Training your Legs: Why Leg Workouts Are So Painful But Necessary

Training your Legs: Why Leg Workouts Are So Painful But Necessary

Training Legs

There is just no way to deny it. We all HATE training legs. We hate and dread it to the point that a large majority of weight trainers and gym enthusiasts skip training legs altogether. You hear every possible excuse in the book. "My legs are already big enough, I do running/cycling for my legs, I have bad knees or joint problems etc."

leg training painful

I get it, trust me. This dread and apprehension are all with very good reason. Training your legs are downright painful and exhausting. And not the kind of pain and exhaustion you experience with any other body part. The pain of doing a proper set of squats or leg presses feels do not just unbearable, it feels like it travels up through your entire body and into your nervous system. You start feeling unable to catch your breath, you lungs burn and your whole body feels shaky.

Just a quick remark. For those of you loving your leg workouts, I acknowledge you and admire your dedication. I just can say with all honesty, in my almost 30 years of working out, I never met anyone who enjoyed their leg workouts in anyway. I have read bodybuilding magazines where some professionals claim to enjoy exercising their legs and even saw it mentioned on some online forums and blogs. But trust me, you are part of a very small minority, so count yourself lucky.

Having said all of the above, let me be the first here to put up my hand and acknowledge that I am one of many weight trainers who have been neglecting my legs (OK, skip altogether) for the better part of my gym career. It is only over the last 10 years that I started training legs seriously. And I am still playing catch-up. 

Why Leg Training Is So Painful And Exhausting

To be able to understand why we dread it so much, why it is so painful and a huge percentage of lifters avoid it altogther, we need to understand why this is:

1. Your Legs are by far the biggest muscle group in the body

leg muscles

Made up by 4 muscles that form the quadriceps at the front of your legs and the 3 muscles that form the hamstrings at the back of your legs, and including your glute muscles - all the muscles involved in training your legs is by far the biggest collection of muscles in body used for training legs.

It should come as no surprise then, that the best leg exercises (e.g. squats and leg presses) utilizes all these muscle groups at the same time. This explains the pain that a felt much more intensely than training other body parts. A lot more muscle fibres, and nerves connected to the central nervous system gets recruited, resulting in the intense pain experienced.

2. The demands on oxygen and recuperation

Another direct result of the sheer size of your leg muscles and its demand on your body, is the effect it has on your breathing and your capability to recuperate.


As you exercise the, the oxygen in your blood is used to help fuel and supply your muscles with energy. The oxygen you inhale into your lungs, get carried by a multitude of arteries in your body to the specific muscles required. Since your leg muscles require such a tremendous amount of muscle fibre activation, the oxygen demands on your body is extremely high, often to the point where you start experiencing a deficit in oxygen supply. The stress it places on your lungs make you feel severely out of breath very quickly. The accompanying feeling of you "lungs burning" are clear symptoms of this stress.

Your difficulty in recuperating is the second result directly caused by the demands of your leg muscles on your body. Again the sheer volume of muscle fibres that gets recruited, necessitates it to dig a lot deeper into your energy reserves than other muscle groups would. If you use the same rest period between sets that you do while exercising smaller muscles, you will find that your leg muscles are are still tired and not nearly fully recuperated for the next set. Sometimes the level of exhaustion is so severe that some athletes actually experience a feeling nausea  after an intense set.

If you never trained your legs with heavy weights and with great intensity before, you should start getting a clear picture as to why so many people dread training legs or avoid it completely. The goal of this section is not to discourage you at all, but to help you understand why you may find training your legs so difficult, and to explain the experience to anyone who haven't experienced the rigors of training legs properly before.      

The Importance Of Training Legs

As much as I emphasize with everyone going through this pain and understand completely why so many athletes go to great lengths to avoid leg training altogether, I have to stress that not training your legs is not an option. Not if you want to be successful and reach your goals.

The good news is that there is a lot you can do to turn leg day into a much more positive experience and actually start enjoying it, especially when you start seeing consistent results, but more on that later. It is important to realize why training your legs is so important.

1. Increase in testosterone and growth hormone release

This on its own may be reason enough to focus more on leg training. Doing heavy compound leg movements like squats and leg presses have shown to increase the release of testosterone and growth hormone. This benefits muscle growth and fat loss throughout the entire body, and not just your legs.

2. Increased overall strength

Increasing you lower body strength promotes strength in your upper body as well. For example, the support that your legs provide to movements like the bench press, with your legs helping to stabilize the body and helps to "drive the weight up". Exercises like squats and dead-lifts also strengthens not just your legs, but lower back and hip muscles as well. This provides tremendous support for performing shoulder exercises while sitting or standing up, allowing to you to manage heavier weights than you would without this assistance.

3. Symmetry

No doubt most of you would have seen some cartoon images in bodybuilding and fitness magazines, depicting guys with huge muscular upper bodies, but pencil thin (or chicken legs). This a running joke among the serious bodybuilding community, but sadly portrays a very stark reality. Even in the newer men's physique competitions, the lack of proper leg development is quite widespread.

It obviously makes your whole body look out of proportion. Especially among men, we try and hide under sweatpants and full length pants, reasoning that nobody will see it anyway. The problem is we see it ourselves and even if we don't want to admit, psychologically it creates a negative self-image of your physique. As we create a stronger upper body, we can also physically feel how much weaker and lagging our legs are in comparison. In the long term this has a very detrimental effect on your motivation and goals.

4. Mental Strength

As you motivate yourself and build the will and determination to commit to and finish your leg workouts, you automatically start to develop a much stronger will power and mental strength. You will see its effect as your other workouts seem to get that much easier and less taxing on your body, allowing to push that much harder. A very strong mindset or mental fortitude is a very precious asset to posses.

How You Can Stay Committed Training Your Legs

leg press

It is all good and well that we know all the benefits of leg training and how crucial it actually is. But that doesn't take away from the fact that it still is so tough and painful. Luckily there is good news. Quite few things can be done to make the experience a lot more positive.

I think its very important to honest here: No matter what you do, your leg workouts will always be painful, exhausting and leave you sore to greater or lesser extent. Having said that, ask yourself, "What in life really worth it and truly creates a lasting sense of accomplishment, comes without hard work, sacrifice and moments of discomfort?

Like I said, there are things you can to make the whole experience a lot less painful and dreaded. Two of them focus on the mental aspect and two on the physical aspect:

1. Confronting the short and long term consequences of skipping leg training on your mindset and confidence.

It is time to be brutally honest with yourself. You think you are fooling other people by not training legs. You argue that "it is not important to you" and "nobody will see it anyway". By using these among other excuses to justify your unwillingness to train legs, you are only fooling yourself. In all honesty this "nagging awareness"  is and always will be there subconsciously, popping up every now and then to remind you of what you're neglecting.

If you are even just slightly serious about getting in shape and building an aesthetically pleasing body, you will be well aware of the following habits and scenarios. You always feel the need to cover up your legs with long pants. Whether at work, in the gym, at home and especially when going to the beach or public swimming pool in boiling hot weather, exposing your skinny "chicken legs" becomes a harrowing prospect, that needs to be avoided at all costs. You may also relate to watching other weight-lifters and bodybuilders slaving away doing leg presses or squats with already well shaped muscular legs, with sometimes more than a slight feeling of unease and embarrassment or even guilt.

All these scenarios is a long way of painting a picture that points to one thing. This decision will always haunt and bother you to some extent. You will always be aware of this imbalance between your upper body and legs. And just like anything else you consciously or subconsciously try to suppress, it can play havoc on your confidence and the effectiveness of your training overall. Yes, for many readers this my sound like a complete overstatement  and "making a mountain out of a mole heap", but for anyone involved in training their bodies, this a very stark reality.

Then where is the silver lining, you will ask. After all, isn't this section suppose to help make training your legs easier. A resounding yes, but I had to bring you to this point to highlight the solution. The solution may sound very simple, obvious and feel like a bit anticlimax. It's not.

Simply start, and promise yourself that you will allow yourself three leg sessions. Let me explain. After your first leg workout, you will be exhausted. If done properly and for the first time, the experience will be especially painful and exhausting compared to other body parts. This first experience is what put a lot of weight trainers off from leg training altogether. For 2-3 days after your workout you will experience quite an intense muscle soreness. Sitting down, getting up and even walking my be a challenge. This experience normally cements the decision not to train legs ever again for anybody who was considering quitting immediately after the workout. Just remember now that you promised yourself you are going to do this three times. Now it is up to you stick to your promise you made yourself. Nobody but you can hold you to it.

Now, a couple of things are going to happen over the next three weeks (or however long your leg workouts are spaced apart). Your second leg workout may feel just as painful as the first one, but I can almost guarantee you with almost 100% certainty that the soreness you will experience over next few days will be less and not last that long. On your third session, you will definitely feel a difference. Your leg muscles will still get sore, but that intense pain will have subsided quite a lot, and you will find your leg muscles to be a lot more stable and comfortable under the weights. Muscle soreness over the next couple of day will now already feel a lot less painful than after the first 2 workouts.

So what exactly happened?

  1. You learned you have the mental strength to make it through multiple workouts, knowing how painful it can be. 
  2. You now know it gets easier with each workout. (Yes, it will reach a point where it will always be sore during and after your workouts, but nearly as painful and exhausting as your first three workouts.) 
  3. You also would have noticed that your leg muscles do adapt and adapt rather quickly. This means sooner, rather than later you will see results, which will give your willpower and mental strength a huge boost.

This brings me to my second point.

2. Weighing up the advantage of continuing what you started vs giving up and having to put you through the same hell again.

You now have a choice. You have just finished going through the worst part of starting your leg training, and in three sessions, already created a bit of a habit. You even proved to yourself you have the willpower to finish three leg workouts in a row.

You can continue and build on this good start, knowing it will only get more rewarding over time as the results starts accumulating. There will always be that small nagging voice telling you that this is just too painful and too much work. But having the knowledge that if you stop now, you will always have that dent in your confidence for the rest of your "training career", as well as the fact that you will have to start all over and put yourself through all the initial pain and soreness again in the future, can serve as enough of a detergent to keep on training.

3. Lighten the load and increase your repetitions

Especially with power-lifters, but also bodybuilders who prefer training with heavy weights, you see them battling and grunting to get a few reps out with an incredible heavy weight. It is this type of training that causes the pain experienced to be especially excruciating, sometimes to the point of being nauseating. 

The good news is that training legs with a lighter load and with a slightly higher rep range (up to 16) has shown to be more effective in a lot of instances than the extreme heavy weights and low repetitions some weightlifters use. This does not mean you don't have to push yourself, but it wont be nearly as painful as it will be when trying to force yourself to do 6 repetitions with a weight so heavy that you can barely manage 2 reps.

4. Managing an easing the dreaded DOMS

The what!? Don't feel bad, for anyone who is not a seasoned bodybuilder, physique competitor of gym enthusiastic this term will sound very foreign. DOMS is just an abbreviation for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness. This is the term used to describe the muscle soreness you experience for days after your leg workout.


There are many ways and means by which athletes try and reduce the DOMS experience or try and eliminate it together. From taking multiple ice baths, going for deep tissue massages to taking a cocktail of anti-oxidants to help bind the free radicals and reduce the lactic acid that is causing all of this discomfort, are used with varying degrees of success.

The most effective way of quickly reducing this pain though, is the one you won't want to use. It is called a "feeder workout". A day after your leg workout when your muscles start getting sore, get yourself back in the gym for five minutes, five minutes only. What you will be doing is one leg exercise of your choosing and use HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) to quickly power and bulldoze through your pain. Some people prefer using the actual exercises they used for the original workout, but exercise machines like stationary bikes, orbital trainers and even treadmills can be used. If you happen to own one of these, you can even do this from the comfort of your own home.

So, for 5 minutes you will just have to be brave and tough it out. Use a relatively low setting and start peddling lightly (basically spinning). After 30 seconds start peddling as hard and fast as you can for another 30 seconds. You then return to just lightly peddling for 30 seconds before doing another high-intensity 30 seconds. You continue this for five minutes and you're done.

Yes, the experience is very painful and for a short period you will just have to clench your teeth and be brave. You will be pleasantly surprised how this short workout will lesson the amount of pain you experience afterwards and how quickly it disappears within a day or two. Compare that to be in pain and discomfort for two to three days after your workout. It is your decision, but I would bet 5 minutes is a very small price to pay for days of relieve afterwards.

As a further incentive, also remember that this small "feeder workout" have other benefits as well. Not only does it help flush out the free radicals and reduce the buildup of lactic acid on your muscles, causing the perceived pain to be drastically reduced. It also flushes your muscles with a much needed fresh supply of nutrient rich blood, speeding up the recovery process. Flushing out the free radicals that cause so much harm to your muscles, means that the damage and breakdown in your muscles get reduced significantly as well. I call this a win-win situation. 

And that does it for leg workouts. I realized I have gone on a lot longer than expected and went into a lot of tedious detail at certain points. I feel it is important however, to give you a lot more detail than normal, that you can better relate to and better understand certain scenarios and solutions.

I hope you found this article helpful and enlightening. I know its a tough issue, but also know you are not alone in this battle!

As always, feel free to leave me a comment or suggestion, and remember to join my  mailing list  to get informed whenever a new article is released, as well as helpful hints & tips and news on new developments.

Until next time, take care and let me know if there a specific new topic you would like me to discuss.


About the Author

Wessel Wessels owns his online web and social media design company. However, with nearly 30 years experience in the fitness industry, working out and staying in shape have always been a big passion. After a life-altering close shave with cancer, this experience helped him get back into shape and regain his health. He is now dedicated to helping men and women of all ages to get fit and in shape, and promote a healthy lifestyle.

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