Every gym has beach body warriors – guys that bench three days a week and only step inside the squat rack to do barbell curls. Their bodies look like oranges perched on top of toothpicks and their athletic performance is typically laughable.
On the other side, most decent gyms also have "that guy." He's soft-spoken and unassuming, and you'll never see him strutting around in a string tank top or posing in the mirror.
However, you always know when it's leg day, as 45-pound plates start vanishing from weight stands and reappearing on his bar – 315, 405, 495, the more he squats, the more his sweeping quads and thick hamstrings blow up like birthday balloons.
There's a lesson here – squatting hard and heavy is the best way to build freaky legs. And to help you along, here's a 12-week squat program that will add slabs of meat onto even the most anemic set of chicken legs, provided you have the guts and fortitude to do the heavy lifting.
How It Works
Nothing compares to the squat. It builds size, increases strength, and helps athletes from all backgrounds run faster, jump higher, and hit harder.
This program alternates weeks of squatting heavy weights explosively with weeks of higher volume:
Squat – Weekly Percentages
- Week 1: 5 x 75%, 5 x 80%, 5 x 85%
- Week 2: 10 sets of 5 reps @ 70%
- Week 3: 4 x 77.5%, 4 x 82.5%, 4 x 87.5%
- Week 4: 10 sets of 4 reps @ 72.5%
- Week 5: 3 x 80%, 3 x 85%, 3 x 90%
- Week 6: 10 sets of 3 reps @ 75%
- Week 7: 5 x 80%, 5 x 85%, 5 x 90%
- Week 8: 10 sets of 5 reps @ 75%
- Week 9: 4 x 82.5%, 4 x 87.5%, 4 x 92.5%
- Week 10: 10 sets of 4 reps @ 77.5%
- Week 11: 3 x 85%, 3 x 90%, 3 x 95%
- Week 12: 10 sets of 3 reps @ 80%
The Heavy Stuff
The heavy weeks are performed on the odd-numbered training weeks, and involve working up to three main work sets of 5, 4, or 3 reps, depending on the week.
The percentages will be "waved" from lighter to heavier twice over the 12-week period, with the second wave being heavier than the first.
The rep ranges decrease as the weight lifted increases, which helps increase strength over the 12 weeks.
The focus here is on the amount of weight moved and rep speed, and the goal on all work sets is to move the weight as explosively as possible.
Rest periods should typically be 3-5 minutes for the main work sets. However, the key is to be sufficiently recovered before starting the next work set, so take longer breaks between sets if necessary.
The Volume Work
The high volume weeks are performed on the even-numbered training weeks, each consisting of ten work sets after warm-ups.
The rest periods are much shorter, around 45-60 seconds. The weights used will also be much lighter.
While in the heavy week you'll reach training weights as high as 95% of your one-rep maximum, you won't exceed 80% of your one-rep max during the high volume weeks.
However, don't mistake lighter as meaning less effort, as many find the opposite to be the case. The high number of sets combined with short rest periods has sent more than one athlete searching for the ralphing pail.
Like the heavy weeks, a wave-style of programming is used to facilitate strength gains while minimizing the risk of overtraining.
All my programs are designed to test your strength mentally as well as physically. Although the emphasis on your leg day will be on squatting, the assistance work is the furthest thing from a walk in the park.
Heavy Squat Weeks (Weeks 1, 3, 5, etc.)
During heavy weeks, leg presses, walking lunges, lying leg curls, and barbell stiff legged deadlifts will round out the leg day.
The leg presses will be performed in a pyramid style, with the weight increasing while the rep range decreases. The goal is to go as heavy as possible, and each heavy week you should try to hit a PR in the amount of weight lifted.
For lunges, I recommend adding resistance by placing weight on the shoulders instead of holding dumbbells. I've seen athletes suffer groin injuries doing heavy dumbbells lunges as the dumbbells allow for greater form breakdown.
On the other hand, when the weight is on the shoulders, you're forced to use proper form to maintain balance. This technique also places the majority of the stress on the quads, which is what we're attempting to target.
You can hold a barbell across the shoulders in a squat position, drape chains around your neck, or (my personal favorite) use an old log made from a fallen telephone pole.
Next we target the hamstrings directly with lying leg curls. You must be mindful of keeping your hips down on the bench to emphasize the hamstrings – you can even instruct a partner to put pressure on your lower back to keep your hips from rising.
The final exercise on the heavy weeks will be barbell stiff legged deadlifts. These should be performed using 25-pound plates or standing on a 4-6" platform to increase the range of motion.
Keep a slight bend in the knees but don't allow your legs to move during the movement. Focus on using the hamstrings to move the weight while trying to limit the involvement of the spinal erectors.
- Leg press: Work up to sets of 10, 8, and 6 reps
- Lunge: 3 x 20 reps
- Lying leg curl: 3 x 8 reps
- Barbell stiff-legged deadlift: 3 x 8 reps
Light Squat Weeks (Weeks 2, 4, 6, etc.)
For the high volume weeks, again we'll go straight to leg pressing after squatting, but this time the purpose is to force as much blood into the legs as possible.
The goal is to complete 100 total reps in four sets while resting no more than three minutes between sets. Here the focus is on completing the reps within the required time frame and not the load, so it's acceptable to decrease the weight if it helps hit the prescribed number of reps.
Your legs will already be fatigued from the previous 10 sets of squats and these sets of 25 reps will really test your pain tolerance. Your quads will be pumped beyond belief, but we're not done.
Next are leg extensions, 3 sets of 30 reps, to finish off your quads. Rest periods here should be kept to no more than 2-3 minutes to force as much blood into the muscle as possible. By the time you complete the last set of 30 reps, it should feel like the skin on your legs is about to split.
Direct hamstring work starts with lying leg curls, using the same techniques as before but with a higher rep-range, 3 sets of 15 reps.
The final exercise of the high volume week will be stiff-legged deadlifts, but this time performed with dumbbells instead of a barbell.
Keep a slight bend in the knees while focusing on using the hamstrings to move the weight. At the bottom, lightly touch the dumbbells to the floor without losing muscular tension and stop just short of lockout at the top before immediately going right back down without pausing. This will ensure the hamstrings do the majority of the work without giving them a mid-set break.
- Leg press: 4 x 25 reps
- Leg extension: 3 x 30 reps
- Lying leg curl: 3 x 15 reps
- Dumbbell stiff-legged deadlift: 3 x15 reps
- Squats must be the focus of your leg training to ensure maximum muscle fiber recruitment.
- Alternate heavy training weeks with high volume weeks to increase both size and strength.
- During heavy weeks, the priority is the amount of weight moved and doing so explosively.
- For high volume weeks, use sets with higher rep-ranges and relatively short rest periods to facilitate maximal blood flow into the target muscles.
- Assistance work is altered from week to week in accordance with the goals of the training session.
- Use a wave loading approach to simultaneously build strength while minimizing the risk of overtraining.
Here We Grow Again!
Leg training is never easy and this squat program is about as ferocious as they come. But I believe very strongly in two things – that nothing worth having ever comes easily, and pain is the mother of all progress.
So embrace the grind, get used to limping from the gym, and use this squat program to take your leg training to the next level.