When you visit a historic, iconic gym like Muscle Beach Venice, in California, it can be tempting to simply stand along the sidelines and watch. At this gym, unlike anywhere else in the world, athletes are onstage 365 days a year, many doing crazy stunts on the pull-up bars or tossing around weights to earn applause from bystanders.
But on the flipside, the great physiques of Muscle Beach's past were forged through hard work, and hard workouts, on the simple machines and free weights along the boardwalk. And the best tribute you can give to bodybuilding history is to fearlessly step up and get under the bar yourself. That's the route that Gavin Matthews, a Muscle Beach Nutrition athlete, takes on his high-volume leg day.
There's nothing exotic in this workout. It's all time-tested movements like the leg press, hack squat, lunge, and squat, in a classic pre-exhaust model. You won't need more than 45-50 minutes to knock the whole thing out if you keep the rest periods short, but it'll be the most intense 45 minutes of your week.
Don't expect anyone to clap when you finish that last set of squats with a weight far below your max. But expect to feel like you've accomplished something, and like walking to the locker room is a serious challenge.
Here are the details.
"This is going to warm up all of our joints, our hips, our knees, going to get blood flow to the glutes, the hamstrings, and the quads," Matthews says.
But don't just toss on a plate and go to town for 20 reps. Matthews has a very specific protocol in mind.
Start by doing 5 reps with your feet wide on the platform and a slow, controlled pace of 3-second negatives and 3-second concentric contractions. Then, immediately move your feet to a neutral, hip-width stance and do another 5 reps focusing on 5-second negatives with explosive concentrics. Then, move your feet to the middle of the platform, in a narrow stance, and do the last 10 reps, focusing on keeping the muscle contracted the whole time. This is pure time under tension, so no locking out those knees!
Add weight each set if you can, and rest for no more than a minute between sets.
"Keep fighting through it and pump all that blood into that muscle," Matthews says. "That way, it'll warm you up for the next exercise."
Unlike the leg press, where you were alternating tempos and stances, you'll just hit your reps here with perfect, identical form.
"Keep a neutral to narrow stance, focusing more on pressing through the midline of our toes down to our heels, pushing all through our quads to pump them up," Matthews says. "Push through the ball of the foot. Keep the chest out and the back flat on the pad. Focus all your attention with the machine just on the muscle you're working."
As they get fatigued, many lifters find they end up on their tippy-toes toward the end of their sets on the hack squat, but Matthews says to focus on staying flat-footed. If these burn your quads like crazy, you're on the right track.
Walking Lunge, Stiff-Legged Deadlift, and Sumo Squat
Grab a pair of dumbbells, and don't expect to put them down for a while. You've done plenty of quad work, and now it's time to give the posterior chain some attention.
Your triset starts with walking lunges to the tune of 25 yards, 15-25 steps per leg, or just how much you can tolerate.
"Keep your chest up and back straight," Matthews says. "Don't let your knee go over your toes. Lunge all the way down, and do not stop."
When you're done, you'll transition immediately into the stiff-legged deadlifts.
"Keep your chest up as you hinge at the hips," he explains. "Push those hips back and let the dumbbells pull you toward the floor. And as you come up, you squeeze your glute and hamstrings. Hit that for about 10 reps, or until you really feel the burn."
When you hit that point, it's time to focus in even more directly on the glutes.
"Drop one dumbbell down, take a nice wide stance, and do sumo squats," Matthews says. "Point your toes out as far as you can. Chest up, back straight, as we go down as deep as possible where it feels comfortable, and we're squeezing our glutes to bring that weight back up."
Four rounds of that, and you might feel done. But you're not.
"The last thing that I like to bring into a high-intensity leg workout is doing perfect squats," Matthews says. "Take 60-75 percent of your max squat, and just get under it and see how you're feeling, and go almost to failure. I like to work my way up in each set, and on the last set, give it all I've got."
Why squats now? As Muscle Beach lifters have known for decades, a pre-exhaust approach allows you to get more stimulation from less weight—and that's a good thing.
"My philosophy on doing squats at the end of the workout is to reduce injury," Matthews says. "I don't have to go as heavy to stimulate that muscle. My muscles are already in that mind-muscle connection, and I can really focus on moving that 225 perfectly with all my quads, glutes, and everything involved."
Of course, this approach really only works if you can truly put your ego aside and give your legs what they want, not what they can't handle.
"We're not worried about how much the weight is, because for me, when I did 185-225, that felt like it was 405," Matthews says. "We're focusing on perfect form, so it's nice and controlled slow movement on the way down, and exploding on the way up."
After 3 hard-fought sets, you're ready for the showers, or even better, for hobbling over to the ocean for a dip. Eat big, rest up, and get ready to do it all again the next time around.