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LEG DEVELOPMENT: Barbells VS bodyweight exercises – THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN

Frank Medrano’s viral video ‘Superhuman Bodyweight Workout Domination’ has, as I write this, 34,948,864 views. Go watch the video. It’s timeless. Now scroll down to the comments section. How long is it before you see a ‘never skip leg day’ comment? A couple of scrolls?

And it got me thinking, is Frank Medrano actually skipping leg day or is the calisthenics kingdom just not welcoming to leg exercises?

Barbell back squatting has reached mythical proportions in gyms these days. We have all kinds of mantras and propaganda:

Real men squat! 

Squats make your upper body bigger!

Squatting is as powerful as steroids! 

Squatting made me known as quadzilla!

Squat your pancake ass away!

I’m going to squat in front of everyone and show them how #hardcore I am! 

My squat form is awesome despite the fact that I fall backwards when I break parallel and use the pussy pad for warm up sets. 

A pistol squat? That’s too easy. I squat 225 lbs brah!

Is the squat a great exercise? Yes. Is the squat the only exercise that can build your legs? No. Is the squat an efficient movement? Absolutely. Can everyone squat pain free? Definitely not.

What are some alternatives?

The free weight crowd often take their harpoons out and aim firmly at machine exercises. Leg pressing is bad. Leg extensions are dangerous. Leg curls are non-functional. But hold on, aren’t we talking about leg development? Not functional carryover to sports. Which of course means those exercises are effective builders of great legs. The bodybuilding world is our biggest chunk of evidence for this.

These exercises don’t really require any coordination other than flexion and extension. The core isn’t involved to the degree it would be in a squat – particularly a front squat – and any uni-lateral exercises.

(RELATED: Overlooked Movements: Front Squat, Overlooked Movements: Split Squat & Lunge Variations)

Let battle commence

In order to really pit loaded barbell squats against calisthenic themed leg exercises, we need to clarify whether or not I’m allowed to reference weighted versions of bodyweight movements; loaded pistol squats, loaded split squats etc…

And of course, if I were to do that it would no longer match the definition of ‘bodyweight’. So, the war will be unloaded bodyweight movements versus squats and deadlifts.

Quads – 

Representing barbell movements we have……..

  • Back squats (high bar, upright torso)
  • Front squats (olympic grip or crossed arms)
  • Overhead squats (if you dare!)

And in the bodyweight corner we’ve got……….

  • High step ups (on a wall or bench)
  • Split squats (Bulgarian style – rear foot elevated)
  • Pistol squats (assisted OR unassisted)
  • Skater squats (no resting at the bottom)
  • Lunges (static or alternating, forward or reverse)

We’ve established that building strength is the number one driver of muscle growth. There are other factors, but if we were to simplify everything we’d be left with good old fashioned progressive overload. We build strength by subjecting our muscles to a stimulus great enough to signal the need for adaptation – this is strength training in a nutshell.

With that in mind, let’s look at how much potential overload can be achieved in each category. With squats it’s almost unlimited. Olympic bars can bear over 700 lbs if you’ve got the legs to squat it. Adding 50-100 lbs to your squat without gaining the same amount in bodyweight will put size on your legs. There’s no doubt whatsoever.

(jtsstrength.com) – a good example of ideal high bar squat mechanics

With bodyweight exercises in the purest sense, things are more difficult to overload. Instead of adding external weight we have to look to increase either the difficulty level – by increasing the range of motion, or, increasing the mechanical disadvantage. Some may argue that you could gain bodyweight each week and thus make them harder that way, but if you like the contents of your wardrobe, I wouldn’t recommend it. Besides, if you were to gain the 5 lbs or so per week needed to offer ideal overload, you would soon be a member of weightwatchers rather than the calisthenics club.

Increasing reps is the most basic way to raise the difficulty of these exercises. But just how high do you go? Quads respond well to volume and are definitely fond of endurance. Accordingly, anywhere in the neighbourhood of 10-20 reps per set is good – maybe even 25. MOST reasonably fit people should/could split squat their bodyweight on each leg for 20 good reps. Step ups (particularly high ones) could be quite challenging. As for pistol squats and skater squats………

 

              Al Kavadlo demonstrating a pistol squat

(tnation.com) – Skater Squat: let the knee just touch the floor and drive up

Building to the point of being able to do 20 good reps with picturesque technique on each leg in either/both of these is going to produce some nice growth in the quads, glutes and even the calves and hamstrings.

The question becomes: What next? Do you keep adding reps or do you try to add weight?

As we can’t add weight to this hypothetical scenario, courtesy of the rules, we’ll conclude that the barbell movements (squats) are the overall winner for leg development in the quad category. They’re more user friendly and loading them is simple. If we were talking about loaded calisthenic exercises, it would be a different story! More on that another time.

Hamstrings/Calves/Glutes – 

For barbell movements we have………..

  • The conventional deadlift
  • Romanian deadlift
  • Stiff leg deadlift
  • Calf raises with either dumbbells or barbells

For bodyweight…………

  • Glute Ham raises
  • Slide leg curls
  • Sprinting
  • Nordic hamstring curls
  • Single leg calf raises

This is going to be a tight battle! The conventional deadlift is very hamstring dominant, but the lower back is the prime mover. Of course, the deadlift is the move you can get some serious weight on. But when you go super heavy, you definitely cross into the boundaries of ‘just moving weight’. It can be very hard to feel tension in any particular area because you’re fighting to stay alive. Not to mention the deadlift isn’t a ‘high reps exercise’ – it’s a power exercise.

Romanian deadlifts are a different beast. With these we have a stretch reflex and we’re not having to oppose the weight from a dead stop. Because there’s also less of a knee bend, we’re able to lengthen the hamstring more – and the glutes. Whereas the conventional deadlift is designed to tax many upper body muscles, the Romanian deadlift still does, but not so aggressively as it’s usually performed for higher reps with the focus on feeling it through the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes and some lower back).

 

             (askdeniza.com) – Romanian deadlift

As tough as the Romanian deadlift is to beat for glute and hamstring development, we’ll delve into the bodyweight world and see what challengers it has.

Proper glute/ham raises on the actual machine/apparatus are torture to the posterior chain. Especially the horizontal variety instead of the 45 degree variation. These are similar to Nordic hamstring curls, only with the machine you get a greater stretch.

                      Glute/Ham raise

                Nordic hamstring curls

Progressing the glute ham raise will come down to increasing the reps or adding additional load via a weight plate on the chest – and I know we can’t do that. So higher reps and incorporating contraction pauses are the viable options today.

Nordic hamstring progressions are simple: just work up to getting lower and lower to the floor without using your hands to assist. And when you can contract your way up from parallel to the floor without any assistance whatsoever, we can say with confidence that your hamstrings will be as strong as they’re ever likely to be. Few people will ever get to this level!

While sprints are an amazing compound exercise offering conditioning benefits, functionality benefits and sports performance benefits, few people realise what a profound hamstring developer they can be. The hamstrings are a sprinter’s engine. The top sprinters in the world simply DO NOT have underdeveloped hamstrings.

 

While not ‘huge’, Usain Bolt has some very significant hamstring development

The hamstrings are generally accepted to be fast twitch in nature. This simply means they have a higher composition of fast twitch (TYPE 2B) muscle fibres compared to slow twitch (TYPE 1). It makes sense then, that they would respond to short bursts of high power outputs.

(RELATED: Track sprints for conditioning)

Last but not least, we come to calves. The muscle that you either have or don’t. Calves are hugely genetic. If you have long muscle bellies, you’ll likely have decent calves without any special calf routines or chaining yourself to the calf raise machine. Contrarily, if you have short calf muscle bellies, you’ll forever have the nickname ‘duck legs’ and will wonder every time you walk past someone whether they’re looking at your calves thinking……….poor guy.

Long calf muscle bellies. Notice how far down the leg the muscle inserts

Short calves. Notice how far away from the ankle the muscle inserts? 

Does this mean you can’t get any growth in your calves and you shouldn’t even try? No. You can always improve upon what you’ve got. But some will always have bigger calves than you regardless of how strong you get and how much calf work you do. It depends on the results of the genetic lottery we’re all victim to.

That said, is calf growth more likely from loaded exercise or bodyweight? It’s all in the technique. Few people actually train calves correctly; you see knee flexion, hip flexion, the pad bouncing on and off the shoulders and more. If you’re getting red rashes and bruises from using a calf raise machine, it’s safe to say you’re not doing it right.

(RELATED: Things you really shouldn’t do in the gym if results are your thing)

It’s about getting a FULL stretch and FULL contraction on EVERY rep. The beauty of doing them single leg is you’re able to focus on the ‘mind muscle connection’ and eradicate possible strength imbalances by applying the weak side rule – start with the weak side first and only equal the weak side’s reps on your stronger side.

Single leg calf work is on par with weighted dual leg calf work in my opinion, providing technicality is respected.

The Hamstrings/Glutes/Calves verdict?

All things considered, I’m willing to say you can build as good a set of posterior chain muscles with intelligent combining of the bodyweight exercises highlighted as you would with just deadlift variations. Provided progression takes place. If you improved your sprint performances along with getting better at Nordic hamstring curls, you would have impressive hamstrings and glutes. On top of that you would be lean enough to see the definition too! (Thanks sprints!)

Most people just don’t know how to apply calisthenic based lower body exercises to suit their strength level. This causes them to be written off as sub-par or ineffective. I will concede that calisthenics are at a disadvantage compared to resistance exercises when it comes to the lower body. This is because of leverages. When it comes to the upper body, calisthenics would be the easy winner, simply due to how easy it is to increase the leverage and thus, mechanical disadvantages.

Personally, I like using calisthenic leg exercises with additional weight: Weighted pistol squats, loaded Bulgarian split squats and plate loaded glute ham raises.

And there’s no reason you can’t do that either. Who said these had to be segmented? Applying what’s useful and rejecting what isn’t is one of Bruce Lee’s most poignant quotes……..and yet again, it applies here. 

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JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

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