6 Lifts for Big Legs and Healthy Joints

6 Lifts for Big Legs and Healthy Joints

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Leg Day without the Unnecessary Pain

If your hips, knees, or lower back are aching, swap some of your go-to lifts for any or all of these guaranteed leg-builders.

Training miles add up. Heavy squats and deadlifts do more harm than good when small aches and pains become chronic injuries.
Not lifting isn’t an option. Neither is chewing ibuprofen. So what do we do? Ideally, we work around the aches and pains while still building strength, muscle, and resilient joints.
Joint-friendly exercises reduce the stress placed on the joints at their most high-tension positions (the bottom and top of each rep) while still creating overload. Here are six to try:
1. Dumbbell Step-Back Lunge from Deficit
This is a great alternative to the traditional lunge because it places less stress on the joints. It reduces the amount of knee flexion required to perform the exercise. There’s less tension on the knee, which is great if you’re dealing with nagging knee issues.
Also, by stepping back instead of forward, this lunge variation places less shear force on the knee, which can help reduce the risk of knee injuries and improve joint health over time.
Moreover, using dumbbells allows you to use a more controlled and stable movement pattern, minimizing joint strain.
What to do:

Start by standing on a small platform 3-6 inches off the ground. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold dumbbells at your sides, palms facing in.
While keeping your chest up and core engaged, step your left foot back and lower your body into a lunge, bending both knees to about 90 degrees.
Pause for one second, then push back up to the starting position.
Repeat for the desired number of reps, then switch sides.

2. Split Squat
The split squat provides a greater range of motion in the hip joint, which helps improve hip mobility. It also places less stress on the working knee, which benefits those who suffer from knee pain or have a history of knee injuries. And unlike traditional squats, you can use a more upright posture, reducing stress on the low back.
Squatting with one leg at a time will help you put plenty of tension on the target muscles (glutes, hams, quads) without stressing out the spine. Working each leg separately will improve your balance and joint stability.
What to do:

Unrack the bar and step back with your right foot while keeping your left foot in place.
Lower your body straight down until your left thigh is parallel to the ground and your right knee hovers just above the ground.
Push through your left heel to return to the starting position.
Keep your torso upright and engage your core throughout the exercise.
Repeat on the other side.

Use a longer stance for more tension on the glutes and hamstrings. Use a shorter stance to increase quad activation.
3. Goblet Lateral Squat
The lateral squat targets your quads, glutes, and adductors while improving balance and coordination. To do this, you’ll move in the frontal (side-to-side) plane, which improves athletic performance.
Unlike traditional squats, which primarily work in the sagittal plane, lateral squats engage different muscle groups and movement patterns while preventing muscular imbalances and reducing injury risk.
What to do:

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your arms extended in front of you for balance.
Take a large step to the side with your right foot. Keep your toes pointed forward and your left foot planted on the ground.
Lower your body down and to the side by bending your right knee and hip as if sitting on a chair.
Keep your left leg straight and your foot firmly planted on the ground.
Lower yourself down as far as you can comfortably go, then push through your right foot to return to the starting position.
Repeat on the other side.

4. Dumbbell Step-Up
Do the step-up to build strength, stability, and mobility in your lower body while minimizing the risk of joint pain or injury.
The vertical shin position helps keep stress and tension off the knee and allows you to load the quads much more while keeping an upright torso. This means you won’t be adding stress to the lower back or spine. Like other unilateral exercises, the step-up helps improve your joint integrity through improved balance and stability.
The biggest mistake people make with lunges is pushing off the back leg rather than driving through the front foot.
What to do:

Start with your left foot on a box around knee height.
Stay under control while you engage your quad and drive through your left heel until you’ve completely lifted your body onto the box.
Lower down by keeping your left foot planted on the box until your right foot is back on the ground. Use the step down as a focused eccentric movement. This will maximize control and weight on the front foot.
Pause for a second before repeating.
Avoid bouncing your right foot off the floor and using momentum to start the next rep.

5. Offset Bulgarian Split Squat
Much like the split squats, Bulgarian or rear-foot elevated split squats provide a ton of benefits for beat-up joints.
This exercise is a little more demanding because your rear foot stays elevated the whole time, requiring a lot of stability. This requires more recruitment of smaller stabilizer muscles and reduces the weight you can use for the exercise. This decreases stress on the joints and lower back.
By offsetting the weight and holding it on the side of your working leg, you increase the stability demand, not just on the ankles, knees, and hips, but the spine as well. This makes your joints more resilient and helps reduce nagging aches and pains.
What to do:

With a kettlebell or dumbbell in your left hand, place your right foot on a bench behind you (laces down) and step forward with your left foot.
Lower down until your left thigh is parallel to the ground and your right knee hovers just above the ground.
Push through your left heel to return to the start.
Keep your torso upright and core engaged.

6. Reverse Banded Hack Squat
If you want to really hammer your legs without the negative effects of a barbell squat, the hack squat is for you because it takes a lot of the stress off your knees and lower back.
During a traditional barbell squat, your knees bear a lot of weight and pressure. This can be problematic if you have knee pain or you’re recovering from an injury. Hack squats, on the other hand, create external stability with the machine while allowing a deep squat to smash your quads.
Traditional squats also put a lot of strain on your lower back, especially if you have poor form or weak core muscles. Hack squats take this pressure off by keeping your torso upright and supported by the machine.
With the machine, you can focus on isolating your leg muscles without worrying as much about your balance or form. This can be especially helpful if you’re trying to target specific muscle groups or if you’re working with a physical therapist to rehabilitate an injury.
Reverse banding the hack squat makes the movement even more joint-friendly.The purpose of the reverse band is to help take the stress off the knees at the bottom of the movement. The band assists you as you begin to lift up, but then deloads (goes slack) near the top. This further loads your quads to create more tension at the top portion of the movement.
What to do:

Anchor a resistance band around a non-moving part of the hack squat machine. Loop the other end of the band around the moving sled.
Hack squat like normal.

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