Friday, January 18, 2013

Stronger Legs Without a Barbell

Most bodybuilders and strength athletes would thing this is a heretical thing to say, but here it goes: I hate barbell squats. Yes, I know they work a gazillion muscles and build strength and burn fat and so on and so on. I've just always hated doing them. It may be partially a bio-mechanical thing, as I'm 6'3" with about a 36" inseam. Or I might just not like them.

It's been years since I've seen the inside of a gym, so it's been years since I've been anywhere near a barbell. And surprise... my legs haven't shrunken to toothpicks. Granted, I've always had fairly solid legs, which I owe to a lifelong love a very long hikes and walks. But I've found you can get very strong legs without ever having to step into a power rack. In fact, my own legs have gotten quite a bit stronger, bigger, and more muscular this year even though I hardly ever do weighted squats. How did I do it?

There are two major exercises I've added to my routines over the past several months, and I think they are the key factors to my improved leg strength.

The first is the Hindu Squat, which in recent years has been popularized by Matt Furey. This is essentially a very deep, bodyweight-only squat. It's excellent for not only strength but incredible endurance as well. The best written explanation I've found is on Fitness Black Book:

How to Do The Hindu Squat

  1. Start with your hands pulled into your chest and feet shoulder width apart.

  2. Squat down while keeping your back straight and bring your arms down behind you for balance.

  3. Unlike the Prisoner Squat, you are going to want to roll up onto the balls of your feet as you lower down. At the very bottom you will almost be up on your toes.

  4. At the bottom, swing your arms forward as you push up of your toes.

  5. Your arms will reach out in front of you as you approach the top. Once you reach the top, your heels should be touching the floor again and then you pull your hands back in towards your chest. At this point start the movement over.

  6. The breathing is important and different than other exercises. Exhale on the way down and inhale on the way up. Do this for each and every rep. The breathing is as important as the movement.

  7. Start with 20-30 reps and slowly work up to 500. Within time, you will want to do this for 500+ reps for 15 minutes straight. This is easier said than done…and is a serious cardio workout.
And here's a video of the Hindu Squat performed by Steve Maxwell:

I currently do Hindu Squats as part of my warm-up for Kettlebell training, and frequently do them on off days to stay limber. Hindu Squats have definitely improved my grappling, which isn't surprising as they have long been popular with Indian wrestlers.

The second major exercise I've added to my routines that has helped to improve my  leg strength is the Long-Cycle Kettlebell Clean & Jerk. This is a fairly technical move, and is difficult to explain in writing, so I'll sit back and let Scott Sonnon do it for me via video:

While at first this might seem primarily like an overhead lift, a great deal of leg and hip work is involved. Just because you aren't squatting very deep for the Clean & Jerk doesn't mean your legs aren't getting a work-out. They are... trust me! The Clean & Jerk is very much a full-body exercise.

Like the Hindu Squat, Long-Cycle Kettlebell Clean & Jerk are great for improved athletic performance because they incorporate so much of the body and greatly improve both strength and conditioning.

To be honest, if you're looking to build enormous bodybuilder legs, you will definitely need to do more than these two exercises. But for those of you who are looking to build solid, functional strength in you legs, give Hindu Squats and Kettlebell Clean & Jerks a try!

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