My Biggest Leg Day Mistake

From 2007-2013, my “heavy” leg day exercises were done with the Smith and leg press machines. I trained hard, lifted heavy, but over that six-year period, all I got were big, shapeless legs. This made me jealous of other women’s legs, wondering how they got them so muscular and lean. This was especially frustrating because I was a personal trainer, and I believed I understood what was necessary to get my dream legs, and I thought I was doing those things. The root of my problem was my emphasis on bodybuilding-style training: machine and isolation-focused exercises, aesthetic training rather than athletic training. In 2014, I started listening to a professional strength coach podcast and learned about functional, unilateral, and “athletic” training — training for movement, not for posing on a stage.

Cornerstones of professional, athletic training are pushing the body through space multi-directionally, forcing muscles to work synergistically to execute a movement. For strength, these coaches ditch machines (or use them very minimal and often for injury recovery, not for muscle development). They laugh at leg extension machines, Smiths, and leg presses. Instead, they emphasize pushing the body through open space with free-weight barbell squats, lunges, and other functional movements. The muscle synergy required to perform these exercise unaided intensely stimulates muscles for maximum muscle growth.

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Free weight exercises (compound exercises) burn more calories than isolation movements. This is because, as opposed to isolating one muscle group, compound exercises force multiple muscle groups to work together.

Legs after barbell squats
My legs after getting off the machines.

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from using machines. Machine exercises are fine for people who have injuries, the elderly,  and people who have built a good overall physique and only wish to perfect a specific muscle group (by the way, this can create muscle imbalances and lead to injury). If you currently have machine dependence, try doing barbell squats without the Smith or walking lunges instead of stationary or pulsing lunges. Your body will have to learn how to balance as well as carry weight through free space. You’ll probably have to go down some pounds, or ten, or more, but your body will be working harder with less poundage. In time, you should see a positive difference. I did.

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