Q: I’ve been training for four years, and I really like the gains I’m making. The only problem is my legs. I’m 6’2′, and I have long legs, so squatting is really difficult. Are squats really necessary to building the thighs? As much as I try, I cannot keep my back straight when I squat, and I feel as if my legs aren’t getting anything out of the exercise. What else can I do to build my legs?
A: I’ve always believed that squats are the premier exercise for building the legs. They’re a great overall mass builder, too, since they stress so many major muscle groups’quads, hamstrings, lower back and glutes. Even upper-body muscles such as the spinal erectors and traps work hard during squats.
I understand your situation, however. The ideal structure for squatting is short legs; trainees who have long legs usually have a difficult time performing the movement correctly. As you mentioned, it’s very hard to keep the upper body straight as you descend into the squat position. The leg press doesn’t involve the lower back, so try doing that first. You’ll be able to exhaust your quads thoroughly by using very heavy weights to build more size in your thighs. I recommend four sets of 15, 12, 10 and eight reps, increasing the poundage on each successive set.
After your legs are pumped and aching from the leg presses, move over to the squat rack. Obviously, you won’t be able to use the same weights that you would if you did squats first in your routine, but your legs won’t know the difference. The important thing is to perform squats while maintaining textbook form.
Do your first set of squats with a much lighter weight than you’ve used in the past and concentrate on your form. Keep your feet slightly wider than shoulder width, with your toes pointed out. Let your hips and glutes slowly descend between your legs as you keep your back straight and tight. Concentrate on arching your lower back during the course of the movement and keep your head up. Think ‘legs, legs, legs’ every inch of the way. Increase the weight on each set but never sacrifice your form for additional poundage. Shoot for four sets of 12, 10, eight and six reps. Have a training partner stand behind you to watch your form and correct you if you start to bend over.
If that doesn’t work for your legs, you could always substitute Smith-machine squats for regular free-weight squats. I think the barbell version is the superior mass builder, but if you find that you can’t master the form and you don’t want to strain your lower back, the Smith machine is a good substitute.
I injured my lower back last year, so I couldn’t squat. I thought I was screwed, but my legs didn’t seem to notice as long as I hit them with presses and Smith-machine squats really hard. I made some good gains.
Q: What training routine do you recommend? Do you subscribe to the once-a-week-per-bodypart theory for the advanced natural bodybuilder? Because I’m natural, I never can figure out if I need a little more or a little less. I’m unable to go as heavy because of some injuries, but I want to put on some more mass.
A: For an advanced bodybuilder I recommend training each bodypart once per week. An experienced bodybuilder can use heavier poundages and maximum intensity and will require six to seven days to fully recuperate before training that bodypart again. A less experienced bodybuilder won’t be able to generate the type of intensity or poundages that require that extended rest period. An experienced trainee has a greater mind/muscle connection and will be able to get more mileage out of a set than a less advanced bodybuilder.
Nevertheless, some bodyparts are less responsive to training and may require more attention. They may actually regress as a result of being trained only once a week because they become undertrained. For those slow-responding bodyparts I suggest two workouts a week. You could do your normal, high-intensity, heavy training for that bodypart one day and a lighter, pump-type workout later in the week.
I’ve used that advanced form of training for my legs. On Tuesdays I perform a heavy routine consisting of squats, leg press, leg curls and stiff-legged deadlifts. Four or five days later, I do a short, pump-type workout, which usually consists of leg extensions supersetted with lunges or high-rep leg presses. Note that the second routine isn’t intense enough to cause any lasting soreness or stress any connective tissues such as my lower back or knees; however, it does pump a lot of blood into my quads and keeps them full until my next heavy-duty leg workout two to three days later. That seems to work better for my stubborn bodyparts rather than taking a full seven days off between training sessions.
If your injuries prevent you from training with high intensity or heavy poundages, you should consider training each bodypart more frequently. You can split up your bodyparts over three days’for example, chest and arms on the first day, legs and abs on the second day and delts and back on the third day. Use a two-days-on, one-day-off, one-day-on routine to prevent overtraining. In other words, train chest and arms on day one, legs and abs on day two, and take the third day off. The fourth day train delts and back. Take the fifth day off and start the cycle over again on the sixth day. That split has you training each bodypart once every five instead of seven days.
Whichever routine you decide to follow, keep track of your progress by writing down your poundages, measurements and so forth. The more feedback you accumulate, the more information you will have on what works for your individual body.
Editor’s note: John Hansen is the ’98 Mr. Natural Olympia and a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Visit his Web site at www .naturalolympia.com. You can write to him at P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561, or call toll-free 1-800-900-UNIV (8648). IM