by Charles Poliquin
Want bigger, stronger legs? Full squats and heavy deadlifts are the rule for leg training, but as much as we all love that sick relief that comes in the last set of a squat workout or the exhilaration of hitting a new deadlift PR, there’s more to leg training than a devotion to squats and deadlifts. This article will discuss the rules of how to build bigger, stronger legs so that you can test the limits of your physical performance.
#1: Full Squats = Stronger Legs
There are many benefits of full squat training that make it superior to partial squatting as the “go-to” squat, including better knee joint function, enhanced muscle coordination, and greater athletic strength.
A classic study that compared the effect of full front, full back, and quarter back squat training for 10 weeks found that full back squats produced the greatest overall strength development when trainees were tested in all three variations. Both the full front and back squat programs produced robust increases in maximal strength of 25 to 30 percent.
In contrast, the quarter-back squat group experienced a decrease in their capacity to produce force by about 15 percent. The also experienced performance losses in isometric and explosive strength measurements. The one area the quarter squatters improved was at quarter back squatting (no surprise there), increasing 1RM by 37 percent.
Researchers suggest the reason quarter-squats are so ineffective for developing usable strength is that the back becomes a limiting factor due to the high loads required. Small range-of-motion training requires much heavier loads than full-range training, and in the case of the quarter squat, the thoracic spine would collapse under loads heavy enough to induce training stimuli on the lower body musculature.
The opposite occurs with deep squat training: Because lighter loads are used with full squats, they are safer and more manageable for the spine, while applying greater neuromuscular stimuli to more motor units throughout the lower body.
#2: Full Squats = Bigger Legs
Possibly the greatest benefit of full squat training is for building muscle in the lower body. A recent Scandinavian study is illustrative of the superiority of deep squats for leg muscle development.
Physically active male students who did 12 weeks of full-squat training gained much more strength, muscle, and increases in jump height than a partial-squat training group. Here were the most robust hypertrophy results:
Full squat group: gained 1.2 kg of muscle, increased lower body muscle mass by 2 percent, and increased thigh muscle cross-sectional area by 4 to 7 percent depending on the part of the leg measured (12 sites were measured).
Partial squat group: gained no measurable muscle, but did increase thigh muscle cross-sectional area by 2 to 4 percent at four sites on the muscle.
Full squats produced superior leg muscle growth due to the larger muscle force that was developed during training compared to the partial squat. The neuromuscular demand of taking the load all the way down exposes the muscle fibers to greater mechanical and neural stimuli to force growth.
#3: Include Single-Leg Training for Athletics & Bilateral Strength
Not including single-leg training in workouts is a common pitfall to reaching one’s genetic strength and hypertrophy potential. Unilateral training produces the following benefits:
• The sum of maximal loads of both sides of the body is greater than that which can be lifted with a similar bilateral exercise. Simply, if you add up the weight lifted at a given intensity from each leg when doing single-leg squats, it will be greater than what you can squat at the same intensity in a bilateral squat.
• Although absolute loads may be lighter with unilateral training, the relative intensity is greater than that of double leg training, producing more sports-specific gains.
• Unilateral training prevents muscular imbalances between the limbs, which can be a performance-limiting factor in athletes, particularly in sports that require a dominant side such as tennis, golf, speed skating, and track and field.
Research shows the benefit of unilateral training: A study of male college football and track athletes found that single-leg squat training produced higher glute muscle activity and similar activity of other lower body muscles compared to bilateral squats.
Interestingly, single-leg training produced a much higher testosterone response, which may indicate greater neuromuscular demand that would elicit higher strength and muscle adaptations over the long run.
#4: Push Volume for Bigger, Stronger Legs
Training a high volume and performing some lifts to failure produces superior muscle development in the legs. For example, multi-set training produces about 40 percent greater muscle growth than training one set, and there are benefits as volume progresses upward, with 4 to 6 sets per exercise being more effective than 2 to 3 sets.
Doing a greater number of heavy lifts also maximizes strength gains. A well-designed study that had subjects do both upper body lifts and squats found that training 8 sets improved squat 1RM by a huge 37 kg after 10 weeks. A 4-set group gained 22 kg and a 1-set group improved by 17 kg.
#5: Train Explosive Lifts for Bigger, Stronger Legs
Explosive exercises, such as the Olympic lifts, allow for the highest degree of force to be generated by the lower body and transferred through the whole body, maximally recruiting high threshold motor units.
A review of the best exercises for athletic performance shows the push press and power clean are two of the most effective lifts for training the legs dynamically. These lifts along with squats are recommended for development of power ability in the posterior chain, which include the muscles of the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.
The result will be greater strength and muscle size development that translates to improved performance in the athletic arena.
#6: Make Deadlifts the “Engine” For Building Big Legs
Deadlifting can teach people to perform everyday activities with ease and grace. It is also the perfect lift around which you can design a program for building strength and packing on muscle in the lower body.
First, the deadlift is one of the easiest lifts to use to train near-maximal loads. Maximal loads recruit the highest-threshold motor units; and because the deadlift is easier to master compared to the squat, you’ll derive greater hypertrophy. In addition, the deadlift doesn’t require spotters or a power rack for you to do a maximal attempt.
Second, to pack on mass, you want to include maximal-load attempts to activate satellite cells, which are the ultimate key to getting big: The more satellite cells a person is naturally blessed with, the greater the hypertrophy and strength they can attain.
Third, you have more flexibility in training to technical failure, which is well known as being beneficial for hypertrophy because it optimally activates anabolic muscle-signaling post-workout.
Naturally, you must maintain perfect technique for all sets when training the deadlift to failure since the lower back is principally involved. Keeping this in mind, you can test your limit in terms of reps with deadlifts and reach your true genetic potential.
#7: Hit the Hamstrings for Speed and Aesthetics
You want better-looking legs? Increased speed? Increased vertical jump?
Go after the hamstrings with deadlift variations, good mornings, leg curls, and lunges.
Compared to a moderately heavy squat, stiff-leg deadlifts and leg curls require greatest integration of the entire hamstring musculature. Lunges are also beneficial because they hit the adductor magnus and biceps femoris long head, whereas the sumo deadlift maximally trains the adductors.
Key points to improve your hamstring strength and musculature include the following:
• When training the hamstrings with a leg curl, they function as a fast-twitch muscle group, responding well to low-rep, tri-sets to activate more motor units. You want to use three different foot positions in order to enhance the training effect: Do one set of leg curls with the feet inward, one set with them neutral, and one with them pointing outward—all for 4 sets with 4 to 6 reps.
• Assuming you do full-range of motion deep squats, the ideal strength ratio for the hamstrings and quadriceps is a front squat 1RM that is 85 percent of your back squat 1RM. If it’s lower, then you will benefit from unilateral split squats and step-ups.
• Eccentric loading, in which you provide a greater stimulus on the down motion of a lift, is a powerful tool for training the hamstrings and preventing injury. For example, in the leg curl, lower the weight slowly, taking 4 to 6 seconds, or try lifting the weight with both legs and lowering it with just one.
#8: Use Isometrics and One-and-a-Quarter Lifts for Bigger, Stronger Legs
Isometric contractions are unique for their ability to produce high levels of muscle tension without a change in the muscle’s length or joint angle. The result is at least a five percent increase in muscle activation compared to dynamic contractions.
By employing this increased neural drive within a dynamic contraction, you will maximize the strength potential of newly developed muscle mass. Here’s how it works:
The most basic way to perform isometrics is to use a two-second pause at the top position of an exercise when the muscle is fully contracted. For a deadlift, squat, and leg curl, pause in the top position and then lower the weight under control to produce a higher level of muscle tension.
A more advanced isometric is one-and-a-quarter squats in which you go all the way down, come up 20 to 30 degrees, pause for a second, descend back to the bottom and come up quickly. The one-and-a-quarter method can be used for other lifts such as leg curls.
More advanced trainees should try two to three pauses during the concentric contraction so as to hit all parts of the muscle for growth and strength.
#9: Favor Strong Over Big for the Best Looking Legs—Lose Body Fat!
It’s been said that big and strong is good, but strong and lean is better. The key to that equation is whether that bigness is functional muscle mass.
To illustrate how minimizing body fat is critical for athletic and strength performance, a recent study tested body composition and physical fitness in male soldiers:
• Those who had the most muscle mass and less than 18 percent body fat performed the best on anaerobic strength and power tests.
• There was a sharp decline in performance when body fat was over 18 percent, regardless of how much muscle mass soldiers had.
Now, 18 percent body fat is by no means lean for men, especially athletic men. However, this research reflects both the unfortunate reality of how the overweight epidemic affects American soldier performance and the fact that excess body fat is not necessary to be strong.
The bottom line is to set priorities. If you want bigger, stronger legs, lose excess fat and get to your “fighting” weight first. Then alternate accumulation (hypertrophy-style volume training) and intensification (strength-type training). This type of periodization allows you to increase muscle first, followed by improving the muscle’s motor unit activation to produce bigger, stronger legs faster.
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