Q: For years I was one of those guys who wore a tank top and sweat pants to the gym because I didn’t like training legs. Now my friends are trying to convince me to compete in bodybuilding in the over-50 division. My legs suck compared to my upper body! I know I need to do squats for the fastest leg growth, but squatting heavy kills my back and my knees. Do you have any ideas to help an old fart grow some legs?
A: Do not despair! You’re not alone. And there are ways that “old farts” can build legs without crippling our backs and knees. The main things are that you stay consistent with your leg training and that you train very hard! Part of being consistent—for people our age—is avoiding injury, so you want to follow a program that will allow you to train hard on legs without having to squat superheavy.
I have been battling chronic low-back pain since I ruptured a hamstring tendon five years ago and had it reattached. In addition to the back pain and pain at the reattachment spot, I’ve had intermittent pain in my knees (I had the left knee scoped years ago). My leg-training partner, Dennis Ceder, is 59. He played college football and has had numerous knee surgeries and only gets into trouble if he squats too heavy. Despite our age and our collection of injuries, we found ways to train legs brutally hard without heavy squats.
The first thing to do is prioritize your leg training. For 29 years I’ve trained legs on Monday because that’s when I feel the best after resting over the weekend. This year I changed my hard leg day to Fridays so I could take advantage of having Dennis as a partner. It’s really cool because we get fired up during the leg workouts and have a little competition going to see who can be the toughest. So either set your leg day when you’ve had the best rest, or train with someone who motivates you to work beyond your mental limits.
Second, having good control of the weight is extremely important. At our age we can’t be free-falling to the bottom of a squat and bouncing out of it. You have to be disciplined. You must control every rep and feel your muscles contracting in both the concentric and eccentric, or positive and negative, phases of each rep. You must be very deliberate and precise in the way that you perform each rep. You can’t afford to get sloppy and incur an injury.
Next, stay within yourself. There are going to be times when you feel superstrong and want to pile on a lot more weight. Increase the weight in small increments. If you feel that you can do more, perform more reps and/or slow the movement. Flex your legs in the fully contracted position of each rep. You will get more muscle activation and lessen your chance of getting hurt.
Set up a training program that enables you to work extremely hard without squatting extremely heavy. I’m going to give you the workout that Dennis and I have been doing this year. We generally train really hard on leg presses before squatting. When squatting, we keep the reps at eight or higher and usually use the Safety Squat Bar or the Bow Bar.
I’m a big proponent of controlled squats below parallel, but if squatting below parallel irritates your knees or lower back, cut off the reps a little higher. I love to squat superdeep, but there was a time when deep squats were killing my back. So I started squatting in a power rack and set the pins to limit my depth to what was good for my back at the time. Do what you have to do to keep training consistently!
Okay, here’s the leg blueprint that Dennis and I have been following this year. My legs are much improved, and Dennis says that his are bigger than they were when he was in his early 20s.
Leg presses* 90 x 30, 180 x 20, 270 x 20, 360 x 15, 450 x 15, 540 x 12, 630 x 12, 720 x 12, 810 x max (this has been as much as 32 reps this year), 450 x maximum reps (this has been up to 95)
*The point on the leg press is to work up to progressively heavier weights in the 12-rep range, then back off about 40 percent and do superhigh reps. Keep a journal of your workouts and try to increase the reps of your final set each week. You will be surprised at how many reps you can do.
Squats 135 x 10, 185 x 10, 225 x 10 x 10 (sometimes we will only go to 185 and try to crank out higher reps like 15 to 20)
Leg curls 4 x 8-12 (flex the hamstrings hard at the top of each rep and take each set to failure)
Leg extensions 4 x 10-15 (again, smooth movements and flex hard at the top of each rep)
Standing calf raises 4 x 12-15 (pause and flex your calves at the high point of each rep, and take sets two and three to failure)
I’ve had 20-something-year-old competitors who have tried to keep up with me on this workout and were hurling before we got to squats. At 59, Dennis is one of the few who have kept up with me! It’s never too late—but leg training has to be brutal to be effective! Get your mind right before you start your workout, and blast those freakin’ legs, bro!
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