Working the Legs: Functional Exercises versus Gym Training


Learn why running, biking, swimming, and jump roping work the legs just as well as, if not better than, classic strength training exercises.

Many well-informed exercise enthusiasts will make a point to include leg exercises. Barbell squats, hamstring curls, leg presses, deadlifts, lunges, and box jumps are among the popular ways to maintain balance between upper and lower body.

What is Functional Training?

Yet, there are those who prefer to tone the lower body through functional activities such as running, biking, jump roping, or swimming. After all, the most practical use for strong legs is personal transportation.

Having the stamina to jog to Chipotle during lunch hour is a lot more useful than squatting 300 lbs. Besides, even the most versatile gym exercises don’t perfectly mimic what one’s legs naturally undergo in day-to-day life.

Benefits of Functional Training

Football and/or track-style speed drills can be a more exciting way to build explosive power than heavy lifting. Furthermore, getting some fresh air with a trail run sure beats the staleness of hours on a stair-stepper.

In addition to curbing boredom, putting in the leg exercise outside the gym can make visits more enjoyable. People can stop feeling guilty about only working the upper body because they’ve already banked in their leg exercise. Running, swimming, biking, or jump roping will also have taken care of the need to hit the cardio machines.

Lastly, it’s much better to have function over form than the other way around. Imagine someone with a great built who gets winded after a few minutes of jumping rope or a workout animal complaining after kicking 7 laps with a flotation board. The Army Physical Fitness Test, the epitome of “no nonesense”, assesses one’s 2-mile run but does not care a bit about how many consecutive jump squats one can perform.

Doesn’t Strength Training Tone Better Though?

Ultimately, the aforementioned activities are just as good as gym exercises for firming the legs. The main advantage of strength training is the ability to have something to chisel every little muscle group. The abs and upper body are comprised of many distinct muscles and therefore benefit greatly from this specificity.

On the other hand, the legs have fewer and less distinct, but larger, muscle groups. General toning is the only thing that can really be done. That is why jump roping will shape the calves just as well as heel raises would. The only thing functional activities can’t account for is a bodybuilder’s tree trunk legs. However, that definitely isn’t what the general population is looking for.

Combining the Best of Both Worlds

What about combining the best of both worlds? Merging the exercises of the outdoorsman with those of the gym guru? That is fine so long as the gym exercises don’t leave one tired for the functional activities.

For instance, doing so many alternating jumping lunges that one’s biking trip becomes significantly shorter is not worth it. After all, competence at performing tasks one will use in real life should be a higher priority than going all out on relatively one-dimensional gym moves.


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