The Ultimate Guide to Building Bigger Legs

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

“Ricky! What’s up, buddy? Long time, no see. Looks like you’ve been training pretty hard. Your entire torso is much thicker than the last time I saw you.”

“Thanks for noticing, Jay. I’m trying, man. Been following the programs you laid out for me and it’s really working.”

“That’s great to hear. Hey, I’m actually heading to the gym in a couple hours. Did you train yet today?”



“You wanna jump in for a session with me?”

“Seriously? You think I’m ready for that?”

“Dude, you’re the size of Arnold. You’re jacked. You’ve been doing what I told you for a year now. I think you’re ready to step it up.”

“Wow. Awesome, bro. That would be an honor.”

“Cool, I’ll see you at 5 for legs.”

“Oh boy. I’ve read some of your stuff about building bigger legs. I foresee some pain coming my way.”

“Na, we’ll go easy on you the first day, but I’ll give you a plan for the future.

I think you’re at the point where you can start adding some other components to your leg training now.

Yes, squats are all you really need to build big legs. But for well rounded development and staying healthy it’s a good idea to start adding some more variation in once you reach a certain level.”

I met Ricky a couple hours later at the gym and we started warming up. A thorough warmup is a very important component of a leg workout and can never be taken lightly.

“Grab a jump rope out of my bag and let’s hit that for three minutes just to get moving and break a sweat.”

Component 1: The Warmup

We hit the jump rope, mixing up our jumping styles every few seconds, going from double leg to single leg to shuffling to running in place. Three to five minutes is usually enough to get the heart rate elevated and the sweat flowing.

Next up we hit the Rumble Roller and pummel the hamstrings, quads, inner and outer thighs for a few minutes. The glutes get murdered with the lacrosse ball. Then we’re on to some bodyweight squats, leg swings in multiple directions, hurdle step overs and duck unders and dynamic stretches for every major muscle group from the waist down.

Some yoga poses such as downward dog and front and side warrior can also be useful here as well.

After that we move on to some drills against the wall for ankle mobility and squat depth. Most people don’t open their knees up enough when they squat so this drill is quite beneficial.

“Ricky, come here and stand facing the wall in your normal squat stance with your feet about six inches from it. Now slowly squat down without letting your nose smash into the wall. As you lower yourself try to actively pull yourself down into the hole using your hip flexors and opening up your knees as much as you can.”

“Wow. That’s a lot harder than I thought it would be,” Ricky said as he got stuck a few inches above parallel.

“Keep working on it and when you get stuck just hang out in that position for a bit and bounce up and down. That’s a good one I learned from Pavel several years back and it really works. Keep opening up those knees.”

“I’m sweating from this! I can’t believe how hard it is.”

“That’s when you know you’re doing it right. This is good to do several times daily if squat depth is a problem for you.”

“Got it. I definitely will.”

Component 2: Jumps

“Ok, let’s move on. I like to fire up the CNS before a big squat or deadlift day with some jumps. Box jumps onto a padded plyo box are my favorite option but hurdle jumps, squat jumps, vertical jumps, kneeling jumps and even broad jumps are good options as well.

The key is to be sure you only take a quick dip then explode as fast as possible. No slow motion deep squatting and jumping like a hippo. And don’t land in a position deeper than 135 degrees of knee flexion. If you have to do that the object you’re jumping on or over is too high.”

“Ok. So what’s up for today’s jump?”

“We’ll do box jumps today. Five sets of three with a 90 second break between.”

After completing the jumps and firing up the CNS it was time to move on the strength-training portion of the workout.

Component 3: Glute Ham Raises

Screen Shot 2013-04-15 at 11.39.58 AM“So, on to squats now?”

“Actually, no. Years ago I got the idea from Louie Simmons to do glute ham raises before squatting as a cure for weak hamstrings. I started doing them and it worked, meaning my squat came up, my hamstrings got stronger and my knees felt better.

Since pretty much everyone has weak hamstrings I figured they could all benefit from it. Plus, once I saw Chuck Vogepohl doing it I knew it had to be a great idea.

I had other people start doing it and the results were the same.

So we’ll start with three sets of 8-10 on glute hams today.”

“What if I don’t access to a glute ham?”

“Good question. In that case you could do a Jungle Gym XT leg curl, a leg curl on Val Slides, on a stability ball or even a band leg curl.”

“What about a machine leg curl?”

If you’re an athlete and have to perform I wouldn’t recommend it. Training the hamstrings as knee flexors in isolation without also using the glutes and lower back muscles can definitely lead to injuries on the playing field. And for a lot of people machine leg curls can just be plain stressful to the knee.”

“What about if you’re not an athlete, have no knee pain and are just trying to build bigger legs?”

“In that case you can do them if you want. But I’d bump up the reps a little bit just to be safe.”

“I thought I read that the hamstrings were fast twitch muscles so they should be trained with low reps.”

“That advice is a bit misleading because any leg curl or glute ham variation done for lower reps will be too stressful on the knees. And pretty much all other compound movements that train the hamstrings don’t do so in isolation, so they also train other muscle groups that respond better to higher reps, such as the quads and spinal erectors. So that’s not a rule I pay much attention to.”

“Gotcha. And if someone is too weak to do a perfect rep on the glute ham do you allow them to drop their knees a bit and lead with their ass?”

“Yeah, at first I don’t have a problem with that. Another option is to attach a band to the back of the bench and use that for assistance or simply do eccentric only reps until you are strong enough to do them on your own.

Another option is the partner assisted glute ham raise from Legend Fitness. It’s cheap and takes up very little space. I’d recommend that to anyone who trains at home.

Component 4: Squats

After Ricky and I completed our glute hams it was time to move on to squats.

“Since having shoulder surgery a few years back I’ve always preferred to squat with the Buffalo bar instead of the straight bar. In fact, I recommend the Buffalo bar to anyone who has one. It just makes sense to minimize the stress on your shoulders when training what should be primarily a lower body exercise.”

“Ok, so what are we doing?”

“For newbies I recommend multiple sets of the same weight. So something like five sets of five works in that situation. When you get more advanced we work up to one top end set, just like they do at Westside and just like Kaz, Coan, Karwoski and many others did.

Start with the bar and bang out ten reps. Then throw on quarters and hit another 6-10. After that start ramping in 10-20 pound increments (stronger, more advanced guys would make larger jumps), doing sets of six.”

“Sounds good,” Ricky said as he got under the bar.

“Huge breath, filly the belly with air, chest up, sit back, open the knees, DRIVE!

Looks good, Ricky.”

“So Jay, how do you know when to stop ramping up in weight?”

“Good question. If you’re strong you can make bigger weight increases between sets. But if your best set of five is 265 you want to make smaller jumps. So you might go:

45 x 10
95 x 8
135 x 6
185 x 6
205 x 6
225 x 6
245 x 6
265 x 6

So it’s an average of twenty pounds that you’re jumping up each set. At that point, after you hit your top end set you could reduce the weight by about 10% and hit one more back off set.”

“So my top end set is a six rep max (6RM)?”

“No. Not necessarily. It’s the best six-rep set you can do with good form that doesn’t slow down to a painfully slow death grinder, where you’re turning purple and your heads about to explode. So just a good, challenging, very heavy set of six. But not something you need 911 on speed dial for.”

After working up to a top end set of squats for the day we lowered the weight by about 10% and did one back off set. At that point it was time to move on to single leg work.

Component 5: Single Leg Squat Variations

“Next up we’ll do some rear foot elevated split squats. Grab that light blue airex pad there to put down beside the bench. Put your back foot on the bench and stand in front of it. You’ll want to maintain a bit of a forward lean throughout the set, so don’t try to stand perfectly upright.

Now squat down under control until your knee touches the pad. Actively engage your glutes and squeeze your quads to return to the start position. Come back up about 95% of the way, stopping short of lockout and keeping tension on your quads.

Do ten reps per leg to warm up then we’ll do three progressively heavier sets of 10-12 by adding chains around our necks.

Again, go down under control, taking a good two seconds, while really focusing on maximizing the tension in the front leg.

Rest thirty seconds between legs and keep going until you finish all three sets. If you train with a partner do your weaker leg then let him do his and proceed to go back and forth between legs like that for all three sets.

You don’t have to go ultra heavy here. The goal is to get a good pump. So take your time on the weight increases.”

“Cool. And what if I don’t have chains somewhere I’m training?”

“Then holding dumbbells at your side or in the goblet position is fine. Sandbags are another good option. You can put them over your shoulders or hold them Zercher style in front of you.”

“Is this your favorite single leg squat variation to do at this point in the workout?”

“It’s up there. I also like pistols (if you can do them), skater squats, walking lunges and Cossack squats. They should all usually be done for anywhere between eight and twenty reps. There’s really not much need to go heavier than that on them.

One thing I do with older beat up guys who still want to squat is have them do the single leg work before squatting. That’s the old bodybuilding concept of pre-exhausting or pre-fatiguing and that can work well for guys like that because it drastically reduces the loads they’ll be able to use when we get to squats.”

“Interesting. I should mention that to my buddy, Ron.”

Ricky started his first set with a twenty-pound chain around his neck for a good set of twelve. I knew that going up another twenty on the next set would be too big of a jump so I told him to hold a ten pound dumbbell in goblet position along with the chain around his neck.

For the second set he banged out another twelve.

“Ok, throw on another chain for the last set and do ten with it,” I told Ricky.

He started to slow down quite a bit at rep eight but knowing that you can always plow through lower body exercises like this a lot easier than you can on upper body stuff I called out, “four more!”

He completed his third set of twelve with perfect form then ripped the chains off his neck like they were on fire.

“Good set. Let’s hit a couple sets of posterior chain work then we’re done. After that we’ll do abs.”

What About Leg Presses?

“Sounds good. Now, Jay, what about leg presses and stuff like that? Where would you put that or would you not?”

“Yeah, if your goal is strictly to gain mass as fast as possible you could mix it up between the single leg squatting variations and exercises like leg presses and belt squats. If you have one of those Westside belt squat machines I’d use that quite a bit. Those are great compound exercises for building bigger legs and will actually pack on size faster than the single leg stuff.

But the single leg stuff keeps you healthy, which is why I love and recommend it.

For belt squats and leg presses it’s usually best to keep the reps high. Twenty would be the average but if you’re strong you could do as many as fifty reps, Tom Platz style.

If you don’t have a belt squat machine you could get a belt squat belt and run some plates or a heavy kettlebell through it. Then you stand on two boxes and do belt squats like that. It’s another great option to have in your arsenal.

And of course, you could just do more lighter, higher rep back off sets of squats. But you want to make sure your technique is perfect on those first. I keep everyone’s reps fairly low on squats until I know their technique is dialed in and their core strength is where it needs to be to start bumping up reps.”

Component 6: Posterior Chain Work

Aly12.1“Awesome. So what are we doing for posterior chain work?”

“At this point in the workout you can choose from back extensions, reverse hypers, hip thrusts, glute bridges, swings or RDL’s. These are done for 2-3 sets of 10-30 reps. If you have really tight hamstrings, sticking with semi-stiff legged deads, with an emphasis on stretching would be your best bet here for at least a month or two. Use moderate weights and just focus on the range of motion and the stretch. A kettlebell swing can also help as well.

My lower back always feels better when I’m regularly doing extensions or reverse hypers. I like to get a really sick pump in there to the point where I almost can’t walk for a few seconds after the set.”

“Are we doing those today?”

“Yup, on the 45 degree bench. Loop this band around the bottom pegs here and then around the back of your neck. Do 15-30 reps. Go down under control by pushing your ass out and back then squeeze your glutes and try to consciously squeeze your spinal erectors on the way up and at the top.”

“Wow. What a pump, dude. My lower back feels like it’s gonna explode.”

“Yeah man. That’s good stuff. Keeps you healthy.”

After another set Ricky was fried. We moved on to reverse crunches and some dynamic side planks to finish up.

Component 7: Stretching

“Before we call it a day let’s hit a few deep stretches for the quads, hams and glutes. Hold each one for about a minute. For hams lay down on your back, wrap this band around your foot and pull your kneed toward your head.

For quads we’ll kill two birds with one stone and hit the hip flexors as well. Get into a lunge position in front of the wall. Right leg forward, left leg back with your knee on an airex pad. Now put your right hand against the wall for balance. Grab your left foot with your left hand and pull it toward your glute.”

“Oh yeah, that’s getting my quad.”

“Now, just drive your hips forward slightly to get the hip flexors as well.”

“There it is!”

“Ok, finish up with the 90/90 glute stretch on the floor and we’re done.

Lower body days like this take a lot out of you so make sure to really pound the food when you get home and for the rest of the day. Go for a thirty-minute walk tomorrow to get some blood in there and use the rumble roller again.

Keep pushing the weights up gradually and your legs will be growing out of all your pants in no time.”

PS. Want fully detailed, badass leg workouts written my me, delivered to your inbox every week? Then join the Renegade Inner Circle today, son!