Leg Training for Body Builders: Exercises & Programs for Training Legs

Leg Training Guide

Don't Let Your Thighs Lag Behind your Upper Body Size

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What's the most common physique imbalance among humans who train with weights? Good upper body, no legs. This state of affairs is fine if people plan on wearing baggy pants for the rest of their lives but bad news if they ever want to wear shorts or compete in a bodybuilding event.

I know all too well where the attitude that lets this happen comes from. During the first couple of years that I was working out, I laughed at kids who trained legs. "Idiots!" I said. "Don't they know it'll make their upper bodies look smaller?" Not only was my logic flawed, but I was also ignorant of the following important facts:

1. Leg training speeds up overall body growth, and a lack of it actually limits upper-body growth.

2. A big upper body and stick legs is a joke-even to the man or woman on the street who knows nothing about bodybuilding.

3. Exercises like squats and deadlifts build stamina that carries over into every aspect of training.

4. Thick, flaring quads and hamstrings give your physique a very powerful look that only serious trainees have. With 28-inch thighs stretching out your spandex shorts, nobody's going to mistake you for a tennis player.

Yet even when people know all these things, they still avoid leg training-or at least real leg training. Why? Because it's extremely painful and taxing, and it usually leaves you feeling as if you want to lie down for a few years. This is unlike chest training, in which the target muscles pump up easily with less discomfort. The benefits far outweigh the cost, however, so let's get down to building legs from hell.


The quad-killer portion of the program includes leg extensions plus two or three pressing movements-barbell squats, hack squats and or leg presses.

Leg extensions. When performed correctly, leg extensions provide the perfect warmup for your knee joints. Few people do them right, however, as most either use too short a range of motion or heave the weight up too fast.

The proper way to perform leg extensions is to start from the position at which your lower legs are perpendicular to the floor-any farther back and you risk hyperextending your knees-and slowly bring the roller pad up to lockout. Rather than returning immediately to the bottom, stop at the top and squeeze your quads forcefully for a full second, as you would if you were doing an abdominals-and-thighs pose. Then maintain control as you lower-but don't drop-the weight.

People who complain that they have no quad separation should try performing their leg extensions this way. Furthermore-and despite what your gym buddies may tell you-I believe that this is a size- building exercise. When I started doing quad work, the only piece of thigh-training equipment available was a leg extension machine. Even so, one set - performed this way brought my thighs up almost three inches in six months.

A year and a half ago I incorporated Parrillo-style fascial stretches into my workout. I do them after each set of leg extensions, and they've seriously magnified the pump and burn in my quads. To perform this stretch, kneel on one knee and sit with your foot tucked under your butt and your other foot on the ground next to the knee. Then lean back as far as possible putting your hands on the ground behind you for balance.

After you've warmed up your quads with leg extensions, it's time to move on to a heavy pressing movement. If you want to handle serious weights and recovery properly, don't do any more than two of the following pressing movements per training session.

Barbell squats. This is without a doubt the best size-building exercise for the thighs, but it's also the easiest to screw up. Two-thirds of trainees who squat use incorrect form and so are endangering their knees and lower backs-not to mention the fact that their legs aren't growing. The reason for this is simple: They're using too much damned weight. I confess that I've incurred lower-back and knee injuries, as well as a minor hernia, in order to build my ego by squatting with a lot of plates on the bar. Don't make the same mistake.

If you have a power cage with adjustable racks available, use it. That way you can go to parallel and not have to worry about not being able to get back up. You can dump the weight and crawl out safely. It also helps to be facing a mirror so you can notice things like the bar tilting to one side or how far you're descending.

A lifting belt is mandatory. Cinch it up tight but not to the point where it impairs your breathing. In addition, make sure that your shoes are laced tightly. Based on my own experience, I don't recommend knee wraps, as wraps actually caused me to suffer a knee injury by allowing me to use more weight than I should have used.

Once the support gear is in place, get under the bar and lift it off the racks. Take a couple of steps forward and position your feet about a foot apart, with your toes either straight ahead or pointed slightly outward. Now you're ready to squat.

Holding your back as straight as possible and looking straight ahead, descend slowly into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Then, without pausing, explode upward to the top.

Never bounce at the bottom-no exceptions. It might give you the momentum to use more weight, but once your knee cartilage goes, you'll be lucky to be able to squat the bar without howling in pain. Concentrate on feeling the resistance in your quads, as your lower back and glutes will always want to take over. That's fine if you're looking to build a butt like a water buffalo's but bad news for your symmetry and attractiveness to the opposite sex. Done properly for moderate reps of six to 15, the squat will transform anyone's quads.

Hack squats. This exercise has taken a lot of flack in the magazines for being a pure shaping movement, useless for building size. In my opinion, that's bull. In fact, if it weren't for hacks, many people would be stuck with turnip thighs- big up top but no meat above the knees. The hack squat is also a perfect alternative for those whose lower backs won't let them do regular squats. With hacks you can pile on the weight and direct the resistance to the two places on the leg where a competitor needs it most-the outer sweep and the lower thigh.

You can vary your foot position to hit different parts of the quads. To target your front quads, place your feet closer together and lower on the platform; to enhance your outer sweeps, go wider and higher. I recommend doing a couple of sets each. If hack squats are the only pressing movement you're going to do on that day, however, plant your feet in the middle of the platform, a shoulder width apart, with your toes angled out at 45 degrees.

A belt is mandatory on these because, even though the machine supports your back, there's a tendency to arch your back on the final reps. Since the hack machine allows you to use more weight than you can comfortably squat with a bar, it's also important to keep the weight under control, with no bouncing at the bottom to generate momentum. In addition, because you don't need to balance the weight, you can go ahead and squeeze your quads hard at the top. Some bodybuilders like to throw their hips off the pad and arch their backs. If someone recommends this to you, tell him or her that you can't afford to see an orthopedic surgeon.

Leg presses. This is the king of all ego exercises. Since just about everyone is very strong in the lockout position, the sight of 120-pound novices slapping 800 pounds on a machine and blasting out reps with a two-inch range of motion is a common one in every gym. But is Quadzilla worried that these guys, with their 20-inch thighs, are going to catch up to him anytime soon? Don't bet on it.

When performed correctly, however, the leg press is a very close second to the squat for developing monster quads. To that end it's important to go all the way to parallel and then some. In fact, if you're in doubt about this, I challenge you to try doing a few really deep reps with your top weight. Oh, yeah, and make sure that there's someone around to pull you out when you get buried. On the other hand, there's no need to go so deep that your butt rolls up off the seat. If you do that, your glutes will start getting too big for ready-made clothing.

Because your back is fully supported, feel free to pile on the weight and vary your foot positions-as long as you can still get through a full range of motion. For instance, although you probably can't squat with your feet together without losing your balance, the leg press lets you do it with ease. Even so, stick with a shoulder-width- apart, 45 degree angle foot position most of the time in order to use the greatest range of motion and the most weight.


The classic movements that bring you hamstrings from hell are stiff-legged deadlifts and leg curls.

Stiff-legged deadlifts. This is an absolute must-do exercise for this bodypart. Many people, myself included, have made the mistake of doing leg curls only for years and getting little growth in return. Stiff- legged deadlifts will let you stand sideways with pride.

The best way to perform this movement is from a raised platform with a rack in front of you and the bar at waist level. Wearing a belt, take an over-and-under grip on the bar and step back. There are two schools of thought on what comes next, and they're both effective:

1. Bend at the hip, lowering the bar to your toes, and then return to a standing lockout position. This is the most popular variation.

2. Keep your back absolutely straight, which allows you to lower the bar only as far as your upper shins. Then raise the bar, with your back still straight, to about mid thigh, thus keeping constant tensions on your hams.

For either performance style follow up your deadlifts with a ballet type stretch. Put one leg at a time up on something that's higher than your waist. Then, with your hands over your head reaching for your feet, touch your chest to the raised thigh until the pain of the stretch becomes unbearable. If your hamstrings haven't been sore for a while, they will be now.

Leg curls. There are three basic types of leg curl machines: lying, seated and standing. All are equally effective and are perfect for giving you that peak contraction and pump without your having to worry about trying to hold onto 200 or 300 pounds on an Olympic bar. If you've suffered any serious lower-back injuries in your career, leg curls might be the only way for you to train your hamstrings heavy and they'll save the day if your lower back is still sore from back training when leg day rolls around.

Whichever machine you use, go for a slow, full range of motion rather than the ballistic bouncing that is the norm at most gyms. Squeeze your hamstrings forcefully at the top to take advantage of the movement. If you've ever seen a competitor display peaked hamstrings, you can bet that he or she squeezed those hamstrings hard on leg curls. As you did with the dead-lifts, follow these up with hard stretches, being careful not to bounce.

Legs From Hell Pointers

Intensity. Here's an example of the type of intensity that builds huge legs. One night I came into the bathroom at my gym to find Edwin Menor, a competitive bodybuilder, puking his brains out. It turned out that he'd been squatting very heavy for reps and doing front squats on the Smith machine. He rinsed out his mouth and went back to finish his front squats, two sets of 15 reps with 405. As if that wasn't bad enough, he proceeded to the leg press and did deep reps with more than 1,000 pounds. No set on any exercise was over until he could no longer move the weight despite his all-out effort and groans of pure agony. His face was purple, but his legs were pumped up like balloons. He could hardly walk and had to lie down for a half hour.

Now, I'm not suggesting that he trains like that every time-or that you should try it. But if you can generate this kind of psycho mind-set just once a month using good form and what are for you heavy weights, your quads will be busting out of your shorts in a year.

Recovery. In order for your legs to grow, they have to recover from every training session. This means not training them until all the soreness is gone, limiting or eliminating off-season aerobics and getting plenty of good food and sleep. It also means limiting your sets to three or four per exercise and doing no more than two heavy pressing movements per workout. You can occasionally get away with doing more but only if you're going to be able to get extra sleep during the next couple of days.

Variety. As with any muscle group your legs will grow accustomed to a routine once you've been using it for a while. To mix it up, change exercises, sequence and rep schemes every couple of weeks. On the other hand, if the squat or any exercise is making your legs grow like nothing else, keep that movement in your routine: There are no set-in-stone rules. For example, Lee Labrada does his leg extensions last, and he has great quads.

Now that you have the blueprint, follow through and make your legs look as they should. Then the next time you walk down the beach, you won't hear a chorus of "Cluck, cluck, cluck" behind your back.

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