The Wheel Deal: Effective Leg Training Made Simple

Set aside unbalanced training habits and ineffective half squats and build powerful, well-built legs and calves. This article includes a sample leg building workout.

A complete physique! That’s what a true bodybuilder or fitness enthusiast strives for. Many refer to themselves as bodybuilders but when you observe their training habits you may see:

  • Monday: Chest, biceps (maybe triceps)
  • Tuesday: Cardio
  • Wednesday: Chest, biceps (maybe abs?)
  • Thursday: Cardio
  • Friday: Chest, biceps

“My leg workout is cardio” they might say. I understand that most guys prefer to have the look of a men’s physique competitor and that is perfectly fine. What they don’t realize is that effective leg training will enhance the appearance of your upper body, particularly if that training incorporates squats and deadlifts.

With squats the bar rests upon your shoulders with your shoulder blades pulled back (this develops the scapular stabilizers that are needed to protect the shoulder joint when you are training your chest). Deadlifts do similar actions and also build up the traps; I’ve built better traps with heavy deadlifts than doing endless sets of shrugs! You need to train your legs even if you only care about the appearance of your upper body.

There is another sector of lifters who train their legs, but ineffectively. You will see them doing quarter reps on leg presses with every plate in the gym, excluding squats, and focusing too much on using heavy weights among other things.

The following are the principles I’ve used over the last ten years to build my legs. Now my legs are so developed that they over power my upper body, which is somewhat due to genetics but I’ve put in hard time in the squat rack and have had to earn my leg development nonetheless.

1) At least two leg workouts per week!

Yes! It amazes how most guys (even professionals) split up their entire upper body into three or four different workouts (even having a day just to train arms), yet they reserve only one day to train the HALF of their body! Real leg training is hard work and if you train your legs properly and work a job on your feet as I do, you mind as well call in sick the next day because you will be extremely sore.

Some lifters (like Layne Norton) have seen great success with programs such as the Smolov squat routine, which involves three leg workouts per week! You can implement this first principle one of two ways: have one workout dedicated to quads and another for hamstrings OR train quads and hamstrings together twice per week, emphasizing different levels of poundage and rep ranges at each workout.

2) Do as many sets for your hamstrings as you would for your quads!

Even though I compete in natural bodybuilding shows, I train with NPC heavyweights! My much larger friends know a thing or two about leg training and have taught me quite a bit about building my own set of wheels. One of the things I learned from my heavyweight friend (who happens to own the best legs in our state) is that you should perform as many sets for your hamstrings as you would for quads. The results speak for themselves:

Left: my NPC heavyweight training partner. Right: myself at a recent contest:

Jon Habeshy

Your hamstrings are the antagonists to your quads. Many trainers make the mistake of emphasizing the mirror muscles over muscles that can’t easily be seen in the mirror (biceps more than triceps, chest more than back, etc…) and the thighs are no exception. While it is true that the quads are larger than the hamstrings, they should still be trained equally. They are also functionally antagonistic as well, while the quads flex the hip and extend the knee the hamstrings flex the knee and extend the hip.

The hamstrings (and glutes in particular) are also used in many quadriceps exercises including squats and leg presses because they require hip extension to complete. This is important in terms of protecting your knee joint during quad exercises as well. Train your quads and hamstrings equally!

3) Range of motion

Regardless of the exercises you choose, it is especially important in leg training to use a full range of motion. I mentioned earlier that my legs have always been “big” and I made the mistake of thinking that loading plate after plate and doing half squats and half ton leg presses was the key to making my legs better. I even earned the nickname “half-rep Habeshy” among my training partners. I have since changed my ways and my leg development really began to show.

When you squat (notice I didn’t say “if”), how deep should you go? My answer is that you should descend as much as possible! Refine your technique, work on hip and ankle mobility and flexibility, practice full reps with lighter weight and then go hard with deep squats (deep meaning below parallel).

As a physical therapist assistant, I was taught that squatting below parallel puts too much stress on the patellofemoral joint since the knee joint is forced to drift out past the toes. This is true if the proper body mechanics are not utilized. If you are healthy, there is no reason why you shouldn’t squat below parallel.

The key to doing this safely is to sit back into the movement and power up with your hip musculature. This is how toddlers and Olympic lifters are able to perform full depth squats. In addition to this, generally you will have to reduce amount of weight used and thus making it a potentially safer exercise than doing half or quarter squats. Use the fullest range of motion that you can and you will the best results from your leg training!

Squats

4) Squat or not?

This goes along with the previous point. You can have an effective leg workout without squats, however if you want to maximize your development (not just in your legs but everywhere) you should perform some kind of free weight squat. I recommend free weights over the Smith machine because to squat safely with good depth you need to be able to sit back into the movement and it is impossible to do this with the Smith Machine.

If you feel that you can’t help leaning too far forward with back squats, consider front squats. Front squats allow you to stay more upright and place a greater emphasis on the quadriceps than squats. Squatting is not for everyone, but you should do your due diligence and try to make the most of this valuable exercise before deciding that it’s not for you.

5) Volume

This can be a touchy subject with many trainers since there are many who believe that doing several sets of several exercises will cause one to overtrain. No one is able to find peer-reviewed research suggesting that exceeding a certain number of sets and/or repetitions will cause one to become over-trained. Ultimately this is a matter of trial-and-error and also placing an emphasis on recovery from your training.

My general rule of thumb is that there is no need to perform more than 4 exercises for quadriceps and no more than 3 exercises for hamstrings. You should consider a full spectrum of rep-ranges from 4-20 repetitions for all of your exercises. Do as many warm-up sets as you need for each exercise and then proceed to perform 1-2 working sets for that exercise.

It should stand to reason that you will need less warm-up sets for subsequent exercises. For example, you may need up to 4 warm-up sets for squats, if you move on to leg presses you may only need 1-2, and then finally with leg extensions you shouldn’t need any and can go straight into your working sets.

Doing this will save your energy for working sets… these are the sets that will actually break down the muscles and stimulate growth, the warm-up sets are for injury prevention and getting a feel for how much weight you need to use for your working sets.

Leg Extensions6) Warm-up/Pre-exhaust

A proper warm-up is imperative for injury prevention (1). Most leg training articles in muscle magazines say to perform your knee extension exercise (everyone refers to it as the leg extension machine) first as your warm-up. I won’t be the first person to say this is not enough to prepare your body through an effective leg workout. I almost never have a good workout if my body is physically cold, and it takes more than an isolation exercise for your quads to do such. That is why I start with about 5 minutes of cardio to increase circulation.

I also use this time as a ritual to mentally prepare myself for the coming workout. Since I recommend any variation of barbell squats, I also suggest you include hip mobility exercises into your warm-up.

Using the leg extension machine isn’t necessary to warm-up, but you can feel free to use it as pre-exhaust technique for your quads or to emphasize the development of your vastus medials obliquus (VMO); otherwise known as your “tear drop” muscle. Research shows that the VMO is best recruited during exercises that incorporate terminal knee extension (such as the leg extension). If you can sit comfortably in the bottom position of a squat without any weight, then you are warm, mobile, and ready to hit legs!

7) Calves

While this article is primarily on working the thigh muscles, your calves are very important! Your thighs will only be seen on a bodybuilding stage or when you are naked, but in the summer you won’t want to be caught wearing shorts looking like a drumstick! My principles for calf training are similar to thighs:

  • Hit them at least twice per week as they recover more quickly than your thigh muscles.
  • Use a full range-of-motion with continuous tension on the calf muscles.
  • Perform at least two, if not three, calf exercises per session emphasizing the positions-of-flexion: contracted position, mid-range, and stretch.
  • Be progressive! Remember Arnold worked up to 1,000 lbs on his calf raises to bring up his calves and it was very effective!

8) Put it together!

Here is a sample, basic leg workout that you can use… tailor it to your needs, but remember to always implement these principles into your workouts to make them effective!

Quads
Exercise Sets Reps
Squat or Front Squat 2-4 warm up  
Squat or Front Squat 2 4-6
Squat or Front Squat 1 20
Hack Squat or Leg Press 1-2 warm up  
Hack Squat or Leg Press 2 8-10
Leg Extension (to failure) 2 20
Hamstrings
Exercise Sets Reps
Stiff Leg Deadlift 2-4 warm up  
Stiff Leg Deadlift 2 4-8
Stiff Leg Deadlift 1 15-20
Seated Leg Curl 1-2 warm up  
Seated Leg Curl 2 8-12
Lying Leg Curl or Glute Ham Raise 2 12-15 (4-8 if GHR)

Note: For stiff leg deadlifts allow a slight knee bend for your heaviest sets.

Good Luck!

References:

Am J Sports Med March 1988 vol. 16 no. 2 123-129