Hercules: good legs, lousy movie.
Fierce, productive leg training is the true domain of the serious lifter. Gyms from here to anywhere are littered with young and inexperienced weight trainers who gladly ground and pound their upper bodies into dust, yet expend minimal effort, and perform classic lower-body exercises dismally. That is, if they train legs at all.
Seriously, what could be worse?
Fact is, if you want a balanced physique, both in aesthetic appeal and athletic performance, you have to devote regular workout sessions to your "wheels" and strive to become a master. All the greatest bodybuilders (not necessarily the most winning), powerlifters, and strength athletes became great because they developed an intimate and painful relationship with lower-body training. There simply is no other way.
In case somebody didn't catch the reference. Yes, I'm a metalhead.
Before we proceed, let's discuss this whole "master" concept. Being a master of legs training has nothing to do with the ability to load a leg press with 30 frickin' plates and bang out "big reps" that see the knee joints barely articulating. And it isn't masterful to have the courage and stamina to lift until you puke, either. Two admirable qualities, to be sure, but not necessarily masterful.
No, being a gym master is all about knowing the finer nuances of proper exercise form and being able to exploit these to your benefit. Think Tom Platz. Think Ed Coan. Most likely, don't think of yourself. Yet.
This could be you. But not for a while.
Leg Extensions Blow
Now I'd like to take a few minutes and rip on a common piece of leg-training apparatus, the standard leg extension machine. What a hunk of crap, huh? Unless you're recovering from a verylong period of bed rest, jettison the leg extension from your routine. I guess it's also OK to use it to warm up the knees and muscles. But the truth is, not much muscle has ever been built – nor strength developed – from performing the movement.
This douche looks too damn happy for this to be a good exercise.
In fact, I'd suggest quite confidently that more knees have been wrecked or aggravated by its use and misuse than any other lower-body exercise. So to all those who claim squats hurt their knees: It's most likely those full-stack knee extensions you yank up, Chuck. Not your quarter-depth 185-pound squats, you wuss.
Gradual use of heavier and heavier resistance over several sets of an exercise is a good idea for most trainers. Doing such a thing warms the muscles and connective tissue and, in general, prepares the mind and body for the most challenging reps to come. Somewhere, however, the concept behind pyramid-training has largely been lost.
The idea is to increase poundage as repetitions decrease. So why is it I see a majority of folks hitting reps to failure on all the damn sets? Has it ever occurred to these folks that doing such a thing only pre-fatigues their muscles for the sets with the most resistance? You know, the growth sets?
Bench pressing 225 to failure, or worse, to negative failure (forced reps), is gonna kill what you could ultimately perform with a top weight of, say, 275 pounds. I'm talking about the difference between getting three reps and getting six to eight reps! There's no law against performing as few as three reps on your last "warmup" sets, even if you aim to jam out medium-to-high reps on the top sets.
Paths To Volume, the Right Way!
Achieving training volume the way I described above, by performing as many reps as possible, including the warm-up sets, is a stupid way to go about it.
Dramatic muscle gains can come from doing a ton of work in a relatively short period of time, however. Determining a poundage to use as a "work" weight and then performing several straight sets with minimal rest in between can go a long way towards huge total volume.
Or, if you prefer, once you arrive at your top training resistance on a movement (the right way), go to failure on each successive set going down the other side of the pyramid (as long as you don't mind struggling at the end with what is normally for you a light weight). The idea, regardless, is to cram as many reps and sets into an hour (or a bit more) as humanly possible.
Don't be a Partial-Reppin' Bozo!
This laziness has gotta stop, people. It's gotten so bad that quarter-inch depth on leg presses and squats are the new craze with the kids; little shits who have grown up cutting corners on hard work. I guess doing half-rep bench presses wasn't lazy enough.
Are you man enough to squat like this girl?
Look, take your squats down below parallel (keep going, tough guy, you're not there yet) and bring your knees to at least your chest when you leg press. You can go even lower with your toes slightly flared so your knees will come out to the sides.
The half-rep phenomenon usually has something to do with ego. That is, the trainee is afraid his fragile little self-image will be bruised if people see him using the kind of weight he'd have to use if he actually performed full repetitions. It's a vicious circle of stupidity and weakness, however, because without full repetitions the lifter won't ever develop impressive strength.
This is why Homer will never develop impressive strength.
Deep reps considerably lessen the resistance you can use but produce 20 times the pump and go a long way in helping to actually build some muscle. What's that you say? You say your joints can't take it? Oh, jeez. If that were true, you'd be hesitant to unlock your knees with the 15 plates per side you use every week on the leg press.
Do some of you hear the excuses coming out of your mouth? They might as well be coming out of somewhere else.
The "Variety" Lie
Many still like to champion the need for weight trainers to do lots and lots of variations of exercises in each workout to "stimulate the muscles from all angles." Rubbish. How many different ways can the legs move? Speaking about quads and hams, they articulate the lower legs in line with the upper thighs, and articulate the lower legs back and behind the upper legs.
The best way to overload the muscles of the quads and hams is to push at something with your feet. So, sure, mix stuff up from workout to workout (leg press this time; squat next time), but don't fall into the trap of believing you must sit and press a weight, stand and press a weight, lean back against a sled and press a weight, all in the same workout!
If you're maximally taxing a muscle or muscles, why must you do it from six different angles and on different machines? Silly.
Squat: The Exercise
This seems like the time to bring up just how valuable the squat exercise is to leg development and overall bodybuilding. The Smith machine and hack versions are OK, but pale horribly when butted up against the ultimate-hardcore, free-bar kind. Don't even try to argue against this. It's fact.
There are physique athletes who claim standard leg presses are better for developing the specific muscles on the fronts of the thighs and this might be the case. However, nothing packs more overall meat onto the entirety of the lower body and helps add muscular bodyweight than the squat. You want to be 200-plus pounds of reasonably-hard sinew? Squat. You wanna be a super athlete? Squat. You want to be one badass shit kicker, period? Squat.
Did I mention you should squat?
News flash: you should squat.
Lifters have argued for decades what the best rep ranges to use are and what style is best. Generally, bodybuilders have favored medium to high (6-20) repetitions with an "Olympic" (close-stance / high bar) technique, and powerlifters low to medium reps with a "power" (wide-stance / low bar) style.
Narrow stance, high bar
Wide stance, low bar.
The former tends to throw a majority of the stress on the quadriceps and the latter onto the hips, butt and low back. However, if your body type isn't well suited to Olympic squatting and consequently you can't maintain an upright torso position and flat back, the opposite can happen. Most of the stress will fall onto your low back in a very bad way and injury can occur. Sometimes a hybrid between the two styles works best. Experiment.
A variety of repetitions should be employed, regardless of whether you're a physique builder or pure strength athlete. Very low reps will help a bodybuilder build thickness, density, and strength, while its useful to utilize greater poundages for medium to high repetition sets for the development of muscle "volume."
Powerlifters, contrary to what many stagnant-thinkers believe, can certainly benefit from high-repetition sets. Doing so builds muscular bulk, encourages physical "robustness," trains mental toughness, develops knee and structural "integrity," and can help build limit strength.
Busting Up The Hammies
The backs of the upper legs, the hamstrings, are often neglected to the point of madness. True, no matter how hard one trains them, they'll always stay a few steps behind the strength of the thighs. But thick and powerful hams lend the legs a balanced and functional look, as well as magnify the poundages that one's able to hoist, along with preventing knee injury.
The regular hamstring curl (lying or standing) is a great exercise, and so too is the stiff-legged deadlift. Perform the curl with absolute control, medium repetitions, and a tight and stalled rep at the top (right at your butt, bud); and the "deads" with slightly bent knees and an exaggerated back arch and stretch.
Again, maintain complete control, and attempt to squeeze your butt cheeks all the way through your reps. Straight sets (same resistance and reps for multiple sets) seem to work great when blasting the hamstrings.
For a change of pace, and to ensure they get adequately torched, train your hams first in a workout every few leg sessions. And there's no need to separate your quad and hamstring workouts unless you want to add another session for one or the other for specific purposes.
Time, Numbers, and Other Boring Shit
Powerlifters are renowned for sometimes spending hours in the gym for a single session. Three-hour squat sessions are not uncommon. And, being a powerlifter, I can tell you why. It's not the amount of sets, necessarily. The lengthened workouts are usually a result of extensive stretching (by way of warm-up sets) and rest between sets.
Bodybuilders, on the other hand, are usually known for their frisky, brisk workouts. I believe this type of training is called "quality" training (real clever). Moving fast between sets and exercises can produce a killer pump, no question. So what isthe best way?
There really isn't a hard and fast rule when it comes to how long one should spend in the gym for an average workout. But there does seem to be truth to the belief that, to build maximal muscle, total volume of work performed is crucial. And studies do show that a lifter's best anabolic hormone response is within the first hour to hour-and-a-half, give or take. With these two things in mind, one can see why, for best muscle gain, lots of work (sets and reps) should be performed in as little time as possible.
Numbers of sets to perform depends on what your ultimate goal is. If you desire a heaping volume of muscle, many sets crammed into, again, as little time as possible, with semi-regular two or three-week periods of heavier and slower sets for added strength, thickness and density, is what you need.
If you crave absolute and freakish strength, perform a limited number of medium to heavy sets with maximal time between each to promote peak performance. These recent years have shone light on the need to perform very light sets for very low reps (2-3) with extremely short rest periods (say, 30-45 seconds), and using explosive contractions to develop speed and acceleration (power).
Redundancy Is For Dunces
Don't make the mistake many trainees do, by becoming a champion of redundancy. Instead of performing squats, leg presses, hack squats, etc. all in the same workout, choose one (or two, max) as your prime movement in each session. Beat the crap out of it. And with all the time you'll be saving not doing shit leg extensions, you should have lots of time.
Beating the Crap Out Of It
One has to be weary of overtraining. Always. Nothing will derail progress in the gym (and, consequently, in the reflection in the mirror) like pushing your recovery system too far. We all have finite ability to recuperate in reasonable time from such severe activity as intensive bodybuilding. Weight training is one of the greatest physical stresses to which the body can be subjected.
But keeping the dreaded overtraining demon in mind, nothing says "growth spurt" like the semi-occasional session of berserk brutality. And a fantastic way to force some sort of adaptive response from your body is beating the crap out of a single exercise.
First, choose a movement worthy of your blood, sweat, and tears. For legs, something like the leg press, squat, or hack squat. A multi-joint exercise, that is. Forget "fluff" exercises.
On a day of "beating the crap out if it," you can choose one or two extra movements to compliment the main exercise, or just not do anything else, period. Certainly your lower body won't be lacking any growth stimulus after you're done the one exercise.
As described earlier, use straight sets. Once you've arrived at your chosen work weight, perform multiple sets using the same repetitions. The trick here is to find what this poundage is. Many trainers overestimate what they will be able to use. It's one thing to perform one or two HARD sets with a certain weight, and quite another to maintain the same reps over several sets. Here are some ideas for this Beating The Crap Out Of It technique:
...you get the idea.
For this second way to "beat the crap out of it," choose a weight as your top-poundage set, perform as many reps as possible, wait a good four or five minutes, perform another set for as many reps as possible, and then start dropping the weight, always attempting as many repetitions per set as you can. When you can no longer walk properly, you're done. Hobble over to the local burger shack and get blitzed on beef.
Cut the cheese out and this wouldn't be too bad a post-"beating the crap out of it" workout meal.
Leave Something In The Tank
Mr. Olympia legend Lee Haney once said "stimulate, don't annihilate." Good advice. What this means to us mere mortals is, train to force an adaptive response, but not to the point where you drive your body into a severe state of catabolism. You know, where it's barely able to maintain life.
It would be hypocritical of me to suggest, however, that you should never push the envelope from time to time. This is why I described a couple great ways to occasionally "beat the crap out of yourself" in the last segment. Every successful weight trainer does it with varying frequency. Just don't make it a habit. Generally, you should leave the gym tired but invigorated, not slumped over hoping for death.
The End is... Now (or is it?)
Get serious about your lower-body training and turn your workouts into events. Be in possession of a balanced physique, one that boasts a strong, athletic and well-developed pair of legs. Have a build for which you can be proud. One that silently screams "I walk the walk."
Don't over-think the effort and frequent pain that this will require. These don't matter to someone with the warrior spirit. Dig deep, train hard, and attain satisfaction and triumph the likes of which few will experience in their lifetime.
The question is, do you have the guts?