Leg day” can take on a hallowed air in bodybuilding lore. It’s the rite of passage, separating the serious from the squeamish.
Ask that old, grizzled iron vet with the tree-trunk lower limbs who has been haunting your local gym for decades, and he might regale you of leg-day tales perhaps embellished by years of retelling yet still impressive by any measure. Squatting until exhaustion, leg pressing with every single plate in the building piled precariously on the machine, sets of lunges and extensions and Romanian deadlifts cycled until the participants’ stomach linings were turned inside out.
Yet you might notice something interesting when he heads back to his workout. Those same exercises he just talked about in workouts of decades past? They’re exactly what he’s doing today. Same order, same sets and reps, if perhaps not the same superhuman intensity.
As creatures of habit, we all tend to settle into the comfortable confines of our training routines. And so it is with leg day. Not that those old tried-and-true movements don’t work. They absolutely do. But if you’ve dug yourself a rut, it may be time to add a little explosive punch to the same old rundown of squats, leg presses, Romanians, lunges, extensions and curls.
Here, you’ll intersperse plyometric movements in between standard muscle-building free-weight and machine exercises. It’ll not only help engage more of those Type II fast-twitch muscle fibers that maybe haven’t seen major action in the gym lately, but it’ll also ramp up your agility and athleticism while challenging your legs in a brand-new way.
You can either do a set of the listed plyo move in between each set of the traditional exercise it’s paired with or perform them all in separate groupings — for instance, start with five sets of jumping-jack squats, then do five sets of barbell squats, then do four sets of leg presses followed by four sets of broad jumps, etc. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, other than giving yourself at least one to two minutes of rest before the resistance-based moves, depending on how heavy you’re pyramiding.
You can slip this thigh-focused workout in place of your usual quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings regimen, and make it a complete leg day with an additional five sets of leg-press machine calf raises or standing calf raises paired with five sets of 20 standing flat-footed quick hops.
We’re assuming you’re familiar with the weighted exercises; here’s a quick rundown of the plyos:
Stand with your feet just outside shoulder width. Bend your elbows and bring your arms in close to your body as you lower your hips down into a squat. Extend your knees and hips into a leap, bringing your feet together and hands overhead in an arc — that part is just like a regular jumping jack. Upon landing, immediately reset your feet by hopping into the original position and lower yourself into a squat for the next rep.
Assume an athletic “ready” position, knees just outside shoulder width, hips lowered a few inches and hands open and in front of you, elbows bent and out away from your sides. From here, bend deep at the knees, lowering your hips and swinging your arms backward behind your torso, and then propel yourself forward, driving through your heels as you swing your arms to generate momentum as you leave the floor. Bend your knees and hips to absorb the landing. Reset to jump forward again, turning around if you run out of floor space in front of you.
With your arms in a ready position, elbows bent and out away from your sides for balance, step forward with one foot. Bend both knees to lower yourself, making sure your front knee doesn’t pass your toes. Stop just short of your rear knee touching the floor and reverse directions forcefully, driving through the heel of your forward foot and the ball of your back foot to jump into the air. Switch legs midair and land on soft knees, descending into the lunge position. Continue alternating your lead foot on each jump.
Lateral Box Jump
Stand sideways to a box — it can be up to knee height as you learn the move and a more challenging height later on as you gain proficiency. Assume a ready position, knees just outside shoulder width, knees soft, arms out, hands up and elbows bent. From here, lower yourself into a full squat and then explode upward, extending your hips and knees as you bring your arms from a position behind you to in front of you, leaping off the floor and sideways up onto the box. Land softly on both feet, keeping your knees bent to absorb the impact. Next, bend deep again and jump laterally to the other side of the box. Continue going back and forth over the box as many times as you can in 30 seconds.
Heavy-Bag Knee Strike
Stand in front of a hanging heavy bag and attack with rapid, strong knee strikes for 30 seconds — you can alternate knees or do combos, but make sure you don’t favor one side over the other. If you don’t have a heavy bag, you can perform this shadowbox style.
Admittedly, this workout may not generate the hushed reverence when you’re holding court at the gym in your golden years, retelling the tales of your leg-training glory days — but it’ll help you kick boredom to the curb in the here and now. We call that a story with a happy ending.