As a physical therapist, three of my favorite functional strength training exercises for lower body strength are heel taps, deadlifts, and split squats.
I remember my first days weightlifting in the gym during my intro to weight training class in high school, where I was mostly taught upper body exercises. We were taught bench press, bicep curls, triceps pull downs, shoulder press, basic sit ups, and squats. There was only one lower extremity exercise taught for every 4 or 5 upper body exercise my teacher showed us! I wasn’t sure why this was the case, but I knew nothing about lifting so I went along with it. It wasn’t until later in my studies when I started to diversify my lifts, mixing in a variety of all exercises along with more dynamic movements involving my whole body. The more I began to enjoy lifting with my lower body, the more I researched and understood the importance and benefits of strengthening the lower extremities.
We use the strength in our legs every day to get from place to place, and one withstand more stress than our upper extremities. Just the act of walking makes people support more than their body weight with every step, which is why strength in the legs is so important and why a loss of strength can have many severe consequences.
Muscles are considered active structures, meaning they are tissues that we can use and have control of. Passive structures are typically made up of ligaments and bones, and they aren’t tissues that we can control. When someone doesn’t have adequate strength in their legs and they are using their legs regularly, they may use the passive structures to support their demands more than their muscles. While this may work for a time, passive structures can only take so much stress before they start to break down. This breakdown can be a result of improper mechanics, poor shock absorption, and more. Some common deficits we see with patients who suffer from these breakdowns include stress fractures, arthritis, joint instability, muscle sprains, and more. However, an individual with muscle strength that is adequate for their physical demands doesn’t put as much stress on their passive structures. This strength can prevent breakdown of the passive structures over time and protect them from injuries that they may have otherwise suffered.
As we age this strength and lack of injury can allow someone to be on their feet and perform activities for a longer period of time. People can participate in hobbies and be more productive throughout the day if their leg strength is adequate. This ability to have the strength that allows you to do what you want when you want plays right into quality of life over time. As people age their muscles get weaker, and simple tasks like standing up from using the toilet and going up the stairs requires more and more energy. Using that energy for simple tasks takes away from their ability to participate in activities they love, which can decrease their quality of life and can even result in isolation.
Some of my favorite lower body exercises that I both prescribe to my patients and perform myself are a great way to start:
- Heel taps.
From an elevated surface, one leg is placed on the higher surface and the other one floats off of the edge. While hinging at the hips, the floating foot lowers and taps the ground with the heel. You then use the hip and glute muscles to help lift yourself back up to neutral. When performing this, make sure your feet are in line with one another when you tap the ground, and that the knee of your planted leg doesn’t extend beyond your toes. Perform 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps.
With a weight in front of you on the ground and your feet shoulder width apart, grasp the weight with both hands. Keeping your back straight, and with a slight bend in your knees, squeeze your glutes and lift up the weight to your standing position. Be sure not to arch your back upon standing. Following the lift, slowly set the weight down with the same proper form you used to pick it up. Perform 2-3 sets of 10 reps.
- Split squat.
Stand in a tandem stance with your feet about 2 feet apart, and go up on to the ball of your foot or the rear leg. Bend both legs and sink the rear knee to the ground, and then straighten both legs. You don’t need to tap the ground with your knee. Weight is optional but should be carried in the opposite arm of your leading leg. Perform 2-3 sets of 10 reps on both sides.
Here at Rose Physical Therapy Group we have many therapists who understand this principle very well, and can assist you in developing a specialized exercise program to improve overall function and quality of life.