Originally Published in This Issue (Sept. 1999)
If your legs aren't growing and your training consists of nothing but conventional straight sets, you may want to try something unorthodox. This means doing things differently, perhaps even the opposite of what's considered normal training. Here are some of my favorite unconventional training techniques that could help you progress.
Although most fitness experts agree that the ideal rep range for developing muscle mass is between 6 and 10, the muscles of the lower body can respond very well to a combination of both high and low reps. But why not just train heavy all the time?
Because the heavy-light system works every type of muscle fiber to the fullest. The result is not just the strong, muscular legs of a powerlifter, but the polished, chiseled legs of a bodybuilder as well.
Tom Platz, who's known for having incredible, almost unbelievable leg development and who is unconventional to say the least, used this approach to develop his thighs. He has performed squats with 405 for 25 reps, 315 for 50, and 225 for 10 minutes nonstop. The king of quads was equally capable of pushing heavy iron, having a max single of nearly 800 pounds.
There are a variety of ways you can incorporate the heavy-light principle into your training program. One is to designate separate high-rep and low-rep days and alternated at every other workout. Another method is to use high-rep and low-rep training in the same workout. If you choose the latter, you can perform high reps or low reps exclusively on each exercise or do both high and low reps on each.
Don't make the mistake of thinking that light day means easy day. High-rep squats can be the most brutal workout you'll ever subject yourself to. After a few high-rep squat workouts you'll probably find your heavy days feeling easier. Once you've conquered sets of 30-40 reps on the squat with 225 pounds, 405 for sets of 5 will be a piece of cake.
I learned this little-known technique from my trainer, former Mr. Eastern America Richie Smyth of New Jersey. It's an incredible means of taking a muscle to failure quickly, without using maximal weights. An ascending set is the opposite of a descending, or drop, set. Select a weight that you can perform 10-12 reps with on a particular exercise but do just 6 reps. Add 10-15% to the weight and continue for 6 more reps. Then increase the weight an additional 10-15% and repeat for a final 6 reps. That's 18 reps total. Take as little rest as possible between the weight changes. If you've selected your resistance correctly, the second 6 reps will start to get difficult and the final 6 will take extreme effort - you may need a partner to assist with the last two or three. If you do have a training partner, you can increase the intensity by reducing or eliminating the rest periods between weight changes; simply have your partner add the weight on the bar without your even racking it.
Continuous Tension and Partial Reps
Conventional wisdom says that you must always perform your exercises through the full range of motion. If you were to cut out a third or a half of the movement, that would only develop half or two-thirds of the muscle, right? Wrong. Of all of the exercises in the bodybuilder's repertoire, slow, constant-tension, nonlocking squatting movements have got to be the most difficult - and the most result producing - exercises of all, and the best way to use continuous tension in your quad training is to emphasize the lower range of motion and avoid locking out at the top. Squatting very deeply and coming only one-half to three-quarters of the way up not only increases the amount of time your quads are kept under tension, but it also generates greater recruitment of the teardrop shaped medialis.
There are several variations of the continuous-tension, partial-reps technique, including bottom-half reps, 1 1/2's, 1 1/4's, and the popular 21 method. Bottom-half reps are exactly what the name implies. You only do the lower half of the range of motion. The combinations, 1 1/2's and 1 1/4's, are techniques in which a single repetition consists of lowering yourself to the bottom position, coming up only 1/2 or 1/4 of the way, lowering yourself back down to the bottom position and then coming up all the way - but never completely locking out. Shoot for sets of 8-10 reps in this fashion. OUCH!
21's are another popular variation on partial reps. One set consists of 7 reps in the top range of motion, 7 in the bottom range of motion and then 7 covering the full range of motion. To increase the intensity even further, do your continuous-tension reps slowly with 5 seconds on the eccentric movement and 5 seconds on the concentric movement.
Note: You must be starting to see that many of these leg training techniques can come in real handy when you're looking to avoid using the heavy poundages, and there are several valid reasons why you may have to or might choose to do this at various times in your training life.
I've already touched on high reps in the section on the heavy-light approach, but high-rep leg training is so result producing that it bears mention on its own. When I say "high" reps here, I'm not talking about 12-15. I'm talking a minimum of 20 and as many as 50 and beyond.
Many old school lifters insist that you must keep your reps in the 4-8 range and always strive to increase the weight if you want to develop mass and get stronger. If you're a powerlifter, football player, or strength athlete, that's good advice. You'll get strong as an ox by training with low reps, but, if you want to look like a bodybuilder and not a lineman you must use different training approaches that work every muscle fiber and engage every energy system. Enter high-rep training.
Now, I'm not suggesting that you eliminate heavy leg training. You just always include heavy low-rep training and high-rep training in your program.
There's a trick to doing high-rep quad workouts: You have to get the breathing right. Unless you pause and breathe between reps you'll find yourself quitting due to a searing lactic acid burn in the muscle at around the 12th to 15th rep. This variation of breathing squats is a form of rest/pause training. Do the first 10 reps in a continuous fashion as you normally would. On the second 10 you'll probably need two or three deep breaths at the top to recover after each rep. On the fourth and fifth 10 - if you get that far - you'll be gasping for air, taking several deep breaths after every rep. Breathing in the rest/pause fashion will allow you to complete a great number of reps with poundages that you never thought attainable.
If you're used to training exclusively with low reps you'll need to build up your endurance gradually. Start with 20 reps and work your way up to as many as 40 or 50. At that point increase the weight, drop down to 20 reps and start working your way up again.
Keep an accurate training journal and try to beat your previous best at every workout. If you train with a partner, make a contest out of it and challenge each other to break your rep records. It's a brutal - but incredibly effective- way to train. If you do it right, expect to be lying on your back for a while, gasping air after each set. Toward the end of the set it becomes a matter of mental toughness more than anything. [Did I mention OUCH yet?]
Regressive Weight Pattern
This is the opposite of the conventional pyramid approach. Pyramiding entails increasing the weight and decreasing the reps with each set. It's a good method for developing size and strength, especially if you're starting with basic exercises like squats or deadlifts and working up to very heavy weights.
The regressive weight method may be even more difficult. Begin with your heaviest weight on your first work set when you're fresh and strong, then decrease the weight and increase the reps with each set. To use this system safely, you'll of course need to warm up just enough beforehand.
The rationale behind regressive sets is that a lot of the lighter building-up sets in a pyramid are somewhat wasted and nothing more than warmups and volume additions. B the time you get to your heaviest set, you're so fatigued from all the warmup sets that you can't lift as much as you might have. With the regressive weight method you don't tire yourself out before getting to your productive work sets - therefore, all your work sets are at their most efficient, result producing levels. Coincidentally, the regressive weight method was one of Tom Platz's favorite techniques.
Post-Exhaustion if an extension of the heavy-light method. Select two exercise to superset - a heavy compound movement and a lighter isolation movement. Start with the basic compound exercise and work it heavy, following it with the isolation movement to flush the muscle and produce a maximum pump. You get the benefits of training every type of muscle fiber and energy system in the same workout. A sample quad workout using post-exhaustion would be heavy leg presses performed for a 6-8 rep max followed by leg extensions for 20-30 reps.
This is another variation of the heavy-light method. What makes it different from post-exhaustion is the order of the exercises. Once again, you select a heavy compound movement and a lighter isolation movement to superset, but this time you do the isolation movement first. Pre-exhaustion is a great system if you want to perform heavy basic movements like squats but have difficulty with them due to lower back and/or knee problems. You work the quads to total failure on the leg extensions, then, at a point where most people quit, continue to blast your quads even further by using the synergism of the powerful hip, lower-back and hamstring muscles on the leg presses. Since you pre-fatigued your quads, you can use much lighter poundages on the squats and still receive the benefits - without subjecting yourself to injury. If you can squat with 275 to 315 easily for reps, then 185 to 225 can seem just as heavy when your quads are exhausted.
Here is Robert Kennedy's (inventor of pre-exhaustion) original 1968 article on the method:
Changing Foot Positions
This is an unconventional way to work every section of the quadriceps group thoroughly. Change your foot position with each successive set on a particular exercise. On squatting movements you can vary your stances from wide to medium to narrow. You can also vary the angle of your toes. For example, pointing your toes out to 45-degrees and taking a wide stance recruits the adductor muscles more, while a narrow stance with your toes forward recruits the quads more and works the hips, glutes and adductors to a lesser degree. On leg presses you simply change your foot position on the platform. On leg extensions you can point your toes in to work the outer quads, out to work the inner quads, straight ahead for overall quad development
Left to their own devices, few people will volunteer to do front squats on their own. The reason is simple: Front squats are probably the only exercise that are harder than regular squats. They can be difficult to execute at first because they require extra balance and coordination to hold the bar on the front of your shoulders.
The rewards of front squats are well worth the added effort. They develop the quadriceps better than almost any other exercise. Placing the bar in front enables [forces] you to maintain a more upright posture. It puts more emphasis on the quads while at the same time reducing stress on the lower back, hips, and glutes.
Squats are unquestionably the most effective all-round quad builder of all. For maximum quad development, do bodybuilding squats, placing the bar high on your traps and using a medium-to-narrow stance. If you lack flexibility, elevate your heels a one-inch board or mat [or wear Oly weightlifting shoes] to help maintain your balance and an upright posture. Most important, squat deep! Charles Poliquin is fond of saying, "Squat down and don't come back up until you leave a mark on the floor." Don't be afraid to perform deep squats.
Hack Machine Squats
Getting a full range of motion is crucial on hack squats. Performing deep hack squats without locking out will give you the greatest possible quad development. You should squat deep enough that the backs of your calves touch your hamstrings. A common mistake is to use too much weight and only work the top half of the movement. Lower yourself slowly and under control, and don't bounce out of the bottom position. Drive through with your heels - not off the balls of your feet. As with regular back squats, if you're fully warmed up, you use good form, and you have no existing knee injuries, you have nothing to fear from doing hack squats to well below parallel.
While not the best mass builder, leg extensions are the most effective exercise for isolating the quadriceps. They're great at helping define and separate the quads, and they're also an excellent finishing movement. Leg extensions are particularly effective when used together with a compound exercise. Hold every rep for two seconds at the top of the movement and squeeze for a maximum contraction. Lower the weight slowly and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
Lunges are a good quad builder and a great way to develop the glute/hamstring tie-in and the separation between the quads and the hamstrings. Lunges are most effective as a quad builder when combined with a quad isolation movement, such as leg extensions. There are many different ways to perform lunges. For the ultimate in quad development [Ah Jesus, the 'best', the 'ultimate' - enough of that already], lunge deeply holding dumbbells and step onto a block or step, emphasizing the bottom range of motion.
Why are they called sissy squats? Legendary trainer Vince Gironda answered, "Because they make a sissy out of the strongest squatter!" When performed as described below, they're a super way to work your quads from the lower medialis and lateralis all the way to where the rectus femoris inserts into the hip area. To keep maximum isolation on the quadriceps without involving the glutes and hips, lean backward and maintain a straight line from your shoulders to your knees as you squat - don't flex at the hips. Hold on to an upright support to maintain your balance. Sissy squats are best done in your routine when your knees are fully warmed up. Like leg extensions, sissy squats are very effective when combined in a post-exhaust or pre-exhaust superset.
The techniques can be arranged in countless different combinations, and you can even use a different technique on each successive set of the same exercise. The sample workouts below should give you some ideas on how to incorporate unconventional training tactics into your routine. They're high intensity training routines designed for advanced bodybuilders. The weights are examples shown to make the routines easier to understand.
Quad Routine One
Front Squats -
Warmup, 135 x 2 x 12
Set 1: Ascending set; no rest between weight changes
185x6, 205x6, 225x6
Set 2: Descending set; no rest between weight changes
225x6-8, 185x6-8, 135x6-8
Set 3: Slow, nonlock continuous tension set; go only 3/4 of the way up; use a 5-second positive and 5-second negative
Leg Presses -
Sets 1 - 3: Regressive sets, feet in middle of platform
720x6-10, 630x6-10, 540x6-10
Set 4: Descending set; change foot positions after each weight reduction; no rest between weight reductions
Feet in middle of platform: 540x6-8
Feet at bottom of platform, close together: 450x6-8
Feet in middle of platform, toes wide at 45 degrees: 360x6-8
Feet at top of platform, six inches wide: 270xfailure
Leg Extensions -
Set 1: Toes in
90x6, 110x6, 130x6
Set 2: Toes out
90x6, 110x6, 130x6
Set 3: Toes straight
90x6, 110x6, 130x6
Dumbbell Lunges -
Off of a step; emphasize bottom half of range of motion:
3 x 35's x failure.
Quad Routine Two
Back Squats -
Alternate heavy and light every other week
Week 1: 2x20-60x225
Week 2: warmup x 2
Sets 1 - 4: 225x10, 275x8, 315x6
Hack Machine Squats -
Sets 1 - 3: Regressive weight pattern; bottom 2/3 of the movement only; no locking out:
Smith Machine Lunges -
Rear foot elevated on bench; bottom half of range of motion only:
Sissy Squats -
Bodyweight x 2-3xfailure.