STOP DOING LEG DAY: Why Athletes Should Leave This Trend Alone

Ah, Leg Day. Besides blossoming into a viral meme—"Friends don’t let friends skip Leg Day!"—it’s become a popular training trend in the general fitness community. The idea behind it is simple: when you’re in the gym, focus on training a different body part or muscle region each day. Monday: Legs, Tuesday: Shoulders and Back, Wednesday: Chest and Biceps, etc. By limiting training stress to one or two concentrated areas per training day, the theory is that you allow more time for each muscle region to recover and adapt before the next intense training session.

But while the theory may sound reasonable, this type of training can actually cause more harm than good—especially for athletes. 

This cultural obsession with Leg Day can create some serious problems for athletes or anyone training to improve performance. And yeah, this may ruffle some feathers, but here are my top 3 reasons why you should STOP doing Leg Day.


1. You Don't Isolate Muscles in Sports

Leg Day has its origins in bodybuilding training. The goal of bodybuilding is to achieve a specific type of physique through strength training, mainly through targeted muscle hypertrophy (size increase) and body recomposition (fat loss). Because the training goal is an aesthetic one, it makes perfect sense that many training protocols isolate single muscles and muscle groups—if you want your shoulders to look a certain way, you may need to hypertrophy your anterior deltoids. (For further information on this topic, allow me to HIGHLY recommend the 1970’s classic Pumping Iron, a fantastic documentary about bodybuilding champ Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
And let me be clear: there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with bodybuilding! It is a competitive activity that requires discipline and specific training to excel at, just like other sports. But if you’re a traditional sport athlete, this type of aesthetic-based training is NOT ideal for you.
Watch any athlete play any sport and it’s clear that they are constantly using their entire body. Running, rowing, kicking a ball, swinging a bat, even shooting a basketball—all require the athlete to use their whole body to perform. Human movement is created not through isolated contractions of singular muscles, but rather through a coordinated synergy of kinetic chains of muscle: in other words, everything is connected. If you’re an athlete, your training should focus on improving the performance qualities of movement patterns—so that you can move better, faster, and more efficiently in competition—rather than isolating a muscle based on an aesthetic goal.

2. Athletes Shouldn't Strive to Be Super Sore

One of the side effects—and, for some, the main selling point—of Leg Day is the soul-crushing soreness that results from high-intensity, high-volume, concentrated strength training. In the general fitness community, it has become vogue to be so sore from your previous workout that you can barely walk. Soreness so intense that it prevents you from walking normally, descending stairs, or lowering yourself into a chair—let alone getting up from the toilet—seems to be a badge of honor in gym culture these days, a sort of shared misery that strengthens the bond between serious gymgoers. But for athletes, this type of intense soreness is not only NOT beneficial, but can be a hindrance to your athletic performance.

DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) is common after hard training sessions, especially when you’re working with heavier weights or within new movement patterns. But DOMS should never be the goal—or even a desired latent outcome—of any workout, if you’re an athlete. The goal of sport performance training is to prepare athletes for the demands of their sport, so that they are physically ready for optimal performance. Being so sore that you can’t even move? That’s not exactly well-prepared for performance.

The day after leg day.... #training #weightlifting #workout #legday

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While occasional mild soreness is par for the course when it comes to training and athletics, severe soreness is an indicator of imbalance in the body. Often a symptom of training beyond a sustainable volume, severe or chronic soreness is a sign that the intensity of your workouts is too high and/or your recovery from training is insufficient. This may seem like a novel idea to some, but: @@You don’t have to be sore to have had an effective workout.@@ In fact, a properly structured, sport-specific training plan will vary the intensity of each training session in order to mitigate severe soreness and prevent overtraining at all costs.

This is why, in sport performance training, the calendar is king. Your training calendar dictates how much time you can allot to training different adaptations (strength, max strength, power, endurance, etc.), and how those adaptations should be dosed in relation to each other (hypertrophy before strength, etc.). In a periodized strength and conditioning plan, the volume and training intensity of each workout is strategically placed within the calendar in order to elicit the greatest training adaptation—and you cannot create adaptation without also allowing time for recovery.

Are there high-volume, high-intensity workouts in sport performance programs? Absolutely. But these workouts are dosed—precisely dosed, like a prescription—in a way that also allows your body enough recovery (in the form of lower-volume, lower-intensity weeks and blocks) for adaptation to take hold. Will athletes feel sore after a training session? Sure. But the goal for athletes is always adaptation and performance—never soreness for the sake of soreness.


3. Your Brain Doesn't Distinguish Between Stresses

There’s a saying within the strength and conditioning industry: “Stress is stress is stress.” Because, to your body, all types of stress—psychological, physical, emotional, etc.—are the same. Physically, your central nervous system (the CNS, made up of your brain and spinal cord) processes all different kinds of stress the same way. So, if you’re stressed out because finals are coming up, your body reacts the same as it would if you were stressed from a fight with your girlfriend/boyfriend, or a chronic lack of sleep, or an intense training session. What does all this mean? It means that, when it comes to stress, your body is blind—which makes the way you organize your training sessions very important for mitigating CNS stress.

In order to see results (in the biz we say “adaptations”) from your training, it’s important to strategically manage your training stress vs. recovery. In other words, you can’t work out super hard every single day and expect to see the best results. Your body is a complex organism: it needs time to repair tissues damaged from training, and if you don’t allot enough time for healing and recovery between hard workouts, your body won’t be able to put forth your best effort toward training—making your training less effective. And, worse, too much training stress without enough recovery and you risk entering an “overtrained” state.

You would think that breaking your training sessions up according to body region (Leg Day) would allow for more recovery between intense workouts—but if you schedule a heavy leg day followed by a heavy chest/back day followed by a heavy abs day, your muscles may get a break but your CNS does not. Add in sport practice, games, relationships, school/work, and other weekly stressors, and you’ve got a recipe for overload. Because “stress is stress is stress,” your body experiences cumulative stress to your nervous system, which might manifest in symptoms of overtraining, like poor sleep quality, fluctuations in bodyweight, loss of appetite, general fatigue, susceptibility to infection, and decrease in performance. 

By organizing your weekly training sessions in a high-low format (a high-intensity day follow by a low-intensity day, and so on), you not only allow your muscles to recover from the previous workout, you give your CNS enough time to deal with the internal stress of training. This undulated High-Low scheme lets you train for longer before needing a deload/unload week, and ensures that any high-intensity day is both preceded and followed by a low-intensity day—which lowers your chances of needing to miss a session due to overtraining symptoms.


The Takeaway

This article's goal isn't to discredit different types of programming. Many sport performance training programs will have a different area of focus or emphasize a specific movement pattern on different training days—Volt programming generally emphasizes the squat movement progression on the first day of the training week, for example. And if you’re a competitive powerlifter, you might have a weekly training session designated just for “heavy lower-body.” Rather than discredit different styles of programming, the takeaway here is that, if you are an athlete with performance as your goal, you need to dose your training stress appropriately.

With a properly periodized calendar and well-rounded movement selection in your program, you can effectively distribute stress—both local stress, to specific muscle groups like the quadriceps, and global stress, to your CNS as a whole—and achieve optimal training adaptation. Remember, too, that the goal of athletics is to improve performance in your sport or event of choice—and the lifts you do in the weight room are simply tools to help improve that performance. @@A standalone movement or workout, like Leg Day, is not the end goal for athletes@@, but should function as part of a training program designed to help you become a better overall athlete. One piece of the puzzle, not the puzzle itself. Putting too much emphasis on one body part, especially for the sake of soreness or following a fitness trend, will only hinder you in your performance goals.

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Christye Estes, CSCS, is one of the regular contributors to the Volt blog. She is an NSCA-certified strength coach and a Sport Performance Specialist at Volt.
Learn more about Christye and read her other posts | @CoachChristye