Q: I am 55 years old. I picked up weight training right around the time that I turned 40. I have trouble seeing any definition in my legs. They’re big but with no separation or definition in the quad area. Do you have any suggestions?
A: Squatting may or may not be your number-one priority. In fact, when I used to compete, I’d stop squatting two or three weeks away from a contest. Squats kept my legs big, but if I continued squatting right up to the day of the show, they’d be full looking but quite a bit less separated. You might want to supplement regular squats with hack squats and add some specialty work, such as lunges.
Everyone has what I believe to be a hand and foot position for every exercise that will provide maximum leverage. That enables you to use more weight and keep injuries to a minimum. You want to find the exercises that you feel most powerful doing, and stick with them.
Having said that, I want to look at foot placement for two important exercises that may enhance leg separation. If you place your feet together and high on the hack-squat foot-plate, you’ll be able to use more weight. For most people that also puts more emphasis on the muscle heads just above the knee—especially the vastus lateralis, the sweeping muscle of the outer quads. Placing your feet higher makes the stroke shorter and enables you to use more weight. You also might want to push with your toes to emphasize the lateral head of the quads.
On another leg day try the opposite approach—with your feet as far back on the plate as possible and a bit more spread out. That will make the squat deeper and hit more of the entire leg, especially the glutes and hamstrings, and it may help quad separation as well. You’ll have to reduce the weight, but always shoot for 12 reps with as much weight as possible. Try alternating those stances every other week. Do barbell squats once a month for now and see if you can experience a change in the way your legs are developing. Give it at least six months before making any drastic changes.
Another interesting and often neglected type of leg movement is lunges. With a barbell on your back that weighs about 35 percent of your bodyweight or holding a pair of dumbbells that equal that percentage, lunge forward with your right leg far enough that your knee is directly over your foot in the bottom position. If your knee moves too far forward, you could damage the ligaments in and around the knee. Now bring your trailing leg up to a standing start position; then step forward and lunge with the other leg. Alternate legs as you move along in a straight line, doing at least 12 repetitions for each leg. Do the move after hack squats.
You can also do lunges one leg at a time with the working leg on a low block or bench. Do 10 repetitions with one leg, again with your knee directly over your foot. Rather than alternating, you work one leg continuously until you reach 10 to 12 full lunges, and then repeat with the other leg. Another variation is the stepup. With either a barbell across your shoulders or holding dumbbells at your sides, step up onto a bench with one leg to a full standing position, then step back down. Alternate legs.
Do three sets of a lunge variation each time you train legs. Eventually you’ll feel the one that’s going to create the most separation for your particular legs.
Leg extensions help some people with definition and separation, so do them after the hack squats and lunges. Pick a weight with which you can do 12 to 15 repetitions and blast away, imagining that you’re etching in deep striations.
Remember, you may not be biomechanically designed to do certain exercises. That’s why, without your measurements, I don’t know what the optimum leverage-advantaged exercises will be for you. You’ll have to experiment to find which exercises cause growth and/or separation.
Another point: Definition and, to some degree, separation are dietary responses. Your diet should stay fairly tight all year, which means: Get enough protein, carbohydrate and good fat each day, and don’t eat any processed foods or grains—with the exception of rice. Most grains aren’t fit for human consumption, but that’s a story for a different day. For now, try these few variations, and see what your legs do—you never know until you try.
Editor’s note: Contact Paul Burke via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. Burke has a master’s degree in integrated studies from Cambridge College in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He’s been a champion bodybuilder and arm wrestler, and he’s considered a leader in the field of over-40 fitness training. You can purchase his book, Burke’s Law—a New Fitness Paradigm for the Mature Male, from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit www.Home-Gym.com. His “Burke’s Law” training DVD is also now available.