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  • Writer's pictureJosh

Forget Leg Day, Kicking Alone can Create Powerful Legs

Updated: Nov 19, 2023

difficult squat

Leg day, potentially the two most feared words in any modern gym.

I've had days where I leave work after a full shift, head straight to the gym as my goals demand, and sit in my car for 30 minutes trying to find the energy to perform a leg day.

Yes, I wanted to have stronger legs and no, I certainly didn't want to be one of those gym rats with chiseled shoulders popping out of the sides of my tank top but scrawny chicken legs peeping out of the legs of my shorts.

But I would sit in the car because I knew what I was going to do to myself once I got in there and I knew it was going to take more pre-workout than anyone should probably consume to get it done.

I would grind through 3-5 sets of heavy squats, 3-5 sets of heavy deadlifts, and toss in a few dozen walking lunges, some leg curls and maybe use up what little energy and dignity I have left on some shaky bulgerian split squats.

It did build leg strength and my legs did get bigger, but I walked funny for 48 hours and it hurt to sit on the toilet for about the same amount of time.

So while I don't have anything against these strength training exercises, I do believe that “leg day” in it's modern form is often not enjoyable and often not great at increasing the actual usability of the legs.

Luckily I've discovered many alternative routes over the years for strengthening the legs with most of them being less taxing and for me at least, a lot more fun.

Alternative Leg Training

This article is going to primarily focus on kick training but just to illustrate the efficacy of some leg day alternatives I'm going to list a few of the marvelous results I've witnessed from less conventional methods.

  • I know an NFL athlete with massive legs and incredibly explosive strength and agility who gave up weighted training in college. Instead he performs agility drills, some calisthenics, an assortment of box jumps and of course plays football. He trains this way 4-5 days a week and stopped doing weights because it left him too zapped to properly perform on the field.

  • I've trained with parkour and acrobatic athletes who were able to deadlift 400 pounds the very first time they touched a barbell. Their only actual training was skill training for their favorite activities. This seems to work because constant jumping and landing creates massive forces that the legs have to create and absorb, and often time these forces are much more than the same person could ever hope to lift.

  • I stopped lifting for nearly a year out of high school and simply did stair runs and interval sprints. When I came back to the gym with a friend for the first time in a year, my squat had gone up 30 pounds and it felt more effortless than ever.

  • And finally, I have been kicked literally off my feet by Muay Thai fighters who have never weight trained in their lives. I've also seen those same fighters kick through baseball bats with their shins, a feat which takes not just hardened shin bones but also tremendous strength and explosiveness.

And this is only what I've seen in my relatively short life, I imagine the examples of tremendous leg strength and conditioning outside of traditional lifting are near endless.

Enter the Art of Kicking

side kick anatomy

Most people who begin kicking are introduced to it through a martial arts class of some kind, often in a karate or teakwondo class as a child or maybe a kick boxing or MMA class as a young adult. In the beginning the main goal is simply to learn the basic movements of the skill. Like most things, learning kicking is difficult in the beginning, for adult learners it's like trying to learn to walk for the first time at age 22.

Soon however, the basic movement language of kicks is learned and the aspiring martial artist can begin increasing the intensity and quantity of kicks in every practice. The legs quickly become conditioned to the increased demands by growing stronger, just as in weight lifting.

However, unlike lifting, the legs also begin adapting in other ways. Here is a short list of some of the adaptations caused by a consistent kicking routine.

#1. Motor Control- It takes a lot of muscle control to be able to stand on one foot while striking an object with your other leg. Especially if you explore the wide range of kicks available to the human body. Most people never experience anything more complex than kicking a ball, but in martial arts there are hundreds of kicking patterns and endless scenarios in which to try and apply them.

The end result of consistent kick training is a type of leg awareness and control that is almost non existent outside of martial artists and soccer players. You begin to feel and know your feet and legs as a real part of you, and not just some appendages below you which take you from one place to another.

#2. Balance- Kicking requires one leg to be flying through the air, which means the other leg is left on the ground with the job of supporting the entire body above it. And on top of this demand, the body is also rapidly moving and attempting to generate force against another object, often a moving object.

This creates superb balance as a necessity, especially in those who make sparring drills a regular part of their training. Trying to hit a moving target while balancing on one leg is more difficult than any balance training tool I've come across in the past.

#3. Stability- Kicking almost always involves rotation through the legs, hips, and torso. This generates a lot of torque and momentum which the standing leg must contend with. In the beginning this is mostly done through skill and awareness, learning to stand and move in ways that don't compromise the joints and allow for maximum stability.

However, over time the body adapts to the demands of kicking and begins to develop more muscle and tendon strength, helping to stabilize the legs, hips and core. This is a prerequisite to developing power in kicks and as stability grows and allows for more power, the increased power puts more demands on the stability of the joints. This cycle creates one of the most natural and obvious progressions in stability I've ever experienced.

#4. Mobility- With the exception of leg kicks, most kick training is going to really stretch the hips and legs. In fact the ability to kick to head height requires near splits level flexibility for some people.

However, whereas static stretching can take years upon years to really make a difference, I find progressive kick training creates large jumps in mobility rather quickly. That's not to say static stretching is unnecessary or that martial artists don't use it because they certainly do. It's just that kicking, from a flexibility point of view, is really a form of dynamic stretching, which I've found works faster than static stretching.

Dynamic stretching is taking the joints through near full range of motion movement patterns, causing not just a stretch but also increased blood flow and strength at these end ranges. Progressed properly this type of training will strengthen the end range of motion at the same time it stretches it, convincing the brain that this end range is now stable and it is safe to move further into a new range of motion.

#5. Speed and Power- This tends to increase as a result of the previous adaptations increasing. Speed and power are largely the aim of kicking in sport and martial arts, so as the body becomes more capable of supporting speed and power it naturally becomes better at creating speed and power. The combination of motor control, balance, stability and mobility will make power and speed seem to naturally radiate from kicks.

This is also a natural positive feed back loop. As your control, balance, stability and mobility increase and allow for more speed and power, the new demands caused by the greater speed and power will naturally create new levels of these other adaptations. This is one of the greatest benefits of training athletically as opposed to in a gym setting, done properly the progressions are natural, smooth and require very little programming.

The Different Types of Kicks

There are many different types of martial arts and so there are many different styles of kicking. This is part of what makes this training fun, the nearly never ending variety of styles and kicks to learn.

What follows is a list of the style of kicking found in some popular martial arts. Afterwards I'll also list out the main categories of kicks found in nearly all martial arts.

Style of Kicks...

Muay Thai- This form of kickboxing from Thailand is known for it's powerful leg kicks and knees. They are iconically known for training to harden the shins by performed shin kicks on the trunk of a tree. Muay thai kicks are often fierce and thrown with power from a flat footed and well-grounded stance.

Karate- The kicks in karate are known for being very direct and powerful. This style emphasizes precision and force production and contains a variety of kicks. Some kicks hit the target with the instep, the ball of the foot or even the shin in some cases.

Taekwondo- This martial art has made kicking a specialty, with a wide variety of kicks and a focus on kicks over hand strikes. Speed and agility are often emphasized in this martial art as well as some flare, with acrobatic and jumping kicks mixed in.

Tricking- Tricking is not actually a martial art, it is instead the use of kicking as a movement art. It utilizes flashy and acrobatic kicking and takes place in movement groups reminiscent of break-dancing circles. The most common gateways to this art that I've seen are through taekwondo, parkour and breakdancing cultures.

Capoeira- Capoeira is a very unique movement art that exists somewhere between a martial art and a dance. It is a movement game that can be done alone or with a partner and includes many acrobatic and unique kicking techniques. Some of the acrobatic spinning kicks of capoeira may be the most powerful kicking techniques in the world.

Categories of Kicks...

Front kick- This is the simplest of the martial arts kicks but also probably the most effective. It can be delivered effectively to the legs, the chest or even the head if your flexible enough. It's quick, effective and doesn't require the same level of skill or athleticism as most other kicks.

Front Kick

Side Kick- Side kicks are iconic in their look and renowned for their power. A favorite of Bruce Lee's, these are very direct kicks and great for building strong sturdy legs. As with most kicks on this list there are many varieties of side kicks but all operate off the same base movements.

side kick

Round Kick- This is another iconic kick as seen in innumerable Chuck Norris movies. Also known as the roundhouse, this is a rotational kick that is often the base movement for more exciting kicks such as tornado kicks.

Round House Kick

Hook Kicks- These kicks look similar to side kicks or round kicks but the leg is bent as the knee and the target is struck in a hook motion with the bottom of the foot or heel. These kicks are often less powerful than other varieties but more difficult to guard against.

hook kick

Crescent kicks- These kicks move in a large crescent shaped arc. They are not the greatest for martial application but they are great kicks for mobility and conditioning. In fact these kicks alone are often enough to create great flexibility for other high kicks.

crescent kick

Need help learning these kicks? Check out this Kick Training Technique poster by Mover's Odyssey for your home gym.

How to Start Kick Training

Kick training can be done as a solo practice or with others. A martial arts class is a great way to get in person training but it's not hard to train yourself either, especially with the basics. As a solo practice it's nice to have a heavy bag or other target to kick but it's just as productive to begin by simply kicking in the air. In fact it often creates better form in the long run and as an added benefit, it can be done anywhere.

For beginners with Mobility Issues

If learning by yourself, you'll first you'll want to be honest with yourself about your mobility level. It's unproductive to kick higher than your able to with good form, but the good news is you can begin learning the mechanics with lower kicks (leg kicks) while working on your mobility in the mean time. And honestly, leg kicks are a really important stage of development because they are the most likely to come in handy in an actual fight.

If your leg and hip mobility is currently poor, I would suggest beginning by working leg kicks 2-3 times a week along side some mobility and flexibility drills.

For mobility drills I would suggest a good hip opener such as the resting squat...

...a good groin stretch such as the horse stance...

...and a dynamic stretching exercise similar to kicking. Dunking legend Kadour Ziani uses a dynamic stretching drill similar to crescent kicks to keep mobile for dunking.

The first two kicks I would suggest training is a simple low front kick and a round low kick such as a muay thai leg kick. This will teach you the mechanics necessary to succeed in higher kicks as well.

So the beginner program with mobility issues might look like this...

  • 10-15 minutes warm up (jump rope, jogging, or jumping jacks) followed by light stretching if needed.

  • 50 Kadour Ziani style dynamic mobility kicks on each leg. The first 25 on each leg at an easy height and the next 25 closer to your end range of motion.

  • 30 Front Kicks on each leg, either on a heavy bag or in the air.

  • 30 Round leg kicks on each leg, either on a heavy bag or in the air.

  • Repeat the last two steps 1-3 more times depending on your current tolerance.

  • 2-3 x 30 second Horse Stance Holds go to a depth that you can handle but is a light challenge for you. You can progress deeper and longer over time.

  • 10-15 min cool down sit in resting squat for 2 minutes if able, add in some of your favorite leg and hip stretches and do some foam rolling if necessary.

Beginners without Mobility Issues

If you already have good mobility in the hips and legs you can begin with a wider variety of kicks and kicking heights.

Be sure to pay particular attention to the pivoting of the feet and hips as you can be injured by supporting yourself improperly on the support leg.

I would still stick with 2-3 training sessions per week and focus on the 3 most basic kicks as they will set the stage for all other variations. These kicks would be the front kick, the side kick, and the round house.

Drill these kicks for repetitions, starting with a low number of each and moving up over a few months. In the very beginning 50 repetitions each is likely, plenty as the body adjusts to these new demands. Add reps as your body feels it can handle it, a common number of total kicks in a workout once your fully adapted is about 500-700, but that's with all variations combined. You certainly wouldn't want to do that many with the same kick.

After these kicks begin to feel more natural you can then move on to other kicks and even begin putting them together into combinations or mixing them in with punches. One of my favorite workouts is 3 x 3-minute rounds of jump rope, 3-5 x 3-minute rounds of shadow kickboxing and 3-5 x 3-minute rounds of kickboxing on the heavy bag, then I usually add in whatever calisthenics or other skills I'm currently working on in at the end.

A complete workout would look something like this...

  • 10-15 minutes warm up (jump rope, jogging, or jumping jacks) followed by light stretching if needed.

  • 50 Kadour Ziani style dynamic mobility kicks on each leg. The first 25 on each leg at an easy height and the next 25 closer to your end range of motion.

  • 20 Front Kicks on each leg, either on a heavy bag or in the air.

  • 20 Round kicks on each leg, either on a heavy bag or in the air.

  • 20 Side Kicks on each leg, either on a heavy bag or in the air.

  • 3 x 2 minute rounds of shadow kickboxing as you develop more stamina for this type of workout you can increase the round time to 2:30 and eventually to 3 minutes. At this point add more rounds in order to progress if desired.

  • 10-15 min cool down sit in resting squat for 2 minutes if able, add in some of your favorite leg and hip stretches and do some foam rolling if necessary.

A great resource for education on a variety of kicks with excellent illustrations and cues is the book "Essential Book of Martial Arts Kicks" by Marc De Bremaeker. I own the book and find it a great resource for training material with 89 kicking varieties from multiple martial arts. You can find it on amazon by clicking the picture below.

essential book of martial arts kicks

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1 Comment

Zayd Mansuri
Zayd Mansuri
Jun 06

This article was very interesting, even though I'm a soccer guy, I've always hated leg day. The new workout you recommended seems like so much fun, and I hope to start training soon. Again, amazing article.

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