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The Lower Half: Exercises for Building Thick, Powerful Legs

Updated on June 28, 2013

Hit Them Hard

Legs are a pain to train for most: they involve grueling workouts, they cannot even be visibly seen the majority of the time, and they take time to develop. When someone asks you to flex, virtually nobody pulls up their shorts and tenses their quadriceps. There is no easy way out when it comes to building mass in the legs; you simply have to tough it out and fight through the pain.

The two primary muscles that comprise the upper leg are known as the quadriceps and hamstrings, and you need to focus equally on both. Since the quads are the most visible from a frontal view, there often tends to be favor toward their development. This is not a path you want to follow, as it is exactly like working your chest intensely and never your back: strength imbalances will result, and injury will not be far behind.

For those seeking jaw-dropping striations in their thighs, or simply to build strength for a job that involves heavy lifting, these four exercises are sure to take you there.

The front squat will emphasize the quadriceps and serve as a great method for building muscle mass.
The front squat will emphasize the quadriceps and serve as a great method for building muscle mass. | Source

Front Squats

Front squats are an exercise that many absolutely detest. They are uncomfortable, exhausting, and just overall unpleasant to perform. However, there is a reason why you hate them, and that is because they fill you with the burning sensation of muscle fibers being broken down sufficiently enough to promote growth. If having strong legs were easy, nobody would hate working them out.

The major issue with front squats is wrist flexibility. To help mitigate this issue, they are able to performed with the arms crossed and elbows raised high, the bar resting near your collarbone. With heavier weight, this variant becomes too physically taxing as the weight begins to push harder and harder down upon the shoulder area. What might the solution be? Persevere through the discomfort, and your wrists will build the flexibility needed.

Virtually anyone can condition their wrists to function during front squats. Olympic athletes hold multiple hundreds of pounds up with this form, and their wrists are unlikely to be that much larger or stronger than the average man's. They developed a tolerance, and so can you.

It may take a few workouts, but the wrist pain will subside. Then you can focus on increasing the weight to substantial numbers and hammering your quads, forcing them to grow.

Romanian Deadlifts

Do not let the name fool you; the movement is not as fancy as it sounds. It is simply a deadlift performed with more emphasis on the hamstrings to lift the weight. The video to the right displays near-perfect form for the exercise.

Take note on how the plates never touch the ground and the technique used to lower the bar. It is not lowered in the manner of a conventional deadlift; the glutes are stuck out and knees bent slightly in order to create a smooth, controlled descent.

After just one set of these, you will definitely feel it in your hamstrings. Performing these slowly with proper form will increase the amount of time your hamstrings are under tension. This, coupled with the fact that the bar never touches the floor, creates an environment of constant force placed upon the hamstrings until the set is over.

The glutes will be activated significantly during this movement as well, serving as a desirable side-effect for those looking to firm up their lower body. The weight used should be at the most 50-60% of your conventional deadlift weight in order to ensure proper form and prevent injury. If you do not regularly deadlift, simply begin with the bar and add weight when needed. The goal is not to destroy the muscle with heavy weight, but to target it strategically through controlled movement.


Back Squats

Squatting with heavy weight is the absolute number-one way to build serious mass in your legs.
Squatting with heavy weight is the absolute number-one way to build serious mass in your legs. | Source

The absolute king of all leg movements. If there were just one exercise to do for the lower body, this would be it. Nothing stresses your central nervous system and gets your blood pumping during a leg workout like heavy back squats do.

While the quadriceps are also emphasized during a back squat, the hamstrings and glutes are both involved to a significant degree, which will promote further development in those areas as well. The core muscles, consisting of the abs and lower back, are also heavily involved in maintaining the torso's position during the movement. It is not unlikely for one to develop significant abdominal improvement from squatting heavy over time.

There are virtually no valid reasons, save for injury, that back squats should not be performed. Too many lifters think they can get by leg pressing here and there, but it simply is not true. There is no cable or other mechanical device to help stabilize the weight while squatting; it is just you and the bar.

What makes the squat so beneficial as an exercise is its focus on both the hamstrings and the quads. While the quad emphasis is greater, a supplemental exercise for the hamstrings, such as the Romanian deadlift, will keep both segments on par with each other.

For the legs, there is no exercise that can use more weight in a free range of motion. Squat heavy week after week, and your legs will have no choice other than to grow.

Lagging Hamstrings?

Glute-ham raises are the most effective body weight exercise you can use to target your hamstrings.
Glute-ham raises are the most effective body weight exercise you can use to target your hamstrings. | Source

If your hamstrings are already lagging, Romanian deadlifts and squats will bring them up to speed. However, with both front squats and back squats targeting the quads, the hamstrings will need some extra help. Glute-ham raises, pictured above, are extremely efficient in hamstring development.

On par with front squats as one of the most uncomfortable leg exercises, these will hit the back portion of your legs hard. Stronger hamstrings means a stronger back squat, and a stronger back squat means bigger legs, so give these 100% effort and you will be sure to see results.

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