Welcome to our new series Strength Notes. This ongoing segment aims to explore the fundamentals of training and provide an insight into muscle and strength gain.
As an athletic brand, one of our goals is to inspire you to get better through movement, and we want to provide the education and tools necessary to do just that. With so much information out there, we want to cut through the noise and provide simple and actionable information you can bring into your next training session.
This week, we’ll dive into building a stronger lower body with 3 exercises that you may have heard of, but likely not doing.
When the prospect of lower body comes around, the first exercise everyone thinks of is squats, and rightly so. This compound move is the king when it comes to overall leg development and an essential exercise in your programme. Away from the squat though, there is so much work that can be done to supplement your lower body training.
Below we explore three of our favourite less utilised movements.
Nordic Hamstring Curl
With our Scandinavian heritage, we’d be missing a trick if we missed out the Nordic hamstring curl. Jokes aside, the Nordic is one of the best injury prevention hamstrings exercises you can do, along with promoting great muscle development. The main focus of the exercise is to load the hamstrings and fight gravity through the lowering part (eccentric) of the movement.
Although a fantastic exercise, and relatively easy to perform, the main issue is the set-up. Essentially, the movement involves starting on your knees and lowering yourselves to the ground as slowly as possible, resisting gravity on the way down. With this, your feet have to be fully stable, so when you lower yourself to the ground, it’s your hamstrings doing all of the work. If you have a training partner to hold down your ankles, that’s great. Even better if your gym has a GHD machine, but if not, there are some workarounds.
Failing a GHD machine or workout partner, your best bet is to set up a loaded barbell on the floor with a good amount of weight, say 100kg. Put two plates on the floor in front of each end (to stop the bar moving forward when you perform the movement, and put a hip-thrust pad on the centre of the bar. Finally, add a low balance pad under the centre of the barbell (where your knees will go), and now you’re ready to go.
Now you’re set up, you want to position yourself in a kneeling position on the balance pad, and slide your feet under the barbell so that the hip thrust pad is touching the area between your calves and your heels. Dig your toes into the floor and have your torso 90 degrees so you’re kneeling upright. Push your hips forward and slower yourself ensuring you keep a neutral spine throughout. The goal is to maximise time under tension. As you near the ground and your hamstrings begin to give out, simply put your hands down like a press-up. Push yourself back up into the starting position and repeat the movement.
- Maintain a neutral spine throughout the lowering phase. Don’t hinge throughout the movement, your goal is to load the hamstrings until they give out.
- Only train Nordic curls once or twice a week. It’s super taxing on the hamstrings, but a huge asset to lower body training and injury prevention.
- Monitor your progress. The beauty of this exercise is that it’s easy to track your progress through analysing time under tension, range of movement (before hamstring give way), or simply reps before failure.
Trap bar deadlift
If there was one exercise that is worthy to be considered the foundation for every other exercise it would be the deadlift. Regardless if your goals are centred on just functioning better in daily life, performance, or purely on building your physique, you will be better by mastering the loaded hip hinge, acquired by deadlifting. The traditional barbell deadlift, however, is fraught with potential issues when it comes to technique and mastering the loaded hip hinge pattern effectively.
This is where the trap bar comes in. It’s built in a way which helps set you in the correct position, enables you to easily change ROM through blocks or low boxes, and accommodate resistance through bands or chains.
Place yourself inside the trap bar, sit your hips back and down with a neutral spine, bringing you down to the bar. With your arms straight, engage your lats, secure your grip and brace your core (as if you were about to take a punch).
Initiate the lift by pushing your feet into the floor and “taking the slack out of the bar.” This term is used as a que to ensure that you are fully braced for the lift. Drive your hips up, maintaining a strong posture and core, driving the feet into ground whilst doing so. Extend the hips and engage the glutes at the top of the lift, remaining tall, being careful not to hyperextend your back. Initiate the descent by gradually pushing your hips back and lowering the bar down to the bottom. Reset and repeat.
- We recommend pulling from a slightly elevated position. This will probably put a greater emphasis on the lower back rather than legs, but you will still get great recruitment of the glutes and hamstrings using this technique, and it’s safer by limiting the ROM until you feel comfortable with the movement.
- The shape of the trap bar (hexagonal) means that it is easier to drive the hips forward than a traditional barbell. Keep this in mind at the top of the movement to ensure you don’t hyperextend the lower back upon completion of the lift.
- There are many variations that can be used with the trap bar, ranging from trap bar RDL, Trap bar squat, staggered stance trap bar deadlift, even trap bar deadlift jumps for explosiveness and power.
Bulgarian Split Squat
This variation of a single leg squat is probably one of our favourites for overall quad or glute development. The reason we mention both quads and glutes are that there are subtle variations that can put a greater emphasis on each muscle group. The Bulgarian split squat is essentially a loaded single leg squat that can be used for both muscle-building (hypertrophy) and strength gain.
A nice easy set-up for this one. All you need is a flat bench and some dumbbells. Facing away from the bench, start my placing one foot on the bench behind you, so that your toes and mid-foot are on the bench. You don’t want your whole foot rested on the bench here as that will limit range of movement. Plant your other foot on the ground with your knee bent at 90 degrees. This will be your starting position.
Here is where the quad-glute variation comes in. If you want to focus more on your quads, bring the planted foot slightly toward you, and if you want to focus more on glutes, slide your foot slightly away from you past that starting 90 degrees position.
Start with just your bodyweight to learn the fundamental movement pattern. From the starting point we discussed earlier, with that knee on the ground, ensure you maintain a neutral spine throughout. Keeping your chest up, you want to drive through the heel and squeeze the hips forward as you drive up.
Once you feel comfortable with that hip hinge pattern, you can start to add weight via dumbbells. The key when adding weight is to ensure that front knee doesn’t begin to cave in, which can be a common when you begin to add load. Keeping that knee “open” will help target the side glute and protect the knee joint.
During the movement, just like any other lift, you want to inhale and brace the core before you perform the lift. Drive up explosively, and then slow the tempo on the way down. Reset, and drive up again.
- Foot placement will determine which muscle group you target. The further back, the more quad focused, the further forward, the more glute focused.
- This is a hip hinge movement primarily, so to best maximise the Bulgarian split squat, ensure you have learnt the fundamentals of the hip hinge.
- It’s useful to put a balance pad underneath your knee which you can tap off for reference and depth.
- Take note of the standing knee, ensuring that it doesn’t cave in when performing the movement.
That wraps up the first instalment of Strength Notes. If you're interested in receiving more information on training foundations, exercises and fundamentals, sign up to our newsletter below.