I admit, legs have always kind of been my thing. They’re one of my strongest bodyparts, and I’ve always loved to train them. Better yet, they always grew when I put the effort into them.
I know I’m somewhat genetically gifted in the lower body. In every gym I’ve been a member of, I’ve been known as the guy with the big legs. But I’ve also worked my tail off for more than 17 years to achieve the development I have (in my first four years of training I was just messing around with chest and arms, to be honest). Having been both a personal trainer and a bodybuilding writer for the better part of my adult life, I’ve made it my mission to help others build thicker, stronger legs too. We all have physique pet peeves, and mine is seeing guys with massive, powerful upper bodies and pathetically scrawny legs. Such mismatched proportions may be okay for a cartoon character like Mighty Mouse or Johnny Bravo, but on a real human being, it’s a joke. For my money, you can’t call yourself a bodybuilder unless you have at least decent legs.
At the gym in Pasadena, California, where I trained for almost a decade, we had a guy I’ll call Latrell. He had an incredible upper body. It reminded me of the great ’80s pro Mike Christian’s physique. But Latrell’s legs were just terrible’sticks floating inside his baggy sweatpants that looked as if they belonged on a different person. His upper body could have sued his lower for lack of support. I’ve known many a man with the same physique flaw, and there is no reason for it. I often hear guys bitch that their legs just won’t grow, and if I start digging and ask a few questions, or better yet, watch them train, I can see right away that their legs certainly could be a lot larger and more impressive if they just did things differently.
I’ve distilled the major issues that stunt lower-body growth into 10 simple rules. If your legs are lagging behind your upper body, listen up. Apply the ideas I set forth here, and they’ll be well on their way from bamboo stalks to oak trunks.
1) Squat if you can. Unless you have a lower-back injury, your best bet for overall lower-body size and strength is the barbell squat. There’s simply no other exercise that’s harder to do’or more productive. Those who know that are never all that impressed with someone who can pile a half-ton or more on a leg press or any other machine. The difference in difficulty is so great that most guys who can do 10 deep reps on a leg press with a thousand pounds probably can’t even do a single with 405 with a bar on their back.
Squats are so effective that they cross over into strength training for virtually every sport in existence. The benefit you’ll get from performing them is one of the few things in your training career that’s guaranteed. If you can squat 300 pounds for 10 reps today, and a year from now you can do the same with 450, your legs will be significantly larger. They’ll have to grow’they’ll have no choice but to adapt to the additional stress being imposed.
It’s true that some people can build pretty huge legs without squatting, but they’re definitely the exception to the rule. Even I thought I could get away without squatting for a few years, but I hit a point where the only way to get my legs to the next level was to suck it up and get under the bar again. I do understand that those who have very long legs simply can’t get anything out of squats due to their poor biomechanics, and the same goes for those who have lower-back injuries that limit the resistance they can handle. In those cases the next best thing is Smith-machine squats, which let you position your feet slightly forward’which may feel better and frees you of having to balance the weight. The leg press and hack squat certainly have their place in leg training, but only as adjuncts to some form of squatting. Work hard on squats, and your legs will show it.
2) Use a full range of motion. I couldn’t talk about squats without following up immediately with a recommendation about working squats as well as all leg exercises through a complete range of motion. When I see someone squatting or leg-pressing a great deal of weight, 99 times out of 100 they’re only lowering halfway or less and so robbing their legs of an opportunity to grow. I’m always far more impressed to see someone squatting 315’or even 225’to parallel or below than I am to watch some jackass do half-reps with 400 or 500 pounds.
Swallow your pride, don’t worry about who’s watching you, and use a weight you can actually handle. The late Vince Gironda was vehemently against squats, as he was convinced that they built ‘a big ass and turnip thighs.’ Done too heavy and for half reps, they certainly will overemphasize the glutes and upper thighs; however, squats taken all the way down will build complete quadriceps development all the way down to the knees and will even contribute to thicker, sweeping hamstrings. Apply the full-range-of-motion edict to all other leg exercises’except leg extensions. Those shouldn’t be started with the legs bent back any further than a 45 degree angle, as the tendons around the knee can be overstretched (more on that in rule 7). With all types of presses and leg curls, however, lower all the way before coming back up. Just remember: Full reps for full development. ALL 3) Train quads and hams separately, or do hams first. Most of us who’ve been training for a number of years wouldn’t dream of working the entire upper body at once. It’s just much too large an area to cover. Ironically, though, a lot of us think nothing of hitting quads and hams together, often along with our calves; in other words, the whole lower body. Because of that we often fail to see the gains we should. We could do more for quads, but we need to save some gas for hams. And no matter how much you think you have left for hamstrings, after a good quad hit featuring squats, extensions, leg presses and maybe even some lunges for shits and giggles, there’s no way you can give your hams the energy and intensity they need for growth.
The easy solution is to work them in different sessions, preferably about three days apart due to the unavoidable overlap experienced from compound movements like squats. Many times that simple change has been enough to spur gains in bodybuilders whose legs haven’t grown in years. I know that in my case my hamstrings were pretty embarrassing until I started working them first on leg day, and for a couple of years I didn’t do much for my quads to let the hams catch up. That’s another option for those of you who have overpowering quads. If you choose to do it, be sure that your quad work is minimal’just enough to maintain the existing mass’a couple sets of squats and extensions should cover it. Doing the gamut of ham and quad movements in one workout is just too much.
4) Don’t kill your recovery with intense cardio. For a long time I advocated intense interval-style cardio, where you alternate all-out sprints with slower recovery jogs. It’s a very effective way to burn a lot of calories in a short time, but I came to realize that it also has a wasting effect on the legs for a lot of people. Being disposed to having big legs, I didn’t realize that, but many readers of my online training journal soon let me know it was happening to them.
If leg growth is a priority for you, you should be drastically limiting your cardio or keeping the pace moderate. A fast walk on the treadmill should suffice. You’ll have to do longer cardio sessions to burn the same number of calories as you burn when you go at a faster pace, but you won’t be in danger of interfering with leg recovery and growth. One cardinal rule that I follow’and preach to anyone who’ll listen’is to never do cardio of any kind on the day following your leg workout. Let your legs rest and heal for at least a full day. Whatever you do, never perform your cardio so intensely and with so much resistance on the machine that your legs start to pump up and fill with lactic acid. Do that, and you can be very sure you’re cheating them of potential growth.
5) Use both high and low reps. Legs are a funny muscle group in that they seem to respond best to a mix of high and low reps. You can cycle your training so that you do high or low reps at certain times, perhaps as part of a planned periodization cycle. Powerlifters use the technique to increase their maximum squats, progressing in weight and lowering the reps in the weeks leading up to a meet. Another approach is to include high and low reps in the same workout. That’s what I prefer. Often I do my squats in the range of four to 10 reps and then later do leg presses with as many as 20 to 40 reps per set. That hits both the fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers and seems to stimulate mass gains far better than when I use just one or the other rep range.
6) Switch up your routine frequently. If you’re a regular IRON MAN reader, you know how important it is to vary your workouts to keep the muscles ‘guessing.’ A lot of people go in the gym every week and do the same exercises, in the same sequence’amazingly, with the same weight and reps’for months and even years and yet are at a loss as to why their physiques aren’t getting any better. Don’t fall into that trap. Luckily, the magazines present new ideas every month. IRON MAN alone offers a veritable cornucopia to experiment with: X Reps, POF, static contraction, Heavy Duty and many more. It’s like anything else in life: If what you’re doing isn’t working, try something else. Eventually, you’ll find a few exercises and techniques that work like magic for you, and you can basically rotate them for the rest of your lifting career and keep making incremental gains.
The key point is to keep an open mind. Some routine or exercise you haven’t tried yet could be the one that unlocks a flood of new growth. When it comes to exercises, techniques and routines, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
7) Keep your knees injury-free. Hang around any group of guys who’ve been training half their lives or more, and you’ll notice that the conversations often have the whiny theme of, ‘I’ve got more injuries and joint pain than you do.’ One of the areas most complained about are the knees. True, some incurred their knee problems through contact sports, like football, but a lot of those bad knees originated in the gym. The most common culprit was rebounding, or bouncing rapidly, out of the bottom position of heavy squats or leg presses, which had the effect of taking the stress temporarily off the lower-body muscles, magnifying it and applying it directly to the tendons and ligaments that connect bone to bone and muscle to bone. Those connective tissues are prone to degeneration or even tears if enough stress is applied to them over and over.
Recently I’ve become aware of another, lesser-known knee wrecker: heavy leg extensions performed early in your leg workouts. The working theory most of us subscribed to was that leg extensions were a perfect way to warm up the knees and preexhaust the quads. That way you needed less resistance on the compound pressing movements to follow. I now believe that the practice causes more harm than good. I never experienced chronic knee pain until about a year ago. I thought heavy squats were to blame. A conversation with IFBB pro ‘Marvelous’ Melvin Anthony made me realized that the cause could be my performing heavy leg extensions first in my leg workouts. Sure enough, I moved them to the end of the workout, and my knees never bothered me again’knock on wood!
8) Squeeze the target muscle on appropriate exercises. Isolation exercises like leg extensions and leg curls will be far more effective if you make the effort to consciously squeeze the muscle as hard as you can at the end of each rep. I tell people with weak hamstring development to think of leg curls as they would preacher or concentration curls for the biceps. Rather than just fling the weight up and drop it down, control it up with a slow contraction and flex for dear life at the top’and that goes for leg extensions too. You may have to cut the weight you use by as much as half, but I assure you that the results will be well worth it. Of course, you don’t want to worry about flexing your quads in compound movements like squats or leg presses. In fact, you want to avoid doing so because to fully contract the quads, you’d have to lock out your knee joints, and that’s just not safe for your knees (see rule 10). 9) Wear appropriate footwear. That may seem completely trivial, but I assure you that it’s not. You cannot properly perform heavy squats’or any compound pressing movement’unless your feet and ankles are supported and stabilized. Lightweight running shoes like Nike Shox are not suited for squatting, as cool looking as they are. Not only are your ankles completely unsupported, but the toes of those particular shoes are soft’it feels as if your toes are going to pop right out of them.
Take a cue from Ronnie Coleman and wear boots. I was actually wearing boots to train legs long before Ronnie even won his first pro show, and I’m convinced that they’re the very best type of footwear for the task. I like the same type he does, the simple lightweight black boots used by special police units the world over and available at any Army Navy surplus store for about 50 bucks. They give you all the support you need for training with very heavy weights, and for some reason you feel stronger when you’re wearing them.
10) Attack the weights with an attitude, and do not quit. The last rule is to cultivate a warrior attitude about training legs. No bodypart is quite as grueling, demanding and downright uncomfortable to train as the legs. A heavy set of squats taxes your entire system, and even breathing becomes a formidable challenge. The urge to quit is powerful, but you must use mind over matter and force your body to go where it cries out not to be taken. When I see someone with a great set of wheels, I know that before me is a person with heart, a person who kept going, workout after workout, when just about everyone else would have stopped.
You have to approach leg training as a war, and your mission is to attack and continue to fight until you have conquered the weights. Maybe you can’t stand up for a while. That’s okay. Maybe your legs will be so sore for the next five days that you have to drag yourself up staircases by the handrail. That’s fine too. Just know that proper leg training is a bitch. It’s a challenge to your willpower, your pain tolerance, maybe even your sanity. But if you can rise to that challenge, you’ll come out with legs that others will envy.
That concludes my series on rules to follow for adding mass to the various muscle groups of your body. If you follow my rules, I’m certain that you’ll move past the limits of what you thought was possible for your physique. Many of the suggestions I discussed aren’t much more than common sense, but you’d be shocked at how rare common sense can be in the world of muscle building. Best of luck to you in your quest for developing the most perfect physique you’re capable of!
Editor’s note: Check out Ron Harris’ Web site, www.RonHarrismuscle.com. IM