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Lifters tend to break down into two categories: those who squat and those who don’t. The squatters, it is believed, stand to gain the most muscle and strength, while the nonsquatters are, well…wussbags. At least that’s been the prevailing line of thinking since gyms began. But it’s wrong.
Leg training—heck, all training—just isn’t as simple as that. Squats are great for building your legs, but so are a whole bunch of other exercises. So if you can’t or won’t squat, either due to injury or fear of incorrect form (but not because you don’t want to work hard, like some wussbag), this guide to leg training will change the way you pump your wheels forever.
Ladies love sculpting a round butt and curvy thighs, but men would almost always prefer adding more sets of chest and arms to their leg training. The thing is, if you had to pick one body part to be biased about, it should be legs. The glutes are the most powerful muscles in your body and, in conjunction with your hamstrings, are the chief forces behind fast running, high jumping, and the ability to create power with the upper body. The quads help to stabilize your knees and decelerate your running, so you can change direction quickly. Every home run swing, knockout punch, and heavy overhead press begins in your legs.
SEE ALSO: The Ultimate Leg Training Workout
Just this year, the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that rugby players who increased their squat strength—as opposed to their bench press, row, or clean—had the greatest improvements in tackling ability. In fact, their three-rep-max squat was found to be a “moderately good predictor” of change in tackling ability—as was an improvement in three-rep-max strength relative to body mass.
But even if performance means nothing to you, leg training still should. Weak quads, glutes, and hamstrings set you up for knee and hip injuries, and guys who avoid leg training for more upper-body work inevitably end up with “light bulb” bodies—big up top and nothing below the belt. (Yes, we know there’s a double-entendre there, and it holds true: Guys who don’t train legs have no balls.)
The barbell back squat is often referred to as the “king of all exercises,” and it definitely rules. It targets the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back and also involves the core, upper back, and shoulders to stabilize the bar. Because it’s designed to let you lift heavy, it encourages bone growth and the release of muscle-building hormones such as testosterone and growth hormone.
But we’ll argue that it’s the act of squatting itself that’s “king,” not the specific type of squat you choose. Squats where the weight is held in front of your body, such as goblet squats, front squats, and Zercher squats, can all build big, strong legs, and offer unique advantages that back squats don’t.
A goblet squat, for instance, has you hold a dumbbell with both hands under your chin. When you squat, the weight will help to counterbalance your hips and torso, so you can lower down deeply without bending too far forward. It encourages you to push your knees apart to make room for your elbows, better activating your glutes. The result is near-perfect form on every rep, regardless of muscle imbalances or lack of mobility. For these reasons, the goblet is an ideal exercise for beginners to learn the squatting movement.
A front squat is a good lift to graduate to next. The bar is held in a similar position to the goblet squat but allowed to rest on the front of the shoulders. If you have back or knee pain, you’ll probably find that front squats allow you to squat deeper and with more safety than back squats do. They also hit your quads more directly, making them a favorite for bodybuilders who aim to train the “teardrop” portion of their quads—the point at which the vastus medialis oblique inserts into the kneecap.
The Zercher squat is another option that offers similar benefits to the front squat but does more for the core and upper back. In a Zercher, you cradle the bar in the bend of your elbows as you squat. It can be uncomfortable until you get used to it, but it builds brute strength throughout the body. After all, it was invented by an old-time weightlifter, Ed Zercher, who used to begin the lift by bending down and loading the bar on to his arms from the floor (which we don’t recommend for safety’s sake; but it sure is cool). See full directions on how to perform these lifts in “The Three Kings” section (on page 3).
If you’re thinking that the downside to all these squats is that you can’t lift as heavy on them as you could with a back squat, you’re right. That’s why powerlifters specialize in back squatting, and it’s become the most popular squat variation as a result. But then ask yourself, “Are you a competitive powerlifter?” And if not, why limit yourself to just one squat, especially when it has more potential to cause injury than these other versions?
The back squat, for all its good points, does place shear forces on your lower spine. As you descend, gravity pulls the weight down and your body allows it to move a bit forward, since your torso will inevitably bend forward. For a taller lifter, or one with tight hips, this can put the back under a lot of strain. When heavy loads are used, the danger becomes more pronounced. If you train alone, getting stuck in the bottom of a back squat can be life-threatening, whereas if you can’t complete a front-loaded squat, you can simply drop the bar in front of you.
Squatting, of any kind, is extremely efficient, allowing you to train every part of the lower body in a functional movement pattern with challenging weights, but it’s not the only path to gains. The same goes for deadlifting, which trains the glutes and hamstrings very hard but the quads to a lesser extent. However, single-leg training, wherein you work one limb at a time, may be equally as effective when compared to bilateral barbell squats and deadlifts and even a better choice for more people.
“You can even-out imbalances between legs,” says Ben Bruno, a trainer to celebrities and athletes in Los Angeles. “You can also target the legs more directly. On a squat, the limiting factor is the lower back or core, not the legs. In a single-leg exercise, like a Bulgarian split squat, once you figure out your balance, the leg is the only limiting factor.”
So you might be able to do back squats with 225 pounds, but much of that load is supported by your spine, so your legs aren’t really being stimulated by a full 225 pounds. Compare that with doing Bulgarian split squats (where you raise one foot behind you on a bench and descend into a lunge position) with 75-pound dumbbells in each hand (150 pounds total). You end up using a fraction of the weight but nearly all of it bears down directly on your front leg.
Bruno won’t go so far as to say that single-leg training is better than conventional squatting for muscle growth, but it’s certainly not vastly inferior, and it’s undoubtedly much safer. A 2014 study in the International Journal of Exercise Science compared muscle activity in the back squat, split squat, and Bulgarian split squat and found there was no significant difference in the amount of muscle activated by the three exercises—however, the Bulgarian split squat worked more of the hamstrings.
Good single-leg exercise options include split squats (where legs are staggered and you drop into a lunge), Bulgarian split squats, lunges, single-leg Romanian deadlifts, stepups, and sled pushes.
Grasp the bar with hands at shoulder width and raise your elbows until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Take the bar out of the rack and let it rest on your fingertips and front delts. Step back and set your feet at shoulder width with toes turned slightly out. Squat as low as you can without losing the arch in your lower back.
Set a bar on a rack level with your lower chest. Attach Fat Gripz to it, or wrap a towel around it to make it thicker—or use an axle instead of a barbell if possible. Hook your arms around the bar so it rests in the bends of your elbows. Cup one hand over the other for stability. Take a deep breath and lift the bar out of the rack. Step back and squat, pushing your knees out and keeping your torso upright.
Hold a dumbbell by one of its ends under your chin with both hands. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and toes turned slightly out. Bend your hips back and sink into a squat, pushing your knees apart as you do. Your torso should be close to perpendicular to the floor.
The knock on single-leg training has always been the limits on the loads you can use, but Bruno says you can maximize the training effect of light loads with any number of tricks, i.e., make the exercises feel harder. “Rather than trying to lift the most weight possible,” he says, “really hone in on form. You could pause at different points in the range of motion or do 1½ reps,” where you perform one full rep and then return to the toughest point in the range of motion for a half rep. For instance, on a Bulgarian split squat, go all the way down, come halfway back up, go down again, and then stand up completely. That’s one rep. Another favorite method of Bruno’s is what he calls “countdown sets.” You could do five reps of split squats and then pause at the bottom for five seconds. From there, perform four reps and rest four seconds, then three and three, and so on down to one. Any of these approaches will scorch your legs, and, of course, can be used on double-leg barbell squatting lifts as well.
For most leg exercises, Bruno likes to stay in the six- to 12-rep range. “When you go too low on reps, your form tends to be bad, and when you go too high, it breaks down,” he says. Of course, there are exceptions. Deadlifts are such a stressful move that their reps should be kept low for safety’s sake—say, five to eight. The same goes for front squats, since balancing the bar will fatigue your shoulders and upper back. On leg presses, however, where the machine does most of the stabilizing for you, you can use higher reps for a bigger pump, such as 15 to 20 or even more. If you have injuries, avoid heavy loading and err on the higher end of the rep spectrums for all exercises.
How much work you do for your legs depends on how frequently you choose to train them. If you have one designated leg day per week, you may do four or five leg moves of three to four work sets each. But Bruno says if you train only three or four days per week, full-body training may work better for you. “If you do one or two leg exercises per workout, you’re essentially splitting up the same amount you do on a leg day over a week.”
If you choose to do both conventional back squats and deadlifts, try to keep them separated by at least two full days. Performing one lift on Monday and the other on Friday will go a long way toward preserving overtraining and overuse injuries. Eastern Bloc training cycles that have you squatting multiple times per week have come back into vogue, promising that the regular practice will fine-tune your squatting and build strength fast. Bruno doesn’t dispute that they work, but questions the overall cost of doing business. “I think those kinds of programs are very dangerous for the masses. If you’re not a natural lifter, it can be too much.”
As for how to set up a leg day, Bruno likes to begin with single-leg work. When you’re fresh, it’s easier to keep your balance. “It also functions as a pre-exhaust,” he says. If you squat later in the workout, “your lower back is fresh, but your legs are a little tired so your back isn’t the limiting factor. I do front squats or squats at the end of the session. You may not be able to squat as much that way, but your legs are getting a better workout.”
Lie on your back on the floor with your arms out and palms down for support. Rest your heels on a Swiss ball. Brace your abs and drive your heels into the ball and bridge your hips up off the floor. Bend your knees, rolling the ball toward your butt. Slowly extend your legs again but keep your hips elevated.
Stand in the center of the bar with feet hip-width apart and bend your hips back to grasp the handles in the center. Take a deep breath and brace your abs. Drop your hips and point your chest forward as you drive your heels into the floor and extend your hips to lockout.
Do more overall volume of hamstring and glute exercises than quad moves in your program. This will prevent a muscle imbalance between your hams and quads that can injure your knees.
This routine is perfect for a guy who’s short on time and wants to maximize leg muscle. Squats are placed at the end so any weakness in the lower back or core doesn’t cause form to break down until the quads are fully stimulated.
Bulgarian Split Squat 3×8-12
Swiss Ball Leg Curl 3×6-10
Front Squat* 5×5-8
*Pause two seconds at the bottom of each rep.
This workout is ideal for gaining strength and muscle size in a more experienced, well-conditioned lifter. Glute-ham raises warm up the hips and knees for the deadlifts to come. Notice a hamstring exercise ends the workout as well, allowing them to be trained for a maximum stretch (stiff-leg deadlift), safely, when they’re thoroughly pumped with blood.
Glute-ham Raise 4×8-15
Trap-bar Deadlift 3×5-8
Split Squat 2×8*
Leg Press 1×30**
Stiff-leg Deadlift 3×10
*Performed as 1½ reps.
**Don’t lock out your knees; keep tension on the quads.