Level Up Legs

Some things never change. Take squats and lunges. They’ll forever be great exercises for developing lower-body size and strength. So great, in fact, that you should be doing both on a weekly basis if you want to get the most out of your legs.

This isn’t to say that you need to do standard barbell back squats and barbell lunges every week. We mean the basic movements of squats and lunges, for which there are many variations. Back squats can be alternated with front squats or machine squats, and barbell lunges can be subbed out for any number of lunging offshoots or even highly comparable stepups.

In this installment of Level Up, we’re taking a quality, bare-bones Straight Up leg workout and giving it a tweak to show you how to change your routine while keeping it highly effective and, yes, bare-bones. The two workouts we’re comparing are similar—both include squats, a machine compound move, leg extensions, Romanian deadlifts, and leg curls—yet different enough for the Level Up version to provide a different stimulus to spark new leg gains.

Front Squat: Level Up Difference

Replacing back squats with front squats puts more emphasis on the quads than the glutes and will help keep your torso more upright. The set-rep scheme is slightly lower in volume (four working sets versus five), but the rep counts are still hypertrophy-friendly.

Leg Extension: Level Up Difference 

In the original Straight Up workout, leg extensions served as a pre-exhaust before squats. Here, they serve first
as an easy warmup before front squats, then as an intense finisher.

Stepup: Level Up Difference 

A close cousin of the lunge, stepups are a great exercise performed by many athletes. Stepping with one leg calls balance and function into play. Err on the light side initially to stay safe.

Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift: Level Up Difference 

Any great hamstring-training program should include RDLs. Mixing in the single-leg version is good for ensuring a weaker leg doesn’t fall too far behind the stronger one.

Lying Leg Curl: Level Up Difference 

While the variations for leg curls are limited—lying, seated, and standing are just about it—the objective is the same: Isolate the hamstrings to create size in the backs of the legs.

Hack Squat: Level Up Difference 

Switching from a lying back leg press machine to hack squats is simply a matter of varying the stimulus on the quads, glutes, and hammies. With both variations, we prefer higher rep counts for time under tension.

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