Frustrated by a lack of leg gains? Here’s what the science has to say on adding lower body bulk.
BY MF STAFF
“Skip leg day, bro?” We’ve all seen those guys at the gym with huge shoulders, bulging biceps… and puny little chicken legs. But leg training isn’t just about appearance – training both your upper and lower body will lead to fewer muscle imbalances and less risk of injury. Training legs can also improve your performance in heavy lifts – because strong legs provide a strong platform for your body to push off – as well as your running performance. And because the muscles in your lower body are larger, you’ll burn more calories and get your heart rate up more when training legs. We enlisted a PT to guide us through 10 key steps for building a better lower body…
1 Don’t skip it
Devoting designated leg days to building your lower-body muscles won’t just increase muscle mass, boost testosterone levels and fill your shorts. According to new research from the University of Milan, Italy, routinely training legs also has a beneficial effect on the development of brain cells and the function of the nervous system.
2 Enter the compound
Compound moves are widely acknowledged as one of the best ways to develop all-round leg muscle strength and definition. “The major compound movements for legs are squats, deadlifts, lunges and hip thrusts,” says personal trainer Peter Williams. “By definition, a compound movement should allow you to lift more weight as you’re using more muscles. The more weight you lift, the more strength you’ll have and therefore the bigger your muscles will need to be.”
3 Focus on frequency
If you’re trying to stimulate growth in any particular muscle group, you need to be training it regularly. “Training your legs three times a week, steadily, will stimulate more growth than training once and really going for it,” says Williams. “Not only does training once put pressure on you to have an amazing session every time, it’s also less productive.”
4 Practise progress
“If you’re not adding extra weight or reps to your workouts, it will be very difficult to progress in strength or size,” says Williams. Research from a number of studies focusing on periodisation and progressive overload training methods show that increasing weight load over time provides the most noticeable results when it comes to building leg muscle.
Accessory movements can build additional strength in the leg muscles. “These are movements where you use only one muscle while doing them without a compound session, such as quad extensions, hamstring curls and calf raises,” says Williams. They add an extra kick to your workouts and help strengthen your quality of compound lift. Williams continues: “They generally burn less calories per rep, so they’re worth doing at the end of your workout or if you’re not feeling 100% that day.”
6 Listen to your heart
It’s a completely unsubstantiated myth that cardio will harm your muscle gains. “Realistically, the only thing that will stop you from growing is not eating and sleeping enough, if you’re training regularly,” says Williams. “There’s good evidence to show that cardio sessions in the long term can actually help improve leg muscle gains.” Sports science shows that aerobic training increases inter-muscular DHT (a derivative of testosterone), which binds more readily to androgen receptors (and stays bound) allowing the DHT to exert its anabolic effects for longer. “In layman’s terms, if you’re able to stay in an anabolic state longer, you increase your chance of building muscle,” says Williams. “Testosterone is one of the most anabolic hormones that the human body releases, so flooding your body with it when working out is of course a good thing.”
7 Feed your thighs
Two grams of protein a day per kilo of body weight is thought to be ideal.
“You ‘ll need to be in a calorie surplus to grow, or at least hover just above your maintenance level. Aim for about two grams of protein per kilo of body weight,” suggests Williams. “Also, hit your calories. After you’re happy that you’re getting enough protein in, make sure you’re eating a surplus of around 500 calories per day. That’s a good amount to start with, as you’ll be looking for small gains each week to avoid storing any excess weight in body fat.”
8 Get low
“If you aren’t completing movements correctly, they may not be having the desired effect,” warns Williams. “If you’re squatting without getting enough depth and your knees are caving in, you ‘ll be missing out on the full activation of your quads, hamstrings and glutes.” In other words, if your technique is shoddy, your effort is going to waste. “Generally, if you’re struggling with form, you’ll need to scale back the weight and work on your mobility,” adds Williams.
9 Do the splits
Consider splitting the muscle groups in your legs up to make sure you don’t have too much recovery pain. “So, for example, one session focuses more on hamstrings and glutes, and one focuses more on quads and calf muscles,” suggests Williams. Doing drills that work the hip flexors at the top of the legs – such as Bulgarian split squats and Romanian deadlifts – can also boost your agility and sprint speed, according to research from the University of Florida, US.
10 Roll out recovery
Foam rolling and stretching should be part of your leg routine in order to release tight muscles. It will also increase circulation, which aids with muscle repair. Rolling out tight muscles means that you won’t be impaired during your next workout by niggles. Some people prefer to roll before training, and some claim rolling both before and after is best. But go with whatever works best for you. ■