This represents an important issue that many bodybuilders, in particular young males seem to overlook or underestimate the potential benefits of. When you train your legs your body excretes more Growth Hormone (the most anabolic of all hormones) via the pituitary gland than the training of any other muscle group. This in turn speeds up recovery and significantly increases metabolic rate. What’s more, when leg training is performed correctly you also get the added bonus of a cardio-vascular workout, as training such muscles also stresses the heart and lungs. The lower body is made up of some very large muscle groups, these being the Gluteles (Bottom), Quadriceps (Thigh), Hamstrings (Back of leg) and the Gastrocnemius and Soleius (Calves). These muscles in my opinion are best trained together in the same workout. So that the entire leg can be saturated with as much blood as possible (thoroughly pumped up).
Before you arrive at the gym you need to be sure of exactly what you are going to do. How many sets? How many reps? Order of exercises? Types of exercise? These are all questions you need to know the answers to before you step through the gym doors. So we will start with the sets and reps issue. Bodybuilding by nature is a very subjective sport, different diets work better for some than others, different supplements work better for some than others, so it should come as no surprise that different training methods are better suited to some more than others. However having said that they are some golden rules we all can benefit from. Legs like all large muscle groups should only be trained once a week but should be broken down using a variety of exercises within 12-16 working sets.
As far as reps are concerned you have to consider the nature of the individual muscle group you are training. For example biceps have a tendency to fatigue fairly quickly, they are relatively small muscle groups that are not often employed in everyday life. Therefore optimum breakdown of the biceps can be achieved in as little as 6 sets of 8-12 reps. Legs on the other hand are much more of a stubborn muscle group, largely due to the fact that you are on your feet a lot and the muscles of the leg are familiar with working against resistance. Taking this into consideration it is therefore important to increase the amount of reps to between 12-20 in order to “shock” the muscles into new growth. The speed of the repetition can also give rise to debate. In my opinion it is best to conduct the repetition as fast as possible paying close attention to technique using a weight that will take you to failure for the desired repetitions. So in actual fact it may appear that the weight is being lifted fairly slowly but maximum effort and concentration are required at all times. The trick is to always be in control of the weight and never let the weight be in control of you.
When training legs, like any other muscle group you need a structure, a plan of attack if you like. This should be entirely subjective to your strengths and weaknesses. For example, if like most bodybuilders your calves are lagging behind your hamstrings and your hamstrings are to light for your quadriceps then train your calves first, hamstrings second, and quadriceps last. This is referred to as “priority training” principle. The theory here is that a muscle group will respond faster if constantly trained first while you are at your freshest. This can go a long way to ensure proper proportions and balance is achieved. After all it is probably a result of biasing your workout s to certain more pleasurable body parts that has created a need for such training methods.
You could also allocate more of your sets to weaker body parts. For example in a 15 set workout 6 sets could be designated to the calves (3 for both Gastrocnemius and Soleius), 5 sets for the hamstrings and finally 4 sets four the quadriceps. Alternatively if you are one of these people who are blessed with big calves but cursed with under-developed quadriceps then simply structure your budget of sets making sure there is a definite emphasise on quadriceps training. Obviously priorities are going to change so once your satisfied your calves are up to scratch make sure that it is reflected in your workout plan by prioritising a different muscle group. If after analysing your legs in the mirror you are quite content with your proportions then it could be a good idea to make a mental note and cycle the structure of leg workout. This will provide constant shock and stimulation that will significantly improve your leg development.
Now that you have a basic structure to go on, you are know ready to choose the type of exercise that you wish to do the job. Again this is very subjective and has many variables ranging from time of year (if entering a competition) to working around an old back injury. Before talking more specifically about the many different movements you can adopt for your leg training it is necessary to talk briefly about the two main types of movement that exist. These being Compound movements and Isolation movements.
All bodybuilding movements can be categorised into these two broad concepts. Compound movements are those that involve a contraction from a variety of different muscles that work together to lift the weight. Examples of these kinds of movement are the squat, dead lifts, bench-press and bent over row, to name but a few. These are the mass builders of your workout and should form the backbone of any mass orientated training session. Isolation exercises on the other hand help refine the muscle and add quality by isolating the contraction to the desired muscle group. Examples of this type of exercise are the leg extension, bench flye, side laterals and concentration curls. These movements play a key role in defining and adding detail to muscles.
Again like the structure of your workout the type of exercise that you choose may have many variables. If strength and mass are your current goals in leg training then lend yourself more toward the compound movements which are sure to breakdown many more muscle fibres than the more isolating exercises. However if weight loss is on the agenda with separation and definition of the muscle being more central to your goals than adopt a predominantly isolating approach to your workouts. Although in general it is important to have a combination of the two so that you can benefit from the different unique advantages that both sets of movement have to offer.
It is absolutely essential to include a thorough warm up before training legs. This is to move the blood away from the internal organs in the gut and in to the working muscles. Warming up any muscle group is important before heavy lifts but especially with legs as the risks of injuries to the knees’ and lower back are increased significantly if you rush into these lifts. Finally a good warm up also increases the rate of motor neurone activity which allows for more powerful contractions. I would recommend a good 10 minutes on the treadmill or bike so that you start your training with an increased heart rate and having broken sweat.
So it is now time to take a closer look at the individual exercises that breakdown the muscles of the leg. It is worth pointing out now that this is by no means a full and comprehensive list of all leg exercises. For more practical reasons I have chosen to go into detail on the most popular and effective exercises. Starting with the calves there are two main types of contraction. These being the standing calf raise and the seated calf raise. The standing calf raise largely targets the Gastrocnemius muscle. This exercise can be executed in a standing calf machine, stood on a step with a dumbbell, or alternatively on the leg press machine. This is done by almost locking out the knees’ placing the balls of your feet on the base on the platform and performing the contraction by pushing up as you exhale, remembering to get a real good stretch on the negative as you inhale. It would be advisable to chop and change between these three types of exercise so that the calves have difficulty in adapting.
The seated calf raises are slightly more isolating and predominantly stressors the Soleius muscle. For this exercise it is best to use a seated calf raise apparatus, as you are going to struggle for quality alternatives for this movement. Start with the calves fully stretched and contract until you are on the tip of your toes as you exhale. Slowly return to the starting position as you take a deep breath in. Make sure you capitalise on the full range of motion in strict and deliberate form. It is important to note that the calves are pound for pound the strongest of all muscles. If you think about it every footstep you take is a repetition of your entire bodyweight. So it is necessary to approach this muscle group as heavy as possible for 12-15 repetitions.
As with calf training there are two main types of exercises for the hamstrings. These are the dead lifts and the leg curls. The dead lift is a really effective compound exercise that if done correctly can build a great deal of strength and mass into the back of the leg. Dead lifts can also be incorporated in a back workout, though the movement provides a fantastic weighted stretch on the hamstrings as well as stressing the erector spinae muscles of the lower back. This strengthening of the lower back is very important as it plays a critical role in many upper and lower body contractions. Although it is necessary to point out that these muscles are relatively small and close attention to proper technique is required to stay free from back related problems. For added support and protection it would also be advisable to wear a training belt. This exercise can be executed using a free bar, Smith machine, or dumbbells. I personally prefer the free bar movements but you can experiment to see which one works best for you.
To perform this exercise hold the barbell/dumbbells slightly wider than shoulder width apart, start standing upright with you feet flat on the floor and 16 inches away from each other. As you lower the weight as if to touch your toes take a deep breath in keeping your knees’ slightly bent. Once you have attained the desired stretch bring the weight up as you exhale back to the original starting point whilst keeping the arms and elbows locked in place. This is important, as the arms should only act as “hooks” and should not make the contraction of the hamstrings any less powerful. If you choose to adopt this exercise do it at the beginning of your hamstring workout as this is a compound movement and requires a lot of effort. This fact should also be reflected in the amount of sets and reps that you conduct. I would advise between 2-4 sets (depending on the nature of your regime) of 10-15 reps, progressing in weight with every set.
Another exercise for the hamstrings is the leg curl that can be don both standing and laying on your front. This isolates the hamstring more but is by no means inferior to the dead lifts. This movement really focuses on targeting the muscle bellies of the hamstrings and also allows for a really good stretch. To perform this exercise make sure you are laying or standing comfortably in the machine. Start by taking a deep breath and exhale as you bring your feet right up to your bottom. Hold this contraction for a second (peak contraction principle) then slowly lower the weight on the negative all the way back to the starting point whilst inhaling and ensuring a good stretch. Again consider doing between 2-4 sets. As the nature of this exercise is quite isolating you can afford to perform more reps within the region of 15-20.
Try not to perform any more than 6 working sets for the hamstrings as any more can constitute over-training and put you in a catabolic state (Using muscle mass as a source of energy). So, for example strength orientated might involve 4 working sets of 10-12 reps of dead lifts and conclude with 2 sets of 12-15 reps (to failure) of leg curls. Whereas an isolating approach might involve working through 2 sets of 12-15 reps of dead lifts and 4 sets of leg curls consisting of 15-20 reps. However in a general sense it is important to acknowledge the importance of both types of exercise and make sure both are present albeit in varying degrees in the training of all muscle groups.
Moving on to quadriceps, it would be fair to say that the thigh consists of the largest group of muscles in the body. Therefore the training of such muscles is likely to make up the bulk of your entire leg routine and demand the most of your energy reserves. As the thigh is a very dense muscle it is important to concentrate largely on compound movements. This make sure that the deeper muscle fibres are reached and stressed which incidentally cannot be broken down significantly through the use of isolation exercises alone. However that does not mean to say that there is no place for these movements. For example the leg extensions are a superb exercise for the quadriceps and can feature in both workouts for strength/mass and tone/definition.
To start this exercise make sure you are sat comfortably in the machine with your back flush against the support. If the machine at your gym has a setting that allows you to increase the range of motion than do so, as it is best to start the contraction with your feet as far back as possible. Remember to start with a deep breath in and exhale as you raise your feet. When your knees’ are locked and the lift is completed hold for a second (peak contraction principle); then inhale again as you get the stretch during the negative back to the original starting position. For a mass building workout this exercise is best used as an extensive warm up before heavy lifts on a compound movement. Between 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps (to failure) should guarantee an adequate “pump” to progress on to the next exercise. Alternatively, if tone and definition are more central aims then shape your quadriceps workout around this type of exercise by doing 4-6 sets of 15-20 reps.
Now I want to talk a little more about the squat and the many benefits that can be achieved through correct squatting. It could be argued that the squat is the best individual exercise that can be done. So much so that all of the previously mentioned advantages of leg training can be accessed through this exercise alone, if done correctly. Neglect this exercise and any ambitions to build big well-balanced strong legs can go out of the window, it really is that important. Squatting is crucial for building the sweep of the thigh. This in turn can only be done by a weight that forces the thighs to the floor, which is the very nature of squatting. But before we go in to any detail on how to perform a squat it is first necessary to talk a little about safety issues.
The squat is without doubt the most compound exercise of all. With compound movements comes strength and therefore heavy weights, as many muscles are employed to complete the lift. However with squats you are inevitably dealing with several hundred pound so it is important to be aware of the possible dangers. Firstly always make sure that for your heavier lifts there is someone to supervise and correct any sloppy form. Secondly wear a training belt for added support and protection to the lower back muscles, remember these muscles are put under immense strain when the lifts begin to get heavy. Finally as previously mentioned make sure the entire leg is thoroughly warmed up before conducting your working sets.
There are many different types of squatting techniques (Back squats, Front squats, Hack squats, Sissy squats etc) all of which have the potential to build fantastic thighs. However I am going to concentrate on only the back and front squats. The back squat and front squat are arguably the most orthodox forms of squat and can either be performed with a free bar or on the Smith Machine. One of the many advantages to squatting is the flexibility of the exercise. For example a wider stance will help breakdown the outer thigh giving the leg more of a sweeping appearance. Alternatively, if you were to keep your feet shoulder width apart but were to point your toes outward this would emphasise the contraction around the inner thigh. These small manipulations can have significant implications and are well worth trying out.
To conduct the back squat start with the bar resting on the base of your trapezius (note that if you rest the bar on the back of your neck you run a high risk of a serious injury). If possible start this exercise with your heels raised. This will improve your balance, which is absolutely critical when squatting heavy using free weights. Lower the weight until your thighs are almost parallel with the floor as you take a deep breath in. Breathe out as you force the weight back to the starting position. Make sure you are looking up at all times. This is very important as it keeps the spinal column strong and relatively straight. Looking down will weaken this support inevitably leading to future back problems. This exercise is a really good mass builder and I personally recommend its implementation into any type of leg workout. For predominantly mass building sessions do 4 working sets of 12-15 reps. for a more leg-shaping workout try 3 working sets of 20 reps?
The front squat is carried out in much the same way as the back squat. However, instead of the bar being rested on the trapezius muscles the front deltoids support the bar instead. This has a direct influence on the working muscles. You will notice that the back is much straighter, this isolates the quadriceps more by making the contraction of the Gluteles less powerful. This is an important point to make as lots of heavy squatting is undoubtedly going to create large powerful gluteus muscles. If this is not your aim or if you feel your gluteu muscles are large enough then this exercise may well be worth bearing in mind. So that you can still get all the benefits of squatting without the increased size of your bottom. Another approach to prevent this happening would be to pre-exhaust the quadriceps with an isolating movement so that the heavy weights that require Gluteles contraction cannot be reached.
The final exercise that is going to be looked at is the leg press. This also represents a compound movement requiring a lot of effort from the bodybuilder who wishes to select it. This exercise can only be done in a leg press machine, although it is worth noting that like the squat the feet can be arranged to prioritise certain more lagging muscles. To start this exercise make sure you are sat comfortably with your bottom firmly on the seat and with no arch to the back. Allow the weight to slowly down as far as possible down in a controlled fashion so that a really good stretch is gained across the hamstrings. Breathe out as you contract the quads so that the weight is pressed back to its original position. To help increase the intensity of this exercise try not locking out with your knees. This is known as “continuous tension” principal as tension is continuously on the quads and not placed on the knees. Mass building sessions should include 4 working sets of this exercise of around 12-15 reps. An isolating approach could entail 2-3 working sets of 15-20 reps.
In conclusion then, this article has stressed the importance of training legs and has argued that the benefits of such training are well worth the effort and pain. The importance of a well worked out structure or plan of attack has also been noted to help achieve and maintain your desired goals. The inclusion of the exercises that have been reviewed are critical to the outcome of your efforts. It is also important to concentrate and stay focused. Failure to do so could at best result in an inferior workout and at worst result in a serious injury, which also undermines the need for a comprehensive warm up. Finally I would like to thank you for taking the time to read what I have had to say on the issue of leg training and that I would like to wish you all the success in the future.
Yours in training