5 Ways to Grow Your Legs
If you’ve been training for any amount of time, and you find that your legs aren’t growing as much as you would like, then this is the blog for you! Whether you want a big squat or if you just want a bigger pair of legs, focusing on leg growth can be a beneficial use of your time at the gym.
Before we get into it, if you just started training with us and if you’re brand new to strength training, then a lot of this information will be purely educational. We will cover the basics with you in your first few months of training, so you don’t need to perfectly understand all of the strategies discussed here. The thing that you should be focused on is building a strong foundation of strength training. This involves the handful of simple movements that we teach at the beginning of the client journey.
Once you’ve built that foundation and you’ve run through your first program, you might get to the point where you want to specialize a little bit more. Some folks may wants to maximize their strength. On the other hand, you may want to prioritize muscle growth. Your first few months of training will accomplish both of these goals, but after a while, if you want to prioritize one of them then your training approach might need to change.
Now don’t hear me say that growing muscle is not important for strength, or that getting strong is not important for growing muscle. Sometimes your main lifts may become limited by the size of your muscles, in which case you need to focus on growing them so that you can get stronger. On the other hand, you may need to move some heavier weights for a time and increase your strength instead of just repping out sets of 15 and 20.
Today we’re gonna be talking about how to grow your legs. Let’s get into it!
1. More Volume
The first and arguably most important strategy is to increase training volume. For those of you who have been training with us for a while, think about our most recent training program, The Press Protocol. The program started with higher volume and progressively decreased in volume. This strategy enables you to increase your work capacity and build muscle at the beginning. As the program progressed and the weights became relatively heavier, the volume decreased as training became more about maximum force production. Regardless of the movement, this is a great progression for building strength.
When it comes to hypertrophy, increasing volume overtime is most beneficial. For example, the first exercise on day one is the squat. You will only be performing two sets of 8 to 10 reps at a moderate intensity. Next week, that will go up to three sets at a pretty high intensity. The third week will stay at three sets but at a very high intensity. On week four, we’ll go up to four sets going to failure. At this point, you will spend week five at a much lower volume and intensity to give your body a chance to recover. Then we’ll start the process all over again.
This is a very common approach to hypertrophy training. You ramp up the demands of your training through volume and intensity, until you have maximized training stimulus without going overboard on accumulated fatigue.
Instead of increasing your one rep max in a certain movement, the purpose of hypertrophy training is to grow the size of the muscle. All of the variables involved in programming will be geared towards that end. Moving the most amount of weight is not the goal but rather a tool.
Now that we’ve established a foundation of hypertrophy training principles, there are a few ways that we can increase volume.
The first is frequency, or the number of times you train a muscle in a week. If your legs seem to be lagging behind and you’re only training them once a week, add an extra day. Even if you just duplicated your first leg day, you have just doubled your training volume!
If you limit yourself to only one day a week to train your legs and you know that you need to train them more, then you might run into a problem: lots of fatigue! If instead of doing three sets of squats, you did six, that might be a really bad idea. Your performance nosedives, you’re not recovered for your next leg session, and the excess fatigue bleeds over into your other training days. All bad things!
By simply adding another leg day a couple days after your first leg day, you’re still able to get all the work done but now you don’t feel totally demolished by doubling your work load in one day.
Another way to increase volume is to add sets. As explained earlier, effective hypertrophy training gradually increases volume overtime. Adding sets over the weeks of your program can accomplish this progression.
A gradual and systematic approach to increases in volume also gives your body a chance to adapt. By starting out the program with only two sets per exercise at a moderate intensity, your muscles are able to recover from this new training stimulus as opposed to being overwhelmed by an exorbitant amount of volume.
2. Exercise Variation
But if your leg day only consisted of two sets of squats and nothing else, even if you did that twice a week, you would probably need to do more training to get the desired effect. Well does that mean just more squats? Not exactly.
If you’re trying to maximize hypertrophy in your legs, you’re going to need to incorporate some secondary movements. These are exercises that utilize the same muscles as compound movements like the squat, but don’t fatigue you as much.
The reason exercise variety is so important is because of a concept known as a stimulus to fatigue ratio (SFR). A stimulus to fatigue ratio is the ratio between an exercise’s ability to stimulate muscle growth and the fatigue that the exercise generates.
Heavy compound movements like the squat tend to have a lower stimulus to fatigue ratio because the fatigue cost is pretty significant. So if you just decided to squat more, you might accumulate so much fatigue that the training session is no longer productive. In an effort to avoid that, you need to incorporate some other variations that have a higher stimulus to fatigue ratio. That way, you can still grow your muscles without hitting the wall.
Now let’s talk about rep ranges. For exercises with a comparatively low stimulus to fatigue ratio like the squat, you generally want to keep your rep ranges on the lower end of the spectrum. For hypertrophy purposes, this is around a 5 to 10 rep range. There are some exceptions to this, but for the most part this is best practice.
For exercises with a high stimulus to fatigue ratio, higher rep ranges tend to yield the best results. Anywhere from 10 up to 30 reps is ideal.
Now that we’ve talked about some programming basics, let’s go over movement execution.
3. Strict Technique
When you first become a client at Steel, we teach you how to move your body in an efficient manner that trains relevant muscle groups. After learning the movement patterns, you can then train to increase your strength output. When strength is the primary goal, these are the parameters of strict technique.
When it comes to hypertrophy, strict technique is defined by creating maximum tension in the target muscle. To use the squat as an example, when you get to the bottom of the movement, instead of digging into your hips to get the bar up, you need to stay more upright and keep your knees forward. This small change in technique will emphasis the quads.
You want to make the movement as inefficient as possible, so that your quads do all of the work. When training for strength, you want to move as efficiently as possibly by distributing the load among different muscle groups. But that is a different goal than hypertrophy. When you prioritize muscle growth, targeting the muscle is the name of the game.
Here at Steel, there are three areas of attention you can place on an exercise: form, focus, and feel. Form involves overall technique, focus addresses individual cues to pay attention to, and feel is all about the tension generated in the muscle.
Hypertrophy training is all about feel. While you do need to keep your technique in mind, the tension you feel in the target muscle is a major distinction from a strength training focus. So the decisions we make about technique are largely influenced by what will generate the greatest amount of tension in the muscle.
4. Full Range of Motion
Next is full range of motion. In order to grow your muscles effectively, you need to fully stretch and contract them under load. While it might be easier to only squat down a few inches, you are not exposing your quads to maximum tension through only a partial range of motion. Going all the way down will ensure that you recruit all the relevant motor units that stimulate muscle growth.
What you’ll find is that it’s a lot harder when you do it that way! You can’t move as much weight. But the technique comes first and the weight comes second. Even with a strength priority, you don’t want to sacrifice range of motion for a little extra weight. But especially for hypertrophy, the weight is not the point, it is only a means to an end. So squat deep, go all the way down on your lunges! Then scale the weight up as you need.
5. Controlled Eccentric
Lastly is controlling the eccentric portion of the movement. Using the squat as an example, as you go down, take it slow. Take a good 2-3 seconds on the descent. Tons of muscle growth occurs during a loaded stretch, so really milking it on the descent of a squat will definitely accomplish that.
Another great example of the controlled eccentric is the RDL. As you push your hips back and lower the weight, you are stretching your hamstrings. Taking some extra care to go slow during the stretch will achieve lots of muscle growth as opposed to rocketing towards the bottom.
On top of the controlled eccentric, add a brief pause at the bottom of the stretch. What?! Yes, you read that right! Introducing a momentary pause at the bottom of the stretch will help you really feel the tension at its peak and it will also eliminate the possibility of using momentum to get the weight up.
When you go slow during the stretching portion of an exercise, it also gives you more time to feel the tension in the muscle and to make form corrections in the set if you’re not feeling it as much. For example, on your first couple of reps of the RDL, you notice during the descent that you don’t feel it in your hamstrings very much. Then you remember “Oh shoot, I forgot to keep my chest up!” Then on your next rep, you keep your chest up and then you think “oh now I’m really feeling it!”
So be sure to take some time during the eccentric portion of the movement and you’ll get a lot of benefit out of it.
These are the foundational principles of training for muscle growth. While strength training proper can achieve lots of muscle growth, you may get to a certain point in your training where hypertrophy is your number one priority. If that’s the case, then let us know! We will gladly adjust your training for you to get those gains!
If you want to maximize your squat and your legs seem to be holding you back, then it might be time for a hypertrophy phase of your training. Once you put some extra muscle on your legs, then you might have a PR in your future!
We’ll be putting all of these principles to use in our brand new program. Stay tuned!