In a perfect world, every physique-minded person would get 75 minutes of uninterrupted training time five to six days a week. Your gym would be within walking distance of your house, right next to The Vitamin Shoppe for your postworkout protein shake. Every piece of equipment would be available to you at the exact moment you wanted to use it (no more waiting for the cable-crossover station to open up); and, of course, every leg workout would incorporate the barbell squat, widely considered the “King of Exercises” by guys sporting huge legs worldwide.
But the world isn’t perfect. Some weeks you’re lucky to squeeze in two or three short workouts, it takes you 30 minutes to drive to the gym in traffic, that same annoying guy keeps hogging your favorite machine and, where squats are concerned, your knees, hips, lower back, ankles or all of the above won’t let you do them. Sure, the barbell squat is a phenomenal exercise, one that we highly recommend every chance we get. But for some people, it just isn’t happening — either your body is too beaten up to put a bunch of weight on your back or you have another reason for skipping squats.
Whatever the reason, there has to be a way of getting bigger, stronger legs without the Monarch of Movements. And there is, with the workout you’re about to read. It’s intense, it’s demanding, and it will build a more massive lower body — all in the absence of the exercise you’re either unable or unwilling to do: the barbell squat.
Get a Leg Up
The main reason we’re able to get away with promising you a great leg workout without arguably the greatest leg exercise known to man is because there are other fundamental moves that force the quads and glutes to grow — specifically lunges and leg presses. Do you realize how many professional bodybuilders achieve huge legs while avoiding the squat rack? More than you can count. And this is mainly because of the inclusion of heavy, high-volume leg pressing and lunging in their workouts.
Then there are squat variations — namely hack squats and Smith-machine squats. Yes, the word “squat” is in their names, but because they involve specialized equipment (not just a free-weight barbell), these exercises allow you to change your foot placement and the path of movement to ease stress on vulnerable areas like the knees and lower back. When it comes down to it, these are considerably different exercises than the barbell squat, even though the basic motion is the same.
Take hack squats, for example. If you place your feet farther forward on the platform, your knee angle won’t be so steep in the bottom position of the rep, thus taking pressure off those joints. The same holds true on leg presses and Smith-machine squats — your feet can be moved up on the platform with the former and farther in front of you on the floor with the latter.
Giving the lower back a break is a huge feature of these movements, as well. Leg presses and hack squats take much of the stress off the lumbar spine because of the machines’ designs. Likewise, the Smith machine allows you to complete the movement without leaning forward at the waist, something many people (particularly taller individuals) can’t accomplish with barbell squats. With lunges, the lower back is much less involved, provided you do the move with dumbbells instead of a barbell.
The following workout incorporates the exercises just discussed with set and rep counts designed to promote muscle size and strength in the legs. If you have knee or lower-back issues, it would be wise to perform this routine just once a week to ensure adequate recovery for not just the muscles but also the tendons and ligaments involved.
After all, just because your lower-body training doesn’t involve “the king” doesn’t mean your leg workout won’t be a royal pain in your quads and glutes — with the results to show for it.
No-Squat Leg Workout
- Before starting the lifting routine, warm up your legs with five to 10 minutes of light cardio activity like jogging, riding the stationary bike, jumping jacks or jumping rope.
- Treat the first exercise, leg extensions, as a warm-up move into the heavier lifts to follow and a pre-exhaust for the quads; start out light and increase weight each set so that the last set or two are challenging and provide a good burn in the quads.
- Rest no more than a minute between sets on leg extensions, rest two minutes on leg presses and hack/Smith-machine squats, and rest 60 to 90 seconds on walking lunges.
Don’t Forget the Hams and Calves!
The No-Squat Leg Workout will blast the quads and glutes while hitting the hamstrings some, too. But for maximum hammie development, additional isolation work is necessary. While you’re at it, train the calves for lower-body mass from hip to ankle. Perform the following workout either in the same session (if you’ve got the time and energy) or two to three days after the No-Squat Leg routine:
Adjust the seat of a leg extension machine so that your back is flush against the seatback and your knees line up with the machine’s axis of rotation. Begin with your legs bent 90 degrees and the weight lifted a few inches off the stack. Contract your quads to extend your knees until your legs are completely straight. Squeeze your quads at the top, then return to the start position.
Training Tip: To keep constant tension on the quads throughout the exercise, don’t let the weights rest on the stack between reps. Stop a few inches shy of touching at the bottom and go right into the next rep.
Substitute: The leg extension is a very specific machine. Many different companies make it, but they all more or less dictate the same isolated movement. That said, leg extensions can be done one leg at a time instead of with both legs. This will help minimize imbalances between the right and left quadriceps.
Sit on a leg-press machine and place your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart on the platform. Press the weight up with your legs until your knees are extended, then release the machine’s safety catches. Lower the weight under control until your knees form 90-degree angles or slightly less. Press the weight back up explosively to the start position, just shy of locking out your knees.
Training Tip: Just because you’re in a seated position doesn’t mean you can ignore your back. Maintain a slight arch in your lower back throughout; don’t let it round to conform with the pad.
Substitute: There are a number of different leg-press machines that can be done in place of the standard 45-degree model most popular among bodybuilders. One of the most common ones is the “leg sled,” in which you lie back on a pad parallel with the floor that slides back and forth on tracks as you press against a stationary platform.
Place your shoulders and back against the pads of the machine and position your feet hip-width apart and high on the platform. Start with your legs extended and your hands grasping the handles. Unhook the safety latches and slowly lower yourself until your thighs are below parallel with the platform. Press yourself up to the start position without locking out your knees at the top.
Training Tip: The design of the hack-squat machine allows you to achieve maximum squat depth without too much added pressure on the knees; use this feature, even if it means lightening the weight.
Substitute: These days, the term “hack squat” refers to the machine version, but the original hack-squat exercise is basically a barbell deadlift performed with the bar behind your legs instead of in front. This helps you keep your weight back on your heels and minimize forward lean.
Stand erect with the bar across your upper back, your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent and your toes turned out slightly. Rotate the bar to unrack it, then bend at the knees and hips to slowly lower your body, as if sitting down in a chair. Pause when your knees reach a 90-degree angle, then forcefully drive through your heels, extending at your hips and knees until you arrive at the standing position.
Training Tip: The ability to keep your feet well forward of the bar is what distinguishes this variation from a barbell squat, so feel free to take advantage of this, especially if you have knee issues.
Substitute: A less advanced, unweighted variation of a squat is one performed using a suspension trainer (TRX), in which holding the handles in front of you allows you to squat back so your weight is well behind your heels, not over them. This can relieve tension on the knees for those with joint issues.
Dumbbell Walking Lunge
Stand holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides with your feet together and a stretch of open floor space in front of you. Take a large step forward with one foot, plant it on the floor and bend that knee to lower yourself down. When the back knee is just shy of touching the floor, press forward off that foot to bring your feet together. Continue lunging forward, alternating legs every rep, until you’ve completed all reps with each leg.
Training Tip: Make sure your front knee doesn’t pass over your toe, and focus on keeping your shoulders back and chest up, not slumped forward.
Substitute: Common lunging variations include stationary lunges (in which the feet are staggered throughout and no step is taken) and reverse lunges (in which you step backward instead of forward, returning to the start position on each rep instead of walking). Equipment-wise, lunges also can be done with a barbell, kettlebells or Smith machine (stationary).