Legs had a bit of a moment this summer.
NBA MVP hopeful Giannis Antetokounmpo posted an Instagram looking newly massive, yet still got roasted for “skipping leg day.” Then thunder-thighed Giants RB Saquon Barkley wore a pair of track shorts to Yankee Stadium and nearly broke the internet.
For whatever reason, our pegs tend to invite extremes: it's either ridicule or praise, with little wiggle room for any assessment that falls in between. So we set out to separate fact from fiction, by putting one of our editors through 30 days of a pro trainer-approved regimen.
Verdict? No one’s calling us “Saquads” yet, but we’re getting close.
An Honest Appraisal of Where I Started
How to put this gently … my legs are more ski pole than Christmas ham.
I’m a natural ectomorph: six feet and three inches, and the legs narrowly own the House majority. Once a frequent runner, my thighs and calves have definitely known tone, but never size. As I moved over the years from 45-minute fartleks to 45-lb plates on the bench, I found success transforming my upper body, but largely left my chopsticks alone. And each summer, well, those chicken legs came back around to roost.
Why didn’t I attack my legs? The same reason heavy-set adults avoid the track and tendon-locked folks never bother to stretch. Intimidation. Actually addressing that aspect of your physical fitness you’d like to improve isn’t easy. It’s a physical hill and a mental mountain. And the inaccessibility is only exacerbated by lack of information. Screwing around with leg equipment in the gym for five minutes at the end of a chest session won’t get you anywhere. I’ve been there — testing different weights on the squat rack, nearly hurting myself trying to swing around a kettlebell. You get it.
For the 30-day challenge, I knew I needed to commit to one workout, done three days a week, with simple, natural moves and very little equipment. The Platonic ideal of fitness forays. A regimen that would strip away the grunting and browbeating of the infamous leg day, and join my favorites in the upper body and core realms.
Jeremy Scott’s 8-Move Leg Workout
I went with Jeremy Scott’s 8-Move workout. Scott is a personal trainer based out of Scottsdale, who’s contributed to Men’s Health, written a book and collabed with Vitamin Shoppe, Livestrong.com and Men’s Fitness. He’s also a sponsored athlete with Reebok. Suffice to say, the guy’s in crazy shape, and his leg workout — which he performed in a video for Men’s Health this past March — is exactly what I was looking for.
This workout hits everything. It’ll isolate certain muscles at times (the calves get absolutely torched) but manages to work every major leg muscle without much of a learning curve (I'd mastered the moves by my second workout) or a necessary knowledge of equipment. If you've done a squat before and know how to pick up a dumbbell, you'll be set. Detailed instructions below.
How often: 3x a week
How long: 45 minutes to an hour
A/B (2 images)
Dumbbell split squat — 4 sets x 8-12 reps
Grab two dumbbells (start light, somewhere in the 15- to 25-lb range); stretch one leg dorsal-side-down on a bench behind you; stretch the opposite leg out; drive down slowly using the outstretched leg; go through 8-12 full cycles of the squat before switching legs. Scott recommends starting with your weaker leg. Don't be surprised if it's a little wobbly on your first set.
Goblet squat — 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Grab a heavier dumbbell (45-lbs); hold the underneath of the top half with both hands; press it close to your chest and keep your shoulders locked; ease into a deep squat (count 2-3 seconds down); explode up.
Dumbbell stiff-leg deadlift — 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Stand in front of two dumbbells (heavier again); slide your hands down your shins and grab a dumbbell with each; rise up to a straight-backed position; stick the butt out and bring the dumbbells back towards the floor. This move is a bit tricky to nail, I'd watch it a few times here (1:40 in) before attempting, because your back is on the line.
Dumbbell lateral lunges — 3 sets x 8-12 reps
Grab two dumbbells (25-lbers again); start by facing straight; stick your right leg to the side and drop your butt back into a squat; return to the straight position; stick your left leg out and drop your butt into a squat; return to the straight position. Continue. This attacks the legs at a unique angle that can't really be replicated in normal squats or lunges.
C/D (2 images)
Leg extensions — 5-minute fire set
Find your gym's leg extension machine; set the weight very low (10- to 15-lbs); slowly bring the load up and down; get into a rhythm and pump away for five minutes. This one absolutely sucks mentally, you've just gotta push through it. Find your favorite too-long song and try to get settled in.
Standing calf raise — 3 sets x 15-20 reps
Take your shoes off; put 25-lbs on each side of the bar in the free-weight squat box; align your feet next to each other like you're about to dive into a pool; drive into the ground, up and down. If you want extra credit, pick one leg up and try to uber-isolate one calf. (PSA: It's really freaking hard.)
Seated calf raise — 3 sets x 15-20 reps
Seek out your gym's calf-raise machine; keep the shoes off; slot in 25-lb plates on either side and sit down; hold on to the bars in front of you and replicate the standing calf raise movements.
Dumbbell walking lunge — 10 minutes non-stop
Grab two dumbbells (go light on this one); begin back-and-forth lunges while holding the dumbbells at your side; keep the steps controlled. Disclaimer: I couldn't do 10 minutes. Six or seven was my limit, and even that would bring me to a dark place.
Rest in between each exercise?
Yes, for about 60 to 90 seconds.
5 Nuggets of Appendage Wisdom from Jeremy Scott
Cardio alone won’t do it …
For a strong, athletic, functional set of wheels you need to integrate some strength training into your life. You should be loading up your legs at least twice per week in any ideal strength training program.
How to avoid “jelly legs” …
Start slow ... don’t go too crazy on volume or load. Start off with some lower volume bodyweight and a few loading movements and gradually over time increase the volume and load you use. Also, doing proper mobility and foam rolling daily goes a long ways.
Overrated leg exercises?
Leg extension and hamstring curls are often overused. I’m not saying they don’t matter, or aren’t important, but for most people with limited time I’d focus on the big compound movements. Squats, lunges, split squats and pushing sleds will give you the most bang for your buck.
If getting to the gym really is a struggle …
Each of the below leg exercises rely entirely on bodyweight. (Click the links for YouTube tutorials on how to perform each move.)
And the whole no-shoes thing …
I honestly love the barefoot training for legs. The connection between mind and muscle is amazing, I would highly suggest it. When doing those calf raises, the neurological mind-muscle connection helps you gets a better feel and push through with that foot/big toe.
Side Hustles to Consider
I did Scott’s workout three times each week, good for twelve total run-throughs. Progress is addicting, no doubt, and trading in jelly legs for confident calves rewarding. But you will undoubtedly grow weary of the regimen at times. In the interest of keeping your mind fresh (if not your legs), consider throwing in some additional workouts or best practices throughout the month, especially two wild cards that’ll really test you. Our recs below:
- Brush up your core: We’ve got you covered on this one. You’ll notice how many exercises in Scott’s regimen engage the core, particularly moves like the dumbbell stiff-leg deadlift or the goblet squat. Instead of taking an off day, put aside 30 minutes to Russian twist and plank touch and spider crawl on the mat. Watch that diet, too!
- Stretch, stretch, stretch, stretch, stretch: This all proves pointless if you hurt your lower back, or tear a muscle because you’re coming in as tightly wound as a German cuckoo clock at 11:59. Head here for a yogi-driven stretching method.
- Try two “wild card” sessions: I ran a Tough Mudder halfway through the month (notice that knee rip in some of the photos), which was a nice (painful) test for my shiny new quads. I also tried a HIIT workout at BRRRN, a cold-chamber studio in NYC that focuses on ropes, squats and constant movement. They literally deep-fried my glutes.
5 Add to Cart-Musts Ahead of Leg Month
AmazonBasics 38-Pound Adjustable Weight Set
For the gym membership-adverse: once you master those bodyweight exercises, you’ll want to pump the weight up a bit and challenge yourself. This no-frills weight set will get the job done.
Under Armour HeatGear No Show Sock
Buy these in bulk, and get to isolating those calves.
Polar Ice Wraps: Knee and Ankle
Attack those chicken legs, sure, but you’re not the spring chicken you once were. Icing is more important than ever. Address those high-impact joints with a cool-down process while enjoying a well-earned Netflix binge.
HemingWeigh Extra Thick Foam Exercise Mat
You just can’t beat this price for the quality of mat. Your new stretching buddy.
Lululemon Surge Light Tight
Leggings are a must. Keeps your muscles warm, and spares you from overthinking their size or “progress.”
Main image from Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson/Instagram