No Machine Leg Workouts for Beginners, Intermediates and Advanced Lifters

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Leg training is tough; you either love it or loath it. Let’s face it, whatever camp you belong to it’s tough to get under the squat bar week after week and get down to business. It’s not easy or everyone would be doing it. That’s right, these days you’re more apt to find someone curling in the squat rack instead of squatting.

So, we have the squatters and the “I’m-not-into-leg-training” crowds, but you may actually fall into a third camp instead relegating your leg training to mostly machines. You may rely on the leg press, squat machine and Smith machine in hopes to grow a bigger lower body.

Related: Leg Workouts for Mass: The 5/10/15 Method

Now, there’s nothing innately wrong with throwing in a few machines here or there to round-out a well thought-out plan for training legs but too much machinery can stifle progress. If you are one of the unlucky who struggle to pack on lower body beef you may need a new approach. You may need to ditch the levers, sleds and railing and adopt a machine-free workout plan for a while.

The advantages of free weights vs. machines

Box jumpsMachines have their place in training. They can help with work-arounds during times of injury, help finish off a body part and help older individuals learn and perform resistance training when balance and coordination are an issue. But if you’re reading this you are more than likely a young, able-bodied individual with the capacity to work harder, smarter and who likes a new challenge or two.

Below are 5 quick advantages free weights for leg training has over machines.

Advantage #1 – Freedom

During a natural leg movement (namely squats) your hips need freedom to move forward and back. Most machines will stabilize your hips and fix them in a stationary positon. This may not be a big deal to many who can effectively perform leg presses or other machine exercises but for many, hip mobility is necessary for progress and avoiding hip, knee and back strain.

Advantage #2 – Variation

Free weights allow for more variety with each exercise. Take the traditional squat, for example. You have the availability of back squats, front squats, goblet squats, sumo squats, Bulgarian split squats and other forms of single-leg squats just to name a few. Sure, machines will allow for different foot placements but not much else.

Advantage #3 – Fit

Machines were designed with the average build in mind. Yes, many do have adjustments to fit different heights and limb lengths but only to a certain, limiting extent. Some are just not meant for shorter or taller individuals while some are simply stifling contraptions guaranteed to stress joints.

Advantage #4 – Availability

Be honest, do you really ever wait for the squat rack because someone was squatting? Well, you may have to wait for the newbie to finish curling though. With free weights waiting on a machine isn’t a reality. So many gym-goers occupy leg presses while performing seemingly endless amounts of sets. Need to squat? Just find a bar.

Advantage #5 – Stability

The thing about machines is the fact that they take a lot of muscles out of play. Balance, coordination and overall focus aren’t real concerns. On the leg press, for example, you only need to keep your knees in line and push. For the squat you need nearly every muscle in your body aware of what you are about to do. You get more supportive muscle stimulation from free weights.

Lunges

About ego

Here’s where we get a little touchy. If you’re the type who piles on an endless number of plates on the leg press and shoots for 8 half reps your ego may get hurt once you switch to an all free weight program for legs. You will have no track to guide you, no counterbalance to make the weight seem lighter and no safety arms or railing that you can quickly pull or flip to catch the weight in times of trouble. It will just be you and the weight, that’s it.

This may be a transition for many. You will have to swallow your ego, lighten the load and learn how to truly balance and lift in several planes of motion. It’s time to take off your training wheels and be a big boy.

The players – The exercises you will be using

Below is a short list of the exercises that can be included in any free weight leg training program. This list isn’t entirely exhaustive but you will be able to find something you feel at least a little familiar and comfortable doing. But don’t fool yourself, if you have trouble performing some of these moves, you may simply need more practice. You may be lacking balance and coordination form all those years of assistive machine work.

Squat: The granddaddy of leg training. Be sure to practice a full range of motion. All the way down, knees in line with toes and don’t go too heavy out of the gate.

Bulgarian split squat: One of the best unilateral (single limb) exercises known. It will quickly let you know which leg is weaker and needs more attention.

Front squat: For those who want to remain more upright during a squat and stimulate more quadriceps versus hips and glutes. Also great for taller individuals.

Goblet squat: Although the goblet squat prohibits most from hoisting a ton of weight it still challenges your range of motion and balance without requiring you to hinge forward as with a back squat.

Lunge: Not just for women the lunge is one awesome leg builder. Stimulating your quads, hamstrings and glutes in a more ballistic style motion, nothing compares to lunges.

Romanian deadlift: What the squat is to you quads, the Romanian deadlift is to your hams. The key is to hinge at the hips not the lower back.

Stability leg curl: The Romanian deadlift does an extraordinary job of stretching your hamstrings. The stability ball curl will add in a contraction to help round-out your hamstring training.

Glute ham raise: One of the more difficult exercises to master (but that means it works). Try using an upright for support to help progress your strength and ability.

Standing calf raise: Whether it’s off of a calf block or the floor, straight leg calf raises with a loaded barbell on your back or dumbbells in hand are great for overall contractions.

Single-leg calf raise: Is one calf stronger and/or larger than the other? This is a great way to bring balance to your calves.

Squatting calf raise: Mimicking the seated calf raise machine performing calf raises in the squat position will hit the lower soleus muscles.

No Machine Leg Workouts

Beginner Workout
No Machine Leg Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell back squat – Warm ups 2-3 12
Barbell back squat – 90 seconds rest between sets 4 10-16
Bulgarian split squat with dumbbells – warm ups 1 10
Bulgarian split squat with dumbbells – 60 seconds rest between sets 3-4 8-10
Barbell Romanian deadlift – warm up 1 10
Barbell Romanian deadlift – 60 seconds rest between sets 4 8-10
Single-leg calf raise with dumbbell 1 10
Single-leg calf raise with dumbbell – 30 seconds rest between sets 4 10-16
Intermediate Workout
No Machine Leg Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Bulgarian split squat with dumbbells – Warm ups 2 12
Bulgarian split squat with dumbbells – 30 seconds rest between sets 3-4 8-10
Barbell front squat – warm ups 1 10
Barbell front squat – 60 seconds rest between sets 4 10-16
Walking lunge with barbell – 60 seconds rest between sets 3 Length
Dumbbell Romanian deadlift or stability ball leg curl – Warm ups 1 10
Dumbbell Romanian deadlift or stability ball leg curl 3-4 8-10
Standing calf raise – Warm up  1  10
Standing calf raise – 30 seconds rest between sets  3  10-16
Squatting calf raise – 30 seconds rest between sets  3  10-16
Advanced Workout
No Machine Leg Workout
Exercise Sets Reps
Box jumps – 30 seconds rest between sets  3  10
Bulgarian split squats with dumbbells and rear foot elevated – Warm up  1  12
Bulgarian split squats with dumbbells and rear foot elevated – 60 seconds rest between sets  3-4  8-10
Barbell back squat – 90 seconds rest between sets  4  10-16
Superset: Walking lunge with…  3  Lengths
Superset: Barbell and dumbbell Romanian deadlift – 90 seconds rest between supersets  3  8-10
Giant set: Glute ham raise, single-leg calf raise and squat calf raise – 60 seconds rest between giant sets  3-4  10-16
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Name: Brad Borland

Bio: Starting out as a scrawny 125 pound kid at 6’ 2” I took up weight training at the tender age of 14 and ended up a 220 pound competitive drug-free, natural bodybuilder several years later. Now armed with both knowledge and muscle I have helped countless individuals domestically and abroad.