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To Squat or Not?

Q: I’m a 54-year-old man and have been training with weights for 25 years. I have trouble with my thighs. I compete in the over-50 class, and the guys with good thighs say that squatting is king. I try squats, but I keep getting injured when I do them. Is there an alternative to squatting that can build and split the thigh muscles? Or is squatting the only way to go?

A: Not everyone gets maximum stimulation and muscular hypertrophy from doing squats. Those who say that squats are king are only half right because many people who squat shouldn’t.

Many men are not biomechanically designed for squats. I used to squat heavy until I found a really great alternative. If you can squat but find yourself failing biomechanically before maximum muscular stimulation of the quadriceps, then try doing the following:

1) If your upper body is bending forward too much, that means your torso is a bit longer relative to your leg length and hip width. So put a second belt on above your power belt. That will help hold your upper body upright. The easiest way to know for sure if there’s a large disparity between your upper and lower body is to measure the distance from the center of your right nipple to the center of your left. Now, measure from dominant-side nipple center to your belly-button center. If your second measurement is two or more inches longer than the first, that’s a clear indication that your upper torso is a bit long, relatively speaking, and that calls for squat-assisting measures.

2) If you choose to squat, purchase a pair of weight-training shoes that support your ankles. That will help at least 5 to 10 percent.

3) Wear knee wraps (and ankle wraps if necessary). I see many people squatting without wearing ankle-high training shoes, and that’s usually a major problem. The weight you can squat with depends on the weakest link. If your ankles and knees are small or not supported properly, then you need to wrap the knees and wear weight-training shoes that support your ankles.

4) If none of those help, then quit squatting. Try the following leg routine to get maximum muscular stimulation and maximum muscular hypertrophy.

a) On a smooth-sliding leg press, do one warmup set of 25 reps with a light weight. Add 100 pounds and do 15 more warmup reps. Then take a weight that you’ve had difficulty handling for 10 reps. With your ankles well supported and your knees wrapped, push that weight as many times as possible—until total failure. That should be anywhere from 12 to 25 repetitions. Remember that number. Although you may not hit the 25-reps mark the first time, within months you’ll be doing much more weight and many more reps. Now do three leg extension/leg curl supersets to failure.

b) Wait 10 days before training your legs again. Then do just one warmup set of 25 reps on the leg press. Then load on the weight—what you used 10 days earlier—and be sure that you hit the 25-rep mark. Do the same superset follow-up with leg curls and leg extensions.

c) Add a set of hack squats with as much weight as you can use for 15 reps. Go to failure. That’s your last exercise.

d) On your next leg day just do the leg curls and leg extensions for three supersets to failure.

e) Train legs again six or seven days later. Do one warmup set on leg presses. Then load up those plates to as much as you can use for at least 15 reps. Push and release until you can’t take it anymore. Try for at least three to four times your bodyweight for 20 to 30 reps—nonstop. At one time—ages 44 through 48—I was using 1,200 pounds for 25 reps. That, along with the leg-curl/leg-extension supersets and one set of hack squats, pushed my legs to grow two inches and split into four distinct muscles. The idea is to build up reps while adding weight and giving your legs a rest here and there so that when you come back to them, you can set a personal record on the leg presses.

f) After your one all-out set of high-rep, heavy-weight leg presses, go directly to hack squats. With no more than a one-minute break, do as many reps as possible with as much weight as possible—never locking out and never stopping until you can do no more. That’s how you make thighs grow and split. Finish with the supersets, three rounds to failure.

g) Do what you normally do for calves on all leg days.

Since we’re not all biomechanically equal, we cannot, and should not, do the same exercises. Most people who have small lower joints or who are tall have a great deal of difficulty doing heavy squats. That doesn’t mean that they can’t make their legs grow; it merely means they need to be smart about how they approach their leg training. If you slowly build up weight and reps on a machine such as the leg press and/or hack squat, you’ll often get better leg development than you will with squats. 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 “Burke’s Law” training DVD is also now available.

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