Dymatize-sponsored athlete and two-time Ms. Figure Olympia champion Erin Stern knows how to isolate every sweep and curve, as well as the technique secrets to turn any gym into a world-class physique headquarters.
From switching loading patterns for a better squat, to hacking the glute-ham raise on the Smith machine, these are her secrets to help you chisel your gorgeous gams to perfection!
According to Stern, the secret to isolating the glutes during a squat is to pull back instead of up against resistance. This is why she starts her leg workout by changing the loading pattern with cable squats. Instead of pushing straight up as you would with a normal barbell or free weight squat, cable squats allow you to push back as you lift the weight, putting greater tension in your glutes and hamstrings.
To get the most out of this exercise, Stern recommends loading up with more than your body weight on the stack. Sure it's heavy, but you can handle it—and it will actually help you squat better, as the stack provides a natural counterbalance to your bodyweight.
Stern also recommends taking the hips below the knees as you squat down.
"You'll be able to engage the glutes better if you go below parallel," she explains, "Again, push backward against the weight—this makes a big difference!"
Complete 3 sets of 10-12 reps on this exercise, ensuring your knees track over your toes and your back and arms remain straight throughout the movement.
Smith Machine-Assisted Glute-Ham Raise
If your gym doesn't have a dedicated glute-ham developer machine, no problem! This inventive pro can show you how to create your own using the Smith machine. Simply line the edge of the bench up with the top of your thighs so you can comfortably hinge at the hip, and load enough weight on the bar to hold your legs steady as you perform each rep.
The awkward setup doesn't faze Stern, who appreciates the glute and hamstring isolating benefits of the exercise.
"One of the best ways to grow and sculpt the glutes is by doing exercises that involve hip extension," says Stern, who prefers this exercise over cable leg lifts. "You can also point your toes straight or turn them out slightly to hit different areas of the glutes."
With this bodyweight exercise, complete 3 sets of 12-15 reps, maintaining a neutral spine as you hinge at the hips, and pointing your toes to minimize calf engagement.
Superset: Barbell Hack Squat with Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
Squats are already a quad-dominant exercise, but Stern kicks it up a notch by elevating the heels and taking the bar back behind the legs in this free-weight hack squat. By shifting weight forward on the toes, the quads take over much like they would in a sissy squat, dialing the muscle burn up to 11 and isolating those sweeps.
Isolating the quads on heavy lifts is a great way to build up and define the separate muscles in the front of your leg, and, according to Stern, this old-school favorite is also "more fun than tons of reps on the leg extension machine." If you don't have a wedge, just put your heels on a couple of plates and see for yourself how this unique exercise can completely change your quad game.
Of course, quads are only half of the recipe for leg development. Stern supersets her quad isolation with one of the big hitters of glute-and-ham-dominant exercises, the Romanian deadlift. Using dumbbells in place of the bar, Stern demonstrates how to keep constant tension in the back of the legs by pausing before the upper body reaches perpendicular. She also keeps the dumbbells on the sides of her legs rather than in front.
"Change the angle of the lift, and you can change the emphasis on a muscle completely!" she says.
For this superset, complete 10-12 reps of the heel-elevated barbell hack squat, then move immediately to the dumbbell RDL for the same number of reps with as little rest between exercises as possible. Rest between supersets, completing 3 total sets.
Donkey Calf Raise
If you long to show off round, sculpted calves, Stern's got you covered. The donkey calf raise is a great way to load up the weight, without using any help from your upper body. If your gym doesn't have a donkey calf raise machine, you can perform this exercise as a standing calf raise instead, or even approximate it on a Smith machine with the help of a spotter.
Position the balls of your feet on the step with your heels hanging over the edge. You have two separate muscle heads on the gastrocnemius, so try alternating toes in/toes out on each set to isolate each side. Although it's tempting to use momentum to push as much weight as you can, take your time and slow down, especially on the eccentric motion. Time under tension is the key to growing sleek, powerful calves.
Take your time as you perform 3 sets of 12-15 reps, slowing the movement down to remove any extra momentum.
Superset: Leg Curl with Single-Leg Extension
Stern wraps up this leg-sculpting routine with one more powerful superset—this time isolating the hamstrings and quads in her unique version of hamstring curls, along with leg extensions.
For the leg curl, use the prone machine and choose a weight you can completely control. Keep your thighs against the pad to prevent other muscle groups from assisting with the movement, and put your body weight into your hip bones. If you find that you're straining to stabilize yourself, lower the weight!
Stern offers a couple of insider tips to elevate this basic exercise to a hamstring-building essential. The first is to dorsiflex your feet before the concentric portion of the exercise, then switch to plantar flexion as you complete the eccentric portion. This helps to minimize calf involvement so the hamstrings do all the work.
She also recommends pausing for one or two seconds before lowering the weight down.
"A mid-rep pause helps strengthen the mind-muscle connection, and it eliminates momentum," she explains.
For the single-leg extension, Stern recommends choosing a challenging but manageable weight that "still allows you to keep your butt on the seat." As with the focused leg curl, these movements need to be slow and controlled.
"Jerking and shifting means you're using other muscles to help!" she says.
For this final superset, complete 15 reps of focused leg curls, then follow immediately with 10 reps of single-leg extensions on each side. Rest between supersets and complete 3 total rounds.
The key here is to start the leg extension with your non-dominant leg, since it will tire more quickly, then repeat the same number of reps with your dominant side. There are different muscles in your quads, so think about which muscles you want to target, and attempt to feel and see them working. Stern even recommends using your hand to press on the target muscles, which can help them activate.
Make no mistake—those small cues matter! As Stern tells her hundreds of thousands of followers, "Before you train, visualize your workout, how your muscles fire with each rep, and how your ideal physique looks. Before you know it, the visualized physique will be the same one that you see in the mirror!"