Updated: Jul 9, 2022
You’ve probably heard the phrase, “Don’t skip leg day” at some point in your life if you’ve ever been in a gym, or just by using social media. When you think of “Leg Day”, as it’s most commonly called, you probably picture someone squatting a ridiculous amount of weight in a squat belt and knee wraps looking like their head is about to pop.
Now that may be normal for an experienced lifter who has been squatting for years and knows exactly what they’re doing, but what if you’re just starting out in the gym and the weights seem a little intimidating? What if you really don’t know what a good squat looks like, or what a safe deadlift looks like, or just where to even start?
Look no further, because in this series I will be listing and describing in detail the basic leg exercises every beginner should be doing as The Beginner’s Guide to Leg Day.
The first thing every person should know, in or out of the gym, is the reason why building leg strength is important. The first thing we probably think of is the aesthetics, and sure, who doesn’t want to have a nice looking butt and legs? But it goes beyond looks here. It’s been proven time and time again through science-based testing and research that strengthening the muscles of the lower body leads to:
Less chronic pain in the knees, hips, and back
Improved blood flow
Lesser chances of injury in everyday life
Better joint health
Better bone density (this is especially helpful for seniors)
These are just some of the physical benefits of strength training your lower body, and let's not forget the mental benefits of strength training, such as reduced stress, improved sleep, and how strength training make us generally happier and confident with ourselves.
But let's begin this series with one of the most iconic leg exercises out there: the squat.
The squat is a great exercise for the body. It requires good balance, core strength, hip/ankle flexibility, and basic leg strength. You might hear about the risks of injuring your back or knees, but you must keep in mind most injures occur when a movement is done incorrectly, too much weight is used, or a lifter is ignoring a small injury that eventually leads to a worse one. That is why it is so important to learn correct movement first, identify areas to work on, create a strong base, then introduce heavier weight thereafter. The risk of injury is actually quite small when you are approaching the squat from a safe and educated standpoint.
When I'm teaching a client to squat for the first time, I have them envision they are trying to push their butt back to the wall behind them, and then bend the knees right after, lowering themself down. Depending on your hip and ankle mobility, this will allow you to go maybe only a few inches down or down to the floor. What you want to feel is muscle activation in your glutes (butt), hips, and then your quads (thighs) as the primary working muscles. Your knees should also align with your feet, ankles, and hips.
Also, despite what you may have heard, IT’S OK FOR THE KNEES TO GO PAST THE TOES. Now with that being said, you don’t want your knees to go so far forward that your heel lifts off the ground, or you feel pressure in your knees. Usually the knee will go maybe an inch or so past the toes, depending on your anatomy. It’s also important to make sure you’re not bending your torso forward like you’re bowing to someone. Try to keep your chest out and your torso upright to make sure that your back isn’t doing most of the work. This can be difficult for beginners, as they aren’t too mobile yet in their hips, ankles, and back. But don’t worry, we’ll cover that topic at a later date.
Start small and gradually increase your weight once you get the proper movement down. Remember, technique first, weight second. Once you got the bodyweight squat down, you can move onto a slightly more advanced variation by introducing the goblet squat with a dumbbell. This can be performed either standing up or from a seated position as well.
And that's a breakdown of the squat! Keep in mind that these instructions are general guidelines for beginners, but each person is different and therefore there is no "one size fits all" method to squatting. If you would like to learn in person how to squat properly and work on creating a strong base for your strength training, reach out to us at Ascend Performance Training!