4 Simple Leg Workouts to Spur New Growth
Summer is many a bodybuilder's favorite time of year. The sunny skies and warm temperatures affords an easy opportunity for us to strut our stuff and expose that superhero physique we've been building all winter.
But if you exercise your Iron Right to do the peacock walk, you best be able to back it up – and that means sporting a set of legs that matches your "showy" shoulders and pecs.
Let's start with programming. There are many ways to set up the nuts & bolts of a training program. You can operate from a percentage of one-rep max, shoot for a specific rep total, and modulate the training frequency.
However, one factor that rarely gets talked about – and one that's arguably as important as the choice of exercises – is exercise sequence. Setting up the exercises in the correct order will help you stay healthier, get stronger, and grow larger.
Here's how your programming will look over the next four leg sessions:
Frequency: How often you train legs will depend on how you feel. When your legs feel rested and ready to blast, go again, whether it's three days or six days later.
Rest periods: Keep it simple. Just take as much time as you need to feel strong again. Don't start a set out of breath or you'll compromise performance.
Exercises: Each workout will consist of four exercises. They'll be sequenced in this order:
Exercise 1 – A leg curl variation
Exercise 2 – A squat variation
Exercise 3 – An exercise that's safe to do with all-out intensity
Exercise 4 – A deadlift variation that emphasizes hamstring development
Starting With Leg Curls
Leg curls are incredibly underrated as a hamstring developer. Starting your workout with leg curls allows you to place considerable emphasis on the hamstrings, as opposed to just tossing in a few meaningless sets at the end of your leg workout.
Most lifters are extremely quad-dominant – if you look at bodybuilders doing the classic side chest pose, it's rare (below the professional level) to see one with thick, hanging hamstrings. Sequencing leg curls first addresses this issue.
There's also a larger benefit, one not found in any Pub Med search: doing leg curls first will make your squats "feel" better. With pumped up hams, you'll feel "sturdier" in the bottom position of the squat, and your hips will seem "greased" during each squat repetition.
Furthermore, as strange as it sounds, you'll find that your knees need less warming up after starting with leg curls. Again no peer-reviewed data to back this up, just decades of experience and hundreds of client testimonials.
The other nice thing about leg curls is that you can easily employ techniques like drop sets and partial reps to further drive blood into the muscle. Provided you're using good form, this can quickly produce impressive gains in hamstring strength and thickness.
The Meat & Spuds
Nothing compares to squats for leg size. While other exercises certainly have merit, squats will form the core of your workouts.
However, while I was certainly born to squat – wide hips and short femurs – it isn't necessary to go completely rock bottom on every set of squats you do. My preferred approach is to vary squatting depth – some weeks squatting just to parallel, others well below.
Variation is a good thing – just ask Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell. When I trained there, we'd move the height of the box down an inch every week to help build flexibility. We would also vary our stances, as wider squats help develop hip and groin flexibility.
I also like to vary the bar used with squats. Different bars recruit the quads and hamstrings to varying degrees. (If you're lucky enough to have a safety squat bar, get it ready for action!)
The third exercise in the sequence will be the most painful. The more advanced you are, the harder you should push yourself. Remember, the goal is huge legs, so don't train like everybody else (i.e., half-assed) and expect to look any different from them.
Expect and demand more from yourself. You'd be surprised what you're capable of. (And don't worry, I give examples below.)
Stretch It Out
Now that your legs are absolutely loaded with blood, it's time to kick in some deadlifts for hamstrings. We'll use different stances and depths for variation.
Let's get to the iron. The following workouts are tough, so put your heart into it – don't just go through the motions and expect to make gains.
Lying Leg Curls – Simply do 3 sets of 8 reps with a hard flex at the top. On the fourth set, do 8 followed by 25 partials from the stretched position. Just move the weight 4-6 inches from the bottom. Your hamstrings will feel like Jell-O when you're done. Two to three warm-up sets and then four total work sets.
Barbell Squats – Do sets of 8 to warm up. Go below parallel. As you rise up, avoid locking out – come right back down to maintain continuous tension. Once you reach a weight that's challenging for 8 reps, do 4 sets of 8. Use any stance that's comfortable, just be sure to make note of it because next week you'll go a tad wider. Wear a belt. Four total work sets.
Leg Press – Do 3 hard sets of 25 reps. Use a shoulder-width, feet in the middle of the platform stance. Turn your toes out slightly – this will blow up your VMO. Don't lock out on these either. You may need to do some light quad stretching between sets as your legs should be completely full of blood. Three total work sets.
Dumbbell Stiff Legged Deadlifts – Do 2 sets of 20. Go slow and stretch your hams. Bend your knees slightly at the bottom to avoid injury. Don't come up all the way – come up 3/4 of the way, then go right back down. This will finish you off for the day. Two total work sets.
Lying Leg Curls – Do a standard pyramid of 15, 12, 9, and 6 reps. After the last set of 6, drop the weight and do 6 more, then perform one more drop and do a final 6 reps. This 18-rep drop-set will pump your hams and get you ready for squats. Two to three warm up sets and then four total work sets.
Barbell Squats – Do sets of 8 to warm-up, but this week use a slightly wider stance. Focus on sitting back and driving your knees out so they don't buckle. This week just hit parallel, no lower, and use more weight than last week. This may be tough if changing your stance exposes some hip weakness, but try. Knock out another 4 sets of 8 once you reach your target weight. Four total work sets.
Bulgarian Split Squats –This week the leg press is swapped for split squats. Your legs will be tight and pumped, so you might have to work a little deeper each set to derive the maximum benefit. Do 12 reps on each leg, holding light dumbbells.
Take three seconds on the way down (this will hurt), and slowly get to a comfortable depth. Again, you should get a little deeper on each set. I typically do some very light hip flexor stretches for a quick 10 seconds between sets. Three total work sets.
Barbell Stiff Legged Deads – This week we switch dumbbell stiff legged deads with the barbell version. Use 25-pound plates to get the maximum stretch, but don't try to achieve max stretch on the first set. Each set you do, work a little deeper. Do 3 sets of 15. Come up all the way and flex your hams and glutes. This will finish you off for the day. Three total work sets.
Seated Leg Curls – The first two weeks we did lying leg curls, the last two we'll do the seated version to hit the hamstrings at a slightly different angle. Do 4 sets of 10 reps and on the last set, after the 10 reps, do 15 additional partial reps out from the stretched position. Two to three warm up sets and then four total work sets.
Safety Bar Squats – Like last week, work up to your starting weight doing sets of 8 reps. Go to just above parallel on these. This is a different bar, and it'll place more emphasis on the quads. Focus on a slow 3-second descent. You may lock out reps if needed. Just find that perfect weight for 8 reps and stay there for 3 sets. Then do a fourth set a little heavier and shoot for five reps. Four total work sets.
Leg Extensions – Don't laugh! You've done some hard work on the leg press and split squats, so let's work in another variation, leg extensions. Avoid letting the weight come back so far at the bottom that you stress the knees, just down until your shins aren't quite parallel. Go heavy but flex every rep at lockout for 1 second.
These will feel great with the pump you already have. Pyramid up doing sets of 12, 10, 8, and then a final set of 8. After the last set, drop the weight and do 8 more reps followed by 8 partials out of the bottom – the weight should only move 3-4 inches. Four total work sets.
Romanian Deadlifts – This week we'll stick with the bar but add a little more knee bend so it's a true Romanian deadlift. Since we aren't going for a super stretch, you can go back to using 45-pound plates. Do these powerfully – let the weight sit on the ground and then drive it up. No bouncing or cutting the reps in half. Pyramid up doing sets of 10 and 8, and then 2 sets of 6. Four total work sets.
Seated Leg Curls – Do 3 of 12 reps. On the last set, after you hit 12 reps, drop the weight and do 8 more reps, and then do another drop and do 8 more. Two to three warm up sets and then four total work sets.
Safety Bar Squats – Like last week, work up to your starting weight doing sets of 8 reps, but this week hit parallel. Continue to focus on a slow 3-second descent. This week you're going to do sets of 8 with a moderately heavy weight, then a tough set of 5 like last week, and then finally a tough set of 3 (don't forget the 3-second descent). After you do the set of 3, cut your weight in half and shoot for as many reps as you can with good form! Four total work sets.
Single-leg Lunge – My favorite way to do walking lunges is with heavy dumbbells using straps. Step forward with your left leg, go down in a controlled manner, and then bring your right leg forward so your feet are beside each other. Now stay on the same leg and do it again.
Do 10 paces with one leg, then turn around and come back on the other leg. This takes momentum and inertia out of the movement and helps keep tension focused on the working leg instead of giving it a break between reps. Three rounds equals one set. Four total work sets.
Rack Romanian Deadlifts – After you catch your breath, we'll finish with rack RDLs. Set the pins at mid-shin. Work up in sets of 3 until you can barely get 3, and then call it a day. Count the last 3 sets as working sets. Three total work sets.
Restoration – I'm a strong believer in using the Rumble Roller to enhance recovery and break down adhesions that build up from training with high intensity.
The short video shows how I use the Rumble Roller:
Walking, as boring as it may be, is also helpful. I'd do both, combined with proper nutrition to ensure you recover and improve. Remember, you're only as good as your weakest link, so if your nutrition sucks, your training progress will be limited.
Forty-five to sixty minutes before training, I eat 6 ounces of fish and 1/2 cup of oats with 1 tablespoon of nut butter.
During training, I use MAG-10® and Anaconda™, but not in the prescribed way. I take 3-4 scoops of MAG-10 and 2 scoops of Anaconda, and I drink it INTRAworkout – it's the best thing I've ever taken for recovery.
Forty-five minutes after training, I have two scoops of Metabolic Drive® Muscle Growth, 2 cups of cooked rice, and 1 tablespoon of raw organic honey.
That's the whole plan! Simple but effective.
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John Meadows CSCS, CISSN, is the creator and owner of www.mountaindogdiet.com. He is a top 5 finisher in the Mr. USA and Mr. North America bodybuilding championships, and when not training is usually chasing around his twin infants, designing brutal training programs, fixing people's cholesterol levels, or writing articles for T NATION.