Paying more attention to the “showier” muscles of the upper body has been a fairly common, if inherently unbalanced, view of resistance exercise. The muscles of the lower body account for much of the body’s total lean mass, so getting a good workout means making it a point to involve these groups, too.
Aerobic training typically involves the lower body in some way. Indeed, aerobic training of upper-body tissue alone would allow for minimal overall cardiorespiratory benefit by comparison to the aerobic training of lower-body tissue of equal aerobic intensity. One of the reasons is that the demand for increased blood flow comes from an area much farther from the heart during lower-body aerobics, thereby increasing the stress imposed by the exercise.
As previously mentioned, there is far more muscle tissue in the lower body, so much that it accounts for approximately two-thirds of the body’s overall muscle mass, some examples are the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. The more tissue involved while performing a given exercise, the more energy that particular exercise will expend. Physiologically, this results in fat loss and an increase in lean muscle tissue. It is also worth noting that standing while performing aerobic exercise imposes a greater stress and energy expenditure than exercises performed seated.
For a general fitness prescription, any exercise program that involves the lower body extensively can be said to be superior for overall fitness compared to those that do not.
Lower-Body Resistance Training
Since the lower-body is comprised of the greater amount of lean tissue relative to the upper-body, it follows that to achieve the best overall general fitness results, there is a need to work these areas with at least a comparable – or greater – volume of resistance exercises. All too often, weight training enthusiasts neglect leg training, choosing instead to work on “show muscles”. This often goes together with the fact that lower-body musculatures are difficult to build. Yet, many competitive bodybuilders claim to experience greater upper-body growth when intensifying their lower-body training, generally in the form of “the squat”. The squat is widely regarded in the bodybuilding community as the pre-eminent weight training exercise. It is perhaps the single most difficult and demanding exercise in weight training as it involves the use of every lower-body prime mover. It is perhaps also the single most effective means of improving muscle endurance and increasing size and strength. High-rep sets aim for muscle endurance and general fitness, while low-rep sets can be used for increased size and strength.
Lower-Body Cardio Training
Some ostensibly ‘cardio’ exercises employ a measure of resistance exercise, as well.
Running is a simple exercise that is accessible for most people since it can be done just about anywhere, from a track to a trail to a treadmill. While running is considered a full-body workout because it works also involves the upper body since it involves the pumping motion of the arms and the core muscles to help maintain balance, the legs do most of the ‘heavy lifting’. Running works the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and calves. Difficulty and variety can be had by looking for trails that have varied terrain, or if exercising on treadmill, by adjusting the grade.
Whether using a stair-climber machine or just going literally climbing a set of stairs, this exercise increases heart rate while providing resistance for the muscles of your lower body. Caution is warranted, however. This exercise can be hard on the knees since the leg muscles are in a lengthened position, which can cause strain on the knee joint.
Cycling offers the benefits of an intense cardiovascular workout with minimal impact and strain on the joints. Where running and stair climbing can be hard on the knees, cycling can help protect them by helping them move in a fluid, unbroken motion. To get the most from this type of exercise, keep the pressure off the knees by making sure to adjust the seat until the knees feel comfortable. Cycling involves the hamstrings, lower back, core, quadriceps and glutes.
Like cycling, the elliptical machine provides a low-impact workout since the feet are constantly in contact with the pedals, thereby lessening the amount of stress on the knees and joints. Elliptical machines involve a variety of lower body muscles and can target different groups depending on the direction of the movement. Pedaling forward works one set of muscles, while pedaling in reverse involves greater use of the hamstrings and glutes. These machines have the added benefit of allowing people with a lower-body injury to engage in a cardio workout since there is little impact the knees, hips and back.
Ideally, the body’s entire musculature should be involved whenever possible to achieve maximum results from any exercise program. This applies to all workouts, aerobic and resistance.
1. The National Federation of Professional Trainers. Personal Trainer Certification Manual. 2nd Ed. Lafayette, IN: NFPT, 2006.
2. American College of Sports Medicine. “American College of Sports Medicine position stand. Progression models in resistance training for healthy adults.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 41.3 (2009): 687.
3. Kraemer, WILLIAM J., and NICHOLAS A. Ratamess. “Fundamentals of resistance training: progression and exercise prescription.” Medicine and science in sports and exercise 36.4 (2004): 674-688.