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How to build powerful legs?

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I herniated L4 and L5 discs in my back last year deadlifting and after some serious physio and a cortisone injection in my sciatic nerve things are now almost back to normal. I have started to Strength Train again but I'm not going to squat or deadlift for obvious reasons.


What are the best exercises to build powerful legs without Squats or Deadlifts?

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Sadly, few things compare to the squat for building mass and power. And, with disc issues (if they haven't been resolved via decompression or other means), you'll definitely want to avoid any leg pressing as that's the surest way to cause undue stress on affected vertebrae.


To ask, do you have access to a reverse hyperextension machine? With proper use of one and some good rehab, you may be able to squat and deadlift again one day (lots of guys out there in powerlifting who were told to never train again after similar injuries who came back stronger than ever), but they're not always easy to find. I swear by the decompression treatments I had done as the only reason I can squat and deadlift again, but they're expensive and also not always easy to come by.


First thing I'd recommend is a belt squat setup like the one from IronMind. I have one, bought it when my back was really bad, it did allow me to squat light weight for high reps with zero disc pain or stress, but it takes a bit to get used to. Here's a link to one:




If you have to make do without anything extra, I'd suggest lots of walking lunges with dumbbells in your hands to keep from any added back strain, perhaps some plyometrics for explosive power, and the usual old leg extensions and hamstring curls. If you have to avoid compression then there's not a whole lot more than some of the mediocre things that exist that won't exacerbate pre-existing injuries, but something is better than nothing.


The hip belt squats with something like the IronMind product would allow you to definitely work hard enough to build some good size and strength back, probably what I'd recommend most for the time being. And, of course, if you can find a good reverse hyperextension machine to use (must be a good one with a natural ROM, not a poor knock-off that feels unnatural), or, if you can try a long round of decompression treatments (at least 20 sessions, 30 is preferable), you might find those things to be life-changing as well for helping your back issues to practically be gone over time.


Wish I had more recommendations for you, just figured I'd share what I've learned these past few years with my own L5-L7 issues!

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Thanks for the great response.


I will have to have a look into decompression methods the next time that I go to my physio as frankly I have ever heard of it. I have been doing a lot of Hindu squats and lunges at the moment and I'm as sore as hell as a result. The gym that I'm a member of has an extensive array of machines and I think that they have a reverse hyper extension machine so I will check it out.


The belt looks like the way forward - I will have to pick one up.

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You'll find a lot out there for mixed thoughts on decompression - some people want to label it as quackery (if that were the case, though, why is decompression via traction standard procedure for those hospitalized with back issues?), others like myself consider it a life-saver from our experiences. You'll want to look for someone with the DRX-9000 spinal decompression machine, it's a massive contraption and it feels weird getting strapped into it (and the feel of waves of tension for traction at varying poundages), I started to see pain reducing after about 6 treatments, and by the 20th, I was 90% pain-free, 100% by the 30th and final session. Been able to deadlift in the low 400s again and am able to squat about 400 as well, all with no pain or recurrence of my disc issues, so I'll always be a fan of decompression treatments. Definitely worth a look, but as noted, it doesn't work immediately, you would need to commit to a fairly long round of treatments to really get the full benefit. Hope this helps a bit!

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I'm in a very similar situation - I really screwed up my L4/5 area about 4 years ago & have had to completely change the way I work out. I don't deadlift, squat, bench or overhead press as these movements all really aggrevate my back.


I second the above recommendation for the Ironmind hip squat belt - not cheap but a worthwhile investment. Yes getting the hang of the movement can be tricky (requires serious balance) & finding the right set up for you can be a pain (I've tried 3 or 4 different methods with the belt & have now settled on just threading plates onto the belt strap and then squatting between between 2 elevated step aerobic platforms).


I also love walking dumbell lunges, although be careful to begin with because although there is a lot less spinal loading then if you had a barbell across your back your core will still be working hard with this exercise. Lunges really hit the hams/glutes hard if you do long strides so this will also help compensate for lack of deadlifts. Glute ham raises (GHR) are another excellent posterior chain exercise.


Besides hip squats, walking lunges & GHRs, my other go-to exercise for legs is Bulgarian split squats using dumbells - a really brutal exercise where you don't need much weight to generate serious resistance.


As Veganessentials said be very careful with the leg press; I avoid it completely as, contrary to popular belief, this exercise causes massive spinal loading.


Personally I have no aspiration to barbell squat or deadlift again as I'm not a powerlifter, can work around things easily enough & basically don't want to risk a serious injury. I'm bigger & stronger now than I was when using a barbell-based workout; it can be done so keep positive & don't give up


Edited to add: Sprints are also a fantastic exercise for leg strength, but they are incredibly stressful on the body so don't do them unless you're well warmed up & pain-free.

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