Legs make the man, or woman. Great physiques are not easily attained the way magazines advertise, years of smart training and optimal nutrition are the only way to get long lasting defined muscle mass and serious strength. Some are naturally born bigger and stronger than others, but they both still have to work hard to attain a body others envy.
Today, I’m going to show you some of the most reliable methods to building strength and size in your legs, using these techniques I’ve found in my client’s training and some of the research behind it.
Get Under The Bar Often
How can you get better at something you don’t ever practice? Build your confidence in the rack by actually spending time in it. Don’t hesitate to get used to having the bar on your back, or front depending on what you’re going for. Look at the guys and gals squatting decent numbers and you’ll likely notice a trend, they tend to spend at least a couple of days a week practicing it or movements relating to it. It’s not recommended that every day be a heavy day, but spend a day or two a week practicing the movements and then one or two days on either a light or heavy squat session.
Try Different Types of Squats
Once you’ve conditioned your body to be able to squat consistently more than once a week, start throwing some different variations of squats into the mix. Don’t try to do all of them in one week, but pick one that you want to practice and throw it in when you’ve had a couple of days off from your last heavy leg day.
Hip structures will play a large role in how you squat and how low you get in it.
Depending on the structural angle of the femur and how deep it sits into the hip socket (acetabulum), you may be built to do certain types better than others. Don’t fret though, you can grow your legs from any of them! Try a variation of different methods to find out which one works best for you.
Some examples to try out:
High Bar Conventional Back Squat
Barbell Front Squat
TRX Pistol Squat
Tempo Reps and Complimentary Exercises
Tempo reps are underrated. Too many times, you walk into a gym and watch the same guy you’ve seen for the last 4 years throwing up 60lb dumbbells 10 times in 10 seconds. He still looks the same, still lifts the same weights he did 4 years ago, with the few exceptions of maybe hitting the 65 with worse form for slightly slower, less controlled reps. Don’t be that guy, use tempos to your advantage and grow every time you’re in the gym.
Tempos are broken down into four phases and set into a 4 number scheme like this (E:P:C:P). The first number being the eccentric phase (lengthening of the muscle), The second, a pause, The third, the concentric (the shortening on contracting of a muscle) and the fourth, another pause. A typical setup for muscle gain would look like this: 2:0:2:0 (2 seconds down, no pause, 2 seconds up, no pause). There are variations of course, but a standard beginners set could be simplified to that.
What happens if you can control the weight during a tempo rep for the most part, but continually find yourself getting stuck at the bottom of a squat and turning it into a good-morning? You might need to get some stronger quads; I personally favour the leg press for my clients, as it minimizes the risk of dropping a shit ton of weight on your knees unlike the front squat.
If you’ve been squatting for a while, you’ve probably hit a couple of plateaus in your strength and muscle growth. Here are some key tips to keep you moving past them:
Train Legs 2-3 Times Per Week
The frequency principle applies to both beginners and more experienced lifters. If you want something to grow, you need to focus more on it than everything else.
For my clients who want to develop their squats, we squat a couple of times a week. Instead of doing 2-3 leg days a week, we simply add in leg exercises, usually in the beginning of the workout for the heavy day. If we’re training for a higher volume leg workout, we put it after we’ve done our heaviest/most mentally tasking exercise.
Control and Sticking Points
Overall control of your body is an absolute necessity when you’re trying to get a heavier squat, especially when it comes to the hips and knees. Squatting heavy comes down to more than just bouncing reps and struggling through every set, there comes an instance where you just need to drop the weight a bit (you heard me) and learn how to manage your reps.
Take your max and do 65-70% of it for 10 one to two second pause reps. I’m talking about taking a weak point and pausing your reps right at that point to build it up.
A favorite and completely underutilized exercise that gets you some of the control you’re looking for is Turkish Get Ups. An exercise regularly added into intermediate and advanced client’s routines to teach complete focus and control over the body during exercise. If it’s not performed right, the kettlebell is coming down on their head; if it is, it has the desired effect.
For those struggling to get out of the bottom of their squat, use band assisted squats, decreasing the load on the lowest part of the squat. Add the band to the top of the rack (if available) to decrease the load on the bottom of the squat, helping them push past that weak area.
For those looking to increase tension at the lockout, use band resisted squats, attaching bands to the bottom of the rack and added more tension only to the top of their lift.
Get To Your Lowest
Hitting the ass to grass squat is not for everyone and it’s been researched time and time again. How low you go is dependent on your hip structure, as not all are built to get all the way down.
Although this is true, it’s beneficial for you to try to increase your ROM to the full capacity your body is built for. Do you absolutely need to go all the way to depth to big strength or size? No, but there are some benefits to it when you’re trying to develop stronger and thicker quads. Including more muscle activation through all the muscle fibers throughout quads, and more extensive muscle damage leading to more of a hypertrophy (muscle gain) effect.
Here are the steps to get you started:
Step 1: Determine Your Current Limits
Supported Bodyweight Squat for passive ROM test
Once your back starts rounding, you’ve exceeded the point where your hips are able to stretch anymore. This is your current squat level, as determined passively. Skill acquisition is about practicing and increasing strength balance and mobility.
Step 2: Deep Squat Every Day
Bret Contreras wrote an article a while back on 5 Things You Should Do Everyday stating
”The deep squat will help you maintain your hip flexion mobility (a technical way of saying that you’ll retain the ability to squat all the way down) throughout life.”
It’s not always necessary to load up the bar when practicing your squats, sometimes it’s just about getting comfortable hanging out in that position.
A good squatter knows it took more than practicing once a week to get where they are now. The body adapts to whatever position or movements you consistently put it in. Get into a deep squat for a total of 5 minutes per day, it doesn’t matter how many breaks you take in between, just hit the five minute mark by the end of the day.
This is one of the methods I used when trying to learn how to deep squat, within 2 months of practice and dealing with muscle imbalances, I was going ass to grass comfortably.
Step 3: Work On Moving Better And Getting Stronger In Weak Areas
Nobody likely doing the necessaries, but they are called necessaries for a reason, right? Just lifting weights feels awesome, unless you move like shit. In that case, you need to take care of your necessities, such as moving well to get better at moving well while lifting heavy ass weights.
Foam rolling is a great starting point for most lifters looking to increase their ROM, a loss of mobility often times comes down to muscle tone (the amount of neural stimulation a muscle is receiving). If you are a 9-5er working a desk job, you’d be damn sure you better jump on that roller when you walk in the door.
Get comfortable in full ROM (whatever that may be for you) start at the bottom with just the bar if necessary and work your way up to heavier weights. Most people struggle with the same areas, due to nature of our workforce, most people are anterior chain dominant, meaning the front of their body is significantly stronger than the back.
Balancing out strength in both can reduce excess muscular tension from strength imbalances and actually allow a muscle to release and go through a larger ROM.
To supplement your squat work, include the following into your program:
Hip Thrusts (off the bench)
Barbell Glute Bridges (off the ground)
Seated Hamstring Curl
Step 4: Squat Till The Cows Come Home
Get in the rack and practice your ass off.
Increase Your Lactic Acid Threshold
How often do you feel like you’re just burning yourself out while under the bar? Feel like you’re about to drop it? Maybe you just don’t have any muscular endurance from only training in the 6-12 category all the time. In order to get you to the next level, Increase your lactate acid threshold and up your work capacity. But how?
High rep sets (12-20) or AMRAP (as many reps as possible before failure)
Train for time (upwards of 75-90 seconds)
Short(er) rest times keep you in anaerobic glycosis and keep them “feeling the burn” and training your cardiovascular system
Sled pushes – For speed or heavy
While training clients, I’ve noticed an increase in muscle development by simply adding in some sets to push them over their lactate threshold for a short time and then allowing for a timed recovery. Depending on how long the sets was (15-20 x 3 secs per reps avg. = 45-60 seconds total) we’ll give them a ratio of rest time to work, generally longer in the beginner (1:5 work/rest) and work our way down to (1:2 work/rest). Not everyone responds well to it, but somewhat anecdotally with a number of clients, we’ve seen an increase in leg development and work capacity.
Work With Heavy Loads and Light (With Blood Flow Restriction) Weights
A 2013 study on resistance training states:
“Current research indicates that low-load exercise can indeed promote increases in muscle growth in untrained subjects, and that these gains may be functionally, metabolically, and/or aesthetically meaningful.”
The study was performed using blood flow restriction techniques, indicating that lighter weights can actually help build muscle under the right circumstances. The study was performed on untrained subjects, but this method isn’t for the faint of heart and can be quite painful. Make sure you can handle the DOMS before you attempt a full session of it.
Speak to your doctor before trying it, especially if you have high blood pressure already. Throw in a couple of sets at the end of your workout at 20-50% of your 1RM with 30-60 seconds rest time between sets. Start slow and work your way up to more sets and make sure to remove the wraps after you’re done to allow proper blood flow back into the muscles.
When all is said and done and you’re rocking bigger and stronger than the rest of the guys and gals at the beach, you’ll be glad you stepped out of your comfort zone and put in the work.
James Harris is the founder of Titanium Strength Systems, as well as the head writer and coach. He trains online and in person in Chilliwack, BC. You can find his writing around the internet on websites such as Muscle & Strength, The PTDC, Fitness Pollenator, PTBIZ, and Deansomerset.com.