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Home Workout 4 Movements to Get Your Legs Growing

A Plan for Progressive Results

As most successful long-time lifters know only too well, the lower body musculature needs to be trained with as much, if not more, volume and intensity than that of the upper body. While it may seem obvious that the muscles below the waistline (half the physique!) – complex and varied as they are in their structure and function – need an equally diverse and detailed approach to making them larger and stronger, few people really hit them with enough variety and effort to ensure any meaningful progress.

Many and varied also are the reasons why the typical UBO (Upper Body Only) lifter may fail to capitalize on the numerous benefits of lower body training. Topping the list is the fact that leg training, done right, could be the least enjoyable, and most painful, of workout challenges.

Simply put: heavy and intense leg training can be extremely difficult and exhaustive. A heavy high-rep set of squats (as one example) remains one of the hardest tasks a lifter will ever perform (here, struggling to breathe while feeling nauseous to the point vomiting are not uncommon reactions to an ultra-intense leg session).

4 Movements to Get Your Legs Growing

While variety is important for phenomenal leg development, we may not always have access to the wide array of machinery needed to hit the wheels from ever conceivable angle. Not to worry. There is no need to over-complicate the leg training process. In fact, if a session is short, intense and focused on perfect form, we need not spend an hour or more on endless sets and movements.

The following four movements, properly programmed and performed to perfection, will give you results you want.

1. Barbell Squats

Even a newcomer to the iron will know of the squat’s well-earned reputation as the king of resistance training movements. Not only does it promote size and strength through the entire lower body (working the prime movers, stabilizers, and synergists), it’s an excellent way to improve balance, stability, and growth across the physique as a whole.5, 8 If you can squat, then you must squat – period.

2. Romanian Deadlifts

While variations of the leg curl are ideal when seeking to isolate the hamstrings (by working the muscles from the knee joint), the Romanian Deadlift hits the hams from the hips, thus providing top to bottom mass that might otherwise be neglected with the curls.6, 7

Great hamstrings are essential part of the physique that should never be overlooked (as is often the case). A solid set of hams also assists with movement execution when it comes to hitting the quads, thereby helping to flesh out all of the major lower body muscles.

In addition, because the quads remain the strongest leg muscles and tend to take over on most leg training movements, the hamstrings need to be developed in such a way that they provide a suitable counterbalancing effect.

Of course, great hams make the lower body aesthetically more impressive. More importantly, however, a good ham/quad balance offsets knee injury to ensure training longevity and a more efficient training progression. Romanian Deadlifts remain the best way to fully overload and supersize the hams from glute to knee.

3. Walking Lunges

Lunges come in many different varieties. Walking lunges (performed with a bar or dumbbells) may however be the superior choice for their ability to enhance functional movement patterns and the difficulty it takes to perform them (which makes them more exhaustive, challenging, and growth-enhancing).

The walking lunge is also predominantly a unilateral lift, meaning one leg at a time is largely forced to coordinate and shift the weight, making it difficult to do with perfect form and heavy weights. Thus, the walking lunge can be more effective at targeting the stabilizers (predominantly the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius, which stabilize the hips; and the tibialis anterior, which stabilizes the ankles) to ensure the correct movement pattern is maintained at all times. Lunges are also an effective way to hit the quads, glutes, and hamstrings along with the hip flexors, making them a great total lower body movement.

4. Standing Calf Raises

The calves can be an incredibly stubborn bodypart to train. The truth is, their ultimate development is largely governed by genetics (some reports have it that calf development is 90% genetically determined).1, 2 While other muscles can be finessed to grow, the calves, it appears, remain resistant, regardless of training approach. While they can be improved, the calves are the one area that simply fail to materialize for certain genetically disadvantaged people no matter how hard and for how long they are made to work.

This is to say that even though we must work them hard to bring them up, if our calves are not responding after several years of hard work, don’t continue to prioritize them ahead of areas that do respond well. Remember: any time we train one muscle group we compromise the recovery of another muscle group. As such, if the calves refuse to grow, don’t run out and buy implants as a surprising number of high-level bodybuilders have done. Rather, work to maintain their size.

All that being said, anyone’s calves can be improved to a certain extent. The best way to stimulate them to grow is with the simple standing calf raise. There are many different ways to program calf training: heavy for moderate reps and light for ultra-high reps being but two common approaches. Whatever approach is used, the key thing to remember is to go full range on each and every rep: get up on to the tippy toes for a full positive contraction and go all the way down for a full stretch.

12-Week Four Movement Protocol for Lagging Legs
Monday

Morning: Cardio – Bike, Stepper or Treadmill

  • 45 minutes steady state (maintaining a maximum heart rate of between 100-120 beats per minute).

Evening: Chest/Shoulders/Triceps

  • Incorporate workout of your choosing
Tuesday

Morning: Cardio – Bike, Stepper or Treadmill

  • 45 minutes steady state (maintaining a maximum heart rate of between 100-120 beats per minute).

Evening: Legs

  • BB Squats SS with Walking DB Lunges: 4 sets of 15 reps per set (per side for Lunges)
  • Romanian Deadlifts: 3 DDS of 12 reps per set; 1 set of 20 reps.
  • Standing Calf Raises: 2 sets of 10 reps per set; 2 sets of 25 reps per set (partial reps for the last five reps on each 25-rep set)
Wednesday

Evening: Back/Biceps

  • Incorporate workout of your choosing
Thursday

Rest Day

Friday

Morning: Cardio – Bike, Stepper or Treadmill

  • 45 minutes steady state (maintaining a maximum heart rate of between 100-120 beats per minute).

Evening: Chest/Shoulder/Triceps

  • Incorporate workout of your choosing
Saturday

Morning: Cardio – Bike, Stepper or Treadmill

  • 45 minutes steady state (maintaining a maximum heart rate of between 100-120 beats per minute).

Evening: Legs

  • DB Walking Lunges: 4 sets of 20 reps per set (per side)
  • BB Squats: 2 sets of 15 reps per set; 2 DDS of 12 reps per set
  • Romanian Deadlifts: 4 sets of 12 reps per set (3 RP reps on each set)
  • Standing Calve Raises: 4 sets of 25 reps per set
Sunday

Evening: Back/Biceps

  • Incorporate workout of your choosing
Program Notes:
  • Rest between sets: 1 minute (between straight sets), 2 minutes (between supersets).
  • Select weight in accordance with prescribed rep range. Choose resistance that ensures failure on the last rep of each work set.
  • If necessary, use wrist wraps for lunges.
  • SS = Supersets
  • DB = Dumbbell
  • BB = Barbell
Intensity Methods
  • Supersets (SS): complete a second set with a different movement immediately following the first set.
  • Rest/Pause (RP): upon reaching failure, rest for 2-3 seconds. Complete another rep. Rest for a further 2-3 seconds. Complete a second rep. Rest for a final 2-3 seconds. Complete a third, and final, rep.
  • Partial Reps (PR): at the end of the final work set, wherever specified, pick a slightly lighter weight and complete 12 quarter reps from the bottom position, keeping tension of the relevant muscles at all times.
  • Double Drop Sets (DDS): complete one set, reaching failure within the stated rep range; reduce weight by 30% and complete another set; reduce weight by a further 30% and complete a final set.
Additional Leg Training Benefits

As well as forcing the whole body to grow, hard, heavy leg training will stimulate the following:

The inherent difficulty of leg training is also what makes lower body training such an important part of the training process. Pushing further on the hardest leg movements makes a lifter mentally stronger and better equipped to tackle other intensive training challenges.

The strenuous nature of heavy lower body compounds also forces the whole body to respond with more muscle due to the systemic impact of such movements (squats, in particular) along with favorable hormonal changes (including greater testosterone release). Want to put another inch on your arms? If you’re not willing to get under a fully loaded squat bar and go ass to the grass, it’s not likely to happen.

Another reason why many avoid targeting the legs (at least in any meaningful manner) is that they are not often displayed to the same degree (if at all) compared to the ‘showy’ muscles of the upper body – in particular the arms and pecs. However, upon grasping that intensive leg training translates to more upper body mass, the incentive is there to finally to target them with equal volume and effectiveness.

The main intention of the article to follow is to get you to revaluate your leg training focus; specifically, you’ll need to assess how much effort is applied to forcing your legs to grow (and, make no mistake, the legs must be forced to grow).

As such, a list of important leg training benefits will be outlined along with tips to help you get the most from your lower body workouts. Also provided will be 12-week leg training program that can be completed in virtually any training space.

What you’ll need is a set of dumbbells, a solid bar with weight plates, the motivation to succeed, and a willingness to endure for the greater good of building your most impressive physique to date (vomit bucket optional, but recommended).

Burn More Fat

Hard and thorough leg training greatly boosts the metabolism to enhance energy expenditure both during training and for around 24 hours post-workout. It does this by targeting the largest muscles of the body (including the biggest and strongest muscle of them all: the glutes).4, 10 Anyone with a rudimentary understanding of exercise physiology knows that the larger the muscle mass, the more calories the body will have to expend to train it to full capacity.

Improve Functional Strength and Offset Injury

As well as strengthening the whole physique to ensure greater stability and functional output, balanced leg training can correct a range of muscular imbalances to promote better postural stability and general mobility.

Those who fail to adequately and safely work the legs may, sooner or later, find themselves with any number of joint complaints and soft tissue injuries. This is in large part comes down to poor joint mobility, poorly conditioned muscles, and a general lack of flexibility and functional strength. Lower back pain and ACL injuries are commonly cited among those who have not given the legs their due; these, and other such complaints, can derail training output and make a lifter more susceptible to further injury.

By hitting the legs with a varied attack, the muscles surrounding the joints become larger and stronger, which leads to improved mobility and an ability to withstand greater amounts of repetitive stress, especially into old age when niggling injuries can become more serious.

Lead to Aesthetic Improvements

We’ve all seem them: those upper body only lifters who resemble chickens (a wide upper body tapering down to stalk-like legs). Whether in clothing or without, on the stage or on the beach, a great set of legs is seldom matched in sheer impressiveness.

Strong, well-developed legs also enhance posture and balance, which combine to convey a high degree of power and confidence (the simple act of walking is made more impressive on a diet of heavy squats and deadlifts). Get your swagger back with a solid leg training regimen.

Develop Total Body Strength

Strong legs make all other movements easier to perform. Whether bench pressing, barbell curling, or overhead pressing, a strong foundation (i.e., powerful legs and a solid core) is absolutely necessary if we are to exert maximal strength while remaining injury free.

When people think of the core, they often consider a long-list of fancy core-specific movements like the plank, bridge or v-crunch to be of particular importance. Important though each of these movements is to functional strength, heavy squats, deadlifts (a complete builder which hits the lower body hard) and lunges can be just as good, if not better at targeting that crucial link between the upper and lower body.

In fact, it could even be said that lifting technique and strength output is ultimately limited by the degree to which the core may assist in movement execution. Try maxing out on overhead barbell presses without sound core strength or hitting high numbers on the bench without strong legs, hips and lower back to provide a solid platform from which to fully engage the main prime movers. Only then will you realize the unparalleled importance of having a strong foundation from which the entire physique stands to benefit.

Leg Training Mistakes (and How to Fix Them)

You can have perfectly periodized lower body program, the best selection of movements and an ability to outwork everyone else in the room, but if either of the three following mistakes are made, you’re not going to get the leg training results you want. Fix them and you’ll start growing like crazy.

Incomplete Range of Motion (and Poor Technique Generally)

Not only will improper technique lead to incomplete muscular development but it’ll also likely result in more problems than the movement in question is likely to solve. For example, by leaning too far forward on the squat, thus placing most of the weight across the balls of the feet and not the heels, you’ll not only fail to correct any muscular imbalances but may further exacerbate any existing imbalances (for example, poor ankle mobility may be made worse when more weight is squatted with improper form).

An important rule for much of your leg training, then, is to plant those heels flat to the ground. As well as limiting range of motion and tempting injury (not to mention creating further muscular imbalances), bad form may also limit the amount of weight that can be lifted. Improper form combined with less than desirable poundages is a sure-fire recipe for poor progress.

Now to what I consider to be the most important leg training stipulation: wherever possible, go as low as possible. With squatting especially, there is always a temptation to pile on the weight and go all-out. This is normal and not always to be discouraged. However, it must be done so while applying the golden bodybuilding rule: never sacrifice form for weight.

The key for getting the most from any movement is to ensure full muscle activation throughout an entire set. This requires a complete range of motion coupled with optimal time under tension. So, with all compound leg movements be sure to go all the way down with an ultra-slow cadence, pause slightly at the bottom, power back to the top while squeezing the relevant muscles, and avoid complete lockout so as to keep as much tension as possible on the working muscles.

A Fear of Hard Work

Intensity. It could be the single most important word in all of bodybuilding training. Unfortunately, few people train with the kind of intensity that leads to the high level of supercompensation needed for phenomenal progress. For the most part this is to be expected, as a failure to push to the absolute limit remains a perfectly logical and acceptable response to a painful and uncomfortable situation.

As humans we are wired for survival and programmed to avoid pain. Thus, to truly extend our physical capabilities means we must train ourselves to embrace a high degree of physical discomfort. No more applicable is this ‘embrace the pain, or remain the same’ mentality than with leg training which, when done properly, is extremely painful and mentally and physically taxing.

With legs, there is always more that can be done to ramp up the intensity. Next time you hit the squat rack, do either of the following: go a little lower than before, do 2-3 more reps when you feel you cannot move a single inch further, add 5-10 extra pounds to the bar, or slow down on the eccentric. Combine these elements and you’ll know the true meaning of hard work – and you’ll have the legs to show for it.

Excessive Cardio

So, you’ve grasped and applied the overarching concepts of high intensity output and proper form. Your nutrition, supplementation and rest are better than ever. Your legs have never been more pumped and primed for optimal growth. However, you may still fail to translate reps into results. How so?

Well, as most of us know, rest and recovery remain a crucial step to becoming bigger and stronger. You might be putting all of the recovery puzzle pieces together in the correct order, but are you overlooking the deleterious impact cardio may have when it comes to recovery and consequent growth?3, 9

It’s been said that we resemble what we train for. Want to look like a bodybuilder? Spend most of your time training like one. Want to resemble a marathon runner? Spend most of your time on the treadmill. While the truth lies somewhere in the middle, there’s a big lesson to be learned when it comes to proper cardio scheduling.

We know that most people need cardio to get lean and be healthy. Cardio can also boost recovery by optimizing nutrient transportation and ridding the muscles of various waste products. However, there is only so much cardio one can do before it seriously begins impacting hard-won gains.

While any form of cardio has the potential to weaken the legs, high intensity methods can do more to compromise recovery (this is why HIIT is best performed infrequently and for short periods of no more than 30 minutes per session). Thus, when seeking to build massive, muscular legs, first take a good hard look at your cardio schedule to determine whether you are doing too much. Here, three key things must be considered: when, how often, and for how long your cardio is performed.

When prioritizing leg development, it’s best not to schedule cardio the day after leg training. At this time the legs need complete recovery. By essentially hitting them again you’re not giving them the room they need to grow. Also, you may need to cut back on the frequency of your cardio: 4-5 30-40-minute sessions a week of steady state cardio will get the job done provided diet and supplementation are on point.

References
  1. Gambara, G. et al. (2017). Gene Expression Profiling in Slow-Type Calf Soleus Muscle of 30 Days Space-Flown Mice. PloS one12(1), e0169314.
  2. What Causes Small Calves and What Can You Do to Make Them Bigger? [Online] https://www.healthline.com/health/exercise-fitness/small-calves – retrieved on 23.4.20
  3. Hickson, R. C. (1980). Interference of strength development by simultaneously training for strength and endurance. European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology Europ. J. Appl. Physiol., 45(2-3), 255-263. 
  4. Heydenreich, J. et al. (2017). Total Energy Expenditure, Energy Intake, and Body Composition in Endurance Athletes Across the Training Season: A Systematic Review. Sports medicine – open3(1), 8.
  5. Lorenzetti, S. et al. (2018). How to squat? Effects of various stance widths, foot placement angles and level of experience on knee, hip and trunk motion and loading. BMC sports science, medicine & rehabilitation10, 14.
  6. McAllister, M. J. et al. (2014). Muscle Activation During Various Hamstring Exercises J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Jun;28(6):1573-80.
  7. Martín-Fuentes, I. et al. (2020) Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review. PLoS ONE 15(2): e0229507.
  8. Myer, G. D. et al. (2014). The back squat: A proposed assessment of functional deficits and technical factors that limit performance. Strength and conditioning journal36(6), 4–27.
  9. Wilson, J. M. et al. (2012). Concurrent training: A meta-analysis examining interference of aerobic and resistance exercises. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2293-2307.
  10. Westerterp K. R. (2013). Physical activity and physical activity induced energy expenditure in humans: measurement, determinants, and effects. Frontiers in physiology4, 90.

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