Long before he governed the Golden State and out-muscled bad guys on the silver screen, even before he won a then-record seven Mr. Olympia titles, Arnold Schwarzenegger was a promising young bodybuilder who had one glaring weakness (seriously)—his legs. At 6’2″, Arnold knew firsthand the difficulty tall bodybuilders face in bringing up their lower bodies. Rather than accepting this shortcoming, however, Arnold endured the most grueling, even sickening, workouts up to three times a week to build massive tree-trunk thighs worthy of someone nicknamed The Oak.

While Arnold did conventional exercises, his training strategy was anything but. He approached legs days with an extraordinary tolerance for pain and dedication to push his body past its physical limits. Here, we share the training techniques he used to completely transform his legs.

1) Turn up the volume

Endurance, in addition to sheer size, makes the legs a difficult bodypart to train. “It isn’t enough just to subject the legs to heavy overload”” Arnold said. ““You have to use heavy weights and sufficient volume to stress the fibers involved and exhaust the endurance capacity of the muscles.””

Arnold’s early training wasn’’t sufficiently high in volume. ““For many years I did only five sets of squats when I really should have been doing eight . . . [and] I did not put enough weight on the leg-press machine”” he said. ““Once I realized my mistakes and corrected them, my thighs began to grow thick and massive.”” At his peak, Arnold did at least 20 working sets for legs and took each set except his warm-ups to failure. This high-volume approach helped him put on the size and build the strength (his best was a 400-lb squat for eight reps) that turned around a weak bodypart.

Note: Arnold’s high-volume approach is extremely taxing at first, but eventually the body adapts and grows stronger. Stick with it for 6-–8 weeks to induce dramatic changes in your own legs.

2) Mind over muscle

Muscle fatigue inevitably sets in when you do several sets to failure, but Arnold used his mind to fight it.

“I accepted the fact that legs workouts simply have to be brutal to be effective”” he said. ““Normal workouts are hard enough, but if thighs happen to be a weak point in your physique, you have to be prepared to push yourself even more. This involves a mental effort almost as much as a physical one…This means forcing yourself to break down any inhibition or barrier.””

Note: Don’’t train legs without a partner. ““A good training partner pushes you to handle more poundage and gives you incentive to grind out more reps per set,”” Arnold wrote in his early autobiography. ““Workouts are more fun with a partner as well as more competitive…you challenge each other.”” When you’’ve forced out all the reps you can for squats, for example, stand holding the weight for a moment, then do one more rep (with a partner spotting you) to push your body to its absolute limit.

3) Shock it to me

Arnold found that traditional training techniques weren’’t enough to bring up his legs. At various times—especially before a competition—he used partial reps, drop sets, supersets, and pre-exhausting techniques to make his thighs work overtime and bring out their muscular detail. Anyone with at least six months of training experience can increase his workout intensity with advanced training principles.

Note: When you reach failure, don’’t just put down the weight and take a breather. Try the following techniques to push your legs workouts and test your physical limits—or at least make it unbearable to walk up a flight of stairs.

Partial reps

When you can’’t complete any more reps with a full range of motion, do more with just a portion of the movement, such as three-quarters or just half of the full range of motion.

Drop sets (aka strip sets)

After you reach muscle failure on a particular exercise, instead of stopping, immediately reduce the weight by about 25% and continue repping out. This allows you to continue a set well past the point when you’d normally stop because you’’re using a lighter weight.


Train two opposing muscle groups, like quads and hamstrings, back to back without resting to speed up your workout and get a tremendous pump in the working muscles. Arnold favored the pairing of front squat (which hit the quads hard) with the leg curl (for hamstrings).


Do an isolation exercise, such as the leg extension, before a more demanding one such as a squat. This pre-exhausts the quadriceps, making them the weak link in a squat. “I hit the leg extension hard, so I was very tired when I got to squats,”” Arnold wrote. ““But I kept trying and soon was able to do heavy squats immediately after leg extensions, and my thighs responded tremendously.””