Most of you who train legs (and we hope that’s the majority of people reading this article!) will usually have the same big picture programs of how to make the legs grow. Do some heavy back squats, followed by some leg presses, hamstring curls, calf raises, maybe a lunge or two followed by some seated leg extensions. Now there’s definitely nothing wrong with this program, but this routine probably worked best when you were just beginning to train. Once you’re a more seasoned trainer, getting the best results involves a lot more than doing big compound lifts with heavy weight and exercising through full range of motion. Here are 5 ways to help you build bigger, more defined legs.
1. Less Can Be More
Deep and heavy barbell back squats are the gold standard if you’re looking at building size and strength for your lower body. By squatting to full range of motion with a heavier weight, you’re working your quads, hammies, glutes and calves. No wonder it’s considered the king of lower body exercises. However, to really bring out the superficial muscles of the quads including the famous vastus medialis teardrop muscle or the inner quad, decreasing the range of motion might just be the key. By stopping just above parallel, you’ll be focusing more on your quads to help develop some serious definition.
Of course it’s still important to squat deep, but make sure you play around with the ranges of motion to get the best development possible. This idea is not just restricted to squats; rather, you can employ it in any lower body or upper body exercise to help you achieve better gains.
2. Exercise Selection
One of the biggest issues when you watch people train legs is that they usually do the same exercises over and over again. However, there are a huge variety of exercise variations that you can use to achieve more well rounded growth and better gains in the long term. Take squats for example. While the barbell back squat is the most popular, front squats, goblet squats and single leg squats are all useful variations to help enhance growth. For the hamstrings, the glute ham raise and dumbbell leg curls are other excellent, underused alternatives. Standing single leg calf raises with explosive, plyometric style toe jumps are a few other exercises you can incorporate for the calves.
It’s important to note that variety is one of the key stimuli for substantial growth after the initial beginner phases of training. In addition, don’t forget to play around with when you incorporate these exercises into your routine. For example, you don’t have to do squats first every time. While change is important, still ensure you’re challenging yourself.
3. Foot Placement
With the upper body, hand placement can make a noticeable difference in the biomechanics and therefore the difficulty and focus of an exercise. An obvious example would be a wide versus a narrow grip for pulldowns. Likewise, changing foot positions will offer the same type of changes to help you focus on different muscles or different parts of muscles. One of the most common examples is that of the standing calf raise. When the toes are aligned and pointing straight ahead, the standing calf raise will place added emphasis on the inner head of the gastroc (the more superior/visible calf muscle). By turning your toes in so they face each other, you have a better chance of building up the outer gastroc.
This technique is easily interchangeable with different exercises. For example, turning your toes in will help to develop the inner hamstrings, whilst turning your foot out in squats will further develop the inner sweep of the quad. Besides turning the foot in or out, varying the actual placement such as wider or narrower stance or higher or lower on leg press pads will ensure more well rounded growth.
4. Work Unilaterally
Muscular imbalances happen to the best of us. The majority of trainers will have a dominant, stronger side and this is particularly evident during fatigue. Have you noticed more effort from a particular leg during the last reps of squats or a leg press? If left unchecked, this can eventuate into large imbalances, which can make you more prone to injuries later on. To help correct these, it’s important to incorporate unilateral or one leg exercises to your routine. Whether it’s a split squat to single leg curls or extensions, working unilaterally will show you where weaknesses lie and allow for adequate correction.
While you may not be able to lift as heavy as you usually do, you can still activate the muscles substantially enough to boost growth. As these are generally less taxing physically, it’s best to do unilateral exercises later in the session.
5. Pre-Exhaust & Intensity
In the quest for bigger legs, many trainers seem to sacrifice form for weight. By doing so, you also sacrifice an excellent chance for hypertrophy or muscle growth. Lifting heavy is also sometimes just not suitable, for example post injury. To help compensate, pre-exhausting your legs and increasing the intensity are two ways to maintain muscle building potential without the need to lift heavy. The pre-exhaust method involves working a particular muscle group using a single joint movement before hitting it with compound exercises. By pre-exhausting the muscle, you are essentially forcing your muscles to work twice as hard. Pairing this with increased reps and shorter rest times and your training intensity will be through the roof.
Together, these two final tips will help you continue to build muscle regardless of how long you’ve been training for. Pre-exhausting and increasing the intensity can be incorporated for any muscle group and works particularly well if you’ve been plateauing.
How to Build Bigger Legs Quickly
All the above tips aren’t particularly difficult to perform or require much effort. If you’re a more seasoned trainer who wants to maintain leg muscle growth and further improve muscle definition and separation, utilising one or more of these techniques will help encourage substantial benefits. One final tip is to make sure you’re eating and/or supplementing with enough carbs, protein, fats and other micronutrients to ensure you’ve got the building blocks to work hard and gain hard. Always plan to eat more on a heavy or intense leg day for best results.