In our household, this year has been named “the year of the leg.” So far, I have dedicated at least 2 days a week to training my lower half and more often than not that increases to 3 days. Without a doubt, my lower back tends to be the limiting factor in recovery and determining the frequency of leg days.
It did not take long to figure out why my lower back was being taxed so much. In a given week I was squatting 2 – 3 times, deadlifting on back days, and performing various hip extension exercises on hamstring-dominant leg days (which mostly consists of roman deadlifts). That is a lot of work on the lower back and not a lot of time to recover. I knew something needed to change if I wanted to continue training legs at a high frequency while still getting in my heavy deadlifts.
I began searching for a more efficient approach towards training and came across a great article. In this article, researchers used electromyography (EMG) to determine the muscle activation of conventional vs. sumo deadlifts (Escamilla, 2002). To make a long story short, due to the differing foot placement, the sumo deadlift variation displayed significantly greater knee extension moments, which resulted in much greater quadriceps activity vs. the conventional deadlift. It also found that the magnitude and pattern of quadriceps activation was the same as that found in the conventional barbell squat. There was no difference shown in hamstring or glute activation between the two deadlift variations.
So how do we use this information? Instead of trying to push 2-3 squat sessions per week, we could reasonably have 1 day focused on performing barbell squats (leg day) and 1 day that utilizes sumo deadlifts (back day). Both of these exercises will provide significant activation of the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and spine extensors while allowing our lower back a few extra days to recover. If you would like to have at least one more leg day each week you could add in a day that incorporates light hip extension movements along with isolated knee flexion and extension exercises.
Here is an example of a workout split that stays true to “the year of the leg,” while remaining lower back friendly.
- Monday: Leg Day (Squats and heavy compound movement focus)
- Tuesday: Shoulders and Triceps
- Wednesday: Off day
- Thursday: Back (Sumo deadlifts)
- Friday: Chest and Biceps
- Saturday: Leg Day #2 (Hip extension movements and isolation exercises)
- Sunday: Off day
Escamilla, R.F., A. C. Francisco, A.V. Kayes, K.P. Speer, and C. T. Moorman, III. An electromyographic analysis of sumo and conventional style deadlifts. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 682–688, 2002.