Guest Article by Fitness Expert and Triathlete Ben Greenfield
Of all the sports on the face of the planet, professional cycling produces some of the most impressive legs. But you don’t have to ride a bike for 4-6 hours a day to get those same rock-hard quads, rippling thighs, and powerful, muscular calves. Instead, in this article, you’ll learn how to use a highly effective series of strength and toning moves to get legs like Lance Armstrong.
By splitting the legs into three basic muscle groups, the quadriceps, the hamstrings and the calves, you can create a strategy for targeting each section. Here is how:
There are two reasons that the legs of a marathoner look skinny or stringy compared to a cyclist: 1) the leg muscles must contract with a greater amount of force to pedal a bicycle compared to taking a step while running; 2) jarring, impact-based running is far more catabolic and able to significantly tear down muscle fibers compared to cycling.
Based on these two reasons, a strategy for building impressive quads should involve choosing activities that 1) require high force production, such as lifting weights or uphill bike riding, and 2) avoid excessive catabolic activities like running or long easy cardio sessions.
Since the quadriceps (which run along the front of the thigh) are primarily responsible for extending the lower leg at the knee joint and flexing the upper leg at the hip joint, any program designed to build the quads should focus on these motions.
A perfect exercise for combining both these movements is the “kick-forward”. For this exercise, simply attach a cable or elastic band to the ankle or lower leg, stand on the opposite leg, and kick forward while keeping the leg relatively straight and the quad muscles contracted. Move in a slow, controlled fashion for this exercise.
In many exercise books or magazines, you may have read about a bad quad:hamstring ratio, which basically means that the hamstrings (which run along the back of the leg from the hips to the upper calves) are dis-proportionally stronger than the quads. While this can sometimes be the case in elite athletes, in the average individual the problem is not that the hamstrings are too strong, but rather that they are too tight. In either case, the result is poor performance and low back pain, as well as an inability to properly develop the muscles in the hamstrings.
For this reason, it is important to choose hamstrings exercises that focus on both mobility and range-of-motion in the hamstrings as well as strength in the hamstrings. Since the hamstrings are responsible for extending the leg at the hip joint and flexing the leg the knee joint, a perfect exercise for this objective is the “Romanian deadlift”.
For this movement, which can be done standing on one leg or two, you simply hold a weight and hinge forward at the waist while sticking your butt out behind you. If you keep your back straight and look forward, you’ll reach a point where the hamstrings feel very tight and you simply can’t go any further without bending your back. At that point, simply stand back up to the starting position. During the entire Romanian deadlift, keep your knees just slightly bent.
This exercise will address both tight and weak hamstrings, and allow you develop the backs of your legs without having to worry about a strength imbalance between your quads and hamstrings. Once the hamstrings and back of your legs are strong, you’ll have impressive muscle development from the upper calves all the way up to the butt.
It may seem intuitive that to get nice calf muscles (which run along the back of your lower leg) you should do lots of toe raises, since the calf muscles are responsible for extending the toes. While this can certainly help, it is a very slow and inefficient way to get strong, powerful and toned calves, and doesn’t take advantage of the fact that the calf muscles are also partially responsible for flexing the leg at the knee joint.
Instead, a good calf program should focus on movements that require flexing the knee and high amounts of strength and power, while shifting some of the weight onto the mid or front of the foot so that the calf muscles are forced to contract.
Two such movements are squat jumps and incline sprinting. For squat jumps, simple get down into a squat position, swing your arms and jump as high as possible, then land in a controlled fashion with the knees slightly bent. Once you’re good at these type of body weight squat jumps, you can progress to doing squat jumps with a barbell on your back, or holding a medicine ball to your chest.
For incline sprinting, I recommend using a treadmill. My favorite incline sprinting workout on the treadmill is a 10×30. To do this, just put the treadmill at as high an incline as possible, then set it at what would be considered a fast running speed for you even if the treadmill were not on an incline. Get on, run for 30 seconds, then, while the treadmill belt is still moving, hop off and recover for 30-60 seconds (if you want, you can do crunches or push-ups while you recover). Once you’re rested, hop back on for another 30 second bout, for a total of 10 rounds.
By combining the quadriceps, hamstrings and calf exercises above with a few cycling workouts a week, you can easily develop legs like Lance without having to ride a bicycle as much as him!
If you want to learn more about how to swim, bike and run lightning fast, but also have a nice body, (and get access to the other 6 articles in this series) then head over to Tri-Ripped for a brand new approach to training for the ultimate triathlon body.