Nearly every time the topic of building leg mass comes up, one exercise gets hailed: the squat. “The only way or most effective way to build leg mass is the free barbell squat” – or is it?
A free barbell squat is when the barbell is literally free, not part of a tracked system, and the trainee supports the barbell entirely on his or her own.
Can You Get Big Legs Without Squats?
You most certainly can. Not everyone’s body is compatible with squats, especially the free barbell version, even though the free barbell version continues to reign as the No. 1 recommendation for serious quadriceps hypertrophy.
What Creates Big, Rock-Hard Muscle In The Legs?
- Heavy weights
- Progressive overload
This is the formula for growing impressive quads and hamstrings. Building legs without squats is very possible as long as you subject the muscle fibers to heavy weights and progressive overload, high tension and high volume.
It really doesn’t matter which equipment you use, whether it’s a free barbell, a Smith machine, a hack machine or the leg press equipment. If you push hard enough to stimulate muscle fibers, they will get stronger and bigger.
Leg Workout Without Squats: Decline Leg Press
The leg press is actually a tipped-over squat. The exact same joint motions occur in a leg press routine as in a barbell squatting routine: hip flexion and knee flexion.
The difference that’s often cited by those who view leg presses as inferior to squats for building size, is that squatting engages the core (lower back and abs).
But if your goal is supersizing your quads, you do not need to engage your core. You need to engage your quads!
The leg press works for quadriceps hypertrophy. Recall the last time you saw a guy pushing tons of plates on the leg press equipment.
And this doesn’t mean bringing the sled down only four inches and then pushing it back up.
This is about someone who lowered the sled quite a bit, creating at least a 90-degree bend in the knees. And on the equipment was practically the gym’s entire supply of 45-pound plates.
What kind of legs did this guy have? Yes, that’s right: They were huge!
Oftentimes, these guys will do many sets on the leg press, and are hardly ever seen near the squat rack. As you get stronger on the leg press, your legs will get bigger.
You force your legs to grow stronger by increasing the weight pushed over time. In order for muscles to accommodate increases in weight, they must get stronger, which means they must get bigger.
Every single person who can leg press giant amounts of weight has impressive thighs.
Don’t assume that their muscle development comes mostly from squats, because, as mentioned previously, sometimes these individuals are rarely seen performing heavy squats.
Avoidance Of Squatting Can Be For Several Reasons:
1) Many tall people report that squats are very uncomfortable.
2) Another objection comes from those with low back issues; some people do suffer lower back pain from squats.
Even minor low back issues will take the spotlight when a person tries to do heavy squatting.
3) Another issue is upper leg to lower leg length ratio.
People with relatively short lower legs (or people with “long thighs”), may find barbell squats (especially free) quite uncomfortable, as this type of proportion impedes efficacy of lowering into a true 90-degree squat while supporting a heavy weight.
This last problem is non-existent with a leg press. The leg press also does not put pressure on the low back like the squat does. Plus, the leg press apparatus can accommodate any height.
It only makes sense that you will build a lot more muscle doing a routine that you’re comfortable with, versus one that hurts or is just plain awkward.
Motivation will be lacking if one forces himself through sets of uncomfortable squats.
In fact, barbell squats also serve up the potential for creating discomfort in the shoulders, due to having to keep the hands on the bar.
The best way to build the legs is to stick with what your gut tells you that you should do as far as comfort and compatibility with your body’s proportions and natural mechanics, and if that’s the leg press and not the barbell squat, then stick with the leg press.
This doesn’t mean you must totally avoid squats. You can do them as a warm-up or cool-down, or as a medium-intensity set for some variety, or with dumbbells.
Leg Press Tips:
• Always keep feet flat on the sled; do not push with the balls of the feet.
• Always bend legs to at least 90 degrees.
• Keep feet shoulder width or wider apart, and be aware that the higher your feet are up on the sled, the more that the recruitment will shift towards the buttocks.
• Make sure that buttocks do not lift off the seat as you lower the sled. If they do, warm up with very light weights and a deep leg press to stretch the lower back.
Leg Workout Without Squats: Weighted Walking Lunges
Have you ever seen a guy doing walking lunges holding a ton of weight? What did his legs look like? That’s right, they were pretty well-built.
When lunges are performed with solid form, deep and deliberately, not rushed or sloppy, the quad and hamstring muscles will be called into some serious action and will grow in response.
The weights can be dumbbells or kettlebells, held with straight arms at one’s sides – and heavy weights at that.
At first this won’t be possible, but by applying progressive overload, you’ll force your legs to get stronger and bigger.
Walking Lunge Tips:
• Keep back straight, erect; don’t hunch over
• Take your time; don’t rush
• Go as deep as possible
• The more extended that the back leg is (hip extension), the more hamstring recruitment.
• Focus on using heavy weight rather than for how long you can lunge walk; this is to build strength (and hence size), not endurance.
Building Legs Without Squats With Leg Extensions And Hamstring Curls
Though these are isolation exercises, they actually fare quite well for hypertrophy.
Again, every person you’ve ever seen lifting practically the entire leg extension stack of weights (a true lift rather than jerking up the weights with momentum), had glorious quads.
The hamstrings are a powerful muscle group and can be trained to curl enormous amounts of weight, and the beauty of the hamstring curl is that the risk of joint injury is exceedingly low.
People who can leg curl massive amounts of resistance have bulging hamstrings.
Leg Extension Tips:
• Point feet outward for more emphasis on the vastus lateralis muscle: the outside quad muscle.
• Always keep feet 90 degrees to your shins, so that in the extended position, toes are pointing to ceiling.
• Lower the weight with control; don’t let the weights drop.
• Always warm up; never dive into heavy leg extensions
Hamstring Curl Tips:
• Equipment in which you are lying on your stomach works best.
• Bring pad all the way to your buttocks and squeeze there for a second before releasing.
• Release with control; don’t let the weights drop.
• Do not raise chest off the pad as you lower the weights; this is a big cheat move and will work against you.
What About Deadlifts?
If you suffer from lower back pain from squats, heavy deadlifts are not a good idea.
Otherwise, some argue that the deadlift is superb for building great legs, while others insist that the deadlift primarily hits the back, and thus, isn’t a top exercise for maximal leg hypertrophy.
The deadlift is such a super overall exercise, however, that it should be included in everyone’s program, even if light resistance must be used to prevent low back pain.
With proper nutrition, progressive overload, heavy weights and consistency, you can build big legs with just leg presses, weighted walking lunges, leg extensions and leg curls.
For more information about the best ways to build lean muscle mass, whether you’re a beginner with weight workouts, intermediate or advanced, consider reading No-Nonsense Muscle Building Program by Vince DelMonte, a former marathon runner who transformed a very skinny body into a rock-hard machine of solid muscle.
The book contains 29-week programs and explains in-depth the most effective approaches to building lean mass, and includes meal plans.
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