Leg training, especially squats, has always been a lot of fun for me. That's right, fun. I always look forward to squats and I like combining them with intensity techniques to make the workout even more brutal. Squats are, to my mind, the single most important exercise you can do, calling into play some 200 muscles and causing large amounts of natural testosterone/GH release which in turn can cause growth over the entire body (of course, in that regard you can't ignore deads and power cleans). It's been said that squats can cause as much as a 10% increase in upper body size, something Tom Platz knew when he was trying to bring his upper body up to the standards of his amazing legs, which set new standards in development and are still considered among the best ever. Before Platz, weak legs were common, now you'd be hard pressed to find a competition bodybuilder with poor leg development.
To fully understand the thighs, or quadriceps, let's take a look at the anatomy of this area:
There are four muscles that make up the quadriceps, or thigh muscles – the rectus femoris, the vastus intermedius ( these are the center of the thigh), the vastus medialis ( inner thigh) and the vastus lateralis ( outer thigh). The quadriceps attach to the front of the tibia and originate at the top of the femur, with the exception of the rectus fermoris which crosses the hip joint and originates on the pelvis. The function of the quadriceps is to extend the knee, the rectus fermoris also acts as a hip flexor because it crosses the hip joint.
As far as what exercises hit the different parts of the quadriceps:
Outer thigh sweep refers to the vastus lateralis and is developed by keeping your feet close together, in fact they can be touching, on exercises like squats, hack squats and leg presses. Inner thighs are hit by keeping your feet turned out, you can do this on squats, leg presses and leg extensions. For lower thigh development, partial movements emphasizing the first 3/4's range of motion will hit this area. Of course for overall quad development squats and leg press are the main exercise.
Squats can be tough and people will look for all kinds of reasons not to do them. Yet if you understand the correct performance of the exercise and are willing to work through a little bit of (good) pain, you will be rewarded with meaningful results in your desire for bigger legs. Real results require real effort but what a sense of accomplishment after a tough leg day!
But there's a lot more legs to look at! We still have the hamstrings and the calves! These two may be among the forgotten muscles, you know, the ones regulated to a few sets at the end of your workout (forearms and rear delts are usually in this group also).
If the thighs have been historically ignored in bodybuilding, the hamstrings have been even more so, taking an even longer time to become acknowledged as important. In sports, they are vitally important as they balance out the legs and help prevent injury. In bodybuilding competition they are now posed in the mandatories and can add a lot to a ripped physique. To my mind, Rich Gaspari was one of the first to really demonstrate effective hamstrings in competition along with ripped glutes which he was known for. Of course, again you really have to go back to Tom Platz as the first real example of amazing, complete leg development. Today, there are so many top guys with great legs I wouldn't know where to begin!
The Hamstrings are actually comprised of three separate muscles: the Biceps Femoris, Semitendinosus and Semimembranosus. These muscles originate just underneath the Gluteus Maximus on the pelvic bone and attach on the tibia. The primary functions of the Hamstrings are knee flexion (bringing the heel back towards the butt) and hip extension (moving the leg to the rear).
One school of thought suggests that in movement, the hamstrings "primary" function is not knee flexion. In walking or running, for example, the primary function of the hamstring is to decelerate the lower leg in the saggital plane. The saggital plane is an imaginary anatomical plane that travels vertically from the top to the bottom of the body, dividing it into left and right portions. Positionally, knee flexion in walking/running occurs as a result of hip flexion and plantar flexion, again positionally. When the body responds to gravity, hamstring function changes. I find this to be an interesting observation and included it in this article but remain unconvinced as to it's accuracy even though I understand the logic.
Calves are historically considered to be extremely difficult muscles to develop yet are very impressive when developed to their fullest. In fact large, ripped calves are as impressive as any other body part bar none! Back in an era where legs didn't matter guys had great upper bodies on stick legs, especially calves. In fact, I can remember one "blond" bodybuilder who had a great upper body but appeared as if he never even touched legs, creating quite a mismatch of body parts. Arnold helped change this as he improved his own weak calves to an outstanding level. For proportional purposes, calves and arms should be about he same size, yet Chris Dickerson, 1982 Mr. O, had amazing calves that were actually a little larger than his arms. Then, of course, you had guys like Mike Mattarazzo who had amazing calves that he barely ever had to train!
Calves don't always respond, you have to train them with both high reps and heavy weight. Results come from imposing a demand greater than what they are used to. High reps encourage improved blood flow, high rep sets as well as the use of intensity techniques, maximize the pump. Also there are two nutritional aspects to this: be sure you eat adequate carbs in the hours leading up to your workout so your muscles have enough stored glycogen. Not enough glycogen will mean no pump. If you are cutting carbs, use a cycling approach that has you eating more carbs on workout days and less carbs on off days. Finally, add a Nitric Oxide supplement, they work great at enhancing blood flow.
Strength and muscle growth also have a strong neural component. Poor neuromuscular pathways to the muscles result in poor development. This refers to the mind muscle connection and ties into blood flow, which we just discussed. Learning to feel a muscle when it's working takes deliberate focus on that muscle: stand and flex your calf, go up on your feet to get a good stretch- what does that feel like? Do several sets of light weight and a overly slow, deliberate rep performance, up and hold and flex, down into a deep stretch. Focus intently on what is happening in the muscle. Now begin to increase the weight without losing focus on how the muscle feels and responds. This exercise will build the mental aspect so you can feel the muscle work.
The Soleus - the largest calf muscle, serves to extend and rotate the foot. The soleus is best targeted when your knees are bent , as in seated calf raises.
The Gastrocnemius - this muscle actually has two heads ( medial and lateral) it also overlays the Soleus muscle. The function of the gastrocnemius is to flex the foot. The Tibialis Anterior, which actually runs up the front of the lower leg by the shinbone. The function of the tibialis anterior is to elevate and flex the foot. This muscle is best developed by doing reverse calf raises.
The routines that follow will offer variety, one of the keys to progress. You progress when you change things up, not when you do the same thing month after month, year after year. Unless you are focusing purely on strength, after 3-4 weeks it's time to change. Having said that, there's a lot to be said for keeping certain core movements in all your routines: squats, deads, cleans at least.
These routines assume you are working the entire leg in one workout, you divide up your legs if you wish, this is fact makes sense if you need to do more work on a weak area.
- Warm up completely by doing 3 light sets of the first exercise, for reps of 12-15.
- 2 working sets: this will be a post-exhaust superset with drop sets and static holds – squats/leg extensions, pick a weight you can get 10 reps with, go to failure, drop weight, go again to failure, drop weight, go again, drop weight and go a third time then go right into leg extensions. You will do 3 drops as in squats and at the end of each series of reps before you drop weight, hold the weight up for a 5 count.
- Leg Curls – 3 sets of 12 reps, hold the weight at the top for a 3 count.
- Standing calf raises – 2 sets of 30 – slow up, hold for a 3 count, slow down.
- Seated calf raises – 2 sets of 30
Performance notes: Do your reps in an explosive up, slow down, continuous tension style, no locking out, no pausing unless it is called for as part of the intensity techniques. By using a post exhaust super set and not a pre exhaust, you can use more weight on squats, so the strength component is not being ignored. Do not let momentum come into play on any exercise. Add weight as you can, do this routine for no more than 4 weeks before changing to something new.
- Squats – 15, 12, 10, 8, 6,4-6
- Leg Press – 2 sets of 10-12 reps
- Leg curls – 4 sets of 12, 10, 8,6 reps
- Leg press calf raises – 3 sets of 50, 30, 20, 15 reps
- Reverse calf raises – 2 sets of 15 reps
Performance notes: This is the classic pyramid approach, as you get to the heavier sets you want to fail at the rep range listed but, do not stop if you can do more reps than what is listed, just add more weight the next time. Use the same rep style as in the first routine.
Routine # 3
- Warm up with 3 easy sets of 12-15 reps
- 20 rep squats,drop set style: 20 reps done with a weight you can handle for 8-10 reps. At 20 drop the weight ( at least 20%) and continue until failure, drop the weight again and continue until failure. This is one set and should be enough to fry your thighs. Do your reps slow and controlled, no pausing or locking out.
- Rest 3-5 minutes, then:
- Stiff legged dead lift– 3 sets of 12 reps
- Standing calf raise – 2 sets of 15 with very heavy weight!
- Seated calf raise – 2 sets of 15 with very heavy weight!
Performance notes: This is a turbo charged 20 rep squat routine. By it's very nature the 20 rep incorporated rest pause, as the set gets tough you are stopping and taking several deep breaths before continuing but in this case you are doing 2 drops after the 20. Now you won't get many reps at all at this point but you will fry your legs! Use the same rep performance here as in the other routines. On stiff legged deadlifts use a slow and controlled up and a slow and controlled down to focus on the stretch. One trick you can try on these is to slightly elevate your toes on a pair of 25's, this can better hit the hams. Try it and see if you like it.
Each of these routines are demanding and require full recovery for maximum results. I typically advocate one session per week for each body part, training that body part again every 6 or 7 days.
Sound nutrition/supplementation is essential for proper recovery. Recovery in this day and age can start with an intra workout drink, I'm using Monster Amino by Cytosport for this purpose. This does not mean you can skip the post workout shake, have that about 30 minutes after your workout. About 30-40 minutes after that, have a good meal. You will notice I don't use a pre workout drink like NO-Xplode, only because I work out late and don't want the caffeine. By all means use a drink like that to enhance energy and training intensity, you may need it to get through some of these routines!
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions or comments.
By: Jim Brewster