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Leg Training for Mass and Detail

Q: I’m a 41-year-old female. I’m 5’4” and weigh 113 pounds. My goal is to put on more muscle. I’ve been following your three-days-on/one-day-off program for more than two years and have made great improvements on my upper body; however, my legs aren’t doing all that well. Here’s my split—day 1: chest, arms, calves; day 2: legs, abs; day 3: back, shoulders, calves. I’m doing all of the mass-building exercises: leg extensions, squats, leg presses, stiff-legged deadlifts, lying leg curls. What can I do to put more muscle and detail on my legs?

A: I wish I had more details about exactly what you’re doing in your leg workouts. You’re right that you’re using the proven mass-building exercises; however, it may be the rep scheme you’re using or the order of your routine that’s keeping you from breaking through the plateau.

If you’re using the standard six to 10 repetitions on leg exercises, you might need to shake things up a little to get your legs to respond. I’ve noticed many times that when someone’s legs aren’t a fast-responding muscle group, doing the traditional heavy workouts with low reps doesn’t always work.

The legs are very powerful muscles designed to carry us around all our lives. To get them to grow, we sometimes have to go above and beyond a normal training routine. The combination of high and low reps may be what your legs require.

I would suggest two different leg workouts. By alternating two routines, you keep your legs from becoming complacent and keep them growing.

For your first leg workout, begin with leg extensions, but use high reps. Do 20 reps on the first set, increase the weight, do 15 reps on the second set, increase the weight, and finish with 10 to 12 reps on the last set. Your quads should be pumped and burning after you complete all three sets.

From there go to barbell squats. Begin with a warmup set for 12 reps. Add some weight and do 10 repetitions. Add more weight and shoot for eight reps on your third set. For your next two sets add more weight and go all-out for six to eight heavy reps.

That’s it for the heavy work. Now you go back to doing more reps. Go to the hack squat machine and put a moderate amount of weight on it. Instead of doing standard repetitions, do 1 1/2 reps—go all the way down, only halfway up, all the way back down and then all the way back up; that’s one rep. Do 10 of those for the first set and eight on the next two sets. If you do them right, your legs will be on fire after you’ve finished.

For your hamstrings, instead of doing normal leg curls on a machine, do dumbbell leg curls on a decline bench. Hold a dumbbell between your feet—you’ll need a training partner to position it—and do a standard leg curl very slowly, feeling the hams work all the way up and all the way down. Do three sets for eight to 10 reps with a moderate weight, concentrating on form.

To finish off your leg workout, grab a barbell and do three sets of stiff-legged deadlifts. Increase the weight on each successive set, doing 10 reps on the first set, eight on the second and six on the third. Make sure you get a great stretch on each rep to focus on the hamstrings.

For the second leg workout begin with the hamstrings—because you started with quads last time. Your first exercise is leg curls performed on a leg curl machine. Do one warmup set for 12 reps and then increase the weight for the second set. Shoot for 10 reps on the second set. For your last two sets increase the weight again and aim for six to eight reps. When you reach failure, either drop the weight and continue for another six reps or have your training partner help you force out two to three more reps, applying pressure to the pads during the negative.

Next, do stiff-legged deadlifts, but this time do them with dumbbells. I find that I can get a better stretch with dumbbells than with a barbell. Do three sets, shooting for 12, 10 and eight reps and increasing the weight on each successive set.

After hamstrings it’s time to hit the quads. I like starting out with high-repetition leg extensions. Do the same set-and-rep scheme as the last leg workout—three sets of 12 to 20 reps.

For your next quadriceps exercise go to the leg press. Start with a moderate weight and do 15 reps. Increase the weight and do 12 reps. For your third and final set, increase the weight again and do another 12 reps.

Here’s where it gets tough. Your legs should be superpumped and aching at this point. It’s time to work more on the detail of your legs after all the heavy, high-rep training.

Do two to three sets of lunges, using the same weight on each set. You can do alternate lunges, standing in the same spot, using either dumbbells or a barbell on your shoulders. Another alternative is to do walking lunges, again holding a pair of dumbbells or with a barbell on your shoulders. If you have the space for it, I recommend walking lunges with a barbell.

Do 12 reps for each leg, and after each set of lunges, do a set of sissy squats with only your bodyweight. Aim for getting a great stretch at the bottom of the movement before coming back to the top. The sissy squats will give you detail at the top of your quadriceps, which will make them look bigger and more finished when you compete.

There you go: two great leg workouts that should get those wheels growing. Try to increase either the reps or the resistance at each workout to keep the intensity high. The combination of higher repetitions with heavy resistance and hitting the muscles from all angles should give you the results you’re looking for.

Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at, or send questions or comments to him at or at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, Listen to John’s new radio show, “Natural Bodybuilding Radio,” at  IM

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