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Building bigger legs

Building bigger legs
Are your legs your weak area? do they lag behind in size compared to your upper body?  In this ‘Building bigger legs’ post, I’ll be looking at how to train your legs for size, what the ideal rep ranges are and much more to help you in your quest to developing your upper legs.

Your upper leg muscles

First it helps to understand that your quads which are made up of four muscles (rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius) and are made up of a mixture of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres with some having a slightly higher number of slow twitch and others having a slightly higher number of fast twitch muscle fibres. Your hamstrings are made up of three muscles (biceps femoris, semi-tendinosus and semi-membranosus) and tends to have a near even mixture of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres. Let’s not forget the glutes, which has three muscles (gluteus maximus, medius and minimus) and again has an even mixture of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres.

Fast twitch muscle fibres are more explosive and powerful and tend to respond to either heavy low rep training or explosive power movements, while slow twitch muscle fibres are more orientated to endurance type activities and respond better to lighter high rep training. Given that the legs have a near even mixture of fast and slow twitch muscle fibres in them, it stands to reason that a mix of heavy/low rep and light/high rep training is required to maximise stimulation and development of these muscles.

About leg exercises

Your leg/glute muscles are the largest set of muscles on the human body, they take a lot of work and energy to train and some time to recover from a hard workout. Working them separately from your upper body is best for hypertrophy. While full body workouts will generate high amounts of human growth hormone and can be used for good overall development, to really hit the legs and maximise their development you simply cannot generate enough intensity for maximum development unless you work them on their own.

When working your legs, try to work all three areas, there are certain exercises that will work more than one area at a time. The first of which is:

The squat

If you didn’t already know it, the king of leg exercises is the squat, you can still grow big legs without it, but without doubt it has been the one single exercise that has been responsible for the best leg development seen on any bodybuilder or athlete,  don’t skip it, do it. If you want to maximise your leg development, try front squats, back squats, hack squats, dumbbell squats and dumbbell split squats.

Try to use a full range of motion, go as low as comfortable, but watch for any knee issues. Going low will activate more of the hamstring and glute muscles, so you will get a full leg workout from this one exercise. Try different stances to find a comfortable position that causes you no knee pain or discomfort. Whatever stance you use, keep your feet pointed between forward and a maximum of 45 degrees, and not with your toes pointed in or too far outward.

Other exercises

I recommend you start with anyone of the squat exercises mentioned above then look to add another 1-2 exercises, such as the dead-lift, lunges, leg curls and leg press. Keep it simple, but aim to hit all areas for balanced development to your quads, hamstrings and glutes.

For examples of some leg workout plans please see below.

Also you can check out leg exercises here.

So what rep range should I use to train my legs for maximum hypertrophy?

Read a handful of articles on the subject and you will often find a split between low reps and high reps. Some suggesting low reps and others suggesting high reps and some suggesting both. Well I’m mostly in the school of both, but I also like to mix it up with heavy and light days as well.


15+ reps = high

8-12 reps = medium

3-6 reps = low

There’s no doubt that there are those who have used near exclusively either high rep or low rep leg training to build huge legs. However stimulating all muscle fibres will give the biggest increase and this can be done using both high and low reps. On top of that, finishing a leg workout with a high rep set has been shown to increase human growth hormone over and above any single one method.

Leg workout examples

When it comes to working a muscle, there are no hard or fast rules, just recommendations. You can use a mixed rep range each workout or do light days and heavy days. How often and hard you can work any muscle will come down to how much intensity you can apply to it in a given workout and then recover from it. For some it may just be once a week and for others twice a week.

With that, here are some recommendations:

Intense mixed rep range leg training – two workouts per week:

Workout 1

2 x compound exercises:


  • warm-up 10-15 reps x 1 or 2 sets
  • straight into heavy work sets when fresh with 4-8 reps x 2 sets
  • mid range with 10-12 reps x 2 sets
  • finish with 20 reps x 1 set


  • warm-up 10-15 reps x 1 set
  • straight into heavy work sets with 4-8 reps x 2 sets
  • finish with 15-20 reps x 1 set

Workout 2 (short leg workout)

1 x endurance exercise and 1 x explosive exercise:

Lunge walk:

  • Start with 2-3 minutes, brief rest periods between if needed

Squat jump / box jump:

  • 5-10 reps – 2-4 sets

Lunge walk:

  • Finish with 2-3 minutes, brief rest periods between if needed

Light and heavy days:

If you prefer to work light and heavy sessions separately, you can either work the legs twice a week or even use a plan that has you working them 1.5 times per week.

Light days (rep range between 10-20 reps)

  • Dumbbell squats/ dumbbell split squats 10-20 reps x 3 sets
  • Lunges or lunge walk 10-20 reps x 2 sets

Heavy days (rep range between 4-8 reps)  – after a good warm-up on a bike or similar

  • Squats 1 x warm-up set then 4-8 reps x 3 sets
  • Dead-lifts 4-8 reps x 2 sets
  • Leg curls 6-10 reps x 2 sets
  • Leg Press (optional)

Occasional high intensity leg workout

If you can generate very high intensity, you may need to have a longer rest period between workouts, some people have built great legs by squatting very intensely just once a week, once in two weeks and even just once a month. So remember there are no hard or fast rules, just consistency and effort when it comes to legs.

Upping the intensity

The use of progressive overload when training the legs by adding more weight when possible is key to progress on many of the exercises. You can also use pyramid sets and even partial reps if you really want to push it to the limit.

DOMS – Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness

Like any muscle, if you are not used to working it or subjecting it to a certain amount of workload or intensity, you will suffer DOMS, and no more so than with your legs. Give it time for your leg muscles and glutes to get accustomed to being worked out.

Watch out for these:

Now having geared you all up for some intense leg work, I want to also add some words of warning. Your legs are what keeps you mobile, mobile hopefully into your very old age. You need to look after them. Don’t go chasing your dream of big muscles at the expense of putting your joints in an unhealthy state.

Make sure you:

  • warm-up properly
  • use correct exercise form and technique to avoid knee and lower back injuries
  • Stop doing any exercise that causes you pain

Knee joint health: Don’t do leg extensions too often, they can create a shearing motion on the knee joint. If you have bowed legs and squat, take care as this can place the wrong type of stress on your knee joint too and create an imbalance in your leg development. Whatever exercise you do, try to use a full range of motion if possible, but don’t lock out as this can place a lot of stress on the knee joints also.

Take home message

If you want to build strength in the your legs use low reps and heavy weight, if you want to build endurance use high reps with light weights, if you want size, use both.

As you can see there are numerous methods for building great legs, there is no one way is best and what works for one person may not work for another. Ultimately it will likely come down to willpower to want to train your legs hard enough and on a regular basis to see the right gains.