How to Build Muscle with High Rep Leg Training

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

Question: If someone’s trying to build muscle, is there any benefit to including sets of 50-100 reps, either with lighter weights as a “burnout” set, or with moderately-heavier weights done to failure and then continued in a rest-pause fashion?

Answer: For beginners, absolutely not. I actually do the opposite of what a lot of people recommend with beginners who are trying to build muscle; I keep their reps low, not high. Until they master the skill of a complicated exercise like a squat or deadlift I would never risk exposing them to injury with high reps. Their form breaks down after five reps or so when their core strength gives out and they are then at a much greater risk of injury.

With more advanced guys high rep leg training can work wonders and lead to extremely fast muscle gain. Most times I keep the reps at around 20-25, but sets of up to 50 or even 100 reps can work quite well also. Tom Platz built some of the freakiest legs ever seen and was a huge advocate of extremely high rep leg training. I’ve had the pleasure of discussing training with Stone Cold Steve Austin a few times and he has also noted that he was a big fan of squatting for high reps somewhere in the range of 30-50.

Like I said, though, you have to be somewhat advanced and have perfect technique on the squat otherwise I don’t think that the risk is worth the reward. Most guys will start rounding their lower backs, collapsing forward and having all kinds of other form issues if they do not posses the core strength required for such a challenging task.

Some guys would probably actually be better off doing extremely high rep sets on a machine. Although we have never had a leg press in my gym this is the one situation where I would actually use it. Belt squats are great for super high reps as are free squats with a weight vest on. I prefer to hit the heavy stuff first on a regular back squat for a few sets and then finish with the fifty reppers. I would never recommend more than one of these high rep finisher sets.

Question: Does the average guy in the gym need to concern himself with training slow-twitch muscle fibers as much as he trains fast-twitch fibers?

Answer: Fast twitch fibers have the greatest potential for growth so you should always target those first and foremost. If you are an athlete trying to run faster and jump higher you want to only train the fast twitch fibers and keep your sets short. But for general size gains with no concerns about athleticism you can train both fast twitch and slow twitch fibers for maximal growth. You can go heavy and target the fast twitch fibers one day and lighter to hit the slow twitch fibers another day or combine them both into one workout. Plenty of big guys have used both approaches with equal success. If you train legs once per week my suggestion would be to start heavy with squats and finish light with belt squats or leg presses for higher reps.
Question: Is there any benefit to doing high-rep deadlifts (or any deadlift variation, like sumo, Romanian, trap-bar, etc.)? Or is there an increased risk factor with deadlifts that makes them not appropriate for high rep work?

High rep deads are great for packing size on your traps and upper back, but, like I mentioned earlier, this exercise should never be done for high reps by a novice lifter. While you can go up to 50 or even 100 reps on some squat and leg press variations I wouldn’t recommend going above 10-12 reps on deadlifts. While Dr. Ken Leistner was famous for his 30-40 rep death sets on trap bar deadlifts and the like, I think that would be too risky for the average guy.

In my gym we consider high rep deadlifts to be sets of 10-12. You won’t find too many mass builders more effective than a heavy set of 10-12 reps on a deadlift. But it’s just not a great position for your shoulders to be in for a great amount of time, nor do most people have the lower back endurance and overall core strength to deadlift for more than 10-12 reps or so safely. In 99% of the cases I would recommend keeping deads at an average of five reps and not go too much above that.

If you are going to pull for high reps I would caution against going with an over under grip because that will place the biceps under a lot of stress for a lot of time. This is not a good scenario and should be avoided. I recommend using straps for high rep deads. I don’t believe you should ever use high rep deads as the first exercise in your workout but rather as a finisher after pre exhausting yourself with some heavy stuff first. Sometimes at the end of an upper body day we will do one or two sets of 10-12 reps of deadlifts, which can lead to great size gains. But this is never something I would start with when you are fresh and fully energized. Keeping them for the end limits the amount of weight you can pull and thus makes them safer.

Question: Finally, could you offer a sample lower body hypertrophy workout that incorporates higher-rep training?

1) Squat- 2-3 x 4-6, 1 x 8-10, 1 x 12-20 x 120-180 sec rest

2a) Barbell Romanian Dead Lift- 2-3 x 5-7, 1 x 8-10, 1 x1 2-15 x 60 sec rest

2b) Hanging Knee Raise- 4 x amap x 60 sec rest

3) Belt Squat (or weight vest squat or leg press)- 1 x 50 reps x 180 sec rest

4) 1 Leg Standing Calf Raise- 4 x 8-10 x 45 sec rest (pause for 4 sec in bottom position)

5) Seated Calf Raise- 3 x 50 x 90 sec rest (pause for 1 sec at bottom and 1 sec at top)

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