Legs: What’s their role? How to train? Endurance Vs Strength?
We might be ignoring our biggest evolutionary advantage
Legs — are half your body.
Let that sink in for a bit. Then consider this.
Legs are half your body. And carry all of it.
Given that, doesn’t it feel like we’ve been shortchanging these twins?
I, for one, am guilty. Whenever I see anyone who looks fit and ripped, I must admit, my eyes never travel below the torso. I notice the broad shoulders, the big biceps, the chiselled core, right upto the V-lines. But no further.
Even in the gym, you’d see bros dedicating separate days to small body parts like arms and delts and wrists. And then give similar treatment, to legs. That’s just one (begrudging) day for some of the largest muscles in the human body!
And from my limited sample set of friends and family, I’d bet that leg day is the one most likely to get skipped. After all, they’ll always remain covered. Who’s looking!
It’s fair to say that we (more true of men than women), tend to take our legs for granted. The stumps that carry us around all day long, get the least of our attention. And even when they do, they get misguided attention.
We feel that running for 20 minutes or cycling for 15 equals ‘exercising legs’. More importantly, we feel that increasing running or cycling time, would increase leg strength.
And while that sounds logical, the truth, unfortunately, is a lot more complicated.
Because if long distance running was going to give you massive leg strength, marathoners wouldn’t look like this. Nor would sprinters look like THAT!
Marathoner Vs Sprinter Legs — Which seems to have more strength?
So what’s going on here? Why is it important to train legs? And what should be the aim for leg training? Should it be to build strength or to build long distance endurance? And why do the two outcomes look so vastly different?
These are complicated questions, and I’ll try and answer some of them today. Along the way, I’ll also make the argument for why I believe legs might be THE most important body part to exercise.
Born to Run
Fun Fact: Humans can outrun any mammal
Yes. We can outrun anything in the jungle. We can’t run as fast. But at a slow, steady pace, we outrun everything. Dogs, horses, tigers, cheetahs -everything.
Ever wondered how our hunter-gatherer ancestors hunted down game? You think the gazelle or the antelope hung around for them to throw their stone carved spears?
Well, no. The game ran and our fore-fathers ran after it. But not fast, because that’d scare the beast and it’d use its explosive running capability to just vanish.
They did what they could do best. They ran slow.
Our ancestors, badass as they were, would run at a slow trot after the animal. The animal would, at first, run for its life and disappear. Once the human was out of sight though, it’d stop, panting for breath. Because that’s the only way it can cool down. No other mammal, apart from us, has sweat glands. So they can’t cool themselves while on the run.
But unbeknownst to the antelope, Grandpa Jo would be just around the bend. He’d been tracking the game all this while, and he’d suddenly appear now, making sure that the animal has no time to rest.
Repeat this running-without-rest cycle 10 times, and you have an animal that’s dead tired and over-heated. It can’t run anymore.
That’s when Grandpa would strike.
Two legs, a neck that could be kept upright, and sweat glands. That’s why we still exist.
But why am I talking evolution?
Because Legs have played a pivotal role in our survival. It wasn’t our biceps or shoulders that helped us survive. And hence, as Darwin would argue, Legs were a major part of our evolutionary advantage.
Which, is my first argument to why legs are SO important. They don’t just carry us around, they are the means to our survival. Yes, we don’t hunt game no more, but that’s just 1000 years of a 300000+ year story.
Endurance Vs Strength
So does that mean Endurance training is the way to go for legs? More importantly, does it mean that training for leg strength isn’t necessary?
If we wanted to be just like grandpa, the answer would’ve been yes. But all this ape-man comparison (which is so in fashion) with our ancestors is not to say that we should become and behave just like them. That’d be the opposite of evolution.
The point of these comparisons is to know where we come from and what advantages that evolutionary path gives us. And then work to supplement those advantages with what we know now. Become better than grandpa. Evolve.
So the answer is both. We need to train our legs both for endurance (because that’s what they were built to do) and for strength (because that has other huge benefits)
Advantages of Leg Strength training
Remember when we spoke about Muscles, and why it’s absolutely essential that you grow them?
Well, if you bought that argument, then I needn’t convince you any further about legs. Because legs, house some of the biggest muscles we have in our body. Glutes take pole position. Quads come in a close second.
Not to mention, when you exercise any body part, you exercise your legs too.
But here’s the real kicker. Strength training your legs, makes it easier to grow muscle on the upper body!
Simply put, bigger legs, give you bigger arms, shoulders, delts, lats — everything.
Legs = Testosterone
That hormone that’s usually linked with men’s libido. Well, first off all, it does a lot more than just push men to seek sex. It’s a crucial anabolic hormone for protein synthesis and muscle growth. Second, both men and women produce it. Men just produce more.
And why do we all need it?
Every time you rupture your muscle fibres, the body produces testosterone to help with the repair and recovery. More the volume of rupture, more the testosterone.
And did I mention that legs and glutes are by far the biggest muscles. So the testosterone that get’s produced right after a leg workout, is much higher than what happens after, say, arms.
Infact, some people believe (and some science backs them too), that following a leg workout with another small body part (like say triceps) will help grow the latter faster. Due to the excess testosterone in the system.
So the first, BIG benefit of doing legs is that it’s a force multiplier for everything else you do.
Legs = Core
The second big benefit is that most leg exercises (because of the way the human body was built to move), involve significant work from the core too.
Want proof? Do a strenuous ab workout and then try and do deadlifts and squats.
Legs and core, connected through the hip joint, were the evolutionary genius behind things that only homo sapiens could achieve. Take a moment to think of how other animals are shaped and you’ll see my point.
So strong legs generally come with a strong core. And we discussed last week why that is so important.
Legs = Stamina
Legs are the most ‘skipped’ body part in the gym, because leg-training is tough.
You’ll rarely find anyone huffing and puffing after an upper body workout. But do legs, and it seems the fellow just came back from war.
Given legs are big muscles, they require a LOT of work to rupture. So you’ve got to do big, compound movements like squats and deadlifts and lunges. All of which demand an order-of-magnitude higher work from both your core and your heart.
But why can’t I build Leg-strength by Running or Cycling?
That’s the million dollar question not many people ask.
I used to run full-marathons before I shifted focus, to strength training. Long distance running meant that my upper body was a muscle-less wreck. And in comparison, my legs were divine.
But after 3-years of using that as an excuse to ignore leg-strength training (guess how I know we all love skipping leg-day), I know better.
Slow vs Fast- Twitch muscle fibers
There are 2 kinds of muscle fibers in our body. The Slow-Twitch kinds, which endurance training builds. And the Fast-Twitch, that sprinting or strength-training or any other activity that demands explosive strength builds.
I won’t go into details, but suffice to say that long-distance running needs muscles that don’t produce a lot of energy output in an instant, but can keep producing low output for long. This is the soft, wiggly muscle tissue that marathoners develop.
Strength training, where you demand an explosion of work from the muscles, needs the opposite.
Clearly, a combination of the two, is what awesome legs are made of.
And if you’re still not convinced, let me just take you back to Grandpa Jo.
He’s now standing over the dead gazelle that he just fatigued to death. But the feeling of victory is fleeting. Because in the process, grandpa wandered about 30kms away from home. Where the wife and kids wait for him to bring back some juicy ribs.
Now he’s got to carry this 100 kg beast back. What exercise would you suggest grandpa do, to achieve this?
Join my email list…and I’ll ask grandpa to cook you some ribs. Ok I’ll definitely send you my e-Book: A Beginner’s Guide to Weight-Loss. FREE!
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