First Gear exercises

The exercises in this chapter, what we call First Gear exercises, are the building blocks to a stronger, and ultimately more functional, lower body. Functional may sound technical, but we're talking about making the muscles more efficient at lifestyle movements, that is, doing exactly what they're designed to do in your daily life, athletic or not.

First Gear exercises are a perfect starting point if you are inexperienced with strength training or if you are starting back on a strength training regimen. If you already train regularly, these exercises can be used to increase the overall intensity of your training sessions. If you find weight-bearing or standing exercises intolerable or difficult, there are a number of machine- supported exercises in this chapter that make perfect alternatives.

During any given exercise, muscles have more than one function, depending on the movement pattern. They work as (1) the mover (agonist) responsible for the muscle action, (2) the assistant to the mover (synergist) responsible for assisting the action and perform the same action as the mover, or (3) the stabilizer (stabilizer) supporting the surrounding joint to enable a specific action.

First Gear exercises will train your muscles to be efficient as movers and assistors as well as stabilizers, which will develop a toned musculature as well as improve coordination and torso stability. You won't just look fabulous; your body will function well, too. As you train, you will also become more aware of how your muscles respond and will be able to choose the most effective exercises to train them. Then, when stability training becomes the major focus of your individual program, taking you far beyond aesthetics, First Gear exercises will have helped to lay the foundation for more challenging programs and exercise progressions.

In some respects, the body functions like a bike chain. That is, your body is only as strong as its weakest link. In a bike chain, each link needs to be able to take the load, and if one link is weak, the chain will wear out and eventually break. Likewise, if your muscle strength is unbalanced, you'll be more prone to injuries. For example, the inner quadriceps muscle is primarily responsible for maintaining the integrity of the knee joint (i.e., knee cap tracking). If this muscle is weak, the outer quadriceps muscle will dominate and pull the kneecap outward, which can cause permanent wear and damage to the valuable knee cartilage. Not only is the alignment off, but this will also affect balance and proficiency at just about any activity or sport.

Although it is not possible to spot reduce, as mentioned in chapter 1, it is possible to improve muscle tone by strengthening muscles independently, which is exactly what First Gear exercises do. Engaging in isolated strength training techniques allows you to train your legs separately. In addition, unilateral exercises are the perfect solution for strength imbalances between dominant and nondominant limbs as well as opposing groups, as in the common case of one leg being stronger than the other. Once you've gained a sufficient amount of improved strength as well as muscle control and balance, it's important to progress to the next group of exercises, which integrate your muscles in a more functional and dynamic way, such as squats and lunges (see chapters 5 and 7).

There are four sections in this chapter, each containing seven or more exercises for the major muscles that make up the lower body: hips, quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings, and lower legs and calves. Within each section, the exercises are listed according to the most stable and isolated position, and then progress to the most challenging exercises. Each exercise is numbered for easy reference, which will come in handy for program design in chapters 9 and 10.

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