You rack the bar after your final set, hitting a PR in back squats. After a hefty — even brutal — leg day, you half-limp yourself out of the gym, thinking you’ll be lucky if you can walk the next day.
Leg day is one of the most notorious workouts amongst health and wellness professionals, due to the toll it takes on your body. Your legs are made up of some of the largest, strongest, and seemingly indestructible muscle groups, and they are trained to take a beating. However, you need to train yourself to do leg day right, and recover afterwards.
One of the many questions I get asked is, "Can I do cardio after leg day?" To which I answer yes (with a more in-depth answer below). While every leg day meme will tell you otherwise, it is possible to do cardio after leg day — you just need to do it the right way.
Below, I explain what to do after leg day, according to your goals. For simplicity's sake, I divide this post into two main components: post-leg day suggestions for runners and other endurance athletes, and recommendations for those who make strength gains their top priority. Hopefully, this helps you determine the best post-leg day workout for your goals, whether they have to do with strength, speed, or endurance.
Running After Leg Day: How Runners Build Speed and Endurance
Whether you're a long-time competitive runner or setting a goal to run your first 5K, then strength training should play a key role in your training program. Resistance training is valuable to runners competing at every distance, from the 100-meter sprint to the marathon. (If you don't believe me, Google the training program of any Olympic runner — I promise, they frequent the inside of the weight room.)
Strength training offers a number of benefits for runners, including:
- Helping to maintain proper form, and preventing muscle imbalances
- Helping to improve balance, particularly balance needed to stand on one leg (after all, whenever you run, you are always balancing on one leg)
- Helping to run upright and "stand tall," preventing yourself from running hunched over
To get these benefits, you need to combine strength training and your running routine in the right way. Here's where to start:
1. Build Up Strength in the Posterior Chain
Never forget these words: A strong ass leads to a strong runner. And in all likelihood, that runner will remain injury-free far longer than other runners on the starting line.
Here's what that means: Your posterior chain — particularly your glutes — hold the foundation to your success as a runner. In order to maintain your balance while building up speed and endurance, you need to have strong glutes and hamstrings. If either of these muscle groups are weak, they won't stabilize your legs as you run down the street. This forces another muscle to pick up your glutes extra slack, which manifests in injuries and faulty movement patterns.
For example, if your glutes are weak, the following (and unfortunately, very common) scenarios could happen:
- Your quads pick up the extra slack, putting extra stress on your knee joint and causing knee injuries.
- Your calves pick up the extra slack, putting extra stress on your achilles tendon and feet, causing plantar fasciitis and achilles tendonitis.
Therefore, I encourage all runners to include glute activation as part of their warm-up for every workout (whether it’s cardio or strength-based). Perform 20 reps of banded clam shells, single leg heavy squats, and/or banded abductions before every exercise session.
2. Focus on Single Leg Movements
As stated earlier, whenever you run you are always in a single leg squat position. Therefore, in order to be a successful runner, you cannot ignore single leg movements — ensuring that you are just as strong and stable on one leg as you are on two.
Therefore, I highly encourage you to work single leg movements into your training routine. Here are several movements that are very beneficial for runners:
- Step-ups: To perform a step-up, hold a dumbbell in each hand, with your shoulders rolled back and down. Raise your left foot and place it on a box, so your right thigh is parallel to the ground. Driving through your right heel, shift your weight to your right leg, so you come to a fully standing position on the box.
- Single leg deadlifts: To do a deadlift, hold a pair of dumbbells in your hand, as though you would do a regular barbell deadlift. Shift your weight to your right leg, moving into a warrior 3 position (you will look like an airplane). Drag the weights down your leg, feeling a stretch in your hamstring.
- Reverse single leg lunges: While forward lunges will put stress on your quadriceps, reverse lunges help build up strength in your hamstrings. Hold a pair of dumbbells in your hand, stepping your right foot back into a lunge position, then back to your starting position.
3. Run After Leg Day
No, that is not a typo. Contrary to popular belief, runners will actually benefit from completing their runs after a leg workout (that is, as long as you structure your leg days properly, following the two guidelines above).
When you run after leg day, your muscles (namely your glutes) are ready and firing, prepared to do their job. Proper form is programmed into your muscle memory, setting you up for success on your run.
While your exact training program will depend on you, your goals, and the race distance you're training for, below I share some broad tips to follow. (Note: To discuss your exact training program at length, schedule a virtual call with me through the premium membership of the Build Bullet-Proof Health program):
- Focus on interval training following leg day: Save your long, steady runs for the weekend, when your legs have time to rest. Instead, schedule your interval training workouts (like 400 meter repeats on the track) or tempo runs for the day following leg day.
- Pair explosive movements together: If you completed an explosive leg day (think power cleans, snatches, or box jumps) then prepare for explosive, intense cardio sessions the next day. For example, if you're a sprinter, this would be a great day to run 100-200 meter sprints on the track, or perfect your start.
- Give yourself as much space as possible between workouts: Just because I'm telling you to run after leg day does not mean I'm encouraging you to overtrain. If you are one of the few competitive runners who run and weightlift on the same day, then lift in the morning and run at night. If you are of the larger population who sticks to one workout per day, give yourself at least a full 24 hour period between your leg day and your intense running workout.
Cardio After Leg Day: How Lifters Build Muscle Mass and Power
If you are not a runner or a competitive endurance athlete, then what you do after leg day will look completely different. Therefore, this section is intended for those of you who wish to build muscle mass — particularly in your legs.
While your weight training and cardio sessions will be extremely different than runners', there are a few similarities. First and foremost, I still stay by my former stance that cardio can actually benefit your lower body muscles post-leg day. This time, however, you will use cardio as a recovery technique, rather than a tool to build speed or endurance.
1. Doing Cardio Can Help Relieve DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness)
If gains in strength and muscle mass are your primary goals, then you'll lift heavy come leg day. And after you load up your leg press or back squat to maximum capacity, you will undoubtedly begin the very dreaded, very painful, 48-hour period associated with most leg workouts.
While a cardio workout may be the last thing on Earth you want to do post-leg day, it can certainly aid in your rehabilitation and recovery. Light aerobic activity can help stimulate blood flow and wash out that lactic acid from your leg muscles, thereby reducing pain and muscle soreness. Remember: This is an active recovery session, not a workout. Therefore, skip the HIIT class and try the following cardio activities:
- An easy 2K recovery run around your neighborhood
- 20 minutes at a low intensity on the stationary bike
- A 30-minute, easy swim in the lap pool (this is especially helpful if you're fighting off an injury, as you're weightless when swimming).
2. Follow Each Cardio Session With Other Recovery Methods
Light cardio after leg day helps warm your muscles up, which is a great starting point in your healing process. Once your muscles are warm, it is much easier to stretch, foam roll, and frankly, identify any problem areas (read: nagging injuries) that need to be addressed.
Therefore, after 20-30 minutes of light aerobic activity, it's time to dedicate time and attention toward healing from your hard leg workout. Try the following activities:
- Stretch: Stretch every leg muscle, paying special attention to your glutes, hamstrings, and IT bands. I recommend holding each stretch for 10-20 seconds (never longer than 20 seconds).
- Grab a foam roller or lacrosse ball: Foam rolling post-exercise is an affordable, at-home approach to active release therapy (ART). When you tear your muscle fibers apart during exercise, they can fuse back together in literal knots — foam rolling helps repair these knots, putting your muscle tissue back in its original position.
- Take a dip in the ice bath: Ah, the dreaded ice tub. Incorporating cryotherapy (such as cold showers or ice baths) into your training plan can help repair sore muscles, allowing you to bounce back in your workouts.
- Consume protein: Amino acids are the building blocks of protein, and help your muscles rebuild post-workout. I recommend hydrolyzed whey protein for muscle growth.
3. Once Again, Pair Explosive Exercises Together
I want to include this section specifically for those athletes who want to build power and explosiveness. If your first love is a sweat-inducing HIIT class, or you want to break your personal record in the power clean, then follow the same recommendation I mentioned for runners: Pair explosive movements together.
In other words, explosive leg work should precede high-intensity interval training sessions. However, unlike runners (where the track workout is the top priority), you will place a greater emphasis on your explosive weight training session. Here are a few suggestions:
- Build a leg workout routine with explosive movements: Focus on weighted box jumps, single arm snatches, and power cleans on leg day.
- Perform cardio at a moderate intensity: After leg day, don't walk into an hour leg HIIT class on two sore legs. Instead, perform high-quality movements at a lower intensity. For example, perform plyometrics, practice your farthest broad jump, or work on your single leg bounds — all with plenty of rest between sets.
- Take a rest day if you need it: Sometimes, you won't be able to bounce back after an intense leg training session. Accept that. Since power is your primary goal, and you already got a solid, explosive leg day the day before, take an active recovery day and walk yourself to the elliptical.
Yes, Cardio After Leg Day Is Possible (and Recommended)
While internet memes have trained us to believe that cardio — even in the form of walking — after leg day is impossible. In reality, your body is an incredibly powerful machine, and cardio after leg day can actually be beneficial.
However, your goals should influence what you do after leg day, and how you do it. If you are a runner, then your runs (particularly intervals) carry precedent over your weightlifting sessions. Prepare for these runs with plenty of glute activation and single leg movements, ensuring you're ready to sprint the next day.
On the other hand, if you're a bodybuilder or someone more focused on strength, then completing a heavy leg day is more important than performing intense cardio. Therefore, running after leg day should be used as a recovery technique, to begin flushing out lactic acid before stretching and foam rolling.
I hope this post sets you up for success. However, I want to be perfectly clear that your specific goals should always carry the most weight in your training. Actually in life in general. Your happiness and well-being should be top of the list.
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