Many people want to build muscle in the arms, shoulders, back and chest – the ‘show’ muscles – at the expense of what are sometimes perceived as the less flashy muscles of the lower body. That’s unfortunate, because there are some very sound reasons not to neglect those muscles for the benefit of the whole body.
First off, the total volume of lower body muscle tissue accounts for approximately two-thirds of the body’s overall muscle mass. That should come as no surprise, really, since this region consists of large muscle groups including the glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps. The more tissue involved while performing a given exercise, the more energy that particular exercise will expend. It’s an elegant example of the principle of supply and demand. Physiologically, this results in fat loss and an increase in lean muscle tissue.
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. Ideally, the body’s entire musculature should be involved when possible in order to achieve maximum results from any exercise program. This applies to all workouts, aerobic and resistance.
Lower-Body Training & Cardiovascular Exercise
Here’s another example of supply and demand, this time, from a microeconomic perspective: Have you ever noticed that there are fewer weight training pieces for the lower body marketed toward the average consumer compared to those that work the upper body? The manufacturers of such products historically have had reason to believe that fewer people would use a weight training device that targets the lower body due to the difficulty of the movements and the general lack of interest in developing lower-body strength. They may be accurate historically, but that alone shouldn’t stop someone from seeking out exercises that work the muscles of the lower body. Generally speaking, even if the practice of aerobic training of the upper-body tissue were popular, it would still yield comparatively less overall cardiorespiratory benefit than aerobic training of lower-body tissue of equal aerobic intensity. It’s another example of supply and demand. The increased blood flow called upon by tissue at a greater distance from the heart during lower-body aerobics causes the circulatory system to work harder to keep up the supply, thereby increasing the stress imposed by the exercise.
Lower-Body Training & Resistance Exercise
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.
A Word on Equipment
Here’s yet another economic principle that dates back to ancient times: Buyer (or user) beware. The principle of extensive lower-body involvement for aerobic enhancement has been known by both health professionals and large, gym-based equipment manufacturers for years. Equipment such as treadmills, stairmasters and the like are among the many pieces of cardio-equipment that are rarely seen in infomercials and television spots, although they are present in cardio-rooms in just about every health club. If exercise equipment isn’t good enough for a quality health club, chances are it’s not good enough for the individual consumer.
Many devices aimed at the average consumer are based on the premise of offering a shortcut to great results. Just remember that it pays to be skeptical of any new exercise gizmo that promises great results, especially if it’s one that you’ve never seen, at least a version of, in the gym.
1. The National Federation of Professional Trainers. Personal Trainer Certification Manual. 2nd Ed. Lafayette, IN: NFPT, 2006.
2. Smith, A., 1976, The Wealth of Nations edited by R. H. Campbell and A. S. Skinner, The Glasgow edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith, vol. 2b