Developing Leg Strength for Weightlifting
Following the removal of the press after the 1972 olympics, weightlifting has been an extremely lower body dominant sport. Put simply, if you want to maximize the amount of weight that you can snatch, clean and jerk, you need to be developing your leg strength as much as possible. With that said, you also need to be developing your leg strength in a way that actually carries over to the sport as much as possible. So you need to consider things like biomechanics, movement speeds and interference. This guide is written to be as conclusive as possible on the topic, so that you can have the best possible chance of maximising your results. So let's jump into it...
First Things First - How Strong Do Your Legs ACTUALLY Need to Be for Weightlifting?
Very. The answer is very strong. At the elite level, we're talking 2.5x bodyweight squats, ideally more. If we were to pick 3 well-known, dominant lifters from various parts of the world...
Lu Xiaojun - 77/81kg Lifter - Back Squat 305kg - Front Squat 275kg
Lidia Valentin - 75/81kg Lifter - Back Squat 200kg
Lasha Talakhadze - 109+Kg lifter - Back Squat Unknown, but being that we've regularly seen him perform 5 sets of 2 or 3 incredibly easy reps at 285kg at what looks like RPE 6, it's safe to say that his max would be 350kg+
But how do you make this information useful to you? > Key Metrics We want to aim for a back squat that's 125-135% of our clean and jerk And a front squat that is about 80-90% of our back squat. So if you want to clean and jerk 150kg, you should be looking to achieve something in the region of back squat 200kg, front squat 170kg. Of course, this will vary with weightlifting skill, anthropometrics, athleticism etc, but it's a good general guideline to work from.
Do You Need to Squat For Weightlifting Leg Strength?
Strictly speaking, you do not need to squat at all in order to develop leg strength. You have exercises like leg presses, lunges, machine hack squats, step-ups and leg extensions that all develop leg strength fantastically. The problem comes with specificity. None of these other movements is as specific to the sport of weightlifting. The machine-based movements don't provide the same balance and movement demands. Whilst the lunges and step-ups are unilateral (1 leg at a time) so don't develop the same bilateral (2 legged) strength that squats do. Hypothetically some combination of these movements could work very well, and they've been used as accessories by various coaches (See Pendlay below) but I say hypothetically because as far as I know, no weightlifting coach in the world has tried removing squats from a programme entirely. Squats have been proven to work for decades, and it's a big risk to take them out without a damn good reason.
Recommended Methods to Develop Leg Strength for Weightlifting
This is the bit you're here for right? Tangible, specific things that you can put into your training and use to make progress. The good news is that lots of different methods work. The tricky bit is that they work differently for different people and different times in their training career. So we need to break things down into groups.
Beginners i.e. anyone that can recover, adapt and improve session to session.
Since you can recover and adapt session to session, you'd be crazy to use any complex progression models. A simple linear progression with something like 3 sets of 5 reps per workout should be more than enough to develop leg strength. For example... Monday: 3x5 @ 80kg
Wednesday: 3x5 @ 82.5kg
Friday: 3x5 @ 85kg
Intermediates i.e. anyone that can no longer progress session to session. You need to add a little extra stress, and allow for a little extra recovery time in order to keep developing leg strength. A great way to do this is with the texas method. Monday: 5x5 @ RPE 7 (ish) Wednesday: 2x5 at RPE 5 Friday: 5 rep max
Advanced i.e. anyone that can no longer progress on a weekly basis You need even more stress, and even more recovery time to make progress. This is where more complex periodised programming becomes essential. Realistically speaking, there are lots of ways to approach this, and it will heavily depend on you learning what works for you over time. However, I want to give you something more concrete, so... Week 1: 2 sessions of 5x5 @ RPE 7 (ish)
Week 2: 2 sessions of 3x5 @ RPE 8-9 Week 3: 1 light session then 1 session of 5 rep max This is a classic accumulation, intensification, realisation phasic structure. The more advanced you become, the longer each phase becomes until eventually each you'll be working for 12-16 weeks before hitting another PR.
Methods that MIGHT work, But Aren't Recommended
Squat Every Day - It might work for a while, but it's a fairly miserable experience and you'll eventually hit a wall of adaptive resistance. For more on this, check out my review of the Bulgarian weightlifting system. Smolov - 4 times per week high volume squatting. Typically this interferes with weightlifting training to such a degree as to make it unrealistic. It's also very hard to recover from, even for young athletes with a lot of free time. 'Russian Style' Very Low-Intensity Approaches. Some people might get stronger squatting 3 sets of 3 at 70% 3 times per week. Chances are, you're not one of them. For most natural lifters, these types of programmes just don't provide enough overload for progress to occur.
To develop leg strength for weightlifting focus on back and front squats because of their greater carryover to the sport.
Occasionally supplement squats with movements like lunges, step-ups and leg presses.
Use a progression appropriate to your training level (beginner, intermediate, advanced)
Steer clear of programmes that don't follow solid principles of training.
Hopefully, that gives you a good understanding of what you need to do to develop leg strength for weightlifting. And as always, if you want a programme and coach that you can trust to help you reach your weightlifting goals, all you need to do is book in for a quick chat with me right here. 'Til Next Time Alex