Many refer to it as “leg day,” while others name it lower body strength training. However, regardless of how you refer to it, it is vital to exercise your lower body to build a solid foundation for every movement.
When it comes to sculpting a strong, powerful lower body, some exercises have gained a notorious reputation for being particularly challenging. However, as any seasoned coach will tell you, the exercises we dread often offer us the greatest rewards. There’s a wide variety of exercises to choose from, each targeting a particular combination of muscles.
Here’s a rundown of the seven most dreaded lower body workouts and the compelling reasons why incorporating them into your routine is worth the sweat and tears.
Why They’re Dreaded: Squats are the ultimate exercise that works out lots of parts of your body at once: your thighs, your butt, the backs of your legs, and even your belly muscles get in on the action to keep you balanced.
Now, you might wonder why something that sounds so simple can be tough. Well, when you squat, you’re not just moving; you’re controlling your whole body as you go down and come back up. You have to keep your back straight, your feet flat on the ground, and your knees in line with your toes – all at the same time! It’s like patting your head and rubbing your stomach but for your whole body. And if you add weights, like holding a backpack in front of you, it becomes even more of a challenge.
The reason they’re so dreaded? They demand a combination of strength, flexibility, and balance that can be intensely challenging, especially as you start lifting heavier weights.
But here’s the cool part: even though squats can be challenging, they’re super important for making you stronger and faster. Think about it – when you’re jumping high to catch a ball, running fast on the soccer field, or even standing up from your gaming chair, you’re using the same muscles you work out when you do squats. They help you do all the fun activities you love more effectively and ensure your body stays balanced and injury-free. Plus, getting better at squats can improve your posture, which is important, especially when we spend so much time sitting down at school or in front of computers.
Why They’re Dreaded: Lunges are notorious for the burn they bring, targeting each leg independently and unearthing imbalances in strength and flexibility. The soreness after a lunge session can be enough to make even the toughest athletes cringe. It’s like a giant step that tests your balance, strength, and coordination all at once.
Lunges can be tricky because they require you to balance on one leg while moving, which is more challenging than it sounds. You must keep your upper body straight, make sure your front knee doesn’t go past your toes, and control your movement up and down. It’s a bit like trying to walk on a tightrope while carrying a glass of water – you need to be steady and careful, or you might wobble and spill!
Why You Should Do Them: Lunges are unparalleled in sculpting balanced muscle tone, improving stability, and enhancing athletic performance. They also boost your metabolism by working large muscle groups, aiding in fat loss.
Lunges also help with your flexibility, especially in your hips, which is super important because a lot of us sit down a lot for work or when playing sports. Sitting a lot can tighten your hips, but lunges help keep them flexible and happy.
Why They’re Dreaded: At its core, the deadlift involves lifting a loaded barbell off the ground to the level of your hips and then lowering it back down. It sounds straightforward, but it’s a complex movement that engages your entire body, focusing mainly on your posterior chain—the muscles on the backside of your body, including your hamstrings, glutes, lower back, and traps.
The deadlift is challenging for several reasons. First, it requires good form and technique. Proper alignment and execution are crucial to prevent injury and to ensure you’re effectively engaging the right muscles. This means keeping your back straight, your core engaged, and your feet planted firmly on the ground as you lift and lower the weight. The mental focus and physical coordination it demands can make it seem daunting at first.
Second, the deadlift is a test of raw strength and power. Lifting a heavy barbell from a dead stop on the ground to a standing position requires significant effort from your entire body. It’s not just about your legs or your back; your grip strength, your core, and even your arm and shoulder muscles play a role in executing a successful deadlift.
Despite its difficulty, the deadlift is incredibly important for several reasons:
- Functional Strength: The deadlift mirrors many real-life situations where you need to pick something heavy off the ground. Practicing deadlifts improves your ability to perform everyday tasks safely and efficiently, reducing the risk of injury during activities outside the gym.
- Muscle Engagement: Few exercises work as many muscles simultaneously as the deadlift. It’s an excellent way to build overall muscle mass, improve your posture, and increase your metabolic rate, helping with fat loss.
- Performance Improvement: For athletes and fitness enthusiasts, the deadlift helps improve performance in other exercises and sports. The strength and power gained from deadlifting translate into better jumps, sprints, and lifts across the board.
- Bone Health: Weight-bearing exercises like the deadlift are fantastic for increasing bone density and strength, which is essential for everyone, especially as we age.
- Mental Toughness: Overcoming the challenge of lifting heavy weights off the floor builds physical and mental resilience. Each successful lift can boost your confidence and determination, not just in the gym but in life.
Bulgarian Split Squats
This one takes some balance and coordination, so you’ll want to get your footing placement comfortable and stable.
Bulgarian Split Squats are a powerful lower-body exercise that targets and strengthens your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves and challenges your core stability and balance. Here’s how they work:
- Positioning: To perform a Bulgarian Split Squat, you stand a couple of feet in front of a bench or a stable platform. You then extend one leg back and place the top of your foot on the bench behind you. Your standing leg remains in front, flat on the ground.
- Execution: With your body upright and your core engaged, you lower your hips towards the floor by bending your front knee. You keep lowering your body until your front thigh is almost parallel to the ground, ensuring your front knee doesn’t go past your toes. Your back knee will also bend, coming close to touching the ground.
- Finishing the Movement: Push through the heel of your front foot to raise your body back up to the starting position. That completes one rep.
The exercise is performed for several repetitions before switching legs and repeating the process.
Why It’s Difficult
The Bulgarian Split Squat is challenging for several reasons:
- Balance and Stability: Keeping your balance while one leg is elevated behind you and moving up and down requires significant core strength and focus.
- Unilateral Exercise: Since it’s a single-leg exercise, it exposes and works on imbalances between your legs, requiring each leg to lift its share of your body weight plus any additional weights you’re holding.
- Range of Motion: It allows for a greater range of motion than traditional squats, emphasizing the working leg’s muscles more and demanding more flexibility.
Why It’s Important
Despite its difficulty, the Bulgarian Split Squat is an excellent exercise for building lower body strength, improving balance, enhancing athletic performance, and preventing injuries by correcting imbalances and increasing joint stability. It’s a valuable addition to any fitness routine, whether you’re an athlete looking to improve your performance or someone interested in general fitness and strength.
Box Step-Ups are a straightforward yet powerful lower-body exercise involving stepping up onto a box or a sturdy elevated surface with one foot, then bringing the other foot up to stand on top of the box, and then stepping back down to the ground. It’s like climbing stairs, but focusing on one leg at a time with a higher step, which makes it more challenging and beneficial.
Here’s why they’re so good for you:
- Strengthens Major Muscle Groups: Box Step-Ups target your quadriceps (the muscles on the front of your thighs), hamstrings (back of your thighs), glutes (your buttocks), and calves. You’re working against gravity by stepping up, which helps build muscle strength.
- Improves Balance and Coordination: Because you’re lifting your body onto an elevated surface, Box Step-Ups require and develop balance and coordination. You’re not just getting stronger; you’re also enhancing your ability to control and stabilize your body.
- Functional Exercise: The action of stepping up onto a box mimics everyday movements, such as climbing stairs or stepping onto a high curb. By performing this exercise, you improve your ability to perform daily tasks, making it a functional exercise that supports your everyday life.
- Versatility and Accessibility: You can adjust the difficulty of Box Step-Ups by changing the height of the box. Higher boxes will challenge your muscles more, while lower boxes are suitable for beginners or as part of a warm-up. Plus, you can do them almost anywhere—a gym, home, or park—wherever you can find a sturdy raised surface.
- Cardiovascular Benefits: Box Step-Ups can also provide a cardiovascular workout, improving your heart health and stamina when performed at a faster pace or as part of a circuit.
To do a Box Step-Up correctly, ensure your entire foot is on the box as you step up, push through your heel to engage the target muscles effectively, and maintain good posture throughout the exercise. Whether you’re looking to build strength, improve your balance, or add some variety to your workout routine, Box Step-Ups are a fantastic option.
Why They’re Dreaded: A Pistol Squat is a challenging bodyweight exercise that targets your lower body, testing your strength and balance to the max. Picture this: standing on one leg, you slowly lower your body as far as you can go, keeping the other leg extended straight out in front of you the entire time. Then, you push through the heel of your standing leg to rise back up to the starting position, all while keeping your balance and that other leg lifted. It’s like performing a one-legged squat with a straight-legged kick, all in one smooth motion.
Why You Should Do Them: This exercise is tough because it requires leg strength and a lot of flexibility, balance, and core stability. You’re essentially balancing your entire body weight on one leg while performing a deep squat, making it a pinnacle move for those looking to enhance their lower body strength, balance, and athletic performance. The Pistol Squat is a favorite among athletes, fitness enthusiasts, and anyone looking to test their physical limits and improve their functional movements.
Why They’re Dreaded: While they may seem simpler than the other exercises on this list, glute bridges become dreaded when performed with heavy weights or in high-rep sets. The intense focus on the glutes can leave them feeling sore and fatigued.
Glute Bridges are a fantastic exercise for targeting the muscles in your buttocks, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. Here’s how you do it: imagine lying down on your back, with your knees bent and your feet flat on the ground, about hip-width apart. Your arms rest by your sides, palms down, just taking it easy.
Now, the magic starts when you squeeze those glute muscles (yes, we’re talking about your butt muscles!) to lift your hips up towards the ceiling. It’s like you’re trying to make a straight line from your knees all the way down to your shoulders. But wait, there’s more! You have to hold it there momentarily like you’re showing off your masterpiece in a bridge-building contest and then gently lower your hips back down.
Why You Should Do Them: Why is this exercise worth your time, you ask? Well, besides making your backside look great, Glute Bridges can seriously boost your lower body strength. They’re like a secret weapon for improving your performance in sports, making your squats and deadlifts stronger, and even helping with lower back pain by strengthening the whole area around it.
And the best part? You can do them almost anywhere – no fancy equipment needed—just you, the floor, and your determination to build a stronger, more powerful lower body. So, whether you’re an athlete or just looking to get fitter, Glute Bridges are a simple yet effective move to add to your workout arsenal.
In conclusion, while these seven workouts may be dreaded for their difficulty and the discomfort they bring, their benefits far outweigh the temporary pain. As a coach, I encourage you to embrace these challenges, knowing that each rep brings you closer to your strength, endurance, and aesthetic goals. Remember, progress lies just outside your comfort zone – push through the dread, and you’ll emerge stronger on the other side.
March is the founder and owner of The Barbell Beauties which she started in 2015. She is from the Philippines and currently lives in beautiful Thailand with her American husband and daughter. She is an avid Crossfitter and has just started her journey into Muay Thai (kickboxing).