As bodybuilders admit, even those who loathe and fear them, squats are the key exercise for developing massive, muscular thighs . . . squats . . . Squats . . . and even MORE SQUATS have been the main leg exercise of top bodybuilders for the past 75 years. Just about every bodybuilder of merit you can name has devoted many hours to the squat rack.
The reason is simple. The thighs are the body's largest muscles, and they're very powerful. It takes heavy weights to build them up, and squats enable you to use very heavy weights. Squats develop the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and lower back. They also stimulate growth all over the body, not just in the thighs, because of what's known as "indirect effect." Arthur Jones, the genius behind the Nautilus machines and training principles, first wrote about it back in the early '70s in Iron Man magazine.
As Jones explained, when a muscle grows in response to exercise, it stimulates growth in other muscle groups at the same time. If you train a small muscle like the biceps or the triceps, the thighs chest and back will experience some indirect growth at the same time, although very small amounts. The bigger the muscle group trained, the greater the indirect growth effect. Since thighs are the largest muscles, training them stimulates the most muscle growth in the rest of the body.
That means you'll never achieve your maximum size in the back, chest and arms unless you develop your thighs to their maximum potential. Even Vince Gironda, the famed Iron Guru and the man who disliked the barbell back squat so much he wouldn't allow squat racks in his gym, believed "50 percent of upper body growth comes from intense leg training." Vince felt that regular barbell back squats, at least the way most bodybuilders perform them - head down, lower back bent forward and glutes coming up first ahead of the thighs in a kind of combination good morning bentover squat - overdevelop the glutes, "spread" the hips and widen the waist, which reduces the V-taper. They also develop the upper thighs too much while not building the lower thighs, creating what he called turnip-shaped thighs.
Vince felt that sissy squats, and Smith machine squats done with the feet forward, and hack squats developed more aesthetically pleasing leg shape and mass while minimizing growth in the glutes, hips and waistline.
Not everyone gets a wide waist or wide hips from squatting. Bone structure and other genetic factors play roles as well. Sergio Oliva, Frank Zane and Brian Buchanan all squatted heavily at different times in their lives but retained amazingly narrow hips, glutes and waistlines because of their gifted genetics. Sergio Oliva had been an Olympic weightlifter before he defected to the USA. His narrow hips and waistline were actually handicaps when it came to cleaning, pressing, snatching, and jerking heavy weight, but they made him a genetic freak in bodybuilding. It just goes to show that a genetic defect in one sport can be a blessing in another.
Bodybuilders from the 1940s and '50s didn't have much choice when it came to exercises for developing their thighs. They didn't have the multitude of leg machines that we have now. They had crude leg extension/leg curl tables, did barbell hack squats and sissy squats, and used squat racks for their back and front squats. For that reason alone you had to squat in order to develop thigh mass and strength in those days; however, many avoided any variation of the exercise because doctors and so-called experts said squats caused knee injuries. They tried to get by with just sissy squats, leg extensions and leg curls and wound up with underdeveloped legs and physiques that often lacked symmetry.
Then there were the guys who avoided leg training altogether out of sheer laziness. They were the guys who word long pants at the beach with tank tops that showed off their upper bodies.
By the '70s two machines had become pretty common - the vertical leg press and the hack squat - and bodybuilders who vehemently disliked barbell squats avoided the squat rack like the plague. Instead, they did leg presses, hack squats, leg extensions and leg curls in hopes that it would be enough to build the thigh mass and muscularity that the squatters developed. Nevertheless, most of the big-time champions like Sergio Oliva, Arnold, and Franco Columubu still did back squats as their main thigh builder.
Then, in the late '70s, Tom Platz arrived on the bodybuilding scene displaying a kind of thigh mass, thickness and deep separation, even in his lower thighs, that had never been seen before. His main exercise was, of course, the back squat. Toms leg workouts were legendary for the3ir intensity and sheer all-out effort. He'd sometimes squat deep with 405 pounds for 50 reps, and on his so-called light day he'd put 225 on the bar for 10 minutes nonstop! When Platz went heavy, and these are deep, Olympic-style squats, he used 600 for 10 reps. That was unheard of in those days.
Some of today's bodybuilders, fueled by a plethora of drug combinations and supplements, can lift far heavier weights than Platz did in his prime, but he was a pioneer, the man who set the standard for the massive thighs we see on today's top level bodybuilders.
When you get right down to it, with the exception of leg extensions and leg curls, just about every popular leg exercise is a variation of the squat. That includes lunges - a form of one-legged squatting - and leg presses. Some bodybuilders still maintain that squats hurt their knees and lower backs too much. That's more a problem of proper exercise form and the need to warm up properly before lifting heavy weights, or, as always, of doing too much too often.
With the multitude of leg machines available today, there's no reason to avoid leg training. There is no reason to have underdeveloped thighs because you're afraid of injury. With all the variations of squats available, you can surely find exercises that will enable you to develop your thighs without damaging your knees and lower back.
Off the top of my head I can list at least a dozen or more kinds of squatting exercises, starting with the standard full barbell squat, a.k.a. the full back squat (hamstrings tight against the calves at the bottom). There are also parallel squats, half squats, quarter squats in the power rack, squats in the top position for a count of 10 seconds in the power rack, Jefferson squats, bench or box squats, front squats, one-legged squats, all varieties of Smith machine squats, Roman chair squats, hack machine squats, barbell hack squats, sissy squats, reverse hack machine squats. three-way sissy squats, hip belt squats, Zane leg blaster squats, magic circle squats. barbell lunges, dumbbell lunges, leg presses, single-leg presses, etc.
Nearly every one of those squat variations can be changed by your use of different wide or narrow stances, by how you place your feet on the machines, knees in or out, etc. You can dictate where you develop your thighs by using these variations.
And of course you can increase your training intensity by supersetting and tri-setting exercises, or performing drop sets and using other intensity-building methods.
It would take a whole book to give proper coverage to every variation of the squat, but here are some training tips on the most basic variations to help you develop your thighs without injuring your body.
Full and Parallel Squats with Barbell on Smith Machine
These are your number one mass builders. Unless you're injured or have a serious problem with your knees or lower back you should always include a version of full or parallel squats in your leg routine. They require more warmup sets than other exercises. Before squatting heavy do a couple of light sets of leg extensions to get some blood into your knees and warm up your legs. Then perform anywhere from two to four warmup sets of squats, pyramiding up in weight on each successive set.
Remember that these aren't all out work sets; they're warmup sets. Pick a weight with which you normally could do 20 reps and do 10. Then choose a weight you could easily use for 15 reps and do 7. And, finally, pick a weight you could squat for 10 reps and do 5. If your knees still feel a bit stiff do another warmup set. Once your legs are warmed up go ahead and start your work sets.
You can squat to parallel (thighs parallel to the floor) or do full squats (hamstrings tight against your calves at the bottom), depending on your flexibility and preference. Place the bar across your traps, not high on your shoulders. You lower back should be arched throughout the squatting motion. Never allow it to round over. Tilt your torso forward about 15 to 20 degrees and lock it in.
Don't lean forward as you descend or lean back as you come up. If you lean forward when you squat your head goes down and your hips come up - and you don't want that for bodybuilding purposes. It leads to a rocking motion and puts tremendous strain on your lower back. It also causes the load to be placed too much on the glutes and taken off the quads, which for our purposes here you don't want.
Another don't: Don't bounce up from the bottom position. Try to lock your body into that one slightly tilted forward position as you squat down and come up, staying tight throughout the set. On the way up push hard from your heels, trying to keep your hips and heels directly under the bar.
For safety reasons it's best to squat in a power rack with the safety catchers set a little below where you'd be in the bottom position. That way you don't have to worry at all about failing on your last reps and getting stuck in the deep position. You can squat till failure and feel secure that the catchers are there in case you need to dump the bar.
As for Smith machine squats, some say they are for wimps, but Dorian Yates preferred them to barbell squats, and his thighs were massive beyond belief. Squatting in the Smith machine allows you to place less stress on your glutes and lower back because you can position your feet forward in front of the machine and then lean back into the bar - the with the bar high on your shoulders - making it a very pure thigh exercise (especially if you use a narrow stance). The machine's design lends itself well to deep, full squats, so take advantage of that. Depending on what part of the thigh you want to develop, push off at the bottom from either your heels, for outer thigh mass, or the balls of your feet, for mid-thigh development. Pushing from your heels is best suited to squats done when your feet are shoulder width apart, while pushing from the balls of your feet is best done with your feet 6 to 12 inches apart.
You can do these with a barbell of in a Smith machine. The Smith machine version is a little easier and safer because you don't have to worry about balancing the bar. In either case take a wide stance - a foot or more outside your shoulders - with your feet turned out to the sides. Sumo squats work the inside of the quads, especially the sartorius muscles. They also work the "thigh rods" at the top of the thighs where they blend into the torso. Not only that but they hit the hamstrings quite rigorously as well. In fact, along with so-called hamstring leg presses - with your feet high on the platform, heels on the top edge and toes completely off the platform - sumo squats are the best hamstring builders around.
Barbell Hack Squats
Place a barbell behind your body, tucked tightly under your glutes. With a two to six inch block under your heels squat as low as you can, but come up only two-thirds of the way to keep constant tension on your lower thighs, especially the teardrop muscle above the knee.
Machine Hack Squats
Depending on where you place your feet on the platform you can work more upper or lower thigh. By placing your feet high and wide on the platform, with your knees wide apart, and pushing from your heels, you can hit mostly outer thighs and sweep. If you place your feet low on the platform, with your knees in, and push off from the balls of your feet, you work mostly lower thigh. If you place them in the middle of the platform with your knees almost touching and push off from the balls of your feet, you target mostly the middle portion of the quadriceps. If you push from your heels, you'll work mostly outer and upper thighs.
Whether your target is the outer or lower thigh area, come up only two-thirds of the way to maintain constant tension on the thighs. Try to go deep in the bottom position to work the muscles over a fuller range of motion.
This is an excellent lower thigh developer. Take the bar from the squat rack, resting it across your upper chest and delts, with your hands crossed over your chest for balance, or in a Olympic style "rack" position. Some lifters like to front squat with their heels elevated on a two-by-four for better balance and to help them keep a strict upright posture throughout the lift. As with other types of squats, keep your back arched and try to come up under the weight as you rise to the top. And of course, don't bounce out of the bottom. Imagine your body as a coil under tension and use that tension to "explode" up from the bottom position, continuing smoothly to the top.
Despite its name, this exercise is not for sissies. Even the most hardcore regular squatter can be whimpering in pain after a proper set of bodyweight sissy squats. To do these correctly, get up on your toes and lean back until your upper body is almost parallel to the floor. Your quads and torso should be on the same plane. Imagine there's a low bar in front of you and you're tying to limbo under the bar. As you come up drive your hips and knees forward. Again come up only two-thirds of the way to keep constant tension on the quads.
Half Squats and Bench Squats
These are great for developing strength and power. They enable you to use very heavy weights and for safety purposes are best done in a power rack. Half squats and bench squats are best done for low to medium reps, say 4 to 8.
Some people like to place a low bench between their legs that stops them six to eight inches above parallel. As soon as they feel the bench they return to the locked out position. That movement is a good upper thigh developer but doesn't work the lower thighs much, so don't overdo it.
Keep an eye on your development. If your upper thighs start getting out of proportion to your lower thighs reduce your sets of drop the exercise altogether.
Do half squats or bench squats after you've done your barbell or Smith machine squats, when your legs and body are well warmed up. On your first set of half or bench squats you should use the weight you used during your final set of full or parallel squats.
Quarter Squats and Squat Static Holds
These two variations won't build much thigh mass, but they will make you stronger and more confident in your other squat movements. They enable you to use very large weights and should of course always be done in the safety of a power rack.
Set the pins to one or two inches below where you'd be in the top, locked out position of a squat. On quarter squats do sets of 4 to 6 reps with you maximum full or parallel squat poundage plus at least 50% more than that.
The range of motion is only a few inches. Keep your abs and back tight and just bend your knees two or three inches. At the top, pause briefly before squatting again. Guard against doing the reps too fast because the tendency is to sort of bounce up and down quickly and the bar can start twisting.
Do 2 or 3 sets of quarter squats, adding weight to the bar on each successive set as follows: 1 x 6-8, 1 x 4-6, 1 x 4. You'll be amazed at how quickly you gain strength on these. After a few weeks you'll be using weights you never dreamed possible.
For squat static holds all you do is hold the bar across your traps while standing in the fully erect position. Do 3 sets of 10-second holds, resting two to three minutes between sets. Don't bend your knees at all except for the first repetition when you have to bend them a little to get the bar off the racks. The weights you use are very heavy in comparison to what your body is accustomed to - expect to use 80 to 90% over what you'd use on full or parallel squats.
If you really want to push up the intensity you can try a couple of extra sets on which you reduce the hold time to 5 seconds, and then an absolute maximum effort of 1 or 2 seconds. You can also experiment with holding the weight for more than 10 seconds - say 15 to 20, then 25 to 30. That's after you've been doing the 10-second holds for a month or so.
Just because it's a limited range of motion, or no motion in the case of the static holds, don't think these are easy. On the contrary, the weights are so heavy that the sets will take all of your concentration and strength. It's hard stuff - so intense, difficult and taxing that I suggest you do quarter squats and the static hold squats only once or twice a month.
These two exercises can make your skeletal frame and the deep, underlying back muscles very strong, along with the spinal erectors, abdominals, hips and thighs. Your whole body gets stronger.
After you do several sets of 10-second static holds the next time you do regular squats the weight will seem lighter.
If your thighs need more size, sweep, muscularity or power, squats can give them to you in spades. Try an all-squat leg routine for great results. Pick three of the exercises mentioned above and perform 3 to 5 sets of each, pyramiding up the weight on each successive set.
Here are a few sample routines that are bound to improve your thighs:
Leg Extensions (warmup) - 2 x 15-20
Smith Machine Squats - 1 x 20, 1 x 10, 1 x 6 (warmups), 5 x 10, 8, 6, 4, 3-4
Hack Squats - 1 x 15 (warmup), 3 x 12, 10, 8(5) drop set
Sumo Squats - 1 x 15 (warmup), 1 x 12, 10(8)(6), 8(6)(4) double drop sets
Routine B (Power Program)
Leg Extensions (warmup) - 2 x 20
Parallel Squats - 1 x 20, 1 x 10, 1 x 6 (warmups), 5 x 10, 8, 6, 3-4, 2-3
Bench Squats - start with the weight used on your last set of parallel squats -
4 x 8, 6, 4, 3, 1-2
Quarter Squats - begin with the weight used on your last set of bench squats -
4 x 6-8, 4-6, 3-4, 2-3
Static Hold for 10 Seconds - begin with the weight used on your last set of quarter squats and pyramid the weight for 3 sets of 10 second holds.