“Embrace The Suck”
Leg Training in a Global Pandemic
As I write this in the throes of the worst pandemic this world has seen in a decade, I try to take the good from what this situation has provided me. Aside from the obvious, the health of my family, friends, and coworkers, this situation has provided me with an “enlightenment of sorts” with regards to my own training, and consequently, the way I coach others.
I first heard the term “embrace the suck” a few years ago, and it immediately resonated with me. A term used often in the military, it basically means that when times get tough, acceptance is the first key to survival. Although paltry compared to the level of “suck” those in the military face, I couldn’t help but draw a nice parallel between this phrase, and what it takes to develop a nice set of wheels.
For years I have heard, and even regurgitated the phrase “make the most out of the least” when it comes to training. Make light loads “feel” heavy, focus on the mind-muscle connection, keep constant tension on the muscle, etc…but I will admit, in many ways, I ignored this advice, particularly with my lower body, instead of trying to improve my front squat 8 rep max, or trying to set a new PR in KB Goblet Squats.
While moving some weight is undoubtedly FUN in my twisted mind, this training environment many of us are currently has forced me to temporarily remove that component from my training program. Instead, I truly AM forced to make the “most out of the least,” use my bodyweight for resistance, and “embrace the suck” that comes with high rep leg training. When normalcy returns, I will undoubtedly return to pushing some heavier loads, but not without these powerful “lower-body” lessons in my back pocket.
Here are the top 5 things that training with limited equipment has taught me, in regards to leg development:
1. Strength is SPECIFIC.
You can squat a lot of weight, right? Awesome…but how many single-leg squats can you do with a 5 second eccentric? Pretty tough, huh? What is that, your psoas is tight? Weak? Immobile? When training with your own body weight, limiting factors in your kinetic chain become MUCH more apparent, and much faster.
If you can perform a nice looking front squat with 110lb dumbbells for a male, and 75-pound dumbbells for a female, you are a very strong human, make no mistake about it. But are you really THAT strong if you can’t apply that strength to a unilateral movement because of weakness in a muscle group you rarely address? Your ability to utilize the motor pathways commonly practiced in movements like goblet squats, front squats, back squats, will become more efficient over time, the more you do them. In addition, the specific musculature used IN THAT MOVEMENT will become stronger, but that will vary from person to person based on hand/foot placement, range of motion, etc. Bottom line, it is important to look at strength from a more “general” sense, and not get too caught up in one specific movement to define strength. After all, you are only as strong as your weakest lift for a given motor pattern or muscle group, and utilizing bodyweight exercises is a GREAT way to flip some of these weaknesses upside down, and turn them into a strength.
2. Chase the pump.
I will admit I am a sucker for a great shoulder, chest, or arm pump. I actually love the way it feels, I feel like I look like I lift weights for the 10 minutes that I have it, before immediately returning to looking like a former soccer player ( no disrespect to those footballers out there, but you know you aren’t the biggest!). All kidding aside, there is some physiological evidence to support that “chasing the pump” CAN produce some gains in size and strength.
When we get blood-engorged in a muscle group, we increase nutrient delivery, but more than that, we induce metabolic stress due to the hypoxic state the muscle group is in, which has been directly associated with hypertrophy.
In one of the first “pandemic workouts” I did, I performed a mechanical drop set with NO load. I simply did 8-10 single-leg squats, immediately followed by 14-16 Bulgarian Split Squats, immediately followed by 14-16 Reverse Lunges. The pump was skin splitting in my quads and glutes, and, as much as I am ashamed to admit, was a harsh reminder that I RARELY feel this way when training my lower body.
I will forever thank this time as a reminder that the legs need that pump too!
3. Single-Leg Training.
When left without barbells to load, dumbbells to lift, and kettlebells to swing, there is little option but to rely on our own body weight for training. Common sense, right? However, unlike for the upper body, where pushup variations, chin-ups, rows, and other bilateral movements can provide a ton of stimulus for strength and hypertrophy improvements, with limited loading options, single-leg training will be a MUCH better option for most experience gym-goers, for one reason only: Mechanical Tension.
Along with Metabolic Stress and Muscular Damage, Mechanical Tension (MT) is one of the MOST important factors when it comes to inducing hypertrophy. In layman’s terms, MT refers to how much you can lift. Please do not misinterpret this article as me saying that the amount you train with doesn’t matter, because it absolutely does. I am simply trying to remind you that it is ONE of the things that matter, and oftentimes, in most leg training routines, the only factor that gets addressed.
With that said, in order to maximize your leg training with limited loading options, you can quickly up the ante on the amount of mechanical tension by performing a steady dose of single-leg hip thrusts/glute bridges, lunges, single-leg squats, and split squat variations. Not only do these movements help prevent extreme muscular imbalances from occurring, while also providing that elusive MT for the lower body, but in many instances, they are often SAFER options for the upper/lower back, as a relatively low amount of external loading needs to be applied.
Single leg training also allows you to emphasize, and prioritize mobility, which is ALWAYS a good thing, so start lunging!
4. Longer Time Under Tension.
In order to properly induce muscular fatigue, with a limited amount of external resistance, a LONGER amount of TUT needs to be utilized. I was forced to apply this to my own training due to the situation we are in, and man, was it humbling. It takes longer to reach TRUE muscular fatigue in your glutes, quads, and hamstrings because those are larger muscle groups.
Most people won’t dare sniff fatigue in the lower body because of cardiovascular limitations, or even pain tolerance, but I can honestly say that after 4 weeks of pretty much exclusively body weight (with the occasional loaded sandbag or backpack at most weighing 75 pounds), I have never seen better results in my lower body.
In other words, for optimal results in your lower body, rather than doing 3-4 sets of “8-12” dumbbell lunges on each leg, it is a GREAT change of pace to do 1-3 GIANT sets of 25-40 traveling lunges on each leg.
As discussed, Metabolic Stress is a key driver of lower body hypertrophy, so by extending that TUT we are literally able to make MORE out of LESS, and do sets with a rep scheme that we previously would have stayed away from.
5. “Embrace the suck”
Training your lower body is hard, plain and simple. To place such large musculature under intense demand, well, let’s just say that the body doesn’t like that. It will burn. It will be uncomfortable. You may get sore.
But you know what? Just like the situation we are all in right now, to get through that, you need to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It will burn a ton of calories to train your lower body with intensity. You will sculpt and strengthen your lower body with intensity levels that “suck”, but perhaps more importantly, you will also do so with your MIND.