Having perfect pecs, bulging biceps and washboard abs all sat atop a pair of matchsticks isn’t the look you want to be rocking down the beach. Here’s how to put some real muscle on your lower body
An unfortunate majority of casual lifters and even semi-serious bodybuilders are going to spend way too much time on their pecs, biceps and other ‘show’ muscles – and far too little time on their legs.
So, if you want to be one of the few lifters who really stands out on the beach, at the pool or just walking around outside in the summertime heat, you’re going to have to hammer your legs. Here are a few pointers on how you can build up your lower limbs in a hurry, as well as a routine to get you started.
You’ve got to squat
There are no two ways about it, if you want big quads – and big legs in general – you’ve got to squat. There are plenty of pros and top amateur bodybuilders out there with great legs who only use the leg press and hack squat. Good for them, they’ve found what works for their bodies.
But if you’re like 99% of lifters, you’re just never going to get anywhere close to your full potential for size without consistent heavy squatting. Don’t get too caught up in the details, either. Low bar, high bar, front squats – they’re all great, and you should incorporate all of these basic variations. But don’t stress over every little detail of your form. If you’re squatting below parallel and getting stronger week to week, your quads will grow.
Don’t skimp on the reps, either! High-rep squatting is just plain tough and a lot of lazy lifters turn to triples, doubles and even single reps once they put a bar on their back. You can test yourself once in a while but the majority of your sets should be somewhere between six and 12 reps.
Don’t forget the hamstrings
Squats, leg presses, lunges and other quad-dominant movements will recruit your hamstrings quite a bit, but you’ll never fully develop the backs of your legs without giving them some direct attention. I actually think the leg curl is one of the best hamstrings movements you can perform. While leg extensions aren’t going to produce massive quads anytime soon, leg curls – in combination with heavier moves – are indispensable in producing big, droopy hamstrings. Don’t go so heavy you hurt your tendons and ligaments, but do push each and every work set to the limit.
Aside from leg curls, you’ll definitely want to incorporate at least one type of hamstring-dominant deadlift. Basic stiff-leg deadlifts with a barbell are my favorite, but high reps with dumbbells also have their place. Since the weights are going to be lighter when using dumbbells, this is a perfect variation to super-set with gut-busting sets of leg curls.
Bring on the pain for massive calves
As important as upper-leg development is to any strength athlete, calves are critical in the summertime. A baggy pair of cargo shorts might hide your thighs, for instance, but unless you bundle up, your calves are always visible.
And, despite what so many people claim, your genetics are not the limiting factor to your calf size. Don’t get me wrong, your genes absolutely determine how big they start off and how hard you have to work to make them grow. But don’t fall victim to the nonsensical belief that you can’t pack slabs of meat onto your lower legs. The guys who say that just aren’t trying hard enough.
The truth is, most guys just throw in a few sets of calf raises as an afterthought at the end of their leg training. Would you expect any other muscle to grow with so little work? Hell no!
Not only do you need greater-than-average frequency and volume to build up calves, you’ve got to bring the pain like never before. Because your calves get so much stimulation from walking, they’re only going to budge if you hammer them with heavy weight, high reps and daily training.
Exercises? Honestly, your selection doesn’t matter that much – not that there’s a whole lot to choose from. You’ve got standing calf raises, seated calf raises and, for those of you who feel like making things more complicated than necessary, there’s the classic donkey calf raise. Just about any machine will do, so pick the ones that allow you to feel the strongest contractions and deepest burns. You’ll probably want to dedicate most of your efforts to standing variations, but make sure to hit up the seated machine once or twice per week.
Your Weekly Routine
Leg Day One – Focusing on Quads
Squats: Work up to a top set of five reps, then gradually lower the weight for follow-up sets of six, eight, 10 and 12 reps. On each of these sets, leave no more than one rep in the tank, and always try to increase the weight for a given number of reps the next week.
Hack squats: Four sets of 15 reps with as heavy a weight as you can handle. Make sure to warm up a little more if necessary, as hacks can be hard on the knees.
Seated leg curls: Four sets of 20 reps. Use a challenging weight, but keep textbook form.
One-leg split squats: Two sets of 15 per side. Don’t skimp on the weight – most people underestimate how much they can really handle. The burn in your teardrop (vastus medialus muscle) will limit you more than your actual leg strength.
Leg Day Two – Focusing on hamstrings
Lying leg curls: After a very thorough warm-up, do three rest-pause sets. Use a weight that allows you to get 15–20 picture-perfect reps on the first set, rest 15 seconds and once more go for as many reps as you can get.
It’s OK to use some jerk and sway on the second half of each set.
Stiff-leg deadlifts: Four sets of 10. Use a belt and straps if necessary, and go heavy. Most lifters go unbelievably light on stiffs for fear of injury, but heavy weights aren’t going to hurt you if you maintain good form.
Leg Press: Five sets of 15 reps. Use the same weight for every set, and take a few breaths between reps as they get really challenging in the latter sets. When you do have to rest between reps, don’t lock out your legs. Constant tension is critical for building big legs.
Walking dumbbell lunges: Three sets of 20 steps per leg to finish things off. With your quads and hams already fatigued, these are going to be a lot harder than they look on paper.
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