When looking to identify who has been putting in the work and is training hard, you immediately look at who has the biggest legs in the gym. It is easy to find people who have a good upper body because that is easy to train and doesn’t require as much discipline, will, and tenacity. A person with a good pair of legs has taken themselves to dark places and has pushed beyond their capabilities to build them. There have been times where I would go into an intense set of legs and have this sense of fear and panic knowing what this set was going to take out of me and how deep I would have to dig to get there. This article is going to break down leg training so you can build monster wheels. Just know, this isn't for the faint of heart.
As a strength athlete trying to build bigger legs, we have to look at a few different things to make sure we can still progress in our sport and grow some crazy legs. The first thing to consider is the skill acquisition of our sport. The squat and deadlift are things we need to train in some capacity year-round, but keep in mind that those aren’t necessarily the best exercises to build huge legs. We are all built differently. Some grow huge butts when they squat, and some can grow huge quads went they squat. So to say the squat is the king to grow legs is not always true yet we have to train it for us to improve at our sport. The squat requires a lot of stability, and we need our reps to be perfect, so I would always place squats first; that way, we can ensure perfect execution of the movement without fatigue. This is not where we grow our legs; this is where we grow in our sport. These sets and reps don’t get pushed to failure. I train them with an RPE leaving a few reps left in the tank to ensure proper form.
Now we need to focus on output exercises that target the muscles we want to hit, and this is where we build huge legs.
Keep in mind, the goal right now is building bigger legs, not building a bigger total. That will come when we shift back into more powerlifting training. As much as people say you can serve both masters, you can’t. It’s the same thing as trying to stay lean and grow. You will be better off just focusing on one thing to maximize it. If you are an elite-level strength athlete, this may not apply to you because your sole purpose is to improve your total. For all other lifters, it will behoove you to spend some time going through some specific hypertrophy phases to build as much size as possible. Muscle hypertrophy comes from mechanical tension, so you still want to train heavy and hard, but instead of doubles and triples, be in the 6-12 rep range. Growth also comes from metabolite build up and cell swelling. This comes from training in those higher rep ranges of 15-30 reps. When it comes to targeting these mechanisms of growth, we want to push things as close to if not to failure on each set. Now keep in mind, the closer you get to failure, the less volume you will be able to accumulate. There is a spectrum of intensity (closeness to failure) and volume that you have to play with to find that sweet spot for you.
What exercises allow you to produce as much output as possible? What exercises and will allow you to target the muscles you want to hit and push things to failure while minimizing the risk of injury?
Machines will allow you to do all of those things. Machines allow you to maintain a fixed position and doesn’t require stability so you can purely focus on output. Some of my favorites are hack squats, leg presses, leg extensions, smith machine, seated leg curls, and lying leg curls. Don’t get me wrong; there are barbell exercises that can push a ton of growth, but I prefer to do them first while the body is still fresh, and fatigue has not yet hit. The great thing about machines is they allow you to position your body in the perfect position to hit the targeted muscle, and they allow you to safely push things to failure. Let’s say you are doing leg press, and the first rep you don’t feel it in your quads, which are the muscles you want to target. You can simply rack the weight, move your feet down a bit so your knees can travel forward more so you feel it hit your quads perfectly. Those reps where you feel your target muscles working are the reps that will yield the most growth. In comparison, if you are doing squats and you leave the set feeling wrecked without targeting the muscle intended, it's not going to create maximal tension in the muscle you want to grow. You have to feel the muscles working, plain and simple.
Like I said earlier, we are not all built the same, so take your time finding the right exercises and pieces of equipment that allow you to target the muscles correctly. You may have to shift your body around or use the machine in an unintended way to get the most out of it. A good example is the lying leg curls — a lot of the pads angle down, which shifts your hips in the air. In order to get the most hamstring development, you have to drive the hips down to stabilize them and the pelvis to allow you to fully isolate the hamstrings. So instead of laying down, you prop yourself up onto your arms so you can drive your hips down to isolate the hamstrings.
To recap, as a strength athlete, you'll need to perform your barbell movements first to maximize skill acquisition and keep progressing your sport. Next, you target the higher output movements that allow you to isolate the target muscles and push them close to failure. Make sure you feel each rep in the targeted muscle group and don’t be afraid to shift things around to make the exercise fit you. Focus on progressive overload each session and keep building variations that work the best. Once you have things dialed in, build out your rotation. I recommend 2-3 different rotations to keep hammering them away, trying to get strong in the 6-12 rep range and the 15-30 rep range. If you focus on these things, I guarantee your legs will grow.