By Jimmy Peña, MS, CSCS
Contributing Director of Strength & Conditioning
Got Legs? If Not, Here's How To Get 'Em
Whether you’re coming back from a layoff or injury, are a beginner in the gym or one of those bodybuilders who’s neglected his lower half, the fastest way to add some size to your thighs is to stick with the basics. The concept of overload that governs resistance training is critical now more than ever, because nothing’s going to grow if you don’t challenge it. And that was never more true than on leg day. Your discipline will determine your destiny; when it comes to your legs, yours is still unwritten.
Keys to Leg Day Training
1) Use Compound Forces.
Because leg training involves so many muscle groups, it’s critical — at least the majority of time – to begin your routine with multijoint moves. Those are the exercises that use all of the major muscle groups simultaneously in a single exercise. To build your foundation you need to start big. Basically, you want moves that call upon the hamstrings, glutes and quads all at the same time. That means favoring squats and squat variations (hacks and leg presses — which are basically inverted squats in a machine) over single-joint moves like the leg extension and leg curls.
2) Turn Up the Volume.
Gaining as much size as possible requires more than just choosing the right exercises and doing them in the right order. You must also do enough sets and choose the appropriate level of resistance. Research has shown that high-volume workouts are important factors in building muscle size, not to mention initiating the release of critical anabolic hormones responsible for muscle growth. Hence you’ll be doing a hefty number of sets on leg day.
3) Pick the Right Rep Range.
Because a big muscle is also a strong one, it’s good to make sure you use both heavy and moderate weights to build size and strength. After all, the more weight you can move, the more your legs will respond. For that reason, you’re going to attack a spectrum of rep ranges. Do sixes and eights early in your routine (choose a weight with which you fail at six and eight reps, respectively) for strength, and then shooting for 10s, 12s and even 15s toward the end to expand the muscle tissue. That’s a perfect combination for getting the best of both worlds.
4) Adjust Your Rest Intervals.
Typically we suggest you rest 1–2 minutes between sets; just enough time to recoup and recover before your next grueling round of reps. But when it comes to your heaviest sets, we’re adding an additional minute. Resting up to three minutes will ensure you’re completely prepared for the next set or exercise. You want to be as strong as possible on each set, so slowing down your pace on your heaviest sets guarantees just that.
Basic Training Leg Workout
Squat 5 Sets x 6,6,8,12,15 Reps
Hack Squat 5 Sets x 6,6,8,12,15 Reps
Leg Extension 3 Sets x 8,12,15 Reps
Lying Leg Curl 3 Sets x 8,12,15 Reps
Leg-Press Calf Raise 3 Sets x 15, 20, 25 Reps
* Doesn't include warm-up sets; do as many as you can but never take warm-up sets to muscle failure.
* Choose a weight so that you can reach muscle failure at the target rep. Take weight off on successive sets on a given exercise so that you can reach the higher rep target. Rest up to three minutes before your heaviest sets.
If this is your first time hearing this, it won’t be your last. If you want to build leg mass, this is the move of moves. No other exercise will add size to all the muscles of the lower body better than the squat.
Quads, glutes, hamstrings
Do It Right:
Position the bar across your shoulders and stand erect with your chest out and holding a slight arch in your back, feet shoulder width apart and pointed slightly outward. Keep your head facing directly forward (don’t look up). Do a deep knee bend; from the bottom position, press through the floor with your legs until you reach the standing position, flexing your legs and glutes briefly at the top.
Squat down until you reach at least a thighs-parallel position (90-degree knee bend) to ensure optimal thigh and glute development. Shallow squats work a far smaller degree of muscle mass.
With your legs fatigued, move to machine training so that you no longer have to worry about balance. The hack also hits all the major muscles, but foot placement as well as squat depth determine which muscles are emphasized.
Quads, glutes, hamstrings
Do It Right:
Secure your torso under the pads. As you descend, keep your knees in line tracking over your feet and don’t bounce out of the bottom position, but rather make a smooth transition as you explode upward. Keep your back flat against the pad at all times with your abs tight, and make sure your feet remain flat on the platform throughout.
The higher you place your feet on the footplate, the less the emphasis on the quads and the greater on the hams/glutes. The more narrow and low, the higher involvement of the quads, especially the outer sweep.
This single-joint move completely limits the muscular stress to just the quads. Do it last in your frontal thigh workout to pump, flush and fatigue the target muscle group.
Do It Right:
Align the machine for your body frame and sit squarely in the apparatus, feet facing forward with the padded lever just above your shin. Extend your legs using a controlled rep speed and try to hold the top position for a count before lowering under control.
Keep your feet flexed; you can turn them slightly in or out but don’t exaggerate the degree of turn to ensure knee health. Turning your toes outward will stress the tear drop (medialis) and pointing the toes inward will help stimulate the outer quad (vastus lateralis).
Lying Leg Curl
The hams are worked in multijoint leg moves most commonly by contracting to control the rate of descent (during the down phase of squat movements). Here, they’re directly targeted in this single-joint move.
Do It Right:
Lie facedown on a leg-curl machine and position your Achilles’ tendons below the padded lever, your knees just off the edge of the bench. Make sure your knees are slightly bent to protect them from overextension. Raise your feet toward your glutes in a strong but deliberate motion, squeezing the muscles at the top, then lower to the start position.
In this move your legs are relatively straight in relation to your torso. Research shows that this body position causes the biceps femoris (outer hamstring) to get more emphasis. Point your toes slightly inward to shift some of the emphasis to the inner hamstrings.
Leg-Press Calf Raise
The calves are made of up the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The soleus lies underneath the bigger, diamond-shaped gastroc. Both muscles are at work during all calf moves, but you can emphasize one or the other depending on whether your legs are straight or bent.
Calves (emphasis on gastrocnemius)
Do It Right:
Sit in the leg-press machine as you would during a leg press. Place the balls of your feet on the lower portion of the platform so that your heels can move freely. Press up so that your legs are almost completely straight but not locked out. You probably don’t need to release the safeties because you’ll have the range of motion necessary to perform the movement. Lower your toes toward you, feeling the stretch in your calves, then press the platform up to point your toes again.
Straight-legged calf raises emphasize the gastroc, while seated moves target the soleus. If standing calf raises cause lower-back strain, this is the perfect alternative.