So you'd like to have thighs like Rich Gaspari.
Or Dean Tornabene.
Or Paul Jean-Guillame.
Or Tom Platz.
How do you do it?
What are the key points to thigh training?
"You have to squat," said Tom Platz. "I know that every bodybuilder with great legs squatted at one time or another in his life. It's a foundation exercise - it's a must. To me, squatting well equals good thigh development. That's the bottom line, basically."
Rich Gaspari, Mr. Olympia contender, said, "You need to gain overall size on the thighs first. You know, you can't concentrate on doing stuff like leg extensions and other shaping exercises before you gain some solid mass in your thighs by doing the basic squat and leg press. You have to do that type of exercise, and then get into the shaping exercises, like the leg extensions, hack squats and sissy squats."
Dean Tornabene summarized the key points to thigh training this way: "I think you have to train them (the quadriceps) with basic moves, and I think that you have to vary your reps from doubles and triples to sometimes 150-200 reps a set. That would be on squats, back squats and leg presses. The key is using the heavy, basic moves and really keeping your reps variable."
Paul Jean-Guillame said simply, "I love doing squats, so squats are my number one exercise for the thighs."
It's unanimous: to build great thighs you must do a lot of squatting. And when you squat to conquer, the payoff is much more than simply great legs because the squat is actually a tremendous exercise for building overall body strength and mass.
As Tom Platz put it, "You must squat to achieve you full bodybuilding potential. The leg muscles, including the hamstrings, are directly involved in the exercise. But it's a total body exercise too. For instance, when I try to lose weight - like I've been trying to do for the movie I'm going to be in - they want me down to about 190. I find that the only way I c an do it is to avoid squatting. When I avoid squatting my back gets smaller, my whole upper body comes down in size. There's a noticeable decrease in the mass and quality of muscle tissue, especially in the region that's supporting the weight on my shoulders. And, of course, the legs and buttocks lose muscle mass too. So the squat is really a total body exercise."
To hear Platz and Dean Tornabene talk about the Mona Lisa. There's a certain note of reverence in the voice. Tornabene, who at 5'1" and 155 pounds has squatted more than 700, offers this appraisal: "It's said, 'Life begins and ends on the power rack,' and it's especially true with legs, because you have to squat. No one possesses great legs without squatting. The squat is a giant stimulus - not only for the legs but for other parts of the body too. I often say that if I were thrown in jail and I was allowed to weight train only half an hour, three times a week, I would just do squats. That's it."
Tom Platz has built some of the greatest thighs in the history of bodybuilding, so you know he has to be a real fanatic about the squat. And he is! "I think the squat is almost a sport in itself," he said. "To me, it's the ultimate experience in weight training."
Hard as it may be to believe, Platz once had skinny legs. That's when he was a football player in high school. But then he done got religion - the religion was called squatting. And the rest is history.
"I was taught by weightlifters how to train," he explained. "When I was a kid, they taught me that the squat rack was the altar. You almost genuflected in front of the squat rack. 'This is where life and death takes place,' they taught me.
"So that shaped my initial attitude - and I believe attitude sometimes can even replace talent. Granted, I was blessed with the right muscle attachment sites, the right degree of ankle flexion for squatting, and some of the correct genetic influences which made my thigh development more possible than for a taller bodybuilder like Arnold. But I think the attitude that I basically received from the weightlifters, the work ethic that was instilled in me and the way I approached the squat rack over the years was responsible for most of my thigh development.
"In fact, I had very skinny legs when I was younger. I was known for having a larger upper body and skinny legs in high school. But I got into it (squatting) like a religion. I would think about it all night. When I was squatting in the gym, I just loved to hear that deep-throated roar of the plates. I used to use the old 45-pound plates, the big thick ones, and I would put a little space between them so they would jingle and get that deep-throated roar, and that was like music to me. The whole stage was set for my mental application and the suggestions, even subconsciously, for the muscle to grow and change. I believe the brain makes the muscle change, not necessarily the weight or the exercise."
Of course, no champion bodybuilder trains thighs with squats alone - and not even the most zealous squatters would suggest that you should. What the elite competitors advise is that you build your thigh and hamstring routines around the squat - typically with exercises like the back squat, leg press, lunges and sissy squats.
Tom Platz's leg routine is actually a testament to the basics. Generally speaking, he does only four exercises - squats, hack squats, leg extensions and leg curls. "I've never done a lunge in my life," he said, "only for pictures."
In the squat, he alternates between high intensity/low rep and lower intensity/high rep sessions. He explained, "I believe you have to train both the red (slow twitch) and white (fast twitch) fibers. Red fibers are stimulated by high repetition endurance work. White fibers are stimulated by high intensity, explosive movements - lower reps and heavier weights. I've always combined both types of set-rep schemes. On my heavy day I may do anywhere from doubles to sixes to eight reps.
"One of the problems when a person is trying to get thigh mass and size is they tend to think more is better. You'll see a bodybuilder attempt to do many different kinds of exercises, many kinds of variations, thinking they'll grow that way. But actually what's happening is they're really doing endurance work. A bodybuilder who has problems with thigh size doesn't want to do exclusively endurance work. He needs to do the heavy training. So a bodybuilder who has small thighs should do fewer exercises, fewer sets and dwell on one basic mass-building type exercise.
"It's like you don't get a gigantic, massive chest from doing cable crossovers. You also don't get gigantic thighs from doing leg extensions. You have to do the heavy movements. Coming from the era that I came from, that's what I was taught. Nowadays all these people are taught fancy movements. I don't think that approach is necessarily valid. You've got to train big to get big. You know, you have to do the big exercises, the mass-building exercises."
Tom has always done the hack squat after regular squats. He feels hack squats have been instrumental in helping to build the lateral (or outside) head of the quadriceps, which has provided that remarkable sweep to his thighs. Early in his career he kept his reps low (6 to 8) in the hack squat. Later, he started mimicking the high reps/low reps approach he used with regular squats.
Let extensions were once an optional exercise for Tom, but he's been using the movement much more frequently in recent years. He always does the exercise after the squat work, and he finishes his workout by training hamstrings. He describes his approach with leg extensions and hamstring curls: "Real intense . . . to failure. Forced reps. Negatives. Making the muscle go beyond failure more or less. That type of arrangement."
When you note the remarkable thigh definition Tom has achieved to go with his thigh mass, it's evident that a bodybuilder can get outstanding thigh definition without doing a zillion thigh isolation or finishing exercises. "I agree," said Tom, "and I think it really has to do with the fact that I train both red and white fibers. I think that when you train both fiber types, it leads to more complete development. With the absence of fat on the body, the striations are going to be visible."
Tom has typically trained his legs twice a week, alternating between an intensity day and an endurance day. He finds that if he does a very intense leg workout, however, it may take him as long as 10 days to recuperate sufficiently to do a heavy leg session again.
He elaborated, "After a hard squatting session - for instance, if I went 635 x 10, 505 x 20, 405 x 30, down to 225 to failure, and then I went on to the hack squat and did five sets to failure, leg extensions, 5-10 sets to failure with forced reps, same thing with leg curls, it'll take me 10 days before I'm even ready to think about training legs real hard again. That's important to note: the more intensity you employ in your training, the more recuperation you're going to need."
Rich Gaspari's leg workout typically consists of leg extensions (7-8 sets), followed by front squats (4 sets), leg presses (4-5 sets), lunges (sometimes supersetted with sissy squats, 3-4 sets each), leg curls (10-12 sets), and standing leg curls (3-4 sets).
He explained his approach: "At the beginning of my career - I've been lifting close to 12 years now - all I would do is basic squats. Now that my thighs are big enough and I want to keep them proportionate to my upper body, I practically don't do squats anymore. Instead, I do more shaping exercises like front squats (which I think have more of an isolation effect on the thighs) and the leg press.
"I start my thigh routine now with a pre-exhaustion 7-8 sets of leg extensions, going up in weight until I get to, say, the bottom of the stack. Then I'll go to a heavier exercise like the front squat - I like to stay with high reps for legs (between 12-15). That seems to keep my thighs more separated and defined.
"Next I'll go to the leg press, then another shaping exercise, like lunges. Sometimes I'll do a superset of the lunge with the sissy squat, which is another shaping exercise.
"After a brief rest, I would train the hamstrings. Usually I'll do 8 or 9 sets in which I go up in weight until I get to the maximum. Then I'll do several drop sets where I go back down in weight - maybe from 150 down to 120, then 110, then 100, and 80. Finally I'll do 3-4 sets for each leg in the standing leg curl."
Dean Tornabene's leg routine is something of a cross between Gaspari's finesse-oriented approach and Platz's power-based approach (not to imply that Platz doesn't train with finesse, or that Gaspari doesn't work his butt off in the gym). Tornabene's routine will commonly include the following sequence of exercises: leg extensions, squats, cable lunges, leg presses, sissy squats, leg curls (and sometimes stiff legged deadlifts for the hamstrings and back). Like Gaspari, he likes to start with a pre-exhaustion exercise (usually leg extensions), then alternate between a mass exercise and an isolation exercise. Like Platz, he likes to vary his reps - he may squat 700 pounds for 2-3 reps, or do a marathon set in which he starts with a maximum weight he can handle for 6-8 reps, and then keeps lowering the weight and increasing the reps until he's done a set lasting 5-6 minutes and 150-200 reps.
"The quadriceps is the largest muscle group in the body," Dean said, "and the mixing of fibers - red and white - requires both kinds of stimulation - low reps and high reps. Because there are so many muscle fibers there, they need a large blood flow. In order to get that blood flow there, you need to do a lot of reps.
"What I like to do basically is an isolation move first, then I follow it with a compound move. So I might do leg extensions first, to pre-exhaust the muscle, then go to some form of leg press or squats. Then I'll go to another isolation move, like maybe cable lunges (which I prefer to regular lunges because there's constant tension on the legs; in the regular lunge there's a point where you're standing with feet together and you really don't have any tension on the legs at all.) Then I may come back to some form of leg press or the squat, depending on which of the two I did earlier.
"So I usually like to isolate and pre-exhaust the muscle first - usually with high reps. And then follow that with a basic move for lower reps."
Dean usually does high reps on the isolation exercises, and low reps on the basic mass-building exercises. But sometimes he switches it around. He generally trains his thighs once every four days, going heavy every second leg workout. He trains his hamstrings twice every days.
Paul Jean-Guillame's thigh routine consists of squats, barbell hack squats ("that's where you hold a bar behind your glutes" - for anyone who's only seen hacks done on a machine), leg presses and lunges. Sometimes he'll do the exercises in the above order of he'll reverse the order. Most of the time, he'll train his hamstrings last by doing hamstring curls.
He usually does 8 or 9 sets of squats, 4 sets in each of the other thigh exercises and 6 sets (3 for each leg separately, then 3 working both legs together) in the hamstring curl.
"You've got to do squats," he said, "and not halfway squats, but to the bottom. I know some bodybuilders do a lot of leg presses. If these guys really did squats, they could forget the leg press - you get better results from doing squats."
Originally from Haiti, now living in Irvine, California, Guillame says he doesn't do a lot of leg extensions because he thinks they can cause problems in the knees. He does lunges and leg extensions (if he does leg extensions at all) about three to four weeks before peaking for definition. Otherwise, he trains for size.
Paul, who has outstanding hamstrings, likes to train one leg at a time. He explained, "If you do them (leg curls) one leg at a time, you'll see a lot more improvement. Because after you do one leg and then the other, you can feel the pump. When you do two legs together, you don't really feel it, because your right leg may be more powerful than your left. So I do them one leg at a time and get a good pump, and I go heavy on this exercise, too."
He believes in high reps (15-20) and heavy weights for the legs, although he says, "Some people go 30 or 40 reps. I think that's too much." He suggests beginners should concentrate on squats, leg presses and hamstring curls, which happen to be the exercises he did when he first started weight training. Only when he'd been training a year did he add hack squats to his routine. Now when beginners try to copy his leg training routine, he tells them, "Don't do hacks. Do the mass exercises first. Hack are more for definition and separation."
Actually, with some bodybuilders, the difficulty isn't building up the thighs, but getting them defined. Rich Gaspari falls into that category. Today Rich is known throughout the bodybuilding world for his amazing definition, but where his thighs were concerned, he once had problems bringing out the cuts and striations.
"I have thighs that grow rather easily," he said, "but it was hard for me to get that separation. So "what I had to do was start adding more shaping exercises, like the leg extensions, sissy squats and also do a lot of stretching after my sets. Diet was very important, too.
"What I would start out with is usually a shaping exercise or a pre-exhaustion exercise like the leg extension, and then go on to a movement for mass like the leg press. After every set of leg press I would stretch my thighs out, and that would help bring out the separation in the thighs.
"Lots of times I would try to get more definition in my thighs by supersetting, say, leg extensions with hack squats. Or even doing a set of lunges super-setted with sissy squats. Exercises like the sissy squat stretch out and separate the thigh more, while the basic exercises, like the leg press and squat, are more for keeping the ultimate size on your thighs.
"So my approach to improving my thigh definition was to focus more on isolation movements and perform the movements very strictly. Contracting the muscle at the top is very important, and stretching at the bottom. Say, like on a leg extension, getting all the way to the top, squeezing the thigh at the top, and then stretching the thigh all the way at the bottom."
You can learn a lot about training by asking experienced lifters what to do. You can also learn a lot by asking them what NOT to do. What are the most common errors they see inexperienced bodybuilders make in training thighs?
Rich Gaspari said, "Well, the first mistake with squats is doing more of a powerlifting squat instead of a bodybuilding squat, and overdeveloping the butt. It's a better idea to get more into a bodybuilding stance on a squat. That means the knees going more forward instead of, you know, sticking the butt out as you would in powerlifting.
"Another big mistake is a lot of beginners don't do enough work for the legs. They're concentrating on the upper body, and not enough on legs. It's important to get that foundation of size by doing squats."
Dean Tornabene says the most common errors he sees inexperienced bodybuilders make in training thighs is they use improper range of motion on compound exercises ("a lot of guys don't go down deep enough - even on leg presses") and erratic speed on the isolation movement ("either too rapid or too slow").
Paul Jean-Guillame feels the most common error is that a lot of bodybuilders don't do basic exercises like the squat through the full range of motion. "Everybody tries to go so heavy, they forget how to control their form. I think that's the main problem. I see a lot of guys who squat 600 pounds, but their legs don't look like they can squat 600 pounds. That's because they squat 600 pounds with bad form.
"So I would have to say, 'Go all the way down. If you have to put a board under your heels or wear a raised-heel lifting shoe, do it. But don't try to use such heavy weights that you lose your form."
Tom Platz agrees that attempting heavy weights before one is ready for it is a common error many people make in training thighs. "They add too much weight too soon . . . sacrificing proper form in the process. Proper form is of utmost importance in the squat. Not only to put maximum stress on the thighs, but also because adding too much weight too soon and using improper form can lead to injury."
Speaking of injury, beginning bodybuilders who've had lower back problems may be justifiably concerned about the risk factor in doing heavy squatting. The solution, according to Tom Platz, is to concentrate on using correct, crisp form and increase the weight you're handling gradually. In fact, rather than being and unconquerable problem for people with low back problems, the squat (properly performed) will actually strengthen the back.
"I always had lower back problems when I was playing football in high school," Tom said, "and that's one of the reasons I started squatting. Over the years my back muscles became strengthened from squatting. Actually, it was a little difficult initially because my back was bothering me from the squatting. But after a number of years my back strengthened to the point where I was capable of squatting massive weights."
The muscles of the upper leg are the largest and most powerful in the entire body. That's why training the thighs is so strenuous and demanding - you have to work those strong muscles hard enough to overload them. Fortunately, the thighs will usually grow if you work them hard - unlike the calves, which can sometimes be ultra-temperamental in how they respond to exercise stimulation. Bodybuilders with even the slightest genetic aptitude for muscle gain can get a noticeable result when they train the thighs hard.
Or as Dean Tornabene puts it, "A lot of people have trouble developing calves, but the thighs are not nearly as much of a problem. The thighs don't have any trouble growing - usually. The only limiting factor in training thighs has nothing to do with genetics. Only pain. Pain is the limiting factor because training the legs hard hurts. A lot."
Paraphrasing Dean's point, therefore, one can say that the bodybuilders who have really magnificent thigh development are the ones who really know how to inflict pain - to push themselves - in the gym.
"Exactly!" Tornabene smiled. "The guys who are willing to deal with pain. That's it!
Whoever can face the pain can have great thighs."
Enjoy Your Lifting!