Training

The Long and Short of Leg Training

Get on the fast track to size with this comprehensive contract-and-stretch hypertrophy program.

Photos of Craig Capurso by Robert Reiff

Few body parts stymie a guy like legs. They’re big, they’re stubborn and they’re nausea-inducing. You squat yourself silly in the gym for a precious quarter-inch of size, then seemingly overnight, it disappears. What can you do?

First of all, stop whining. Now have a look at this program, designed by Jay Ashman of Ashman Strength Systems in Mentor, Ohio. The workout relies on a simple concept: that in order to grow, you first need to tear down your muscles as much as possible. The best way to do this, according to Ashman, is by consciously combining contracting exercises (such as leg curls) with stretching exercises (such as Romanian deadlifts). Here’s why:
  • The contraction exercises tear down tissue through overload, which is achieved through using heavy weight for higher reps.
  • They also work to pump up the muscle, infusing it with blood, engorging the tissues and providing it with nutrients and oxygen.
  • The stretching exercises then take that pumped-up muscle and elongate it, tearing it down with the same weighted overload while also pulling it apart, both of which promote strength and size gains, according to Ashman. His plan combines both of these types of moves, making it about as well-rounded a plan as you can get.

The Appetizer

Kicking things off is a pre-exhaust combo of leg curls and leg presses. This will serve first and foremost to warm up your muscles and joints, though Ashman also recommends doing whatever sort of additional warm-ups you might need — light cardio, dynamic stretching, even some core work to get those neurons firing. The pre-exhaust will also fatigue the quads and hams individually, which ultimately cuts back on the amount of work you need to do within the body of the workout to achieve the same results.

Start on the seated leg curl machine for your first contraction move. “Most guys are quad-dominant, so starting with a hamstring move can help balance that out,” Ashman says. Stick to a high-rep format using a moderately heavy weight, and bring the pain with super-slow repetitions instead. “The concentric contraction should take one to two seconds with a one-second squeeze at the top, then a two- to four-second eccentric contraction,” Ashman says. “If you can’t manage this for at least 15 reps, you’re going too heavy. This is about control and intensity, not ego.”

Next, you’ll move into the leg press for your stretching move, placing your feet close together and low on the platform. “This better isolates the vastus medialis oblique — or VMO — which forms the teardrop of your quad,” Ashman says. “Most guys have a lot of trouble with developing this muscle, so whenever you have an opportunity to target it, do so.”

Here you’ll do a 1:1 format in which you’ll take two seconds for both the concentric and the eccentric contractions, moving like a piston up and down in a controlled cadence without ever locking out. “Time under tension equals growth,” reminds Ashman, so no resting here to make the most of every rep.

The Meat

Every good bodybuilder knows that squats are numero uno for building legs, and this program is no exception: Back squats are your next contraction move, though Ashman also recommends front squats. “Both are fantastic, but sometimes with back squats you can do more weight,” he says. “The more weight you can do, the better muscle activation you’re going to have.”

Load the bar with a heavy weight, starting with about 60 percent of your max and building to about 80 percent. “Low-rep training with heavy weight builds strength, but high-rep training with submaximal weight promotes growth,” Ashman says. “Each rep should be deep and complete, but you should never go to failure with squats. It’s a safety thing. You want to push it and build as much muscle as you can, so make it challenging and have a grinder here and there, but don’t go to failure.”

Next up are lunges, singling out one leg at a time for a grueling, gut-busting set of 10 to 12 reps. “You can go lighter here, but not that much,” Ashman says. “You’re still trying to build muscle through contraction, so you want to make it challenging.” Do these stationary, alternating or walking, if you’ve got the cojones. “Ronnie Coleman used to do walking lunges with six plates across a football field when he was training for the Mr. Olympia,” Ashman says. “That’s just sick.”

The Potatoes

By now your legs should be crying for mercy, but it’s not over yet: You’ve got two stretching moves to do before rounding home. A hack squat tailored to murder your quads is on deck first. Set yourself up in the machine, but slide your feet down low on the platform and close together, again angling to hit that VMO. As you squat down, your heels should rise up, turning this move into a glorified sissy squat. “Not only does this work the VMO, it also gives your quads a really good stretch at the bottom,” Ashman says.

The program wraps up with a dumbbell Romanian deadlift. Again, you’re stretching your hamstrings and back while you work, so your reps will be higher and your weight moderate. “Your quads should be smoked at this point, and it should be hard to stand,” Ashman says. To give yourself even more room to stretch, do these on top of a set of weight plates. You’ll need that space as you progress through your sets and your range of motion increases.

Digest It

While it might seem like a good idea to do a program like this all the time, in fact it should only be done once a week in four- to six-week stints with two to three weeks of deload in between, according to Ashman. “In your off weeks, get into the gym, get a quick pump and get the hell out,” he says succinctly.

He also recommends keeping up your cardio rather than cutting it out to save calories. “If you have a better aerobic capacity and are better able to pump blood through your system, you’re going to grow better. You’ll have more endurance to finish a heavy set, so do — at minimum — 20 minutes three times a week to keep your heart and circulatory system up.”

So go ahead, try this workout for a few months and see how you fare — we bet you beat the stubborn out of your lower half.

The Program

Seated Leg Curl

Seated Leg Curl Start

Seated Leg Curl Finish

Setup:  Secure your legs between the pads of the machine and grasp the handles at your sides to stabilize your torso and hips. Flex your feet and sit up tall.

Move: Drive your heels down and underneath you in a smooth arc, contracting your hamstrings hard at the peak contraction. Slowly release the tension in a controlled negative back to the start and repeat immediately.

Ashman’s Tip: “After a few weeks, swap out seated leg curls for lying leg curls or standing leg curls, which hit the hamstring a little differently.”

Leg Press

Leg Press

Setup: Place your feet about two inches apart and low on the platform. Unhook the stops and lean back into the seat.

Move: Slowly lower the cart down, flexing through your knees and hips and lowering until you feel like your heels will peel off the platform. Drive through your heels to press the cart up and away from you, extending fully without locking your knees.

Ashman’s Tip: “Placing your feet low on the platform best targets the quads. The higher you go, the more you engage the glutes and hamstrings. And the closer your feet are together, the more you hit the teardrop, which is something most guys want to develop.”

Back Squat

Back Squat

Setup: Load a barbell in a rack and step underneath it, resting it high across your shoulders and upper back. Lift the bar off the rack and step away two paces, standing with your feet wider-than-hip-width apart, toes turned slightly outward.

Move: Shift your hips back, then bend your knees and squat down while keeping your chest lifted and your back straight. When you’ve dropped as low as you can, drive through you heels and extend your legs to return to the start.

Ashman’s Tip: “When squatting, it is best to go as low as you can. The increased range of motion will recruit the most muscle fibers which in turn means more growth.”

Barbell Lunge

Barbell Lunge

Setup: Load a barbell in a rack and step underneath it so it rests across your upper back and shoulders. Lift it off the rack and step your right foot forward and your left foot back in a wide stance.

Move: Bend both knees and drop straight down toward the floor, keeping your hips and shoulders square and your chest lifted. When your rear knee touches or nearly touches the floor and your front thigh is parallel, extend both legs to return to the start.

Ashman’s Tip: “If it’s available to you, try these in the Smith machine so you don’t have to worry about balance. Also think of yourself as a piston, driving straight up and down with no rest or pausing between reps.”

Hack Squat

Hack Squat

Setup: Place your feet close together and low on the platform with your full soles in contact with the metal.

Move: Bend your knees and slowly lower down. As you descend, allow your heels, then your arches to peel up off the platform. At the bottom you should be up on your toes and feel a good stretch across the front of your thighs. Reverse the move by rolling back down onto your heels, then extend your legs to return to standing position.

Ashman’s Tip: “If you have weak knees, this move is probably not for you; stick to goblet squats or light leg extensions instead to contract your quads effectively.”

Romanian Deadlift

Romanian Deadlift

Setup: Place two plates on the floor and stand with one foot on each, holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs. Bend your knees slightly to protect your joints and draw your shoulders back.

Move: Keeping your back straight, hinge from the hips and fold forward slowly, keeping your legs straight as you descend. When you’ve gone as low as you can, pause a moment to get a good stretch, then rise back to the start.

Ashman’s Tip:  “As you move through your reps, you’re going to stretch out slowly. Standing on plates gives you more room as you become more flexible.”

The Next Phase

Once you’ve done this program for four to six weeks, you’ll need a new stimulus to keep progressing. Ashman recommends using advanced training techniques when you’ve stopped making gains to shock you back into growth mode. Here are a few of his suggestions:

Negatives: With this technique, you spend a painfully long time in the eccentric phase of a contraction, lowering the weight as slowly as you can, then doing a quick concentric contraction and repeating. Negatives cause a lot of muscle teardown as well as nervous system overload, which forces your body to change and adapt. Do negatives once a week, max, and hit bodyparts you really want to shock.

Rest-Pause: Here you’re breaking up each set into smaller mini-sets to perform more reps with a maximally heavy weight than you normally would in a straight set. This increases the time your muscle spends under tension using a very heavy weight, getting you a crazy pump and encouraging growth. Do as many reps as you can with your chosen weight, then set the weights down and rest 15 to 20 seconds. Then pick those same weights up and perform as many reps as you can once more. Repeat that process two to three more times to complete one set.

Drop Sets: With this technique you’re extending a straight set longer than normal by adding reps using a lighter weight once you’ve achieved failure. Pick a weight with which you can get about eight to 10 reps, then perform your set. Put those weights down, then immediately pick up a lighter set of weights and rep out to failure. Drop down once more and do reps until you can no longer move the load. That is one complete set.

 

About the Author

Lara McGlashan, MFA, CPT and Rachel Crocker

Lara McGlashan, MFA, CPT and Rachel Crocker