Leg Day- The Physical & Spiritual Dimensions Of A High Intensity Leg Workout [Updated 2023]
I wrote ‘Leg Day’ several years ago after filming my workout DVD and it has since been published in print and praised online as one of the most inspiring training accounts of all time. I am not sure I deserve that much praise for it, but I wanted to give some insight into what my training is like, and what drives me during my leg workouts. There is certainly a spiritual aspect to training the way I do and to be honest, I tend to forget what I did immediately after leg workouts. (Possibly some inner self defense mechanism and an unconscious desire to forget the hell these leg workouts can sometimes be.) To avoid this, I wrote “Leg Day” lying on the floor of 5th Avenue Gym immediately after my leg training session, to capture as much as possible in terms of not only what I did, but what I was thinking. I hope the account motivates you to higher levels of accomplishment.
Leg Day: 10 am
For me, leg day starts the day before. I always train legs on Sunday, but the mental preparation begins on Saturday night. By Sunday morning I have a clear vision of what is ahead, and what I need to do to make it a reality. When I finally walk down those stairs into the gym, the leg workout will have been rehearsed in my mind several times over. There is always a certain queasiness in my stomach on Leg Day. A twinge of apprehension that I am not ashamed to admit. My workouts are brutal and imagining what is to come, fills me with a sense of dread. Overcoming the dread is part of what makes it worthwhile. It is never a walk in the park, but still I do it, every week without fail, and at times with no one but my inner voice as a guide. Part workout, part moving meditation, it is a physical and spiritual struggle towards self improvement and as difficult as it might be, it is a highlight of my week.
I look up at the clock after a long sip of water from the water cooler. It is exactly 10 am. My lips are pursed in a silent prayer as I make my way over to the leg section of the gym. I never pray for strength or anything so outwardly superficial, I pray instead that the work that I do today will be meaningful in some way. Today I start with stiff legged deadlifts, 135 lbs, twenty times, 225 lbs 15 times and 315 lbs 12 times, all in rapid, nonstop succession, pausing only for as long as it takes to slap on another plate. I am alone today, so I am training fast. Already my breathing is labored, and my hamstrings are on fire. But I have more in me and so I do one more set with four 45 lb plates on each side for 6 insan
I set myself over the bar, grab it as hard as I can and use the muscles in the back of my legs to lift it up. I pull, with every sinew straining with the enormous weight until reluctantly, it rises from the chalk dusted gym floor. It comes all the way up and then back down. Up and then down again for a total of six agonizing repetitions. I drop the bar on rep number six after barely getting the weight up and I feel my legs begin to buckle underneath me.
Leg Day- 10:05 am
“Not yet,” I whisper to myself, there is so much more to do. A quick trip to the water cooler and I am back. It is now 10:05 am. I go straight to the standing leg curl machine and rep out 12 reps with half the stack. With no rest, I do the same with the next leg and then the briefest of pauses to change the weight. Three quarters of the stack now, 12 more reps on each side, hamstrings feeling as if they are ready to snap, and again a weight increase to the entire stack.
Bodybuilding isn’t about lifting weights; it is about making lifting weights harder. An idea that is almost counter intuitive. The goal is to really dig in and squeeze the muscle against the resistance and forcing it to fail. I could easily add more weight to the full stack, but there is no need to, instead I just train faster and make every repetition harder than the last.
Leg Day- 10:09 am
I set myself on the machine and I go into myself to really feel the burn. At rep number 7 the pain is unbearable. My right leg biceps muscles cramping under the weight, but I will not stop. At rep number 10, the weight is barely moving, but I do not yield. Will supersedes the natural instinct to stop as the muscles begin to completely give out. But I want more and somehow, against all logic I get two more repetitions, and with no stop whatsoever, I inflict the same torture upon my left leg. I am back at the water cooler. It is 10:09 am and already the room is beginning to spin. With the hamstring muscles annihilated, it is time for the most painful part, the quadriceps.
Those beautiful muscles that surround the knee and extend all the way up to the hips. As beautiful as they are, there is a price to be paid to develop them to their full potential. As the former owner of bird like lower limbs, my legs today stand as silent monuments to countless moments of true agony.
It starts with leg extensions- first set at 200 lbs for fifty repetitions. I don’t plan the numbers, I estimate what will be hard and I do it. By number twenty, the fire starts. A white, all-consuming flame that starts at the teardrop over my knee and blazes throughout my body, threatening to sear my very soul. My teeth are clenched, and tears are welling in the corner of my eyes, but I will not stop. There is no one to shout encouragement. No one to tell me to dig deep for that next rep as today’s suffering is a lonely undertaking. Without a training partner, there is only that inner voice. A voice that that seems far older than I am, and older than anything that I know. A voice that gets louder and louder as the lactic acid builds in my legs. That voice that started as a mere whisper on Saturday night is now an animalistic cry. A cry louder than the pain, with the voice claiming me. Enveloping me. I embrace the pain and somehow find the strength not only to keep the weight moving, but to connect with ever fiber of muscle in my legs and force them, against all that is rational, to contract even harder and keep going. At rep 49 I know that 50 is a near impossibility, but that voice just laughs and finds the strength somewhere within me to complete four more.
This is now the point of no return, the place where in order to carry on I have to live completely in the moment, forsaking all thoughts of success or failure or even what is to come next. Every repetition must become a world and a lifetime unto itself, if not, I will not endure. I place the pin at the bottom of the stack after a timed rest of exactly sixty seconds and I go again for my final set, still reeling from the last one.
With the full 250lb weight stack loaded I am a bit more controlled with my cadence. Not out of concern for myself, but for the machine. I have snapped the cable several times before after overloading it with additional dumbbells and losing myself in the intensity of my sets. And so I am a bit cautious. With a deep breath, I begin anew. Staying in the moment, flexing my quads with each painful rep as if it were my last. Somewhere along the way, I lose myself again and thirty-three excruciating reps go by. With a giant slam the weight stack falls to the floor and I heave myself off of the machine and begin falling to the floor, where at least for the briefest of minutes, I can catch my breath.
But I do not let myself fall. Instead I walk drunkenly, on legs made of rubber over to the relief of the water cooler. It is the only comfort I allow myself, as I drink deeply, holding on to the sides of the cooler to support myself, as my legs right now seem to be of little use. Enough water, and I lumber back to the leg press machine and load three 100lb plates and two 45lb plates on each side for my first set.
Without thinking I blast through twenty full range of motion repetitions before racking the weight and adding four 45lb plates to each side. Even loading the weight has become a Herculean task. I can barely walk without faltering, my chest is heaving, my lungs struggle for air that doesn’t seem to ever be enough, and I still have more plates to load. It’s all part of the process though. Small parts of the ritual that help keep me me focused on what needs to be done. That keep me moving, for at this point, if I stop, I might not be able to continue. Another set of fifteen reps and I feel that my knees are warm enough for the real working set. To the weights already loaded, I add another four 45 lb plates on each side for a total somewhere in the vicinity of 1,500 lbs. The machine cannot hold any more plates, but to be honest, I don’t care about how heavy it is. I have a job to do and I am going to do it.
I sit in the machine, set my feet against it and push with all that I have. The pressure of the weight against my feet is indescribable. For a split second, a pulse of fear flashes through me as I realize there is the weight of half of a car over me. There is no safety on this archaic hand-made machine, and any mishap could result in serious injury, if not my immediate demise. But I don’t fight it. I embrace it. It keeps me centered on the need for absolute clarity and focus, and the fear is but a passing pulse. Fear has no place where I am now. I lower the weight ever so slowly, knees coming down to almost meet my shoulders, with every muscle screaming as the burden becomes greater and greater. The weight stops for a second and I explode it upwards. Once, twice, establishing an insane cadence as once again I am overtaken by the fire.
At rep eighteen, the sled starts slowing down, as gravity and the laws of physics find their way back into my reality. Pain is all I feel, but I carry on. Eighteen is not a good enough number, so I must get to twenty. Holding the weight for a moment of relative calm, I steel myself and eek out two last punishing reps. I rack the weight and the whole machine sways. I pull myself up with my hands, my legs are not up to the task at this point, and I feel the beginnings of a cold sweat.
Out of the corner of my consciousness I see the other members of the gym staring over at me, perhaps wondering what demons drive me to do what it is that I do, but it is only a flicker, as I go back into myself and struggle for control so as not to pass out from the growing nausea and dizziness. I take the weights off- and it seems an age has passed before all the plates are removed. While I am putting them away I am concentrating on my breathing, regularizing it and consciously slowing the pounding in my chest. It is remarkable that no matter how many times I do this, it is always so much harder. Weights racked, I allow myself a minute to sit down before a much needed trip to the cooler, which is now several miles away. I decide against the water break and instead opt to grab the 100 lb plate and start doing vertical jumps. Going down slowly into a full squat position and then exploding upwards, leaving the ground with a terrifying force before falling back into the full squat position. The hundred pound weight helps me to not hit any of the lights overhead, as it has happened before in the past. It also makes it harder, much harder. I barely get twelve vertical jumps before I freeze in the squat position for a count of ten then do a total of ten more jumps. Another full stop in the bottom position for a count of ten before doing eight more jumps.
Leg Day- 10:15 am
My legs are beyond the realms of pain. Now there is only a numbing ache. I can hardly catch my breath, though and on the eighth jump I drop the hundred pound plate, which has now etched a groove into my upper arms and lower forearms. I try to stand and for a split second everything goes dark. I fight the darkness, not letting it hold me in its grasp, and instead make my way over to the water cooler, swaying as I walk. I make it and drink once again the coldest and most satisfying drink of my life. I stay there for a while, breathing in between sips, until my eyes can focus once again and the ringing in my ears begins to subside. I glance at the clock. It is 10:15 am, but for me an eternity has come and gone several times over.
I limp over to the donkey calf machine and groan as I bend to place the pin at the bottom of the stack. I set myself on the machine and without pause begin my first set of one hundred reps. The counting in my head is somewhere far away as the searing pain in my calves seem to almost fill my ears. Around number seventy I let out a growling scream that is long overdue (although I am told afterwards that I screamed quite more times than I realized). At one hundred there is the blissful relief of putting down the weight, but the bliss is short lived as I load four 45 lb plates on top of the machine for my next set which will be all the weight the machine can hold, plus 180 extra pounds. The second set of one hundred reps is almost unconscious and I do not recall much save the sweet sound of the weight slamming down as I finish the set. I add another two 45 lb plates and begin what looks to be my last set.
I never plan my last sets- they just happen when my body insists that it has had more than enough. This set is harder than all the others, and at my twenty-fifth rep I start to feel as though I am not going to make it. I am truly at the limit of my powers of endurance, and my legs begin to tremble with the strain, but I do not stop. Instead I think about why it really is that I do this to myself. I think of my family, and how very much what I do here serves to provide them with a better life. I think of my training partners, every one that has been here over the years shouting encouragement and believing in my ability to do what seems to be the impossible. I think of that wide eyed boy that I once was and how far I have come on my road. I think of my clients, my fans, well wishers and all those who I have inspired and who, one day I will inspire. I think of you, and in doing so, I find it. The will.
The nerve to keep on going through my own self inflicted hell. Almost magically the count reaches to one hundred and the weight slams to the floor. Gratitude flows over me, overwhelming even in the midst of unmentionable pain. Gratitude for being able to do what I do. To able to have survived yet another day of the near-impossible, and gratitude for each and every soul who helped me along the way. I am thankful to be alive, because at this point, I could not be any more alive. Through blurry eyes, I look up at the clock from where I am sprawled out on the gym floor, as I cannot possibly move for at least another five minutes. I note the time. It is 10:20 am.
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Featured everywhere from the Wall Street Journal to CBS News, Kevin Richardson’s Naturally Intense High Intensity Training have helped hundreds lose weight and transform their bodies with his 10 Minute Workouts. One of the top natural bodybuilders of his time, Kevin is also the international fitness consultant for UNICEF and one of the top personal trainers in New York City.