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Thighs Lagging in Size

Q: I’m a 46-year-old bodybuilder who competes in the over-45 class in drug-free contests. I started in bodybuilding at 37—later than most people who compete in my class. Although my upper body has responded well, my thighs aren’t big enough or separated according to judges with whom I have spoken. Do you have any advice? I’m 6’3” and find squatting heavy extremely difficult.

A: From what I’ve seen, the legs of drug-free contestants tend to lag behind the upper body in many cases. That’s especially true of taller men. Your height has a lot to do with your difficulty in squatting; however, there are always answers to any problem. For one thing, you may not be putting enough load on your legs.

Developing great legs is very hard for most natural bodybuilders. My legs grew the best when I was combining heavy high-rep leg presses and moderately heavy high-rep squats. Although squats can be an essential part of leg training, they may not be your number-one exercise, and here’s why.

First, let’s figure out a few musculoskeletal dimensions and circumferences to point your leverage in the right direction. Because shape and separation are genetically and dietetically controlled, respectively, finding the exercise that fits your musculoskeletal system is of paramount importance. At your height the measurement from the top of your hip flexor to your ankle bone is between 38.5 and 41.5 inches, certainly longer than the legs of lifters who are of more average height. That means your legs have to move farther with the weight. So squatting heavy would be the last thigh-building exercise I would chose for you. What I’d suggest instead is using heavier and heavier weight on the leg press over a period of about six to eight months. You also want to be pumping out anywhere from 15 to 25 repetitions to failure with those heavy leg presses.  

The reasoning behind the heavy leg presses? Simple: You shorten the stroke by moving the seat up a notch. That makes your thigh length “normal” and your power stroke stronger. It’s an art and science of inches—often only an inch on the seat level—and the amount of weight or rep range can make all the difference in whether you stimulate enough new fibers to grow. With leg presses you also take out of the movement your upper body, especially on the 45 degree leg press, which will contribute to your leg growth, anaerobic capacity, lung growth and, eventually, squatting ability.

After doing a light, high-rep warmup set and a second heavier warmup set, pile on a weight that you could normally get 10 reps with and raise the seat a notch. Now bang out nonstop as many reps as you can. You want to be doing 800 to 1,000 pounds at some point, with high-rep counts each time. You want to blow out every ounce of energy and power on one set to failure.

Upon completing one enormously loaded and difficult set on the leg press to failure, go to the hack-squat machine, pile on as much weight as you can use, and do between 18 and 25 repetitions for one or two all-out sets. Work toward using heavier and heavier weights—whatever you can do 10 times. You should be able to adjust the seat or footrest up—or down, as in the case of hack squats—one notch and do almost double the weight with double the reps within six to eight months. One inch can make all the difference when you have legs as long as yours.

The key, as with any muscle group, is to find the right exercises for your musculoskeletal system and stick with them. In time your body will respond, so long as you’re using your limbs to your leverage advantage. IM

Editor’s note: To contact Paul Burke, write to [email protected]. 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 His training DVD “Burke’s Law” is also now available.

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