Bodybuilders often joke that in commercial gyms you need a reservation to get on a bench press station, while the squat rack should probably be re-named the curl rack.
Not surprisingly, pumped up chests and arms are often in abundance but jacked up wheels? Well, they're about as rare as a full set of teeth in Nate Green's family tree.
Squats, deadlifts, and their variations are the ultimate lower body "bang for the buck" exercises and you'd be hard pressed to find a bodybuilder with impressive quads and hams who didn't spend a lot of time in the squat rack struggling under some spine-crushing weight.
But just because heavy squats and deadlifts work well doesn't mean that other protocols don't have their time and place. In fact, in certain situations, a higher volume/ lower load routine may be just what the physique doctor ordered.
If your leg development is in dire need of some shock therapy, T NATION's own plateau doctor Nick Tumminello suggests you give the following set of workouts a try. – Bryan Krahn
The greatest thing about being a strength and conditioning coach for me is the license to do whatever the hell I want, as long as I have a good reason for doing it. Very few folks toiling away in the working world can say that they have this kind of professional freedom.
Unfortunately, a great many coaches take advantage of this freedom and do whatever they want without any legitimate justification. Not surprisingly, these same coaches will usually end up clientless, broke, and asking their former trainees if they want to supersize their order.
This is why in all my articles I not only tell you what exercises to do, but try to explain why you're doing them as well. Obviously I want you to perform the exercises as safely and effectively as possible, but understanding why you're doing the exercises to begin with allows you and I to get on the same page; something sorely lacking in a lot of the strength training articles I see.
So you can bet your arse that in this article, along with offering up some killer leg complexes, I will provide you with plenty of valid reasons as to why, how, and when to use each protocol to maximize results.
Whether you're a bodybuilder out to build huge quads and hams, an athlete looking to develop an explosive lower body, or just an exercise enthusiast trying to lose fat, this article has got your name written all over it.
What is a Leg Complex?
First off, let's understand exactly what a leg complex is.
A leg complex is a group of lower body exercises performed back to back, each for a given amount of reps. Ideally, all exercises within a given complex should be performed as fast as possible, without any rest in between exercises. However, short rest breaks are sometimes required until optimal conditioning levels have been developed.
Why Perform Leg Complexes?
There are six big reasons to perform leg complexes:
For Fat Loss
Your legs are the biggest muscles in your body. This means the legs demand the most energy when they're worked because of increased oxygen and blood flow demand. This translates into a higher metabolic cost (aka burning more calories and fat).
For Muscle Building
As any serious bodybuilder knows, high volume training is almost guaranteed to pack on more muscle. Just look at the size and muscular development of speed skaters' legs. Their jaw-dropping development comes from high volume training.
Leg complexes are high volume exercises, making them a nice training option for any bodybuilder looking to do the occasional high volume workout.
Plus, leg complexes are performed at high speeds, which increases intensity. Exercises performed at higher speeds build more momentum, which needs to be controlled by the muscles, which takes work. What this means to you is more motor unit recruitment; always a good thing for building serious muscle! I've personally seen some of the greatest lower body hypertrophy gains from folks choosing to use leg complexes almost exclusively.
Superior Conditioning / Power Endurance
As I've said in my past article The Truth About Olympic Lifts, athletes need to posses a high level of power-endurance in order to perform optimally. Power endurance is only developed through protocols that force the athlete to be explosive while in a fatigued state. Leg complexes do just that, making them just what the doctor ordered for improving one's level of power, endurance, and work capacity.
You can try to argue the whole "do power work before strength and cardio work" all you want, but in reality, it all comes down to the SAID (Specific Adaptations to Applied Demands) principle: if you don't train to outlast the competition, you won't outlast the competition. Using the leg complexes provided in this article you're sure to be the last man standing when the smoke clears.
Big Results in Little Time
Leg complexes are incredibly efficient. I know of few protocols (except for maybe Tabatas ) that can generate such big results in so little time. A few rounds of leg complexes are enough to bury even the most elite lifter, and can have you in and out of the gym in the time it takes some folks to do their warm-up.
Leg complexes can make your wheels feel like you just squatted a ton without ever putting a heavy bar on your back. This makes them a nice option for folks looking to give their back the occasional break from all the spinal compression brought on by high load squats and deadlifts.
Leg Complexes are FUN!
I always laugh when I hear the "hard core" types saying that training is serious business and isn't supposed be fun. Bullshit! Who says you can't work hard, get results, and have fun doing it?
If you want long-term results in anything, you must enjoy the process. Otherwise, you're less likely to stick with it or put in any real effort to begin with. Simply put, a well-designed strength & conditioning program should be challenging enough to keep you making gains but fun enough to keep you interested and wanting more.
Leg Complexes for Gaining Muscle vs. Losing Fat
To some, it might seem confusing how the same leg complexes can be used for two very different purposes. How can a protocol used for building someone up (getting bigger, stronger, improving work capacity) also be used to strip someone down?
The simple answer is – it's all in the diet.
If you're trying to lose fat, you must eat the right amounts and types of food to accomplish this. On the other hand, if you're trying to take up two seats on an airplane like Kevin Smith, the diet needs to be to be far less restrictive.
So eat to support your goal. It doesn't need to be more complicated than this.
The Leg Complexes
All of the complexes I'm about to present have been used with great success at Performance U. So rest assured, these protocols are winners and WILL work for you.
That being said, I've found that during the first few workouts female athletes tend to enjoy doing leg complexes a lot more than their male counterparts. I think this is because girls often love to feel the insane leg burn complexes deliver, while guys tend to not like anything that doesn't involve big weights or doing anything that gets them really out of breath.
However, I've also found that once guys start to see the quick gains in conditioning and muscle size that complexes can bring, they actually start requesting I program leg complexes more often. And of course, I'm always happy to oblige!
Leg Complex #1 - Cosgrove Complex
This first complex I learned from some Scottish guy named Alwyn Cosgrove. This is usually the first complex that I throw at most athletes because it's simple to understand, easy to memorize, and involves only one movement – the squat.
Perform the following exercises back to back:
- 20 seconds of Squats (as fast as possible). Try to get 20 reps.
- 20 seconds of Squat Jumps (land as quickly as possible). Try to get 10-12 reps.
- 20 seconds of Isometric Squat Holds (pause at the bottom).
1 round lasts exactly one minute.
Coaching Tips: I try to get my clients to be able to complete three rounds of this complex in three minutes with bodyweight. Here's how I progress athletes over a six-week period to help them achieve this.
- Week 1: Perform two rounds with one minute rest.
- Week 2: Perform two rounds with 30 seconds rest.
- Week 3: Perform two rounds with no rest.
- Week 4: Perform three rounds, the first two rounds are done with no rest, with one-minute rest before performing the third round.
- Week 5: Perform three rounds, the first two rounds are done with no rest, rest 30 seconds before performing round three.
- Week 6: Perform three rounds, back to back with no rest.
Once you're able to successfully perform the week six workout, you can then start to add external load such as weighted vests or holding a med ball or dumbbell in the goblet position. Or, move on to another, more advanced complex as shown below.
Note: Most reasonably fit athletes trying the Cosgrove complex for the first time can get through three bodyweight rounds with no rest, but are unable to maintain the prescribed reps. With this progression, each round will be just as good or better than the previous round. This is the goal with all the other complexes in this article as well. In short, don't just do these complexes, do them better each workout.
Leg Complex #2 – Single Leg Complex
The Cosgrove complex described above is what I would classify as a double leg complex because you're always on two legs. This complex is what I would classify as a Single Leg complex, because every exercise is performed unilaterally.
I developed a few single leg complexes to make sure each leg was equally strong, improve symmetry, and to increase the sports carryover.
Here's how it's done:
- 10-12 Split Squats or Bulgarian Split Squats (each leg)
- 10-12 (each leg) Reverse Lunges (alternate legs)
- 10-12 Single Leg Step Ups w/ Knee Drive (each leg)
- 10-12 (each leg) Split Squat Jumps (alternate legs)
Coaching Tips: Move fast (but with control) throughout this complex, attempting to perform roughly one rep per second.
I like to get my athletes to be able to perform 12 reps of each exercise for three-four rounds with two minutes rest between rounds. Here is the six-week progression I use to achieve this:
- Week 1: Perform 10 reps for two rounds, three minutes rest.
- Week 2: Perform 11 reps for two rounds, three minutes rest.
- Week 3: Perform 12 reps for two rounds, three minutes rest.
- Week 4: Perform 10 reps for three rounds, three minutes rest.
- Week 5: Perform 11 reps for three rounds, three minutes rest.
- Week 6: Perform 12 reps for three rounds, three minutes rest.
Note: Once you can successfully achieve the week six workout, you can continue to progress this complex in one of three ways:
- You can add external load, such as holding a medicine ball or wear a weighted vest.
- You can start reducing the rest period between sets.
- My personal favorite) Simply perform three to four rounds in as little time as possible. Try to beat that time each week.
Leg Complex #3 – Mixed Complex
I classify this complex as a mixed complex because it mixes both single leg and double leg movements.
To give proper credit where it's due, the great Vern Gambetta originally developed this complex and named it "Super Legs." My good friend, JC Santana, then made this circuit more popular under the name Leg Cranks. Whatever you want to call it, this complex is a leg killer!
Here's how to get it done:
- 20-24 Squats (go fast!)
- 20-24 Alternating Lunges or Reverse Lunges (go fast!)
- 20-24 Alternating Split Squat Jumps or Bench Split Jumps
- 10-12 Squat Jumps or Box Jumps (Jump as high as possible)
In the video of this leg complex, you'll see myself, my girlfriend and figure competitor Alli Mckee, and my training partner Mark "Simonetti" Simon all hammering away at this complex. As you'll see, Alli crushes both Mark and me. Whatever.
Coaching Points: All of the second exercises listed above (reverse lunges, bench split jumps and box jumps) are more knee friendly versions that can be successfully used by folks who may have some minor knee issues. If you don't have knee issues, I prefer to use the first exercises because you don't need a bench or plyo-box. You can move faster when you're not jumping on and off a box and as I said earlier, speed is what we're after on all these complexes.
I have a six-week training progression for this complex as well. My goal is to get each athlete to be able to perform at least 3 rounds of 24/24/24/12 reps while still keeping their breakfasts down.
- Week 1: Perform two rounds, 20/20/20/10 reps, three minutes rest.
- Week 2: Perform two rounds, 22/22/22/11 reps, three minutes rest.
- Week 3: Perform two rounds, 24/24/24/12 reps, three minutes rest.
- Week 4: Perform three rounds, 20/20/20/10 reps, three minutes rest.
- Week 5: Perform three rounds, 22/22/22/11 reps, three minutes rest.
- Week 6: Perform three rounds, 24/24/24/12 reps, three minutes rest.
As with the previous complex, you can continue to progress by adding external load, reducing the rest periods, or performing three rounds for time. Then continually try to beat that time each workout.
The Super Legs Challenge
One of the most popular fitness challenges we have here at Performance U is the Super Legs challenge. The challenge is to see how quickly you can perform five rounds of the above mixed leg complex with a rep range as follows:
- 20x Squats
- 20x Alternating Lunges (20 total reps)
- 20x Alternating Split Squat Jumps (20 total reps)
- 10x Squat Jumps
Note: Because this challenge is about speed, you don't have to go all the way down to the floor on the lunges and split squat jumps – just most of the way.
If you're not a math whiz, five rounds of this leg complex ends up being 100 squats, 100 lunges, 100 split squat jumps and 50 squat jumps.
If you can finish all five rounds in seven minutes or less, you truly do have a set of super legs!
I challenge you to give this challenge a shot and post your times on the T NATION forum. But be warned, I've used this complex for many years and have seen it performed over 1,000 times. I'll know who's full of BS and who's not.
Using Leg Complexes – Program Design
Now we get to the part where I tell you how to incorporate leg complexes into various split routines. I've provided samples of a two, three, and four-day split, each involving leg complexes.
Due to the fact that many T NATION readers have different fitness levels and goals, I've kept the program layouts below as general as possible. Still, this should give you a good idea of how to effectively integrate leg complexes into any routine.
Two Day – Total Body Split
Day 1 – Total Body
- 1A. Legs (knee dominant)
- 1B. Upper Body Pulling
- 2A. Hips (hip dominant)
- 2B. Upper Body Push
- 3. Rotary/Torso work
- 4. Leg Complex
Day 2 – Total Body
- 1A. Hips (hip dominant)
- 1B. Upper Body Push
- 2A. Legs (knee dominant)
- 2B. Upper Body Pulling
- 3. Rotary/Torso work
- 4. Leg Complex
Three-Day Bodybuilding Style Split
- Day 1 Upper Body Pushing
- Day 2 Legs/Hips (use leg complexes as a finisher)
- Day 3 Upper Body Pulling
– Or –
- Day 1 Upper Body Pushing
- Day 2 Legs/Hips (use leg complexes as a finisher)
- Day 3 Upper Body Pulling
Four Day Upper / Lower Body Split
- Day 1 Upper Body Pushing/Pulling (low rep strength work)
- Day 2 Legs/Hips (low rep strength work)
- Day 3 Upper Body Pushing/Pulling (higher rep / repetitive effort work)
- Day 4 Legs/Hips (leg complexes)
– Or –
- Day 1 Upper Body Pushing/Pulling
- Day 2 Legs/Hips (start with low rep strength work, use leg complexes as finisher)
- Day 3 Upper Body Pushing/Pulling
- Day 4 Legs/Hips (start with low rep strength work, use leg complexes as finisher)
Look, everybody knows that heavy squats and deadlifts combined with some heavy "fork to the face curls" will build your legs. But that doesn't mean other training methodologies don't have their place! Nor does it mean that by throwing a day of complexes into the mix that you have to quit all heavy squatting and pulling.
Remember, strength training principles don't require an all or nothing approach. In fact, mixing things up a little with some low load/high volume complexes is a great way to extend your training career by giving the joints a break from the pounding of constant heavy training.
The fact this new stimulus may also strip off some lard and shock your wheels into high volume growth? Hey, that's just an added bonus!
I gotta say, from the complexes, to the progressions, to the fitness challenge, to the sample training splits, I've given you a lot of valuable information in this article. But it's only valuable if you actually put it to good use, so don't be one of those folks who forms an opinion on these leg complexes without even trying them.
Give these bad boys a shot, take the super legs challenge, and don't forget to post your comments on the forum!