The Long and Short of Leg Training
Get on the fast track to size with this comprehensive contract-and-stretch hypertrophy program.
By Lara McGlashan, MFA, CPT | 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.