By Josh Bryant, MS, CSCS
We can’t say it enough: Work your legs. Not only are they (literally) your foundation, but they are the biggest muscles in your body, so neglecting them will create muscle imbalances, which will eventually affect balance, flexibility and possibly injury.
Yeah, we know, your chest and biceps are usually more visible (and let’s face it, easier to see results), so it’s easier to dedicate time to them, but we can take your leg development to a whole new level in just 45 minutes a week. This workout consists of one core exercise, one superset and one bodyweight finisher. Since you’re doing a few exercises in a short period of time, you need 100 percent concentration and focus while training.
Bodybuilding enthusiasts who debate about the most developed legs of all-time are torn between Tom Platz and Branch Warren. No matter where your personal preference falls, the fact remains that both men credit their leg development to heavy, high-volume squats. Even Ronnie Coleman, the greatest bodybuilder of all-time, commenced every leg workout with heavy squats.
Let’s look beyond the functional benefits of the squat. A University of North Dakota study demonstrated that with equivalent loads, the squat worked the glutes and hamstrings (and even the quads) significantly more than the leg press.
Scores of studies show that squatting produces a cumbersome spike in anabolic hormones. Squatting even trains your cardiovascular system because of the hypoxia effect, meaning that while squatting, oxygen intake is temporarily inadequate. Not only does this build a strong heart and lungs, but it revs up the metabolism, building a key ally in the fat-loss war.
Half squats equal half results, so check your ego at the door and squat for a full range of motion to get full development. After you’re warmed up, you have 12 minutes to complete all squats, so efficiency will be key. Start with a weight with which you’re capable of doing eight to 10 reps. For the first set do five reps. Rest 60 seconds, then attempt five reps again. If you’re unable to complete five reps, do four; if you can’t do four reps, do three; if you can’t do three reps, do two; and if two reps is too much, do one. Always stop one shy of failure, but don’t exceed five reps. Repeat this process for 12 minutes. The clock starts once you have completed your first set. On the last set, if you still have something left, go for an all-out rep max, stopping one rep shy of failure.
When you can complete 40 reps in this time period, increase the weight on the bar by five percent; if you can’t, make sure you beat your previous rep record.
Place a barbell on top of the posterior deltoids. Unrack the barbell and step back one leg at a time to a shoulder-width or wider stance.
Keeping your chest up and shoulder blades retracted, initiate the movement by pushing your hips back (don’t bend at the knees first). Make sure to push your knees out on the descent and ascent as you squat down below parallel. Return to the starting position.
LEG CURL/ROMANIAN DEADLIFT SUPERSET
The hamstrings have two functions: flexion of the knee and extension of the hips. Romanian deadlifts work primarily hip extension, and leg curls work knee flexion. We’re going to attack both functions in one superset.
With the leg curl, we’re going to do a negative overload by curling up with both legs and lowering the weight with one leg for a five-second count. Do this for five reps each side.
Lie facedown on the leg curl machine; adjust it to fit your body.
Put the pad of the lever slightly below your calves. Keep your torso flat on the bench and grasp the handles on the side of the machine.
Make sure your legs are fully stretched, and curl your legs up as far as possible. Hold briefly at the top, then lower with one leg for a steady five-second count. Return to the start position.
Leg curls need to be strict and for a full range of motion. Start with 25 percent more than what you can do on a concentric (positive) leg curl.
Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs) are one of the all-time great hamstring builders. We’ll be doing RDLs for sets of six reps as heavy as possible while maintaining good form.
Start this movement standing upright. Take a stance between hip- and shoulder-width distance apart. Using a pronated (overhand) grip (straps are okay), place your hands outside of your thighs.
Slightly bend your knees, and keep your back arched and flat as you lower the bar, keeping your chest up by pushing your hips back and purposely putting tension on the hamstrings.
Lower the bar to mid-shin level (your torso should be parallel to the floor). Lift the weight to the starting position by extending the hips.
Keep the bar in close to your body, the further it drifts away from you, the more stress will be put on your lower back.
The reps are low on purpose. Hamstrings are primarily a fast-twitch muscle group and respond best to lower reps. This is why most bodybuilders lag in hamstring development compared to their quads, and why sprinters have the greatest hamstring development of any athlete.
Superset both exercises followed by a 90-second break. Do as many supersets as possible in 10 minutes, maintaining good form.
The last exercise is the bodyweight squat, which forces an athlete to sit more down than back, shifting a greater emphasis to the quads.
We will do this for a “Jailhouse 20,” which is a total of 210 total repetitions, where set one is performed with 20 reps, set two is 19 reps, set three is 18 reps, etc. Each set descends by one less rep. After each set is performed, walk 16 feet (8 feet across “your cell” and 8 feet back).
Complete the Jailhouse 20 as fast as possible and keep track of time. If it’s not complete in eight minutes, stop regardless of where you are.
A big house requires a big foundation. “The only thing standing between you and the strongest man in the world is how many times you can put 5 more pounds on the bar and squat it," said my first powerlifting mentor, Steve Holl.
Time to hit the iron!