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How to Build Strong Legs and Healthy Knees
Tips to balance the strength and muscular development of the lower legs
6/17/2011 1:10:23 PM
The vastus medialis oblique (VMO) is a quadriceps muscle that crosses the knee and is shaped like a teardrop. Photo:SarcevIn the early days of modern bodybuilding, symmetry was king. You had Steve Reeves in the ’60s, Frank Zane in the ’70s, Lee Haney in the ’80s and Lee Labrada in the ’90s. But in recent years mass monsters such as Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler, who possess arms that measure larger than their head circumference, have dominated professional bodybuilding. Bigger is better, and the result is a freak show that has affected the mainstream popularity of the sport. But symmetry is not just a problem in bodybuilding.
 
In powerlifting, the goal in recent years has been to find lifting techniques that enable the athlete to lift the most weight in the shortest distance. Creating a bigger arch on the bench press and using ballet slippers on the deadlift are two examples of methods that reduce the distance a barbell travels, but it’s the squat that has gone through the most dramatic transformation.
 
Due to continually evolving supportive equipment and lenient rules regarding how much lifters must bend their knees, the squat has evolved into a type of wide-stance good morning that minimizes the use of the quads – in effect, powerlifters have tried to take the legs out of the squat! As a result of overemphasis on this type of squatting technique, asymmetrical development (or what I refer to as structural imbalances) occur in the quads, which can increase the risk of overuse injuries. There’s more.
 
In an attempt to have “sport specific” workouts, strength coaches often design programs that do not work all the muscles throughout a full range of motion. For example, a volleyball player or figure skater would focus on plyometrics and would overload at just the end portion of the squat – the result is that the athlete improves their jumping power with little increase in muscle bulk, resulting in supposedly higher vertical jumps. Nice idea, but the muscle imbalances that occur with this type of training increase the risk of knee tendinitis – in fact, before I began working with the Canadian National Volleyball Team, every single athlete on the team had jumper’s knee. Further, such training is one reason we are seeing such a disturbing increase in ACL injuries in women.
 
As my contribution towards correcting all three of these aforementioned muscle imbalances, I will present an approach to work the vastus medialis oblique (VMO). To paraphrase American weightlifting great Norm Schemansky, “Working the VMO will not only make an athlete look good but also do good!”
 
The VMO is a quadriceps muscle that is shaped like a teardrop. The muscle crosses the knee and thus is essential for knee stability, which is why I pay considerable attention in my PICP Level 2 course on strength tests for this muscle and specific exercises to develop it.
 
When you study the development of athletes who seldom bend their knees to parallel, such as volleyball players, you find that although they often possess considerable mass in their upper thighs, their VMO development is lacking. And in the iron game sports, weightlifters (who squat all the way down and even bounce out of the bottom position) have much better development of the vastus medialis than powerlifters have. Likewise, bodybuilder Tom Platz, who did 23 rock-bottom squats with 539 pounds (in an exhibition in Germany in 1993 with over 10,000 cheering him on), had outrageous VMO development on thighs that are considered the best of all time.
 
Training for Teardrops
If squats are the mainstay of your leg training routine, as they should be, and you want to increase the recruitment of the VMO, you have the choice of (a) using a specific foot position, (b) overloading the bottom position or (c) using both options.
 
Leg muscle recruitment patterns are affected by mechano-receptors on the bottom surface of the feet, which are highly sensitive to pressure and as such are involved in proprioception. Placing the majority of the load on the ball of the foot will maximize recruitment of the VMO. This is best accomplished by using a narrow stance and moving the center of gravity of the body forward by elevating the heels with an appropriate object. At the Poliquin Strength Institute I use portable angled boxes that are extremely stable and comfortable because the entire foot rests on the board.
 
Another important concept to increase the recruitment of the VMO is to perform more work in the bottom position of the squat. This concept is apparently lost on the makers of those Buns of Lead videos. You will increase the recruitment of the VMO, because the VMO is responsible, along with the hamstrings, for getting you out of the bottom position.
 
Tony Parra is a Level 5 PICP coach who rehabilitated his knee injuries with full squats.Knee injuries are fairly common in American athletes. I suspect strongly that a major cause is the improper ratio of strength among all heads of the quadriceps and the hamstrings. This disturbed strength ratio comes from all the poor-range squats we see today (coming from strength coaches obsessed with claiming big numbers for their squads) and many partial movements such as hang power cleans. Further, according to sport scientist Andrew Fry, long-term use of partial squats can decrease proprioception and flexibility. And by the way, within just two months of specialized work with exercises that focused on the VMO, only one of those Canadian volleyball players still had jumper’s knee – and her work ethic was suspect.
 
To develop the vastus medialis muscle there are two exercises I’ve used with my Olympic athletes that you may want to try:

Cyclist Squats. This is a type of squat used by Olympic level cyclists who attain world record performances. In this variation of the back squat, you use a board to rest your heels on in a narrow stance (4 to 6 inches between the heels). The best type of board for this is wedged, so as to minimize the pressure on the arch of the foot. The higher the wedge, the more recruitment of the VMO you will get. You will also find that you will squat more upright when using the wedged board, so less recruitment will occur in the gluteal muscles. At the Poliquin Strength Institute I’ve had special wedges with a nonslip surface made for this purpose. When using a wedge the balance is different compared to regular squats, so make certain to ease into it by using more warm-up sets than you normally perform.
 
One and a Quarter Squats. This exercise is used in training Olympic skiers to offset their enormous upper quad development and prepare their knees for the risky situations they get into. Squat down for a 5-second count until you hit bottom position, come up a quarter of the way at a slow and deliberate pace, go back all the way down under control until the hamstrings cover the calves, and then come up until your knees are short of lock-out. That consists of one rep.

As far as reps and sets are concerned, 5 sets of 6-8 reps should do the trick. These relatively lower reps are used because the VMO has a higher fast-twitch fiber makeup than the other heads of the quadriceps. Give each of these leg exercises a fair try and I’m sure you’ll be pleased with your newfound symmetry.
 
 
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