One of the most neglected areas on competitive bodybuilders today is usually found in the lower hemisphere, – the legs.
It’s common to find well-sculpted guns, round and full pecs, but legs like linguini and calves like string beans. The bottom line is that leg training is painful and requires more energy and cardiovascular conditioning than do parts of the upper body. Legs can also be easily covered up with large baggy pants, so they’re usually the first body part to be ignored in training. Neglecting the legs often leads to a lack of symmetry and proportion of the upper body, but is also the reason you see some meat-heads with crazywear pants at the beach.
There’s no hiding chicken legs on a bodybuilding stage. Well-balanced legs, complete with mass and definition, are built with a combination of consistent hard work and the proper execution of several meat-and-potato exercises.
Start with Stretching
I am a firm proponent of stretching. Be sure to warm up on a piece of cardio equipment and stretch your legs for at least 5 minutes before training. This will elongate the muscles and prepare them for the workload you are about to place on them. Stretching is also important between every set, as this will keep muscles loose to avoid injury while also facilitating growth. It should be noted that you shouldn’t overstretch, but lightly pull the muscle until it feels tight, then hold this stretch for 10 seconds.
Leg Training Philosophy by Set
My training philosophy usually encompasses 4 sets for each exercise:
- Set 1: Warm-up – Begin with a weight you can easily do 30 times, but do this for 15.
- Set 2: Select a weight that you can do for 20 reps but only do 15.
- Set 3: Working Set – Choose a weight that will achieve failure in the muscles by 12-15 repetitions.
- Set 4: Drop Set – You want to fully fatigue the target muscle. Select a weight that will reach failure by 8-10 reps, then immediately cut the weight to just above half, perform another 8-10 reps and drop the weight one final time to just above half and work until absolute failure. Then hold the last rep in a static contraction (for as long as possible). These static contractions, although extremely difficult and painful, bring out the extra detail that you are looking to bring to the stage.
During pre-contest training, you should rest only 45 seconds to 1 min between sets in order to keep your heart rate elevated, so you can burn additional body fat while training.
It should also be noted that you should not select a weight that is so heavy that your form is compromised.
Always focus on the peak contraction at the top of the motion and pause in this position for a half second after every repetition.
6 Essential Leg Exercises
I will review six exercises that will assist you in developing wheels you can be proud of, here we go..
1. Lying Hamstring Curls
I always begin each leg workout with lying hamstring curls in order to warm up and pre exhaust the biceps femoris (hamstrings). When a muscle is pre-exhausted, it is forced to work harder during other exercises even when working as a secondary stabilizing muscle.
To perform this exercise, lie facedown on a lying hamstring curl machine. Adjust the leg pad just above the ankles and grasp the handles. Curl the weight upwards towards the glutes. Focus on lowering the weight 95% of the way down and stretching the hamstrings and raising the pad all the way up to the back of your legs, squeezing your hamstrings in a peak contraction for a half second after each repetition to add some extra detail.
2. Stiff Leg Deadlifts
This is a great exercise to add mass to the hamstrings. Select a straight bar and begin on a squat rack. Place the hands shoulder-width apart, just wide enough to clear the quads. Begin to descend towards the floor, while maintaining an arch in your back (this protects your spinal erectors and allows you to isolate the hamstrings). Continue to lower the weight towards the floor and begin to bend your knees slightly until you achieve a full stretch in the hamstrings. Although the name stiff leg deadlifts implies “stiff legs” you will feel a better stretch in the hamstrings if you create a slight bend in the knees as you descend and then straighten your legs as you ascend back to the full upright starting position, flexing your hamstrings hard as you reach the top.
You can increase the range of motion by standing on a step towards the edge in order to drop the bar past your toes.
3. Unilateral Leg Extensions
Before doing any pressing exercises, I warm up the knees and pre-exhaust my lower quads (vastus medialus) by performing unilateral leg extensions. This way, while performing leg presses my lower quads will be forced to work harder to achieve nicely formed teardrops. The advantages to doing them unilaterally (one at a time) are that I feel a better contraction at the top of the motion and you can work both legs equally in that a stronger side does not overcompensate for a weaker one.
To perform this exercise adjust the pad to just above the ankle on the lower shin. Grasp the handles to keep the body stable during the movement. Raise the weight by fully extending the leg until you have reached full extension. Point the toes straight ahead to target the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis and vastus medialis. Facing the toes outward during the exercise will isolate the vastus medialis (teardrop). Hold the leg extended in a peak contraction for a half second and then lower the weight 95% of the way down, taking advantage of the negative portion of the movement while maintaining tension on the quad throughout.
4. Unilateral Leg Presses
Sit on the leg press and place both feet on the footrest shoulder-width apart on the platform in the lower position (heels below the bend, balls of the feet above). Next remove one leg and begin to lower the weight using a full range of motion until the knee is almost at the chest. Press the weight back up to almost a full extension and continue until completing 15 repetitions and then switch legs. Next switch back to the first leg and place the foot in the upper position (heels just above the bend) and perform 15 repetitions each leg. The lower position will target the lower quadriceps (vastus medialis and rectusfemoris), the upper position will target the upper quads ( vastus lateralis), the hamstrings (biceps femoris) and the buttocks (gluteus maximus). The further you position your feet apart, the more you will involve the inner thighs (adductor magnus).
5. Walking Lunges
These can be performed by placing a straight bar across the shoulders or by holding dumbbells at the sides. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, take a long step forward and lunge, descending until your quad is at least parallel with the floor or lower. Next ascend forward placing all your weight on the front leg until you have reached the upright starting position, pause to regain balance and then continue with the opposite leg. Ensure your knee doesn’t extend past your toes. Also, step slightly to the side as opposed to in a straight line to keep a wider track to maintain balance. This exercise should be used year round, whether trying to dial in leg detail for a contest or attempting to add mass in the offseason.
Try to find a low traffic area where you will not be distracted or bumped by other trainers. When there is no snow on the ground, I do these out in the parking lot where there is no human traffic at all.
6. Bilateral Leg Press superset with Bilateral Leg Extensions
These are the exercises I use to finish off my leg workouts. I fully fatigue the quads with heavy presses and carve in extra detail with extensions.
To perform leg presses, sit in an angled leg press and place feet shoulder-width apart in the lower position. Lower the weight as far as possible towards your chest and complete 15 repetitions and then immediately place feet in the upper position and complete another 15 repetitions. Next, move to a leg extension machine and begin to perform bilateral leg extensions with minimal rest between exercises. This painful combination should pump as much blood into the quads as possible.
Building the ultimate body is going to take pain, energy and dedication. As a bodybuilder, your aim should be for a symmetrical body. Having huge guns and scrawny legs just won’t cut it. To build the kind of legs you’re looking for, you’re going to need to increase weight and intensity each week. The development of your legs, especially if your goal is to compete, should match that of the upper body. Of course when you’ve completed your workout don’t forget to speed up recovery by consuming protein. ISOFLEX tastes delicious and includes the ideal macronutrient profile to reach your goals and help you recover from even the toughest workout.