Back in 2006 at my first bodybuilding competition, I had what were basically two toothpicks propping up my upper body. I had chicken legs. That’s not to say I didn’t train legs at all, I just trained them the wrong way, without much intensity.
A year later my legs were, according to the judges, ‘a weight class above my upper body’. Every show since then, not a single judge has ever suggested my legs need to catch up, and some have suggested I take a break from training them to give my upper body a chance to catch up. I’m no Tom Platz, but I have learned a few things about training legs that I’d like to share with you:
1. Squat. You need to squat to maximize the gains in muscle you want out of your legs. Squat, and squat properly. Get strong in the squat. If you’re wondering if you’re strong enough, and you can’t squat 315 pounds for 20 good reps, you’re not strong enough so keep working. Ladies, this means you too (not the 315×20 part), the shape most girls want can be found by putting in your time at the squat rack. Check out this video of one of the smartest bodybuilders and coaches I know, John Meadows, demonstrating a good set of squats. Notice his form: toes pointed slightly out, feet wider than shoulder width, and as he descends he is kicking his butt out. You ALWAYS lead a squat with your butt and hips. A simple check for your squat form is to see if your knees are tracking out past your toes – if as you squat your knees go out past your toes you’re not sitting back properly into the squat. This style of squat will keep you healthy and pain free, able to squat for years to come
2. Train until you feel queasy. There have been very, very few leg workouts I’ve gone through in the past 8 years that haven’t made me a little sick to my stomach at some point. Legs are special that way, you might not get that way with other bodyparts, but a good leg workout should be physically draining. When someone comes to me complaining their legs aren’t growing, nine times out of ten it is a problem with their intensity. Training legs is difficult, plain and simple.
3. Start your workout with hamstrings. This is something I picked up from John Meadows about 3 years ago and it has been an amazing discovery. By training your hamstring first, you are 1.) not neglecting them or giving them marginalized intensity like if they were last in the workout and 2.) properly warming up your knees before going on to squats or other quad-centric movements. Typically I will start a workout with at least 4 intense sets of hamstring curls (lying, seated, or kneeling), and most times I go on to do 3 more sets with another hamstring exercise after this, before I even consider squatting or leg pressing.
4. Higher rep ranges are invaluable. One of the biggest things that I did initially to grow my legs was to increase the number of reps I did on most exercises. While other bodyparts (chest and back) have responded to lower reps for me (think 6 to 8 reps per set), I’ve seen the best results from higher reps on most leg exercises. Leg press is one in particular I like to always do 15 to 20 reps minimum per set. Don’t think this means you can drop the weight you’re using to some piddly amount – Tom Platz once said he liked heavy weight for high reps and while that may be counterintuitive, the truth of the matter is you are capable of pushing yourself much more than you probably are during leg workouts. And let’s face it, a set of 20 reps for squats will put hair on your chest (if that’s what you’re going for) or at least meat on your thighs.
5. Pay attention to your knees. I suffered through some very painful, very frustrating tendonitis in my knees early on because I refused to accept that sometimes you need to change your plans to match what your body is telling you. If you are all psyched up to do a heavy squat day but you start warming up and your knees are on fire – STOP. Drop the weight down, change your form, switch exercises and get more warmed up first. You can’t make gains if you’re too injured to train at all so don’t take yourself out of the game when you could just adapt and keep going. You can have a very intense leg workout without going extremely heavy when you need to give your joints a break. Side note: don’t do heavy leg extensions. Please. This exercise should only be used to finish off your quads at the very end of the workout, with lighter weight for very high reps. Many a knee tendon has been destroyed doing heavy leg extensions.
There you have it! My top 5 rules for training legs to keep you making gains for many years to come.