If you’ve been injured or have taken an extended amount of time away from training, the road to rebuilding strength in your legs can seem a long arduous process.
Whether it’s for sports or the gym, a leg injury can take its toll on your performance in ways you hadn’t realised before. Balance and overall strength is the result of applying the same exercise evenly across your body so when there is a muscle group that is lacking, the symmetry is thrown off and can have a knock-on effect on other muscles.
Believe it or not, an injured leg can ultimately affect your upper body strength and core if your usual regimen involves afflicted muscles. Many pro lifters consider the legs the trunk of a tree – the stronger the trunk, the stronger the tree. If you have a leg injury, many standing lifts and compound lifts that require stability in your legs will make these difficult to perform unless you find an alternative route.
When it comes to injuries there is no one size fits all approach, so for the purposes of an example we’ll go with generalised overall weakness in your legs and lower back so that we can address the best ways to strengthen each.
To begin, keep symmetry and balance in mind. If you have one injured leg, the other won’t struggle the same and there’ll naturally be an imbalance. You can approach this in two ways. By performing exercises with one leg you can measure precisely what level its strength is at. You also would not need to force the movement any more than is comfortable. For example, a leg extension may be performed one leg at a time so that in the long run you ensure each is as strong as the other.
Alternatively, by performing the same exercise using both legs (at a light weight) you can rely on the strength of your stronger leg to support the range of movement for the weaker leg. This is a good method if one leg is struggling to complete the range of motion. After which you might focus on individual legs to isolate muscles in the same way you would when body building.
To the same end, you should utilise both single joint (isolating) exercises and multi-joint compound lifts. Use single joint exercises at first when your muscles are at their weakest. Examples include leg extensions, hamstring curls and calf raises. As for compound lifts, there will be some that prove difficult while your legs are weak, not least because it may also mean your core and back are weak as a result. Because of this, it’s a good idea to initially perform multi-joint exercises on machines.
For example, use a leg press and similar weight-supporting machines. This way, if you should stumble or don’t have confidence in your balance you won’t suffer further injuries as you would if attempting an unsupported squat, for example.
As for reps, start low with a light weight and go for more sets. This will allow you to rest more and ensure that you complete each exercise fully, rather than failing as a result of muscle fatigue. When your strength improves you’ll be able to add weight and increase the reps. At this point, don’t concern yourself with mass muscle building.
Here is an array of exercises that you can use to build from the ground up for all over leg strength.
First, you have your standard machine exercise:
✓ Leg extension ✓ Hamstring curl ✓ Leg press
When you feel you’re advancing, move onto bodyweight balancing exercises:
✓ Bind your feet with a resistance band and perform side leg raises ✓ One-legged squat from sitting ✓ One legged squat from standing – perform on a balance ball when you are stronger ✓ Vary the angle of two-legged squats and the angle of your feet.
When you’re ready to combine weight and balance, try these:
✓ Squat, lifting a kettlebell from the floor on your way up. This is halfway between a squat and a deadlift. ✓ Deadlift with a very light weight, setting the bar up at a higher level so you don’t have to bend as far.
This will build your strength and get your leg used to move again, leading up to use of the cross-trainer. When you’ve mastered these, attempt running (not on a treadmill) and get used to the impact.