12 Week Leg Specialization Program To Get Your Wheels Growing
For bodybuilding purposes, the aesthetic and performance benefits of properly training our lower body are obvious. One look at any lineup will tell you who has neglected to train legs with a degree of ferocity to match their upper body. Comprising half of our body, and often stubborn in their propensity to grow (forced to carry our bodyweight throughout the day, and naturally large and strong, they require unusually intensive workouts to fully tax), our legs are a make or break body part for any aspiring competitor.
Unfortunately for many, full leg development is seldom realized. Whether due to genetic constraints or, more commonly, sheer laziness and a lack of proper planning, the leg development of many a bodybuilder falls way behind their more showy upper body muscularity. But leg training, when approached with the right plan and intensity, is a comparatively easy task – one in which we are only limited by the effort we apply. Indeed, by including the right exercises and following effective training protocols we are primed to build massive lower appendages. This article will tell you how.
No Pain, No Gain
While certain upper body muscles may flourish with a modicum of effort, truly monolithic legs must be created with enough unrelenting fury to force optimal gains. Vomit-inducing workouts are not uncommon for those who know how to channel the right leg training intensity. Passing out, though not encouraged, is also not unheard of among such serious lifters. In fact, so physically demanding and exhaustive is effective leg training that few can muster the effort required to truly work them hard enough to promote the growth they desire. In other words, to force them to grow, enough total training volume, weight, and the right combination of specific movements, must be incorporated to promote the overload of as many muscle fibers as possible.
The take home message? To produce unsurpassed leg growth you must train them harder than you think is possible – past the point of failure. By following the plan, and the exercise selection outlined in this article, your legs will not fail to respond. But you must be sure to BYOVB (Bring Your Own Vomit Bucket) to each leg session.
Showstoppers! The quadriceps (quads or frontal thighs), are, when fully developed and defined, thick, wide, and extremely detailed from top to bottom. Comprised of the vastus lateralis (outer quad sweep), vastus medialis (the inner teardrop, near the knee joint), rectus femoris (the large inner quad muscle) and the vastus intermedius (situated below the rectus femoris) the quads are, by far, the largest and strongest muscle grouping of the lower body. In the many years I have spent training both elite athletes and rank novices alike, I have found three movements (though there are others which also work great) that can be used to thoroughly exhaust all quad fibers to promote the complete development of this impressive assemblage of muscles.
Many a great athlete, including almost every successful bodybuilding champion, has worshiped at the altar of the squat rack. Indeed, it is suspected that many a prayer has been relayed as back breaking poundages in the 500+ neighborhood have threatened to crush their sub-220 pound adversaries. But, in more cases than not, the formidable strength of the powerful quads, ably assisted by the often unheralded glutes and hamstrings, have seldom faltered in extending and flexing to complete rep after exhausting rep.
Whether using a wide, narrow, or more conventional, medium-width stance, the squat (completed with the bar across the front delts, front-squat style to target the vastus medialis, or across the upper or lower traps, conventional bodybuilding or powerlifting style to engage all of the major lower body muscles) is the go to movement for extreme quad muscularity. Correctly perform this movement by keeping the shoulders back and the head up, slowly lowering for a two-count to below the point at which the upper legs are parallel with the floor, and forcefully squeezing the quads on the ascent, without achieving full lockout. Much deep breathing (inhaling on the eccentric, or lowering aspect, and exhaling on the concentric or upward phase) and sufficiently loud music are also useful in completing those final reps.
#2: Walking Lunges
Though often considered more of a shaping movement (and indeed they are unsurpassed in their ability to promote quad/hamstring separation), the walking lunge can also be an excellent quad/glute builder. Performed with either a barbell, or holding two dumbbells, the key to optimizing quad growth via the lunge is to squat down low on each rep before fully pressing the weight to the starting position before taking the next step. Slow your pace and exaggerate each step so as to achieve a full lunge with each rep. Also, as with all leg movements, it is important to maintain muscular tension by continuing through each rep with no rest, thus exponentially compounding the intensity placed upon each quad in turn.
#3: Leg Extensions
Another exercise considered to be more of a shaper, the leg extension nevertheless remains the best way to fully isolate all four quad muscles. Performed with over 60% of our one rep max for 8-12 reps, it is arguably as demanding and exhaustive to perform as any set of squats. The accumulation of lactic acid and attendant ‘burn’ experienced on the final reps of a grueling set of leg extensions is a sure sign that the growth process has been signaled. Perform by extending at the knee joint to as close to full lockout as possible, before slowly lowering the weight and stretching the quads. Consider performing single leg extensions to truly challenge yourself and fatigue the muscle(s).
Viewed from the side and back the hamstring muscles must be clearly visible in order to lend thickness and width to the posterior thighs. Unfortunately, many physique athletes relegate the training of this area to a couple of sets of leg curls following their more intensive squat training. In the article’s accompanying programme, the hamstrings must be given equal emphasis and trained just as hard as the larger quads.
Technically any of six tendons contracted by three posterior thigh muscles (semitendinosus, or outer region, semimembranosus, the inner, and biceps femoris, medial), the hamstring tendons enable the hamstring muscles (as they are also often referred to) to control flexion at the knee joint and, working in conjunction with the glutes, extension at the hip.
Because they enable forward propulsion and the transference of power between the hip and knee joints, the hamstrings are essential to ensuring stability, safety, and maximum performance when squatting, and indeed in any activity that involves the recruitment of all upper leg muscles. The preponderance of hamstring injuries experienced by a diversity of athletes shows just how involved this grouping is in any activity that requires explosive power.
The best two movements I have found to hit the hams are:
#1: Standing Single Leg Curls
Working the hamstrings simultaneously can pose problems for those who are weaker on one side or for anyone who seeks to fully isolate this grouping. This could be one reason why activities such as sprinting, walking lunges and more esoteric exercises such as one-legged kettlebell deadlifts work so well to build big hams. My personal favorite is the standing one-legged curl. As opposed to the lying version, standing curls force the hams to work against gravity to a greater degree to make the lifter work harder to complete each contraction and to lower the resistance in more controlled fashion, both of which result in greater growth stimulus. To perform, curl weight to full contraction before slowly lowering while ensuring continuous tension on all working muscles.
More of a mass building power movement the deadlift subjects the hams to serious overload through heavy poundages. This is also an excellent movement for developing the glutes to promote a better glute/ham tie-in (incidentally, you cannot build a tie-in; you can only fully develop the muscles on either side of it to create this most impressive effect). To perform: from a standing position with knees slightly bent (and kept in this position) and grasping a barbell, bend the upper body forward at the hip joint and allow the shoulder to descend while keeping the head up. Using hamstring strength, pull bar back to the starting position. Remember to keep those knees slightly bent.
Comprised of two major muscles (the gastrocnemius, the upper diamond-shaped portion which forms the bulk of the calf, and the soleus, a flatter, longer muscle positioned under the gastrocnemius and lower on the leg) the calves are probably the most stubborn muscle group we have. While some people possess massive shapely calves without ever having touched a weight, others, despite many years of training them in every conceivable manner, display comparatively puny lower pins.
Unlike most other muscle groups which respond best to reps in the hypertrophy range of 8-12, the calves often require a higher number per set, however, this is not to say they do not grow from heavy weights and lower reps either – a combination of the two ranges is probably best. One thing is for sure: they must be prioritized as an important grouping rather than included as an afterthought. Relegating calves to secondary status, as so many trainees do, is a major mistake. First, small calves are readily noticeable from the front, side and back of an otherwise excellent physique – from all angles their size, or lack of it, is quickly noted. Second, the stronger our calves, the greater the stability we will have when it is time to squat or lunge heavy weights; the extra strength fully developed calves provide also allows us to build larger and stronger quads and hams.
#1: Standing Calf Raise
The king of calf movements is the universally included standing calf raise. Performed one-legged, on a dedicated machine or a block (even on stairs, if no other option is available) this movement is responsible for adding more calf mass than all others combined. To perform, stand on a platform with feel slight wider than shoulder width; lower your heels while keeping toes flat on the block until a full stretch has been achieved (usually about 2-4 inches below platform). Without pausing, raise high on the balls of your feet until calves are fully contracted, flex and then slowly lower.
#2: Seated Calf Raise
While some people develop impressive calves on the standing raise alone, complete development can only be achieved by specifically targeting the soleus, of which the seated calf raise is the best method. To perform: with pads of machine resting on the tops of your quads and toes across platform, drop heels in a controlled manner until full stretch is reached; squeeze calf muscles until fully contracted, flex, and return to bottom position.
Leg Specialization Plan
Note: select a weight (based on your one rep max) where absolute muscle failure is reached on the final rep of each set, so much so that you may require the assistance of a partner to help you achieve it.
s/w = Superset with
Monday: Leg Day 1
- Squats (medium-width stance): 1 set of 20-30
- Squats (wide stance) s/w Leg Extensions: 2 sets of 10-12 (for each movement)
- Squats (narrow stance) s/w Leg Extensions: 2 sets of 10-12 (for each movement)
- Walking Lunges (with dumbbells): 4 sets of 8-12 (each leg)
- Standing Single Leg Curl: 4 sets of 8-12 (each leg)
- Deadlift: 4 sets of 8-12
- Standing Calf Raise: 2 sets of 20-25
- Standing Calf Raise s/w Seated Calf Raise: 4 sets of 10-15 (for each movement)
Tuesday: Chest & Triceps
Program of choice
Thursday: Back & Biceps
Program of choice
Friday: Leg Day 2
- Deadlift: 2 sets of 8-12
- Deadlifts s/w Standing Single Leg Curl: 2 sets of 8-12
- Standing Single Leg Curl: 2 sets of 8-12
- Standing Calf Raises s/w Seated Calf Raises: 4 sets of 15-20 (for each movement)
- Squats (medium-width stance): 4 sets of 8-12
- Squats (wide stance): 2 sets of 8-12
- Walking lunges (with barbell) s/w Leg Extensions: 4 sets of 8-12 (for each movement)
Saturday: Shoulders & Abs