Part of the reason legs receive such short shrift is that they are simply not as glamorous as traditional showy body parts like the arms and chest. That's too bad, because well-developed hips and thighs not only look powerful - they are flesh embodiments of actual brute force.
Leg training is the only arena where any of us will ever hope to move half a ton of iron using only the strength of our own bodies. There's also a definite crossover effect from heavy leg training that spills over to the rest of the body and jumpstarts growth. If you haven't learned to love leg training yet, there's a whole world waiting for you to discover. Truly tough leg training is almost heroic in nature, as if you were waging a desperate battle against insurmountable odds.
The result of many consistent workouts like this is a lower body that commands respect and is a constant source of pride. Great legs are rare, and he or she that possesses them stands out in any physique crowd. Here are six of the very best exercises to start doing today for building heroic hams and quads of your own.
Though the squat has a well-deserved reputation as the best overall mass-building exercise for the lower body, leg presses are damned close. In fact, for some trainers, the leg press will actually deliver far superior results. Certain people are simply not built for squatting. Tall lifters with long legs in particular seem to have an especially arduous time trying to maintain an upright posture and achieving proper depth.
Those with weak or injured lower backs also derive very little benefit from this supposedly universally wonderful exercise. This is where the leg press comes in to save the day. Since the back is comfortably and safely supported, a trainer can thoroughly devastate the thighs without worrying about balancing a bar or themselves. Best of all, even if a lifter gets stuck in the bottom position at the end of a set, they can safely exit the machine. Try that sometime with a heavy barbell across your traps!
Many trainers don't get the results they should on the leg press because they let their egos take precedence over their muscles. It sure looks cool to load up the posts with more plates than they have at a Las Vegas buffet, but unless you can lower the platform until your femur, or thigh bones, are parallel to it, you're not really training your legs correctly. You wouldn't dream of only lowering the bar a couple inches while bench pressing, yet you see men and women doing this all the time with the leg press.
Few, if any "two-inch" squatters or leg pressers have any degree of leg development. Put your ego aside and use only a weight that you can handle through a full range of motion. Another thing some lifters do to use heavier weight is to lower the platform rapidly and bounce out of the bottom position. Nothing could be worse for the knees. At the split second of the actual rebound, all the force of the weight is transferred from the hip and thigh musculature to the relatively delicate tendons and ligaments around the patella bone, or kneecap.
As if that wasn't bad enough, the speed of the acceleration amplifies the force, so that a thousand pounds of weight now becomes several thousand pounds of force.
You only get one pair of knees in this lifetime, and you definitely don't want to blow them out. Talk to any of the hundreds of thousands of recreational weight trainers and professional athletes who have damaged their knees, and they will tell you how knee pain can negatively affect the quality of nearly every activity, from walking down the street to climbing even a few stairs. Another key point to good knee health in this and any pressing movement is to always keep a slight bend in the knees.
Often it is tempting to lock out your knees at the top of the rep and catch your breath for a moment. Doing this over time can cause knee problems, as again the weight is being supported by the fragile connective tissues instead of the muscles. Use good, controlled form on the leg press, and your muscles will respond better anyway.
Hack squats were invented by a Russian wrestler and strongman named George Hackenschmidt, and were originally performed by lifting a barbell off the ground behind the feet of the trainer. Luckily for us, a sled machine was developed that simulated the movement yet offered greater ease of execution. If you ever try the old style of hack squat, you will find it to be about the most awkward thing you can possibly do with weights. The hack squat has earned a reputation as being treacherous to the knees, but this only seems to be the case with those trainees who have the misfortune of poor structural leverage for it.
If your knees feel tender or painful even while using good form, you are probably in that group. For everyone else, the hack squat is a terrific way to build what we call "sweep," or an outward curve, to the outer thighs or vastus lateralis. Many also swear by hacks as a means of developing the 'teardrop,' or vastus medialis just above the knee. The reality is that all four heads of the quadriceps are thoroughly taxed during the hack squat. Because you are pushing weight that is distributed over your shoulders in a harness fashion, the hack squat does not allow for the massive tonnage of the leg press.
While most very strong leg pressers can use over 1,000 pounds for sets of 15-20 reps, those same powerful individuals typically only manage 500-600 pounds for the same reps on the hack squat. Of course, it's a case of comparing apples and oranges, as these are truly two different animals. One distinct advantage the hack squat offers over both squats and leg presses is that it is much more effective at isolating the quads and minimizing recruitment of the gluteus maximus. If you read my previous MMI article, "Wide Load" a couple years back, you know that many bodybuilders have a tendency to overdevelop their butts via heavy pressing movements.
If you suspect that you have this problem, use hack squats as your only pressing movement. Occasionally you might hear some old coot try to tell you that hack squats are no good for building mass in the thighs, only for 'shaping' them. This is a complete myth. I, and thousands of other bodybuilders have relied on hacks as a staple in our mass-building routines for legs and have come away with excellent results. I once saw 2-time Pro Ironman Champion Chris Cormier hack squat 1,000 pounds for over 20 reps, and it didn't look to me like his 32-inch thighs were exactly lacking in size.
Like the leg press, you will experience best results by using a complete range of motion. Most knee pain is the result of improper foot placement on the platform. Your feet should be directly under or slightly in front of your hips. In a misguided effort to better isolate the quads, some trainers will place their feet all the way at the bottom, in back of their hips. This is quite similar to a sissy squat.
The problem is that sissy squats are usually done with no weight or holding a single 25-pound plate. Hacks are done with hundreds of pounds. This foot placement puts a horrible strain on the knees when that amount of resistance is used, so definitely avoid it. Also, be sure to always keep your back flat and your butt in contact with the seat back.
IFBB Pro Franco Santoriello, who had some of the best quads in history, used to advocate thrusting the hips out and away from the seat back, but I'm going to have to call him on this. He may have gotten away with this hazardous form, but you may not be so lucky and could herniate a disk in the lower back. Take hack squats to the limit in perfect form, and your thighs will respond quite well.
The leg extension is often described as being a 'shaping' exercise, much like the hack squat. I strongly suspect that this is a direct result of how many trainers treat this exercise. Most people use it as a warm-up for squats or leg presses, and will perform several sets of high reps, generally 15-20. Typically the weight selected is not challenging. Though they might feel a painful lactic acid burn in the quads, the resistance was insufficient to tax the fast-twitch muscle fibers which are responsible for growth.
Instead, try using heavier weight and treating leg extensions as a mass-building exercise rather than a warm-up. No other leg movement allows for the total isolation of the quadriceps. The reps can still be in the 12-20 range, but always try to move up in weight. Many stacks are close to three hundred pounds. If you can work up to using the stack or more for twenty clean reps, you can bet your ass your quads will be growing and not merely getting more 'shapely.'
You will get the most benefit out of leg extensions by forcefully squeezing your quads hard at the top. You must lock out the knee and stop the movement completely to get an effective contraction or squeeze. One method that works is to visualize your quads as sopping wet sponges or towels which you are trying to wring the water out of. If you have always utilized a more rhythmic style for extensions, you're in for a painful surprise when you stop the reps in the top position.
This is one of those instances where pain equals gain. You may have to lighten up the stack at first to get the intense contractions at the top, but the soreness and growth will make it all worthwhile. Speaking of lightening the stack, leg extensions are perhaps the most suitable exercise in the world for drop sets. Few things will ever be as intense as the burn you experience in your quadriceps after a single or double drop set on the leg extension.
The trick is to make big drops. If you just finished ten reps with 300 pounds and hit failure, don't just go down to 250. You'd only get a couple reps. Try 150 instead. It may feel light for two or three reps, but then the true burning begins to roil and broil deep inside the muscle fibers. You could even do a third drop set with just fifty pounds, and damned if it doesn't feel just as heavy as the 300 pounds did just moments before. Used properly, the leg extension is an invaluable tool in the quest for incredible quads.
Many trainers are convinced that hamstrings do not possess the same potential for growth as the quadriceps do, or at least theirs don't. This incorrect conclusion is drawn even though most lifters unwittingly sabotage their hamstring training. They will squat or leg press for an hour, do a few sets of leg extensions, and maybe even some hack squats for good measure. After all this hard labor, they will drag themselves over to the leg curl machine for three desultory sets. Basically, by this point in the workout, they're exhausted and can't wait to go home.
Given this disadvantage, it's no wonder most people have lackluster results at best from their hamstring training. Two things can easily remedy this miserable situation: either train hamstrings first or on a separate day. When performed fresh, leg curls can be the most effective exercise for the hamstrings. Think of them as barbell curls for your legs, tailor made for raw mass gains. Leg curl machines offer perfectly balanced resistance distributed over a complete range of motion.
Try doing leg curls first in your leg routine, and you will be amazed at how much more powerfully you feel the contractions and how pumped your hams get. You will also be capable of using far more weight than before. Trust me, leg curls will make your hamstrings grow if you just give them a fighting chance. From the side, your hams will have that same round outward swell as the thighs. That is a completely developed thigh by any standard.
A full range of motion is critical when performing leg curls. Let your leg straighten until the knee is almost completely locked, then squeeze at the top as you would in a biceps curl. Failing to go far down enough or to squeeze at the top will seriously hamper your gains. A slow speed of movement, something along the lines of two seconds up, a half-second squeeze, and a two second negative will give you the best results.
This guideline applies whether you are doing the seated, lying, or standing versions. In the lying leg curl, some trainers will try to cheat up more weight by heaving their torsos up and down as a counter leverage. Don't do it! Stay down and make the hamstrings do the work.
Lunges are often thought of, once again, as a 'shaping' movement and not applicable toward building mass. I have to question the logic of this statement. If you put a muscle up against a resistance and take it through successive repetitions, why would it not cause the tissue to adapt and grow? Typically, lunges are practiced by competitive bodybuilders in the final months prior to a contest, or by women hoping to firm up their glutes.
Shawn Ray has sworn by lunges for over a decade as his secret to his incredible detail in the ham-glute tie-in area. And as far as lunges being a sissy exercise, both Shawn and Skip LaCour have been known to use 405 pounds for many reps. Another great bodybuilder, Mr. USA Eddie Robinson, used to finish his leg workouts by putting a 135-pound barbell on his back and lunging the length of the gym's parking lot and back, roughly traveling the distance of a football field.
Lunges are a great finishing exercise because once you've done a couple tough sets, your legs are indeed done for the day. Lunges stress the glutes, the hamstrings, and the quads. They are also incredibly versatile. Lunges can be done with a barbell or dumbbells, in place or walking, stepping on the floor, or onto a box or bench. A high degree of focus and coordination are required to perform a proper lunge, which may be the real reason some trainers have given up on them so quickly. To those who have mastered the lunge, no pair of legs would be complete without them.
Lunges are one of the toughest exercises to perform correctly, so be sure to start out very light until you have the hang of it. Begin by standing shoulder width and with a flat lower back. Your torso maintains this upright posture throughout the set. Next, take a deep step forward with your right foot, about 1.5 times longer than your usual stride, leaving your left foot behind. Descend with the right foot until your left knee is touching the ground and your left foot is up on its ball.
Now, push up with your right foot to a standing position and bring your left foot forward next to it. Now, you have the option of continuing to lunge with the right leg until it fatigues, or alternating legs. Some people prefer to step up onto a box or platform as well. No matter how you do them, lunges are a killer.
The hamstrings perform two major functions - hip extension and knee flexion, which is the opposite of knee extension. Thus, you must always do two types of exercises for them; some sort of stiff-leg deadlift and also a leg curl. The stiff-legs can be executed with a barbell, holding a pair of dumbbells, or even standing on a T-bar row platform. They tend not to be done by many bodybuilders, who think that leg curls alone are getting the job done.
If you could do a side-by-side comparison of those trainers who only did leg curls versus those who included both movements in their leg training, I would put my house on the stiff-leg group having better hamstring development as a whole. Once you have felt the stretch all up and down your hams while training, and then the aching soreness for days afterward, you'll know how effective stiff-leg deadlifts are in your leg training arsenal.
In my career as a personal trainer thus far, the stiff-leg deadlift has proven to be the most difficult exercise to teach proper technique on. This is because most people instinctively want to round their lower backs as they lower the bar. This isn't necessarily wrong, but it is a very dangerous way to perform stiff legs. A much safer alternative is the Romanian Deadlift. The difference is that in the Romanian version, the lower back remains flat and all pivoting happens at the hip joint. In essence, you are sticking out your butt as you descend and your back and knees remain locked.
I tell clients to imagine a midget behind them that they are trying to knock over with their butt. Another phrase to say to yourself to get this form down as you do the rep is "Butt out." You may be wondering how you're supposed to lower the bar to your toes in this style. You don't.
You'll find that your hamstrings are fully stretched at about the point where you lower the bar to your knees or perhaps a touch past. Unlike the conventional form of stiff-leg deadlifts, your hamstrings will give out before your lower back, which is exactly what you want to happen.
Many people find it easier to execute the Romanian form using dumbbells rather than a barbell. With dumbbells, the weight is distributed off to each side, rather than a bar in front of you, which tends to pull you down and invites rounding of the lower back. A final tip is to use wrist straps to secure your grip.
The arms are merely hooks transferring resistance to the hamstrings. You don't want your grip or your biceps being a weak link when blasting away on the more powerful muscle group of the hamstrings.
Sample Routines ( Note: always warm up with five to ten minutes of moderate cardio before training legs)
|Leg Extension:||3 x 12-20|
|Leg Press:||4 x 12-20|
|Stiff-Leg Deadlift:||3 x 10-12|
|Lying Leg Curls:||4 x 10-12|
|Lying Leg Curls:||4 x 8-12|
|Stiff-Leg Deadlift:||4 x 10-12|
|Hack Squat:||3 x 12-20|
|Leg Extensions:||3 x 115|
There you have it, a half-dozen awesome mass builders for the hams and quads. Each one is a gem by itself, but combined and alternated in your leg training, they will be the source of astounding changes. Work hard on them over time, and you will never again stare in envy at the stupendous quadriceps and hamstrings of the top bodybuilders in Musclemag - you'll need only look down at your own wheels to see something impressive. Train hard, train smart, and never give up on your dreams!
Ron Harris is available for private consultation. Contact him at RHarrisMSL@aol.com for more information.
Reprinted with permission from eMuscleMag.