If any bodybuilding recommendation was ever to be considered universal, surely “squat to get big legs” would be a top candidate. Bodybuilders of every generation have considered squats the golden fleece of leg training, and for good reason… they just plain WORK. It is, in fact, true that before putting in the work in any other leg exercise, you’ve gotta squat, and squat more. That being said, some bodybuilders (especially when few are listening) occasionally express skepticism about squats. “They work great, but my knees can’t take it anymore” is a common one. Another faithful complaint is “I feel my hips more than my quads when I squat… I think leg presses and hacks work the quads better.”
Is this just the usual bitching in the face of necessary hard and painful work? To be sure, some of it certainly is. There is no replacement for heavy squatting and some people just don’t want to face the facts. But there is some validity to these complaints. Doing squats improperly CAN hurt the knees and it CAN make the squat much less a quad movement than it can be. The following are some tips to keep in mind when squatting for bodybuilding. Employing these changes (if you aren’t already) can make squatting more effective AND less damaging in the long run. This of course means only one thing: you get bigger legs!
You’ll hear a lot of bodybuilders SAY they squat, but what you SEE is something wholly different. It’s sad to have to say this, but the bodybuilder who truly knows how to execute a proper squat is about as common as a powerlifter who knows how pose properly… few and far between. Too many bodybuilders squat with a wide stance, rounded back, and HIGH as all get out because of the ever-present temptation of going heavier and heavier. Don’t get me wrong. You SHOULD go heavier and heavier, but ONLY with the right technique to grow the quads. Here are a couple of pointers:
– Squat with a medium or narrow stance most of the time. This will hit the quads as opposed to the inner thighs and get you the growth you want.
– Squat with a FULL RANGE OF MOTION. Full ROM training has been shown to stimulate a higher percentage of motor units in the muscle than partial training, and it requires less joint-damaging weight to get the same volume in! The activation of more motor units likely means more whole-muscle development, which is VERY important when the goal is to get the “full muscle belly” look. How “full” is “full ROM?” Look no further than the Olympic weightlifter for the EXACT squatting depth and technique… we’re talking as low as possible. Going this low offers a third benefit… the stretching of the muscles (quads in this case) under tension has been shown as a stimulator of growth… so if you want big quads, go all the way down to the calves.
– Keep your chest up and back arched. Stay AS UPRIGHT AS YOU CAN. This keeps your back safer from injury and also guarantees higher quad involvement than leaning over. A high bar position is best for this, and some Olympic weightlifting shoes can REALLY help with the upright stance and full depth. Powerlifters can squat arched but bent over all they want, because their goal is just to lift max weights, but you, as a bodybuilder, are only interested in larger muscles, so squatting upright and with mostly your quads can take you a long way in this regard.
– Bend at your hips first, then your knees. By pushing your hips back first (with an arched back of course), you reduce shearing forces on the knee. This kind of squatting allows lifters to squat pain-free their whole careers. On the other hand, bending first at your knees is a sure ticket to knee pain, and sooner rather than later.
Every time a bodybuilder does a hard single or triple in the squat, a kitten dies. (Statistically, this is likely true just by coincidence as death frequencies are high for any large population of animals such as cats…. where were we, again?) Oh yes, so in any case, there is unlikely to be a good reason to go super heavy in the squat if muscle growth is your goal. If the weights on the bar are higher than about 60% of your 1RM, VOLUME (sets x reps x weight) is what matters most in developing muscle size. Thus, most of your squats should be heavy enough to grow muscle, but light enough so that you can sustainably do the volumes needed week after week. 8-12 reps per set of challenging weight is probably a good range for most bodybuilders as the main rep range for most squatting. If you can do more weight over time in this rep range, your legs WILL GROW. I’ve seen NO ONE that can squat 500lbs for 10 reps and didn’t have giant legs. Tom Platz had the freakiest legs ever and hit 23 olympic squats with over 500lbs… if you can replicate that feat, I PROMISE your legs will be absurd looking.
For reference, here is the Golden Eagle’s feat:
Which produced these legs:
(Editor’s note – Juggernaut’s own Chad Smith is the only person I’m aware of who’s since come close to matching this feat.)
(Editor’s note #2 – unless you’re a SHW, his legs are bigger than your waist.)
The set numbers for squats are tough to make direct recommendations for, as volume tolerance is so individual and depends on a host of factors. That being said, experience trainers should benefit from somewhere between 12 and 20 working sets of compound quad movements per week, preferably split into two sessions (Mon and Thurs, for example). Around half or more of these sets should be squats, with the rest being lunges, leg presses and/or hack squats (all with full ROMS and productive rep ranges as well). Listen to your body in this case… if you can recover and get stronger from more (or can’t keep up and benefit from less), do what it takes.
A lot of guys train legs only once a week, but this is perhaps only often enough for the biggest bodybuilders, whose legs actually NEED that long to recover. If you manage your volumes well (not doing too much in one workout), twice weekly training seems to be what maximizes the most muscle growth for the most bodybuilders. I was gonna say “when your legs are Ronnie’s size, you can start training them once a week,” but even Ronnie Coleman himself trained legs twice a week through his whole career!
As muscles are trained in any particular way, they lose sensitivity to that particular stimulus over time. Thus, a planned approach to varying training must be a feature of a thought-out bodybuilding program. For quad training, this means a couple of things:
– Squat stances can change mesocyle to mesocyle (approximately month to month). You can do traditional high bar squats for one cycle, then do close stance squats for the next, and then wider stance for the next, after which you come back to the traditional stance and use more weight than ever. More advanced bodybuilders can employ other bars and more exotic stances (cambered bar, buffalo bar, low bar position) to increase variation.
– Squat emphasis can change meso to meso. Most of the time, the absolute majority of your quad work should come from squatting. However, once every couple of mesos, using mostly leg presses, lunges, or hack squats can let your physiology “forget” the squatting stimulus, and a return to squatting in the next meso can work well to reignite further gains.
– Rep ranges should sometimes dip lower. Training for size all the time can desensitize the muscles’ growth generating pathways. In order to resensitize them (and get stronger doing so), a meso or two of heavier squatting (sets of about 5 reps or so) can work wonders. Coming back to higher reps after such low-volume and high intensity work will often give you life-changing pumps and the growth that follows. This can be done perhaps two or three times per year to keep growth plugging along.
Squatting is tough, and squatting done right can is even tougher (full ROM is a special kind of discomfort to the newly acquainted). But for the biggest legs possible, a near-religious dedication to squatting must be applied, and hopefully the tips in this article make the squatting you do safer and more productive!
Just don’t expect it to become more pleasant.
For even more squat goodness, these articles from the Juggernaut archives may interest you:
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Born in Moscow, Russia, Mike Israetel is a professor of Exercise Science at the University of Central Missouri. Additionally, he is a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder, and has been the head sport nutrition consultant to the US Olympic training site in Johnson City, TN. Mike is currently the head science consultant for Renaissance Periodization, and the Author of “The Renaissance Diet.”