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Long before he governed the Golden State and outmuscled bad guys on the big 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 bottom halves. Rather than accepting this shortcoming, however, Arnold endured 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 approach was anything but. He approached leg days with an extraordinary tolerance for pain and dedication to push his body past its physical limits. While anyone can repeat the exercises that he uses in his routine, few can duplicate his legs-into-Jell-O intensity. But we’re guessing at least a few of you have the cojones to give it a try.
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-pound squat for eight reps) that turned around a weak bodypart.
Arnold’s high-volume approach is extremely taxing at first, but eventually the body adapts and strengthens. Try it for 6-8 weeks to induce dramatic changes in your own legs.
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 leg 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.”
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.