When the deadlift is performed correctly, this shear stress strengthens the muscles of your back and trunk. And the result? Over time your back becomes more stable, and less injury prone.
But, if your deadlift technique is poor, then this shear stress is not going to be a good thing.
In fact, it may even result in injury.
What we could only consider ‘not so good’ (AKA my eyes are bleeding) deadlift technique
Good Deadlift Technique (AKA How to Deadlift)
What does good deadlift technique look like?
While there may be some slight variances in deadlift technique between individuals (things like stance width and hand position, for example), there a few general rules that must be adhered to at all times.
Your whole foot making even contact with the ground
Armpits positioned over the bar
Back in a neutral position
Head in line with spine (so not looking too far up or down)
Bar positioned over your shoe laces
Hips back, feeling a whole lot of tension in your hamstrings
If you tick these six boxes, then you are in the prime position to perform a safe and efficient deadlift.
And it should look a little something like this (performed by yours truly):
But (there is always a but…), it does need to be said that not everyone will have the mobility required to get into the bottom position of a deadlift safely.
Which begs the question…
Do I Need To Deadlift From the Floor?
In short, no — you do not.
While I am a firm believer that everyone should deadlift in some way, shape, or form, I also believe that you need to tailor an individuals exercise prescription to their current capabilities.
This means that very few people will actually be able to perform a barbell deadlift from the floor.
Or at least in the initial stages of their training journey anyway.
Which is fine.
See, we have a myriad of deadlift variations available to us that offer the same benefits. Importantly, most of them are easier to perform than a traditional barbell deadlift, as they don’t require quite as much mobility.
In short, they are harder to stuff up.
Then over time (as you become more competent at the movement), you can gradually transition into performing a deadlift from the floor.
The Best Deadlift Variations
With this in mind, I thought I would outline my favourite deadlift variations.
I normally prescribe each of these in the order listed for 4-6 weeks each (before moving onto the next one), for 3 sets of 8-12 repetitions, twice per week.
By the end of the process, you will be in a very good position to start deadlifting from the floor
As I am sure you can see, these exercises become gradually more challenging.
In this manner, each progressive variation requires a little more mobility, and becomes a little more complex.
However, once you have spent a good 4-6 weeks training each of them you will have your deadlift pattern down pat.
As a result, you will be primed to start deadlifting from the floor!
Take Home Message
The deadlift is an incredible exercise, however, there is no need to perform it from the floor if it sits outside your current capabilities. In fact, you can perform a number of deadlift variations and get exactly the same benefits.
So give some of the variations listed in this article a go, and make sure to let us know what you think!
Whilst reading Stephen Lunn’s article in the Weekend Australia this past weekend, ‘How to live well in your final decade’ I couldn’t help but think of many of iNform’s wonderful clients aged 70+.
If you didn’t get a chance to read this article here is a synopsis:
Australian’s are living longer than we ever have, but the length of our ‘quality years’ is not increasing proportionally.
This means on average we are spending more years in a state of ill-health, dealing with disease and/or disability.
To narrow the gap between years lived and quality years the following is recommended: Get fitter and stronger; eat well; keep you mind occupied; be part of a community; remain useful.
Many of the people aged over 70 that I have worked with over the past fifteen years tick all, if not most of those boxes.
I guess that is to be expected. As an Exercise Physiologist I do see a biased sample of Australia’s population.
The only people that access my services are people who are wanting to take control and action over their health and to be brutally honest, have the means to do so.
I never see people who are passive in their health- that are allowing the deterioration of their health to just happen to them. Why would they seek out someone like me?
Unfortunately I also don’t get to see many of those who have the will to take control, but just lack the means (location/transport; finances; awareness etc etc). That is a massive topic for another day- for now I would like to focus only on those I do see.
When I think of the men and women of 70+ years that I have trained, the following things come to mind:
An unwillingness to write things off as ‘it’s probably just old-age. No, if your knee is sore, there is a reason for it that may well be changeable.
A desire to travel. And I don’t mean on a Greyhound Bus with an occasional stop at a local ‘famous bakery’. I mean hiking holidays in Peru, Nepal or Switzerland; expeditions to Antarctica by ice-breaker boat; solo driving around Australia in a Camper-van; Ski holidays in Japan; water-skiing on the Murray River. I have helped people of 70+ years achieve all of these things and many more.
A drive to get stronger. Not just to help bone density or cardiovascular health. But to feel empowered, independent, capable. One of my clients, a woman aged 71 takes great pleasure helping younger women put their bags into overhead lockers on her many flights to far-flung destinations around the world.
Improving strength and fitness to help them complete their first marathon, or long-distance cycling event.
A conviction to live independently. Not just exist, or survive. I am talking about hosting parties and other social events; or fixing things or even renovate by themselves.
It is a great privilege to help people achieve these types of things after their 70th birthday. You are never too old to get started, unless you believe you are.
High-Intensity Interval Training is all rage right now. I have come across stacks of tabloid articles and television programs recently espousing the virtues of HIIT training, and for good reason.
There is good evidence to show that training in short bursts of high intensity can yield all sorts of wonderful benefits towards our metabolic health, body composition and fitness markers. My colleague, Hunter Bennett, wrote a great article on this topic that you can read here. This has lead to the creation of Fitness Franchises and individual businesses that focus solely on the HIIT principle.
In my opinion, such businesses offer fitness training to the masses much in the same way that Fast Food Chains delivers nutrition. Cheaply, poorly, and with an unacceptable level of health risk to their patrons.
So what’s the problem, hater?
There are a few, but I will focus on the two major ones that I commonly see:
1) The lack of pre-exercise screening and assessment.
Before you start training at a fitness centre, the staff (who should be adequately qualified) are required to take you through the ‘Adult Pre-Exercise Screening Tool‘ so that the appropriate level of exercise can be prescribed for you based on any metabolic or physical risk factors you may have.
This is in your best interest as if you have a health concern, either diagnosed or undiagnosed you should ease your way gently into an exercise program. This process is a basic requirement for all accredited Fitness Businesses. If you have started training and you have not been adequately screened using this questionnaire I would be highly concerned about the people you have trusted with your health. They have let you down.
Following the metabolic screening questionnaire, we at iNform believe a thorough evaluation of Movement Competency should be completed, so that you can be prescribed exercises that you are able to complete safely and effectively.
Again, if you are thrust into a High Intensity Circuit class without anyone assessing you movement capabilities (and adjusting your exercise recommendations accordingly) then you have been put into a situation that carries an unacceptable level of injury risk.
2) Overly complex, diverse and advanced exercises.
The evidence to support the use of HIIT style training is derived from studies that generally use quite straight-forward forms of exercises- such as sprints on a stationary bike or rower. Or they use pretty simple resistance exercises such as squats, push-ups, bicep curls etc. Also the groups used in these studies tend to be quite homogeneous- males or females aged 18-23; type-2 diabetics; post-menopausal women etc etc.
So we have simple, yet vigorous exercises being prescribed to a group of ‘similar’ people (with unsuitable people being screened out in the participant selection process) to determine the effect of HIIT training over a period of time.
This does not sound like your average HIIT class- where you might find a 18y.o Netballer; a 48y.o. Accountant; a 32y.o. mother of a 9-month old baby, and god knows who else. Surely if you are putting together a session for a group as diverse is this, in the best interests of the participants you would be more conservative with your exercise selection than those conducting the studies are!
So what should you do?
This article probably comes across as discouraging towards group based HIIT classes. That wasn’t my intention. Rather than discouraging, I hope this article can help you make informed choices about who you trust to guide your exercise programming. If you are thinking of undertaking some HIIT training, here are some things to look out for:
Do qualified staff screen you for metabolic risk and movement capability prior to entering you into a class. If the answer is no, DO NOT TRAIN THERE!
Are the exercises require a lot of jumping, throwing, swinging etc. If the answer is yes, BE CAREFUL!
Do your joints hurt during and/or after the exercise session? If so, THIS IS NOT WHAT WE WOULD CALL GOOD SORE!
Did the staff conduct a thorough one-on-one evaluation of your metabolic health and movement capacity- then prescribe exercises that were appropriate to you level of fitness and capability with a view to gradually build intensity? If the answer is yes, THIS SOUNDS LIKE SOMEONE WORTHY OF YOUR TRUST!