When it comes to building big legs, you really want to try your best to follow a couple of basic ideas.
- Pick big compound movements first. Squats, Deadlift, Lunges, Good Mornings, etc. You want to use exercises that build the most muscle possible as a unit. Big compound movements are what you want to use to make this happen.
- Sets of 5 work great, but so do sets of 20. When building legs, sets of 5 are awesome but don’t neglect the higher rep ranges. Think about it, your legs support you all day every day. The best way to build them is with heavy weight AND high reps. Make sure to use both in your training.
- Use a full range of motion on Squats. When most people Squat and say it’s bad for their knees, it’s because they’re cutting the range of motion. This doesn’t help with building muscle and instead puts all the pressure on your knees. This is bad for multiple reasons which I don’t need to go over. Full range of motion is absolutely required to Squat SAFELY and efficiently.
Before writing this article I was thinking of which exercises did the most for mine and my client’s leg size/strength. I’m going to share what I’ve learned in my decade of training. Here we go!
Okay now that I’m done with that, Squatting to build the legs is the most basic thing you need to be doing. The hardest time I have is when people can’t squat correctly and I need to teach them. This learning curve takes some time but it’s well worth the effort.
If you never learn the correct form for the Squat you’re missing out on huge gains and you need to fix it! When doing Barbell Squats you have a couple of options; High Bar and Low Bar.
Your basic Barbell Back Squat is the one most people know about. You can perform this using a high bar or low bar position. When doing High-Bar Squats, you have a more upright torso and your quads will be more involved in the movement. When you’re using Low-Bar Squats, you have to sit back more and push the knees out more as well. This forces you to use your glutes, hamstrings and back to complete the movement.
For standard Barbell Squats, I recommend most of your work be done in the 6-10 rep range. As long as you’re progressing in weight and your legs are getting bigger, you’re on the right track.
As soon as you start plateauing, back the weight off and work in the 10-15 rep range. This will give you new growth just from the variety of rep ranges.
You can also go high rep with sets of 15-20 after you plateau as well. These will test your work capacity but are known to give you massive boosts in lower body growth. You’ll have to focus on your breathing and take your time but it will be well worth the price.
Between these two bar positions, you have enough variation to build leg strength/size for years to come. But that isn’t all you can do!
Front Squats are a solid movement where you hold the bar in front of you on your anterior deltoids. These are an amazing movement and force you to be even more upright than High-Bar Squats. Also, because you’re supporting the bar on your shoulders, your upper back will contribute heavily to how much you can load this.
This upright position allows you to push your knees forward much more than any other squat, making this a fantastic quad builder. The only downside is you can’t do these for super high reps; due to your upper back, shoulders, and arms being the limiting factors.
For Front Squats, I recommend sets of 5-8 for the majority of your sets. You’ll have to use more weight to get a strong, hypertrophic stimulus but it will build your quads AND upper back quickly.
When building up your hamstrings and glutes, two major barbell movements can be used to increase your muscle mass quickly: Deadlifts and Romanian Deadlifts.
The Deadlift is just as important for lower body development as the Squat. If you only Squat, your hamstrings will lag behind greatly. This puts excess stress on the knee from the glaring weak point. To address this you need to Deadlift.
Because form can break down quickly in the Deadlift, sets of 5-10 will work perfectly for building muscle mass. Make sure to keep a neutral spine, hold your air on every rep and do these from a dead stop. You can do touch and go Deadlifts but your form will usually breakdown quickly.
I’ve gone over the Romanian Deadlift in my article on building the Back. This movement should be a major focus for hamstring and glute development as well. The form on this is very important so make sure to sit back with your hips, lower under control, and bend the knees ever so slightly.
Sets of 8-12 is perfect for this, not too heavy and not too light. You want to keep your back in a neutral spine as well, as long as you do this and add weight slowly, you’ll build muscle for a very long time. If you aren’t at sets of 10 at 500 lbs you have more work to do.
Just keep working and stay consistent. Definitely an important movement for building the hamstrings so do it!
One of the best movements for building the lower body is Lunges, doing these allow you to train each muscle independently. Some of my hardest leg sessions were from Lunges being involved in some way or another.
The main things to pay attention to are: keeping the chest up so you don’t dip forward, take big strides to get a huge stretch and lower your back knee until you ALMOST hit the ground. I’ve seen people do these incorrectly many times. They drop their knees directly onto the ground and it always looks painful and dangerous honestly.
Your first main goal with Lunges is 100 total steps, this is 50 per leg and something most people can achieve with bodyweight quickly. From here, you can start adding weight using dumbbells, barbells, sandbags, etc.
For beginners, I recommend sticking with dumbbells. The worst thing that can happen is losing your balance with a barbell on your back and your knee smacks directly into the ground. Not good at all!
Here is Paul Carter from Lift-Run-Bang.com doing perfect form on Walking Lunges. This is an amazing movement that builds your quads, hamstrings, and glutes! Doing Lunges correctly builds a ton of strength and muscle through the hips, as well as allowing you to get a huge stretch through those major muscle groups.
As much as I love Romanian Deadlifts, Good Mornings are another staple that you should consider for building your hamstrings. The most important part while doing these is maintaining your abdominal pressure through your core. If you don’t, you’re asking for an injury due to the nature of the movement.
I’ve seen people use these as main movements to build strength using sets of 4-6. I don’t recommend these for most people because of the heavy weights you would have to do. The Good Morning involves a loaded barbell on your back with an extreme amount of hip hinging. Because of this, the chances of turning it into a pseudo-Squat-Good Morning hybrid makes it dangerous to perform at heavy weights.
Instead, treat this like a lighter stretch type movement; sit the hips way back with your knees slightly bent, maintain an arch in your spine, and lower under control to get a massive stretch in your low back and hamstrings. From here, push the hips through while raising the chest, this allows you to use your glutes to finish the movement.
Sets of 10-20 would work great for this exercise, as well as using the Safety Squat Bar! Because of the handle a
Here is Dan Green from Boss Barbell Club doing heavy
Bulgarian Split Squats
If you thought Lunges were hard, you won’t believe just how difficult Bulgarian Split Squats are. This exercise utilizes a box or bench behind you. This allows you to elevate your leg and get a MASSIVE stretch through the hips!
I’ve done this before starting out at sets of 5 and the pump I got from them is unreal. Just like the Lunges, you want to do 100 total reps on these before adding weight. 50 per leg sounds simple but on Split Squats it’s something more challenging then you could imagine.
When performing Split Squats you need to think of keeping the chest up and reach BACK with your opposite leg. This gives you a huge stretch as well as a huge pump through the quads and glutes especially. Be careful when starting out with these, the pump you’ll achieve from this one exercise can be brutal!
Glute Ham Raise
Glute Ham Raises are one of the best exercises you can do for the Hamstrings. Essentially what you’re doing is a bodyweight leg curl. When performing this movement, make sure to keep your body straight as shown in the video below.
Speaking of, this is probably the cleanest form you’ll ever see on Glute Ham Raises in general. You need a special bench to make these happen but there are other ways to do them. You can do these on a Bosu Ball but they’re definitely much harder.
Hitting 50 total reps would be an amazing goal to shoot for starting out, but if you’re having trouble doing them you can try using Negatives. I went over these in my Pullup article, you want to start from the top position and slowly lower yourself down. Then from there you can use the handles to push yourself back up and do more negatives from there.
Eventually, you’ll be able to do these without cheating and from there, add weight. You can also use bands on these to increase the tension you have on your lower back. You can loop the band around the bottom of the machine and the other side around your neck.
If you haven’t done Glute Ham Raises before definitely try it out and let me know what kind of results you get from them!
Sometimes, loading up a heavy barbell and putting it on your back isn’t possible. Whether it’s from an injury, a sprain in your lower back or you’re just fatigued. That doesn’t mean you have to stop Squatting though!
Enter Belt Squats!
When I first saw this movement, I thought it was crazy how nobody has thought of that until now. The best part about Belt Squats is where the weight is loaded!
Instead of putting a heavy barbell on your back, you put a belt on around your waist and Squat. That’s basically all it is! This allows you to stay super upright, puts no pressure on the back and spine, while also giving you the ability to hold onto a handle and just use your legs to do the work.
The only issue is you need a special machine for this to work optimally. I’ve seen people do these with other methods and they don’t really seem worth the risk. But, if you have the option to, definitely give them a shot. I recommend doing sets of 8-12 and even 15-20, lots of reps and heavy weight work wonders for building your lower body.
Hack Squats require another machine as well but this one is well worth it! Unlike a Leg Press, which puts a ton of strain on the knees and is known to actually snap them when you lockout too hard (YIKES), the Hack Squat works just like a regular Squat. The only difference is, it is loaded on a machine with rails.
This exercise has been used by many massive bodybuilders and even powerlifters. Also, because it has rails you don’t have to worry about your position like with a regular Barbell Squat. You just load up the weight and squat away.
Just like with a Leg Press though, you can change the position of your feet to hit certain parts of your quads such as the medial and lateral heads. You can place your feet lower on the metal plate to hit your quads more or even put your feet higher and wider to use more glutes.
Use Hack Squats as an assistance movement, sets of 10-20 works great and ensures you’re using all the different rep ranges to build your legs as much as possible. Give Hack Squats a try and let me know how they worked for you!
Training your lower body for optimal muscle gains is easy to figure out, that doesn’t mean the process is easy at all, however!
Stick with Deadlifts, Squats, Romanian Deadlifts, and Front Squats for the majority of your lower body work. Sets of 6-12 on average works great for the basic barbell lifts. For the assistance movements such as; Lunges, Bulgarian Split Squats, Good Mornings, and Glute Ham Raises, sets of 10-20 on average ensure you’re training all of the slow-twitch muscle fibers as well.
Between these 8 movements, you won’t need much else to ensure you get complete development in your lower body. I didn’t mention anything about Calf movements in this article, but sticking with standard calf raises works great for most people. If you’re interested in hearing my approach for how to train the calves, drop a comment below and I’ll do that in the future.
I hope you all enjoyed the article and have a wonderful week! Thanks for reading!
Until next time,