My last several posts were about leg training, so I thought I’d continue on that theme today. I was going through my archives of old articles I’d written and came across this one that was published in IRONMAN magazine several years back. This program, called “unconventional leg training” proposes that you do some things that are often viewed as completely backwards… such as as your heaviest set first rather than the reverse (aka “regressive sets” an old Tom Platz favorite), or “ascending sets” which are the exact opposite of the immensely popular descending (drop) sets technique. Give these methods a try. You might curse me at first (from the pain you have to endure), but you can thank me later when your thighs explode with muscle growth…
It’s sort of a joke in natural bodybuilding circles that drug-free bodybuilders “have no legs.” I hate to admit it’s true, but I’ve been to dozens of drug tested shows where nearly all of the competitors had thick chests, huge arms, wide lats and cannonball deltoids, but almost none of them had any lower body to speak of. In natural bodybuilding competitions, outstanding quad development can be the difference between winning and losing. Unfortunately, unless you are among the genetically gifted or you use growth-enhancing drugs, developing great quads does not come easy.
If your quads aren’t growing and your training consists of nothing but conventional straight sets - you know, the usual 3 - 4 sets of 8 - 12 reps, with a minute or two between sets - then you’d better try something completely unorthodox; something “unconventional.” Unconventional training means doing things differently than usual and sometimes even doing the exact opposite of what is considered “normal” training. I’d like to share with you some of my favorite unconventional training techniques that that can help you develop huge, cut, freaky quads, without performance-enhancing drugs.
UNCONVENTIONAL LEG TRAINING TECHNIQUES
Heavy - Light training.
Although most fitness experts agree that the ideal repetition range for developing muscle mass is between 6 and 10, the muscles of the lower body seem to respond very well to a combination of both high and low reps. 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 strong, bulky legs like a powerlifter, but the polished, chiseled legs of a bodybuilder.
Former professional bodybuilder Tom Platz, who is known for having the best leg development of all time and who is unconventional to say the least, used this approach to develop his monstrous thighs and win the Mr. Universe title. Platz has performed squats with 405 for 25 reps, 315 for 50 reps and 225 for 10 minutes nonstop! The king of quads was equally capable of pushing heavy iron as well with 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 way is to designate a separate high rep and low rep day and alternate 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 exclusively high reps or low reps on one exercise or you can do both high reps and low reps on the same exercise.
Don’t get the mistaken idea that light day means easy day. High rep squats can be the most brutal workout you could ever subject yourself to. After a few high rep squat workouts, you’ll probably even find your heavy days feel easier. After you’ve conquered sets of 30-40 reps in the squat with 225 lbs., then 405 lbs. for sets of 5-6 reps will seem like a piece of cake!
Ascending sets are a little known technique I learned from my trainer, former Mr. Eastern America, Richie Smyth of New Jersey. This is an incredibly effective means of quickly taking a muscle to total failure without having to use near-maximal weights. An ascending set is the opposite of a descending set (drop set). Here’s how it works: Select a weight that you can perform 12 reps with on a particular exercise. Do just six reps, then add 10%-15% to the weight. Now continue with the heavier weight for six more reps. Increase the weight an additional 10%-15% and repeat for a final six reps (That’s eighteen reps total.) Take as little rest as possible between the weight changes. If you’ve selected the amount of resistance properly, the second six will start to get difficult and the final six will take a supreme effort - you may need a spotter to assist with the last two or three. If you have a training partner, you can increase the intensity by reducing or eliminating the rest periods between weight changes completely; simply have your partner add the weight on the bar without you even racking it.
Continuous tension & 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 a half or two thirds of the muscle, right? Wrong! Of all the exercises in the bodybuilder’s repertoire, slow, constant tension, non-locking squatting movements have got to be the most difficult - and the most result producing exercises of all
The way to best utilize 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 or three-quarters of the way up not only increases the amount of time the quads are kept under tension, but also generates greater recruitment of the teardrop-shaped Medialis. There are several variations of the continuous tension - partial reps technique, including bottom half reps, one and a half’s, one and a quarters and the popular twenty-one method. Bottom half reps are exactly what the name implies; only do the lower half of the range of motion. One and a half’s and one and a quarter’s are techniques where a single repetition consists of lowering yourself to the bottom position, coming up only one-half or one-quarter, lowering yourself back down to the bottom position and then coming up all the way (but never locking out completely). Shoot for sets of 8 -10 repetitions in this fashion. Twenty-one’s are another popular variation on partial reps. One set consists of seven reps in the top range of motion, seven in the bottom range of motion and then seven in the full range of motion. To increase the intensity even further, do your continuous tension reps slowly with five seconds on the eccentric movement and five seconds on the concentric movement.
We’ve already touched on high reps in the heavy-light system, but high rep leg training is so result-producing that it bears mention on its own. First of all, let me clarify what I mean when I say high reps. I’m not talking about only 12 or 15 reps; I’m talking a minimum of 20-30 and occasionally upwards of 40, 50 and beyond.
There are a lot of “old-school” lifters who adamantly insist that you must stay in the 4-8 rep range and that in order to develop mass and get stronger, you must always strive to increase the weight. If you are a powerlifter, football player or strength athlete then that’s good advice. You’ll get strong as an ox training with low reps, but if you want to look like a bodybuilder and not a lineman, then you must use different training systems that work every muscle fiber and engage every energy system: Enter high rep training. I’m not suggesting that you eliminate heavy leg training. What I’m suggesting is that you always include heavy low rep training and lighter high rep training.
There’s a trick to doing high rep quad workouts: The secret to hitting reps in the 30-50 range is your breathing. 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 - 15th rep. Breathing squats are a form of rest-pause training. Do the first ten reps in a continuous fashion as you normally would. On the second ten, take a breath between each rep. On the third ten, you’ll probably need two or three deep breaths at the top to recover between each rep. On the fourth and fifth ten (if you get this far) you’ll be gasping for air, taking several deep breaths between every rep. Breathing in this rest-pause fashion will allow you to complete a high 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 you way up to as many as 40 or even 50. When you hit 40 or 50, increase the weight, drop back to 20 reps and then 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. This type of training is incredibly effective, but brutal. If you’re done it right, expect to be lying on your back for several minutes gasping for air after each set. Towards the end of the set, it becomes more a matter of mental toughness than anything.
Regressive weight pattern
A regressive weight pattern is the exact opposite of the conventional pyramid system. Pyramiding entails increasing the weight and decreasing the reps with each set. It is a good system for developing size and strength, especially if you are starting with basic exercises like squats or deadlifts and you are working up to very heavy weights.
An unconventional system that may be even more effective is the regressive weight pattern. On your first set, begin with your heaviest weight when you are fresh and the strongest, then decrease the weight and increase the reps with each set. To use this system safely you’ll need to warm up thoroughly beforehand.
The rationale behind regressive sets is that all the “build-up” sets in a pyramid are wasted and nothing more than warm-ups. By the time you get to your heaviest set in a pyramid, all the warm-up sets have fatigued you so much you can’t lift as much on your heavy sets. With the regressive weight pattern you don’t tire yourself out before getting to your productive heavy sets, therefore all your sets are productive. Coincidentally, the regressive system was one of Tom Platz’s favorite techniques.
Post exhaust is an extension of the heavy-light principle. You select two exercises; a heavy compound movement supersetted with a lighter isolation movement. Post-exhaust allows you to take the basic compound exercise and work it heavy followed by an isolation movement to flush the muscle and produce a maximum pump. You get the benefits of training every type of muscle fiber and every energy system in the same workout. An example would be doing heavy leg presses for a 6-8 rep max followed by leg extensions for 20-30 reps.
Pre-exhaust is also a variation of the heavy-light system. The difference from post exhaust is in the order of the exercises. Once again you select a heavy compound movement and a lighter isolation movement. This time you do the isolation movement first followed by the compound movement. Pre-exhaust is a great system if you’d like to perform heavy basic movements like squats, but have difficulty doing so due to lower back or knee problems. You can work the quads to total failure on the leg extensions, then at a point where most people quit, continue to blast the quads even further using the synergism of the powerful hip, lower back and hamstring muscles. Since you have pre-fatigued your quads you can use much lighter poundage in the squat and still receive the benefits of the exercise without subjecting yourself to injury. If you can squat 275-315 lbs. easily for reps, then 185-225 lbs. can seem just as heavy when your quads are pre-exhausted.
Changing foot positions and stance width
Here’s an unconventional way to thoroughly work every section of the Quadriceps group: Change your foot position with each successive set on a particular exercise. On squatting movements you can vary your stance width from wide to medium to narrow. You can also vary the angle of the toes. For example, pointing the toes out 45 degrees and utilizing a wide stance will recruit the adductor muscles more. Using a narrow stance with toes forward will recruit the quads more while working 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 lateral portion of the quad, out for the inner quad and straight ahead for overall quad.
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 is harder than regular squats. Front squats are difficult to execute because they require extra balance and coordination to hold the bar on the front of the shoulders.
The rewards of front squatting are well worth the added effort. Front squats develop the quadriceps better than almost any other exercise. The reason is because placing the bar on the front of the shoulders allows you to maintain a more upright posture. This puts more emphasis on the frontal quads while at the same time reducing stress on the lower back, hips and glutes.
Squats are unquestionably the most effective quad builder of all. For maximum quad development, do “bodybuilding” squats with the bar high on your traps and use a medium to narrow stance. Elevate your heels under a one-inch board or mat to help you maintain your balance if you lack flexibility. Most importantly, squat deep! Strength Coach Charles Poliquin is fond of saying, “squat down and don’t come back up until you leave a mark on the floor.”
Do not fear deep squats. According to most strength training experts, the majority of injuries from squatting come from poor form. In his book “Weight Training, a Scientific Approach” Dr. Michael Stone, one of the nation’s leading experts on weight training writes, “Squatting in which the top of the thighs goes below parallel, has been erroneously associated with damage to the meniscus and ligaments. Although bouncing and other improper techniques can cause knee damage, there is little evidence that squatting is harmful to a healthy knee.” To avoid injury, use impeccable form and keep your torso rigid at all times. Lower yourself slowly and always maintain control. Keep the torso erect and push through with your legs, avoiding the tendency to lean forward and use the lower back.
Hack machine squat
Full range of motion is crucial on Hack Squats. Deep hack squats without locking out will give you the greatest quad development possible. You should squat deep enough so the backs of your calves touch your hamstrings. A common mistake is using too much weight and only working the top half of the movement. Lower yourself slowly and under control and do not bounce out of the bottom position. Drive through with your heels (not off the balls of your feet). As with regular back squats, you should have no fear of injury from doing your hack squats to below parallel provided that you are fully warmed up, you use good form and you have no pre-existing knee injuries.
While not the best mass builder, leg extensions are the most effective exercise for isolating the quadriceps. Leg extensions are a great way to help define and separate the quads and they are also an excellent finishing movement. Leg extensions can be 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 the leg extension. There are many different ways to perform lunges. For the ultimate in quad development, lunge deep 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 once answered, “Because they make a sissy out of the strongest squatter!” When performed as described below, they are a super way to work the quad 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 the shoulders to the knees as you squat down (do not flex at the hips). Hold onto an upright support to maintain your balance. Sissy squats should preferably be done last in your routine when your knees are fully warmed up. Like the leg extensions, sissy squats are very effective when combined in a post-exhaust or pre-exhaust superset.
The techniques I’ve described can be arranged in a countless number of different combinations. Note how a different technique can be used with each successive set of the same exercise. These two samples of unconventional leg-training workouts should give you some ideas of how to incorporate unconventional training tactics into your own routine. These are high-intensity training routines designed for advanced bodybuilders. The weights listed are just used as examples.
If you’re frustrated with your current level of quad development, don’t resort to drugs; try these routines. You can develop amazing quads drug-free, you just have to be a little unconventional!
Unconventional quad routine #1
Warm up: 2 sets X 135 X 12
Set 1: 185 lbs. X 6, 205 lbs. X 6, 225 lbs. X 6 (Ascending set: no rest between weight changes)
Set 2: 225 lbs. X 6-8 reps, 185 lbs. X 6-8reps, 135 lbs. X 6-8 reps (Descending set: no rest between weight changes)
Set 3: 185 lbs. X 12-15 reps (Slow, non locking continuous tension set, go only 3/4 of the way up; 5 second positive, 5 second negative)
Set 1: 720 lbs X 8-10 reps
Set 2: 630 lbs X 12-15 reps,
Set 3: 540 lbs X 20+ reps
Set 4: 540 lbs X 8-10 reps feet middle of platform
450 lbs X 8-10 reps feet bottom of platform close together
360 lbs X 8-10 reps feet middle of platform wide with toes 45 degrees
270 X as many reps as possible feet at top of platform six inches wide.
(Descending set, change foot positions after each weight reduction, no rest between weight reductions)
Set1: 90 lbs X 6 reps, 110 lbs X 6 reps, 130 lbs X 6 reps (toes in)
Set 2: 90 lbs X 6 reps, 110 lbs X 6 reps, 130 lbs X 6 reps (toes out)
Set 3: 90 lbs X 6 reps, 110 lbs X 6 reps, 130 lbs X 6 reps (toes straight ahead)
3 sets X 35 lb. dumbbells X as many reps as possible (only bottom half of range of motion)
Unconventional quad routine #2
1. Back Squats. Alternate heavy - light every other week
Sets 1 & 2: 225 lbs. X 20-50 reps
Set 3: 185 X 10-15 reps (one and a quarter reps)
2 warm up sets, followed by 4 heavy sets (pyramid)
set 1: 225 X 10
set 2: 275 X 8
set 3: 315 X 6
set 4: 365 X 4-6
set 5: 185 lbs X 10-15 (one and a quarter reps)
2. Hack Machine Squats (Regressive weight pattern bottom 3/4 of the movement only; no locking out.)
Set 1: 315 lbs. X 6-8 reps
Set 2: 275lbs. X 12-15 reps
Set 3: 225lbs. X 20-25 reps
3. Smith machine Lunge (with rear foot elevated on bench bottom half of range of motion.)
2-3 sets X 115 X 12-15 reps
Copyright, Tom Venuto & Fitness Renaissance, LLC. No reproduction of this article is permitted. This article originally appeared as an exclusive for IRONMAN MAGAZINE.
Published on 01 April, 2007