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Proper Performance of Lower Body Exercises

by Gary F. Zeolla

The best exercises for the lower body are squats and deadlifts. The proper execution of these are described in the article Proper Performance of the Powerlifts. But there are a wide variety of other lower body exercise. But as with squats and deadlifts, to get the full benefit of these exercise, they need to be done correctly. So below are descriptions of the proper performance of some of the more basic lower body exercises.

Proper Performance of Leg Extensions

Leg extensions isolate the quadriceps. But in my opinion, they are not that great of a strength or size builder. Also leg extensions put quite a bit of stress of the knees. Squats and even leg presses are much better exercises. But if one is going to do leg extensions, then they should be performed as follows.

The machine should be set up so that the lifter can sit up straight with his or her back flat against the pad. The knees should be at the edge of the seat and should align with the fulcrum (pivot point) of the machine. The top of the feet should be under the roller. At the starting position, the feet should be parallel to the ground and the toes pointing forward. If the lifter is too short to fit properly, then an extra pad should be placed behind the lifter.

Look straight ahead, and keep the shoulders back. Hold onto the handgrips to prevent movement of anything other than the lower legs. Begin the movement by flexing the quadriceps. Slowly and smoothly raise the roller until the knees are approximately straight, but do not lock the knees. Inhale as the legs are raised. Then slowly and smoothly lower the legs. Exhale as the weight is lowered.

There should be no “swinging” of the weight or rapid movements used. Doing so would reduce the effectiveness of the exercise and place even greater strain on the knees.

Proper Performance of Leg Curls

Leg curls primarily work the hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus). They also secondarily utilize the calves (gastrocnemius) and buttocks (gluteus maximus). The hamstrings should have about 75% of the strength of the quadriceps. If there is more of an imbalance than this, then it could lead to injury. So it is important to work the hamstrings.

To perform leg curls on a lying leg curl machine, lie prone (face down) on the machine. Ensure that the knees are completely off of the platform. If any part of the knee is resting on the platform it would place stress on the patella (kneecap), which could lead to injury. The heel pad should rest on the back of the ankle, just above the heel.

The head, chest, stomach, and thighs should be flat on the platform, and remain so throughout the movement. Nothing should move except for the lower legs. Hold onto the handgrips or the sides of the platform to prevent body movement.

Curl the legs upward until the pad touches the buttocks. Do so in a slow, controlled manner. Do not bounce the pad off of the buttocks. Slowly and smoothly return the pad to the starting position. Do not hyperextend the knees at the bottom. Exhale while curling the weight up and inhale while lowering it.

If someone is spotting the lifter, the spotter should stand to the side of the lifter. If the lifter is unable to touch the pad to the buttocks on his or her own, then the spotter should provide assistance. The spotter then should watch to be sure the lifter is not bouncing at the bottom or hyperextending the knee.

Proper Performance of Standing Heel Raises

Heel raises isolate the calves (the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles). When done standing, it is primarily the former calf muscle that is utilized, and when sitting the latter.

The proper performance of standing (straight leg) heel raises is as follows: If using a barbell, begin with the bar resting on the upper back, on the traps, not on the neck. This is the same bar position as for squats. If using dumbbells, hold the dumbbells at the side. If using a standing calf machine, the pads should rest on the top of the shoulders.

The back should be straight but maintain the natural curvature of the back. The shoulders should stay back, the head neutral (looking straight ahead), the legs straight, the feet together or shoulder width apart. The balls of the feet and toes should be on a raised platform. This will enable to lifter to lower the heels below the toe line at the bottom of the movement. The heels should not touch the ground at the bottom.

Start at the bottom position. Using only the calf muscles, slowly raise upward until the heels are as high as comfort allows. Then lower the heels in a slow and controlled manner to the starting position. Do not bounce at the bottom. If using a machine, do not allow the weight stack to rest.

Inhale during the downward movement and exhale during the upward movement.

Common variations of standing heel raises are as follows:
1. Toe in standing heel raise - to emphasize the lateral (outer) portion of the gastrocnemius.
2. Toe out standing heel raise - to emphasize the medial (inner) portion of the gastrocnemius.
3. Single leg standing heel raise - to isolate the right vs. left gastrocnemius.
4. Donkey calf raise - to emphasize and stretch the gastrocnemius.

The links below are direct links to where the books can be purchased from Books-a-Million.

Bell, James T. and Karl M. Dauphinais. The Book on Personal Training. Tampa, FL: International Fitness Professional Association, 2001.
Delavier, Frederic. Strength Training Anatomy. Paris, France: Human kinetics, 2001.
Hatfield, Frederick, C. Bodybuilding: A Scientific Approach. Chicago, IL: Contemporary Books, 1984.
Schuller, Lou. The Testosterone Advantage Plan. USA: Rodale, 2002.

Proper Performance of Various Lower Body Exercises. Copyright 2003 by Gary F. Zeolla.

The above article was posted on this site on September 17, 2003.

Powerlifting and Strength Training
Powerlifting and Strength Training: Proper Performance of Exercises

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