I got a lucky break early in my bodybuilding career when I realized I didn’t have a particular propensity for building strength. You couldn’t tell by looking at me, but I knew I didn’t have what it took to reach advanced levels.
What seemed at the time to be a curse actually led me to an insight: strength is only mildly related to hypertrophy and muscular development. The ability to build strength has a lot to do with tendon length and thickness – genetic traits that a person can do little about. Once I let go of the idea that “getting stronger” was synonymous with “getting bigger,” my physique took off, and I achieved a successful career as a bodybuilder and bodybuilding coach.
Strength is important, but it’s only one training variable. There’s no equation that says increased load equals increased muscle development. Focusing too much on it results in diminished returns, limiting your ability to enhance your physique. That’s why any good bodybuilder who’s been at it more than eight or nine years lifts less weight than he used to, not more.
All of that is a long way of introducing an advanced leg-training workout that even beginners can do. Why? Because it’s not built around load variances. The more advanced you are, and the more muscle you have, the harder it’ll be. I’ve used it with beginners, advanced bodybuilders, and many people in between, and it puts all of them to bed early.
Another bonus: It requires very little equipment, so you can do it at home or in the gym.
Now let’s take a look at the workout, after which I’ll describe the exercises and explain why I chose some of them.
You’ll do this once a week, whenever you normally train your legs. It should take a little over an hour to complete, assuming you train at a brisk pace.
|A. Full squat
|B1. Bulgarian split squat (body weight only)||3||15-20 (each leg)|
|B2. Lunge (body weight only)||3||15-20 (each leg)|
|C. Step-up into reverse lunge (body weight only)||3||15-20 (each leg)|
|D1. Suspension-system leg curl from high bridge||3||15-20|
|D2. Dumbbell sumo squat||3||15-20|
|E. Single-leg knee extension from plank position||4||15-20 (each leg)|
|F. Dumbbell stiff-legged deadlift||2-3||15-20|
Squats should always be done deep – butt to heels, if possible. That said, the high reps will be a problem if you have a history of back or knee issues, in which case you should use dumbbells, held at arm’s length at your sides, instead of a barbell. (If you have those problems, chances are they’re from using too much weight on squats.)
In Week 3, use a heavy enough weight that you need to pause at 10 reps. Lock out at the top, catch your breath, and do singles until you hit 15 reps.
Bulgarian Split Squat and Lunge
Do all your split squats with both legs, then go directly to lunges without rest. If you think body weight won’t be enough resistance, remember that we’re talking about 60 to 80 total reps (two exercises, both legs) with no rest. You’ll experience substantial oxygen debt.
Form and range of motion are crucial. Keep your hands in the prisoner grip, and make a full descent on each rep. Don’t go too fast – it negates the balance demands. There’s no need to employ any particular tempo prescription; just move at a deliberate speed that allows for a full range of motion and full control throughout each repetition.
Step-Up into Reverse Lunge
This is much harder than it seems.
Again, use body weight only, keep your hands in a prisoner grip, and focus on range of motion and controlled movement, rather than load or speed.
The trick here is coordinating the step-up into the reverse lunge. As you’ll see in the video, you’re stepping up and stepping down with the same leg, and then stepping back into the lunge with the opposite leg. I’ve trained professional athletes who had trouble keeping that straight as the set wore on.
Do all your reps with one leg, then switch legs and repeat. Make sure you lock out the stepping leg on each rep.
If you need to make the exercise harder – which is rarely an issue – make the bench higher, rather than adding resistance.
Suspension-System Leg Curl and Dumbbell Sumo Squat
You can find lots of suspension systems out there. The Jungle Gym from Lifeline is a decent choice, at a cost of $50 plus shipping. If buying one isn’t an option, you can substitute a Swiss ball leg curl. One other option, if you train in a gym, is the seated leg curl. It’s not as effective in the context of this workout, but it’s better than skipping the exercise altogether.
Whatever you choose, the key is to begin each leg curl from a high bridge, with your hips locked in position, and to keep that high bridge throughout the set. Don’t pause between reps.
If you want, you can alternate bilateral leg curls one week with bicycle leg curls the next.
As soon as you finish the leg curls, go immediately to dumbbell sumo squats, holding a single dumbbell between your legs with a wide, toes-out stance. From the locked-out top position, guide the dumbbell backward as you descend. If you drew a line from heel to heel, the dumbbell would touch down at the midpoint of that line. Since you aren’t rounding your back, you’ll have to push your hips back as you descend, putting you in a position similar to a box squat. Touch the floor with the weight and then immediately rise to full lockout on each rep.
You’ll know you’re doing the workout correctly to this point if your legs are burning and pumped.
Single-Leg Body-Weight Knee Extension from Plank Position
Trust me: You’ve never felt leg extensions like these before.
Assume a plank position with your feet on a box or bench and your forearms on the floor. (As with Bulgarian split squats, you can rest your weight on your toes or lay the tops of your feet flat on the bench; having your weight on your toes makes it harder but it’s up to you.)
Lift one leg off the bench and curl it behind you, which keeps it from contributing to the exercise. Bend the knee of the working leg as you lower your body to the floor. Then straighten the knee to return to the starting position. Do all your reps with that leg, then repeat with the other.
This is an incredibly difficult move, and much more effective than standard leg extensions. It’s also less damaging to your knees, reducing the mechanical sheering forces on your joints.
If you have trouble doing this one leg at a time, start with a two-leg version and do higher reps with a pumping-type tempo. Progress to one leg as soon as you can.
If your legs aren’t completely finished by now, they will be after two to three sets of stiff-legged deadlifts.
Don’t feel you have to go heavy on this exercise, just because you would if you were doing it when your legs are fresh. Your posterior chain is seriously exhausted, and heavy weights could lead to injury.
Besides, the entire point of this workout is to show you how to blast your legs without heavy weights. You won’t need them, and if you’ve done everything that comes before the deadlifts, you won’t want them.
My goal here was to show how big muscles can be built without focusing too much on the load. This workout shows that, I hope.
But it’s just as important to realize that a workout is only as good as the program it fits into. And, for that matter, an exercise is only as good as its role in a well-designed workout.
So I can’t say this is the perfect workout for you, or that these are the perfect exercises, because I have no idea how they fit into the program you’re doing right now.
That said, I will guarantee that it’s different, it’s instructive, and it really does cross any perceived boundaries you might have between what’s appropriate for beginners, intermediates, or advanced trainees. One size cripples all.