1. The glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves are actually made up of multiple muscles and/or muscle heads, each of which contributes to the ultimate function of that group. Want results? Know the muscles you’re training.
2. Different muscle groups have different compositions of muscle fibers, and also have varying fiber orientation. Using this knowledge to target your movements to specific muscles. A squat isn’t just a squat.
3. The musculature of the legs is best trained through the variation of loads, ranges of motion, and rep schemes based on the muscles themselves, and your specific goals and body type.
4. Here’s a brush up anatomy and biomechanics lesson plus specific hypertrophy based programming for each muscle group to bring up even your most stubborn areas.
When it comes to building muscle, it’s all about asking the question, why? Why is also the single most important question in the fitness industry today. With thousands of training methods, supplements, and camps on nutrition all competing for your money, one must learn to confidently ask why. Why does it work? Why is your approach better? Why should I do it this way?
As a coach who prides myself in Exercise Science, I love asking questions of the human body. One of the most pressing questions I have after spending my first year in the fitness industry surrounded by coaches, trainers, clients, etc. is “Why the hell don’t people know any functional anatomy!?”
I’m not talking about the simple “well this muscle moves the weight like this crap either.” I’m talking about flexion/extension, abduction/adduction, rotation, and active range of motion. I’m talking about fiber type differences and the optimal rep schemes for adaptations in each. I’m talking about GAINZ (yes, with a Z) people, so listen up. You don’t need to have a doctorate degree to be proficient in the biomechanical and anatomical aspects of training either, as knowledge here will absolutely set you apart as both a trainer and trainee.
If you’re reading this and thinking, well I guess I could brush up on my functional anatomy repertoire, you’re in luck. As Dr. John Rusin’s right hand man for all things hypertrophy, he has asked that I whip up some high-application-value literature for his highly intelligent audience right here on DrJohnRusin.com.
OK, here we go; we’re talking about legs first because they are the foundation of any physique, whether you are an elite athlete or simply trying to look good naked. I’m going to break up the legs further into glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. I’ll briefly explain what the role of each muscle is and then give you a whole bunch of sample routines to get swole because that’s what we do here at JRx.
The glutes consist mainly of the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. All three originate at the ilium and sacrum and insert on the femur. Here’s a cool fact for all of you, a muscle only acts upon a joint that it crosses. That will be a very important thing to remember going forward in this series.
Ok, now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about what these bad boys do for your hips. All three act to extend the hip (think hinge movements like Romanian Deadlifts), abduct the legs (think leg away from the midline of your body), and externally rotate the hip (think point your toes out, rotating at the thigh). I think of the glutes as bodyguards to the lower-back and knees due to their role in joint stabilization. Accordingly, strengthening them is essential for any trainee.
The glutes are unique in that they play a role in so many types of movement. In fact, only the shoulder musculature is as diverse. This fact presents us with some challenges when it comes to training the glutes effectively, especially since there isn’t a single movement yet discovered by mankind that maximizes all three of the actions simultaneously. But we are trainers and coaches, and we’re creative and we like challenges right?
An ideal approach to training the glutes involves applying your new knowledge of the actions to your programming. I recommend that muscles with more than one action, such as the glutes, receive attention from an exercise that isolates each action preferentially, used as “primers” at the beginning of a session or “finishers” at the end and a compound movement, that ties as many of the actions seamlessly into one exercise.
Here’s what a sample glute routine would look like, taking into account that the glutes are typically made up of equal parts Type I and Type II fibers:
Priming/Finishing Tri Set:
1A. Lateral Single-Leg Cable Glute Raises
3×15 with 2 second isometric (abduction)
1B. Toes Out Dumbbell RDL
3×12 w/ 2 second isometric, Tip: emphasize squeezing glutes on top of movement (hip extension)
4×15 (I find high-rep training for hip extension exercises particularly taxing on the glutes)
*Check out the video below for more on glute dominant squat patterns
So there we have it, a routine that is designed around a specific set of actions that are the same in every trainee. Obviously, more than just the aforementioned movements are effective in strengthening the glutes, and I’d love to hear about some of your favorites.
For me and 99% of my clients however, the above movements work very well. Adjustments should always be made based on the goals and current status of the trainee. Knee valgus on a squat? Prioritize external rotation and abduction work. Chronic pain in the lumbar spine? Ingrain proper hip extension movement pattern to strengthen glute complex.
We will continue with the close cousin of the glute complex, the hamstrings. The hamstring complex is a synergist to the glutes and the second most valuable player in the famed “posterior chain”. The hammies consist of three muscles, the biceps femoris, semi-tendinosus and semi-membranosus (listed from lateral to medial). These muscles cross the knee, AND the hip.
Wait what, two joints? Oh my god what are we going to do? Well, let’s calm down, we are going to train each action, just like we talked about. Think about your muscles as pulleys, as such, they cannot push, they can only pull. The hamstrings are no different. When the hamstrings contract, they can carry out two actions, hip extension (just like the glute group), and knee flexion (heel to butt).
Hamstring strength and mobility is closely linked to lumbar and pelvic health, so keeping them in top form is critical. Taking into account that the hamstrings are fast twitch dominant, an effective routine would look something like this (note the similarities to the glute routine):
1A. Toes Forward Banded Back Extensions
3×15 (301 tempo) Tip: Drive hips into pad, heels up into roller
1B. Toes Forward RDL
3×12 (301 tempo) Tip: think “streeetch, squueeeze” each rep
1C. Lying Hamstring Curl
3×8 (no tempo) Tip: don’t let the weight bounce, control it
1. Shoulder Width Straight Leg Barbell Deadlifts
5 sets to technical failure (choose weight to fail between 12 and 15 reps)
2. Lying Hamstring Curls
4×8 + double drop-set each set
It is my opinion, as well as many other strength and conditioning coaches, that no posterior chain program is complete without some form of sprint work. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the guys and gals running the 100m and 200m dash next time you see a track and field meet. The glute and hamstring development they boast is simply amazing! These groups are incredibly powerful muscles, and one of the best ways to overload them is to introduce the rigors of sprint work.
Most of you already know that the quads consist of 4 muscles on the front of the femur. They are subsequently named vastus medialis (tear drop shaped inside of knee), vastus lateralis (opposite the medialis), vastus intermedius (deep to the others), and rectus femoris (deadcenter and most prominent). These bad boys work together to extend the knee (straighten the leg). Rectus femoris is also a hip flexor, although to a lesser degree.
Training the quads is about as straightforward as it gets, so it bothers me when I see all these bogus tips floating around on where to point the toes while doing knee extensions and how to manipulate stance width on squats. Muscles respond to torque, and introducing an action that does not utilize the target muscle will not increase torque, period. Toes out to hit medialis, and toes in to hit lateralis on the leg extension? More like toes out to tear your MCL and in to tear your LCL.
Your knee only bends one way, so train it that way! Introducing external rotation at the hip (toes out) also won’t do you any good in terms of developing your quads, in fact, your glutes will likely end up taking on the brunt of the training load. This is one that I have just recently learned and man has it made a difference!
Squats and variations of them are your quads best friends. I have yet to meet someone with a strong squat and textbook form that didn’t have some serious quad development. I suggest giving Dr. John’s article on determining optimal squat mechanics at the individual level a read, and then sticking with it.
Before I drop the sample program, here is something that you can do to increase the activation of your quads during squat and lunge movements. We constantly hear, “don’t let your knees track over your toes, it’s bad for them”. For people without adequate mobility, that statement is 100% true. For high level athletes with sound movement patterns, it couldn’t be further from the truth. Let me explain why with a quick Biomechanics lesson: Torque = Force x Distance over which the force acts (called the moment arm, wow fancy). Knowing that, think about this; the further the knee tracks in front of the toe, the longer the moment arm for your quads becomes. By increasing the moment arm we have increased torque, which is the training stimulus we seek to maximize so long as hypertrophy is our goal.
As long as you or your clients have the mobility in your ankles and hips to keep heels down and spine neutral, let those knees track over your toes a bit and enjoy the gains. This tip can be applied to Squats (in fact it is exactly what a heel elevated squat seeks to achieve), Split Squats, Lunges, and Step Ups alike.
Priming/Finishing Compound Set
1A. Leg Extensions
3×20 (321 tempo) (use a light to moderate weight, don’t forcefully lockout your knees or all the bad things you read about this exercise might actually become real)
1B. Bodyweight Deep Squats
3×25 (hold every 5th rep at the bottom for a 5 count)
1. Pulse Squat Double Pyramid
20, 15, 12, 8, 12, 15, 20 (don’t lockout on top of movement, keep tension in the quads) Increase weight as reps go down, vice versa as you go back up
2. Leg Press Dropset
Tip: keep feet low on platform, pick a weight you can press 5 times using your ENTIRE active ROM (found by standing on one leg and raising your opposite knee as close to your chest as possible without rotating your foot in or out) and then perform strip sets until no weight remains on the sled.
3. 150 Degree Bodyweight Lunges
Go non-stop (You can thank Paul Carter for this brutal finisher)
*Check out the video below for Quad vs. Glute dominant lunging patterns
*And another video on the quadriceps dominant squat pattern using pulse reps
The Lower Leg
If I had a dollar for every time I heard the “calves are all genetics bro” line, I would be driving a Lambo, and have a swimming pool in my bedroom. I literally hear it all the time. And for the most part, it’s true. I’m sure you all have that one friend who has never touched a weight in their lives yet rocks a pair of calves that is out of this freaking world. If you’re like me and have to work for every single nanometer you add to your calves, this section might be your new best friend.
The calves consist of two muscles, soleus and gastrocnemius. The soleus is deep to gastroc and consists of predominantly slow twitch fibers. These two muscles are responsible for plantar flexion (think tippy toes), which is actually ankle extension, but you probably don’t care. Anyway, the calves have a very short range of motion, so it is important to understand how to train them optimally.
First, the toes out, toes in bull shit has to go. Right now, throw it out the window. You can’t preferentially activate lateral and medial fibers in the calves, sorry. What you can do is learn to contract them both harder than you ever thought possible.
Tip number one is to roll up onto your big toe every single rep. Your feet will naturally want to roll out so that your peroneal muscles can help out. We don’t want that. As soon as you think you are as high as you can get on your big toe, focus on driving your shin as far forward as possible without bending your knees. That will help you squeeze the last few millimeters out of a good calf contraction.
Tip number two is to spend a lot of time where things are uncomfortable, most notably at peak contraction and maximum length. I recommend at least a two second stretch on the bottom of every rep top of every contraction. Your goal should be to fill your calves so full of blood that it is excruciating. Those little buggers do a lot for you throughout the day, so you have to hit them right in the face to stimulate any sort of noticeable adaptation. My last tip is to hit your soleus just as hard as your gastrocs. The soleus is more active when the knee is at 90 degree flexion, so be sure to spend some time on the seated calf raise machine. OK, here are the goods:
1A. Standing Calf Raise Machine
3×12 (3 second stretch and squeeze)
1B. Seated Calf Raise Machine
3×25 (2 second stretch and squeeze)
1C. Tip Toe Walk
3×50 yds (yes you will look like Frankenstein)
For those of you looking for more,add a set of AMAP bodyweight calf raises off a step or plate between each set if you’re really feeling adventurous. Here’s a video below on proper form and tempo of this movement.
All right folks, there you have it, the first installment to the series that will make you a more intelligent and more effective trainer. Thanks for the read, and be sure to tune in next week as we dive into the functional anatomy of the back!
What we learned in Part I
The glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves are actually made up of multiple muscles and/or muscle heads, each of which contributes to the ultimate function of that group.
Different muscle groups have different fiber type compositions, and fiber orientations.
The musculature of the legs is best trained through the varying of loads, ranges of motion, and rep schemes based on the aforementioned facts.
If you loved this article, great because there’s more where this came from. Over the course of the next few weeks right here on DrJohnRusin.com I will be breaking down each region of the body in a similar manor, teaching the structure, function and application of training based science and theory! Until next week!
About The Author
Ian Padron is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin’s Exercise Science Program and an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer, currently residing in Seattle, WA. Ian’s mission is to revolutionize the health and fitness industry by combining science and education to evoke sustainable change in his clients and readers. He preaches the importance of a holistic approach to training, taking into account the mind AND the body. Ian also walks the walk as a natural competitive bodybuilder.