Leg training can be both enjoyable and rewarding, and also frightening.
If you've ever pushed yourself to the limit in a set of squats, you'll
know what I mean. You may find that, although you really enjoy doing
it, the thought of a leg workout and the effort that has to be expended,
fills you with dread. I firmly believe that leg training contributes
as much to mental resilience as it does to physical; in order to continue
to progress, you must fight the part of you that tells you to put
the bar back on the racks when it starts to hurt, remind yourself
of why your doing this, and push on. This is not a skill that you
will initially have, but you will learn it soon enough, if you have
the desire and the passion to go after what you want for yourself.
Hard Leg Training = Big Gains!
The muscles of the leg/hip structures comprise the largest muscles
in the body. Effective training of these muscles to induce muscular
growth requires intense effort, and as a result, constitutes tremendous
physical stress on your body, and on your recuperative abilities.
It is this fact which means that leg training will induce greater
overall muscle growth, i.e. not just in the legs, than any other type
of training. This is because the tremendous physiological stress imposed
will cause the body to greatly increase its production of growth factors
and hormones involved in muscle repair and growth, which will have
a 'spill-over' effect by aiding the growth of all your other muscle
groups that are undergoing training stress. So, as you can see, it
is a great mistake to ignore leg training in favour of your upper-body
muscles, as you will only slow down progress, and limit the size of
all your other muscle groups.
In this article, I will cover some aspects of leg training in detail,
which can be applied, albeit at different levels, by both the beginning
and advanced trainee.
The squat is probably the single most effective bodybuilding exercise
there is, and arguably the hardest and most uncomfortable to do. It
is a fact that you will probably never reach your full potential in
terms of physical development if you don't squat. However, for some
people, due to anatomical constraints, their inherent structures do
not allow them to squat effectively or safely. This is something that
you must find out for yourself, and if so, you must find alternative
exercises to develop these muscles.
The leg press is often used as a main mass-building exercise for
people who have problems with the squat, but DO NOT make the above
an excuse NOT to perform the squat merely because you find it unpleasant
to do in terms of effort and fatigue pain; you will be doing yourself
a great disservice in the long run.
The muscles which are the 'prime movers' in the squat comprise the
musculature of the lower back, hips/buttocks and thighs. Muscles which
receive secondary stimulation are the muscles of the shoulder girdle,
upper back, calves, and a great many other muscle groups throughout
the body involved in stabilisation throughout the movement. The involvement
of so much muscle tissue means that very heavy weights can ultimately
be utilised in the squat, providing tremendous demands on the body
at both anaerobic and aerobic levels. As a result, coupled with a
good diet and plenty of rest, an effective squatting program within
your workout schedule will yield great gains in muscle mass throughout
the entire body.
So, you've heard how great this exercise is, but how do you do it,
and how do you incorporate it into your workout program? Read on
In order to squat in a correct manner, you will first need a set
of 'squat racks' which hold the bar at shoulder height, ready to be
used. This is important, because your ability to move weights in the
squat will far exceed your ability to clean the weight from the floor
to your shoulders, and then get it behind your head without breaking
your skull - not easy to do with 500 pounds, or much lighter weights.
The other requirements are as follows:
Weight-lifting belt - to support your lower back and midsection.
Strong shoes - to supply stability. Preferably, these should not
allow your feet to easily move from side-to-side while lifting -
you don't want to twist your ankle and lose control of a heavy weight.
Specially designed weight-lift0ing boots are the ideal choice.
Those are the basic pieces of kit that you will need in the beginning.
As you progress, you may want to have periods in you're training where
you want to lift very heavy weights - for example, you may want to
compete in powerlifting, or smash through a strength plateau on a
lift. You will then need knee wraps, and also a 'lifting suit', which
is a garment composed of very tough material that is very tight-fitting
when tailored correctly. This gives your body a lot of support during
the lift, and aids the movement of the biggest possible weights.
However, you must use caution with the use of these last two pieces
of equipment. It is no good using such items until you are already
very strong, and you must not come to rely on them in you're training.
This is because the knee wraps and/or the lifting suit will give you
a much greater leverage advantage, which means that although you will
be able to lift bigger weights with their correct use, the actual
stress on the muscles may not be as great due to the increased leverage.
Long-term use may lead to strength imbalances between the muscle groups
involved, and possible injury as a result. It is only really in the
run-up to a powerlifting meet, or to attaining a specific strength
goal, that the suit and wraps really come into their own.
The use of these training aids allows you physically, and especially
psychologically, to better cope with handling really heavy poundages
over the short-term, which will translate into larger weights being
used in your 'non-wrap, non-suit' squat workouts, and so improved
progress in terms of size and strength. It is therefore important
that you base the majority of you're training in the squat around
the use of a good belt and lifting shoes.
The best way to learn how to squat properly is to have an experienced
lifter (not some pencil-necked 'trainer' employed by most gyms around
these days, who are generally even frightened of performing concentration
curls, never mind squatting) to instruct you. Failing that, you will
have to refer to magazine articles or other literature. In a nutshell,
this is how you should squat to put maximum stress on the thigh muscles;
this is known as the 'high-bar' or 'bodybuilding' squat.
1) First, have a bar set up on a set of squat-racks at shoulder
height, loaded with the desired poundage. Grasp the bar with your
hands, perhaps six inches or so outside your shoulder width, and
duck your head under the bar, and allow it to rest across your trapezius
muscles on your upper back, across your shoulder girdle, in a position
that feels comfortable for you. Position your feet facing very slightly
outward to the side, about shoulder width apart.
2) Do not let the bar rest too low down your back, or more of the
stress will be transferred to your lower back and glutei (buttocks)
- this is the powerlifting-style squat, and together with a wider
than usual stance, allows better leverage for moving heavy weights,
but affords less training stress to the thighs.
3) Once the bar is in a comfortable position, consciously tighten
the muscles in your legs and back, and lift the bar from the racks,
keeping erect, and not allowing yourself to bend forward, or curve
your lower back forward.
4) Fix your eyes on a point on the wall in front of you at eye-level,
and keep focused on this point as you descend into the squat.
5) Squat down, keeping your lower back flat, and head up, until
your thighs reach parallel to the floor, or just below parallel.
6) Then, without bouncing at the bottom of the movement, drive
upwards until you are stood erect. Repeat for the desired number
Stiff-leg Deadlift Performance
The hamstrings (or leg-biceps) are the muscles situated at the back
of your thigh, and are very important both in terms of leg strength/stability,
and to the appearance of the leg as a whole, and so should not be
neglected in your training. A big difference in the strength of your
hamstrings to your quads can mean nasty injuries in e.g. when performing
the squat, so don't neglect those leg-bis!!
The stiff-leg deadlift is a very important hamstring exercise if
done correctly and, along with the seated and standing leg-curl, will
greatly develop this muscle group. The best way to perform this exercise
is in a style dubbed 'Keystones' by Dr. Fred Hatfield PhD, who has
squatted over 1000 pounds in the past, and so knows a thing or two
about leg training, as you might guess. If you've ever seen the Keystone
Cops, the relevance of the name to the stance you must adopt will
be obvious. Basically, stand erect in front of a barbell loaded with
a suitable weight, and lift the weight as if you are doing a conventional
deadlift, keeping your head up and lower back flat. To begin the Keystones,
while standing erect with the weight in your hands, bend the legs
slightly whilst keeping a strong inward curve to your lower back,
and sticking your rear-end out as far as you can (- sounds funny but
this really works!!). Then bend forward at the waist, keeping your
legs very slightly bent with your knees just unlocked. Return to an
If you are doing this right, you should feel an incredible stretch
in your hamstrings on lowering the weight, and in the position described
you should not be able to let the weight drop below mid-shin i.e.
you will not be able to lower it all the way to the floor. If you
can, then you are allowing you're lower back to round out, and are
risking injury. This exercise works the hamstrings to the limit, if
done properly. The weight you use for your work sets will vary depending
on you're strength level, but always warm-up with a lighter weight
The power-rack can be a very useful piece of equipment for the purpose
of increasing your squatting power. Maximum poundages can be utilised
in the top portion of the movement, over the last six to twelve inches
of motion before standing erect, at which the pins on the power-rack
may be set on which to rest the bar. Extremely heavy poundages, compared
to what can be used over a full-range of motion, can be used in this
way. The great stress of the heavy weight over the short range of
motion will lead to big strength increases in the full-range movement,
if used wisely i.e. worked hard and infrequently.
Beginning trainees often train legs along with the rest of the body
in two or three workout sessions per week. However, as you progress,
you may find that because of the size of the poundages that you are
using and the increased training intensity that you will develop over
time, you will not be able to give all your bodyparts enough training
stress in one workout due to exhaustion. Therefore, many people opt
to train different parts of the body on different days, and often
reserve a day just for leg training, because it is so physically and
In addition to the squat in a typical leg routine, exercises such
as stiff-leg deadlifts and leg curls for the hamstrings, and various
types of calf-raise are included. The exercises primarily involving
the quadriceps are often done first in a workout, due to the fact
that movements such as squats and leg presses are more demanding than
hamstring and calf work, and are therefore best tackled first in the
workout when you are fresh. However, if you find that your hamstrings
or calves are lacking in development behind your quadriceps, it would
make sense to then prioritise them first in your workout, rather than
Set out below are a couple of examples of basic leg routines:
Barbell squat - warm-up, then 2-3 all-out sets of 6-10 reps (2-3 x
Leg curl (standing or lying) - one or two light sets, then 2-3 x 6-10
Leg extensions - warm-up, then 2-3 x 6-10
Calf raise (standing or seated) - warm up, then 2-3 x 10-12
Leg press - warm up, then 2-3 x 6-10
Stiff-leg deadlift - warm-up, then 2-3 x 6-10
Leg-curl (standing or lying) - warm up, then 2 x 6-10
Leg extensions - warm-up, then 2-3 x 6-10
Calf raise (standing or seated) - warm up, then 2-3 x 10-12
It is important in moving between exercises to do at least one light
set of the new exercise before your work sets begin. This is important,
because even though your muscles may be fully warmed up from the previous
exercise, this is now a different movement involving different patterns
of contraction; in other words, do a light set first or risk an injury!
It is important not to do too many sets - remember, in order to build
muscle, you can't train as if you're trying to break a world endurance
record; your workouts should be of short duration, not too many sets,
but you must train with great intensity and effort, which is a learned
skill that takes time. Keep this in mind; the leg workout of the current
Mr. Olympia, Dorian Yates, does not last more than an hour, and is
completed in no more than around ten to twelve work sets total. If
this is all that Mr. Olympia needs to build legs of those proportions,
do you really need to do any more sets than that?
It is also important to include the conventional deadlift in your
program at some stage; many of the muscles involved in squatting are
involved in the deadlift, and this is another very important exercise.
However, it is probably not advisable to perform the squat on the
same day that you deadlift, and vice versa.
Workout A and B above represent basic leg routines, and can be altered
in many hundreds of ways to suit you - this is something that you
will need to figure out for yourself. Exercises may be removed or
substituted, rep ranges changed (higher or lower reps), supersets
and trisets etc included, pre-exhaustion, descending sets - the list
If you decide to include the barbell squat and stiff-leg deadlift
together in a workout, remember that these both heavily involve the
lower back, so if you squat first, you may not be able to stiff-leg
deadlift optimally due to lumbar fatigue, and vice versa.
More Advanced Leg Routines
Here is an example of a more advanced leg routine:
Barbell squat super-setted with leg extensions i.e. perform leg extensions
to muscular failure, immediately followed by squat for 10-12 reps,
without any rest between the leg extensions and the squats! Warm up
first, then do two of these supersets, which will probably be the
hardest physical thing you've ever done, if done properly. If you
vomit copiously or pass out after this don't be surprised!!
For God's sake, use a training partner or spotter on this, in case
you get into difficulty with the weight!!!
If you can still even think straight after this, then perform two
sets each of leg-curls and calf raises, incorporating descending sets
i.e. when you reach muscular failure using a particular weight, reduce
the weight and immediately carry on with a lower weight without rest,
again to failure, and so on, for two or three drops. You can perform
the descending sets of calf raises and leg-curls in superset fashion,
i.e. a descending set of leg-curls immediately followed by a descending
set of calf raises, or you can train the leg-biceps and calves separately.
A variation on this scheme is to train the leg-biceps and calves first
in the workout, then the quads. In this case, it may be better to
substitute the leg-press for squats, as training hamstrings first
may reduce your stability in the squat.
This is a routine that I have used interspersed with more basic strength
routines, and believe me, it works!!!!
20 - rep Squatting
In this program, you pick a weight that you can normally get around
10 reps with in the squat in a regular set, and do 20 reps with it!!
Take note that it is probably a fact that the first time you try this,
you won't hit the 20, but you soon will within a few workouts, with
persistence and determination.
In order to do this, a rest-pause technique is required to keep the
set going. When you feel that you are getting close to failure around
the tenth or eleventh rep, begin taking three or more very deep breaths
in between each rep, and then force out another rep, and so on. If
you get crazy enough, you won't believe how much you're body is capable
of, and how much your mind normally holds you back!! Effort like this
translates into enormous overall gains in muscle, not just in the
legs, as long as you're diet and rest are in order when you're out
of the gym.
It is normally not necessary to do more than one all-out set like
this, and you probably won't even be able to think about doing any
other exercises that workout, after your twenty-rep squat!! You must
use at least one training partner on this in case you get into difficulty
with the weight, which is a real possibility here!!
How Far Can You Take It
In terms of the world of bodybuilding, Tom Platz is perhaps the hardest
training bodybuilder ever. For example, in his competitive days, this
guy squatted 600-700 pounds for 10 reps, with no wraps or power suit,
could squat 400 pounds for 40 to 50 reps, and reportedly squatted
315 pounds for 15 minutes non-stop!!! Absolutely unbelievable feats
of strength and endurance, and Tom still trains much the same way
now, at over 40 years old!! It is hardly surprising that his leg development
is regarded as the best the world had ever seen, or probably will
What's the 'Take Home' Message?
Hard, consistent leg training is the key to bodybuilding success
- you will never reach your full physical potential without hard training
of your legs. Excellent diet and rest are also vital requirements.
So, its all down to you - how much do you really want it?
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