Words: Schalk van der Merwe, Biokineticist
Whether you are running, cycling or making your way through the latest gym-training craze, let’s face it, your legs are bound to take a pounding.
If you are anything like me, you welcome that burning sensation in your quads as you complete your last set of jumping squats or the ache in your calves as you make your way up a steep hill. The pain you feel the next day as you bend over to pick up the morning paper leaves you with a great deal of satisfaction. Sore is the new sexy, right?
The pain you feel after an intense workout is called delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS), and it's a muscular response to unaccustomed strenuous exercise. But as with any activity, our bodies are programmable. So if you do the same sequence of exercises on a daily basis, the muscles will learn to cope and over time it becomes easier and easier. However, the fitness and training world is now advocating that we should ‘shock’ our bodies by doing something new and progressively overloading our training by going heavier, faster for longer or increasing repetitions. Technically, this is all good and well, but I recommend you proceed with caution.
It is usually when we decide to shake things up a little that unwanted injuries occur. And there is nothing worse or more demoralizing than the onset of an injury just when it seems that you are making serious progress with your training. In my professional opinion, there are a few standard exercises that should form part of your regular leg programme to ensure that your biomechanics stay in check. These exercises, as described below, should be performed at least two to three times per week, to help injury proof your legs.
1. Clam exercises
This exercise is designed to target the little muscles that sit deep inside your buttocks. Pelvic stabilisers are very important in pretty much every weight-bearing activity. If these muscles don’t ‘fire’ correctly, you will begin to overload the muscles and this could lead to hip and knee problems.
The exercise is done as follows: Lie on your side, knees slightly bent and on top of each other. Tie a band around your knees. Keeping the feet together, lift your top knee towards the ceiling against the resistance of the band then slowly lower it back to the starting point. Do 50 reps on each side. You should feel a deep burn within the glutes.
2. Foam rolling
It’s a fact! Tired, overworked muscles become tight and sore. I most certainly cannot afford to indulge in a massage on a daily basis, so what’s the next best thing? Foam rolling. It only takes five minutes a day and works on your ITBs, quads, calves, hamstrings and glutes. Simple, effective and efficient.
The exercise is done as follows: The idea is to roll away the tension. Place the affected part of your body over the roller and gently roll backward and forward, finding some pressure points along the way. Continually work on the pressure point until it is less painful. Repeat this process for 2 to 3 minutes. If you are unsure of the technique, feel free to consult a physio, biokineticist or qualified personal trainer to show you the ropes.
3. Calf raises
Strengthening your calf muscles will allow for a more stable running gait and help prevent cramping. In addition, your power will improve when doing exercises like box jumps.
The exercise is done as follows: Calf raises are most effective when done on the edge of a step, and your body weight is usually sufficient. If you are a beginner, start with both legs together and do three sets of 15 reps. Place the balls of your feet on the edge of the step. Rise up onto your toes at normal speed, and then slowly lower your heels down past the level of the step. Lowering should take 3 to 4 seconds. Then repeat. If you are a little more accustomed to the exercise, you can do the exercise using one leg at a time.
4. Glute / hamstring bridge
This is one of the most underrated exercises in any athlete’s arsenal. The glute/hamstring ratio is important and often overlooked when training. Most athletes and gym-goers tend to train what they can see in the mirror, hence the fact that quads are generally over trained in the hope of improving what you can see. This exercise is excellent to help target hamstrings, glutes and core stability all in one movement pattern.
The exercise is done as follows: Lie on your back, bend your knees and keep your heels flat on the floor, feet shoulder width apart. Now drive up, lifting your bum off the ground and hold that position for a few seconds. Do three sets of 12 reps each. Concentrate on squeezing the glutes hard when you get to the top. Don't hyper-extend your back, lower all the way back down before repeating the next repetition. When this becomes too easy, you can progress to doing this with one leg at a time and also using a stability ball.
5. Core stability
By including a few exercises to target your core strength, you can increase the longevity and effectiveness of your training programme.
Exercises: There are endless possibilities, but if there was a ‘go to’ exercise in my opinion, you could never go wrong with planks and side planks. There are various ways to mix them up, such as with single leg variations. I am a huge fan of doing stability exercises on a BOSU ball (half Swiss ball). Think in terms of squats, single leg bridges, balancing on one foot, throwing a ball up against a wall and so on. I would suggest chatting to your biokineticist or a qualified trainer about core training options and what will work best for you.
Obviously, not all injuries are avoidable, but many are preventable. Add some of these exercises to your existing routine or as part of a form of cross-training to minimise injury and maximise performance. Good luck.
For more information or advice on injury proofing your legs as well as common sports injuries, email Schalk on