Narrowminded, old-school approach to build bigger legs:
Heavy squats. Steak. Sleep.
Alright, that's how they used to do it and it worked. Up to a certain point.
It worked for hardgainers in the '30s, '40s, and '50s and I'm sure it would work for hardgainers today. Again...to some extent.
But just because it's one intense and effective way to pack on slabs of thigh muscle doesn't mean it's the only way to do it.
As a matter of fact, an intriguing study already published almost two decades ago suggests that a combination of low- and high-rep training is better than one or the other method for making size and strength gains.
Let's now see why higher reps can work for hypertrophy, and then a new program to help you make major gains and turn you into the baddest m0th&rfÜkk&r in the gym.
Silly Blind Beliefs
Everybody knows the lame arguments against doing high-rep training for size, no matter what muscle groups we're talking about. Without a significant load (generally defined as at least 60 or 65% of your 1RM) you're training your muscles for "endurance" rather than size or strength.
If you take a look at athletes who do a lot of reps of anything, you rarely see a lot of size in the muscles that do the high-rep work, unless it's size that was built in the weight room with relatively heavy loads. (Please don't mention cyclists as an exception; well-trained pro cyclists lift shitloads of iron, and even then their thighs are often big only when compared to their relatively underdeveloped upper bodies!) Even the old-school breathing squats employed a 10RM weight, which is usually about 75% of 1RM, enough to build size, if not necessarily strength in advanced lifters.
The most popular size-building plans since the 1950s have advocated lower reps for size, including Bill Starr's famous 5 x 5 training based on the "big three" lifts (bench press, squat, deadlift).
The rationale behind using heavy weights with low reps is simple enough: If you target the high-threshold motor units, you don't just hit the type II muscle fibers, which have the most potential to grow. You also hit the type I fibers, which offer limited size potential but have to come along for the ride, thanks to a well-known physiological phenomenon called the "size principle".
Said size principle says that motor units always fire in a predetermined order, from the smallest to the biggest. So by the time the biggest motor units come into play, the smallest ones are already deployed. Thus, you don't need to do anything that targets the smallest motor units since they already have skin in the game. On paper makes perfectly sense indeed.
YET, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research makes a compelling argument for a mix-and-match kind of approach.
The researchers had a group of 16 male lifters do conventional hypertrophy training for six weeks, then divided them into two groups. Some did straight strength work (five sets of each exercise, using 90% of their 1RM. That would translate to about three per set.) The other group did the same thing, plus a final set of 25 to 35 reps using 40 to 50% of their 1RM.
The second group made slightly better gains in size over the following four weeks (which, frankly, were unimpressive across the board and that's not surprising considering there was no nutritional intervention in the study), but the big surprise is that they made larger increases in strength.
Even though this blog average reader would shiver at the thought of training 10 weeks with only negligible muscle gains to show for it, the study suggests one compelling take-away message: Those light-weight, high-rep sets following heavy-weight, low-rep sets do SOMETHING. Whether they do it because they flush the muscles with nutrient-rich blood, or switch on some kind of still unknown metabolic pathway, or simply add volume for its own sake is pretty much a mystery, wild speculations aside.
But as long as there's some actual benefit, who really cares about the cause?
You can go heavy and target the fast-twitch fibers one day and go lighter to hit the slow-twitch fibers another day, or combine them both into one workout. Plenty of big guys have used both approaches with equal success.
Squats Alone Hardly Suffices For Hams
Squat, for good reason, are the classic choice for using high reps to build huge muscles. That's why you never heard the old-school guys talk about "breathing leg extensions"
Even if you stick with squats, there's no rule that says you have to use back squats. Front squats would make it more challenging, and maybe offer more of a core-strengthening benefit. (I'd suggest holding the bar with the crossed-arm bodybuilder grip, rather than using the Olympic clean grip. That's a lot of time to spend with your wrists in the rack position, not the best idea ever)
I would avoid overhead squats (too much shoulder and arm fatigue, and too much stress on the lower back) or Zercher squats (unless you have the pain tolerance of John Rambo on crack and Cheque Drops).
Deadlifts are another animal entirely. They can work, with some precautions.
Similar to high-rep heavy squats, high-rep heavy deadlift training is beneficial, but I think a trap bar is the way to go.
There's definitely an increased risk for injury, so a high-rep program isn't for beginners. You need to have solid deadlift form and not compromise technique to get a rep. Rather than just banging out 20 reps nonstop, park the weight after each rep, stand up and take a few deep breaths, then reset for the next rep.
I also caution against using an over-under grip, because that places the biceps under a lot of stress for a lot of time. I suggest using the overhand grip with both hands, and possibly using straps too. STAY 110% FOCUSED.
Some Due Warnings
If you think you're ready to sack up and use high-rep training to put some new beef on your drumsticks, keep these points in mind:
It's Definitely Harder Than You Imagine.
No matter how hard you think it's going to be, you really have no idea until you try it. My personal experience suggests that 10 out of 10 people who try high-rep leg training want to quit before the end of the first workout.
Your muscles just aren't used to this. They don't have the pain tolerance yet, and you aren't used to working this far past failure.
It's really a mind game, you against your instinct for self-preservation. Don't let sensible thoughts intrude. Be purposefully masochistic and push through the burn, as long as it's muscular pain, and not your spinal discs coming apart...
Breathing Properly Is Essential
The classic 20-rep squat programs placed a huge emphasis on deep breathing.
I want to optimistically subscribe to the theory that you've been breathing for quite some time all by yourself and you're probably pretty good at it now. I hope you can be trusted to handle the whole air-in-the-lungs thing without some muscle nanny detailing the finer points. Right?
That said, when you're pushing into post-failure exertion, you really do want to take at least two or three big breaths. It's the only "rest" you get in the middle of the set afterall, so you need to make the most of it.
Full Recovery Is Not Optional
Try to keep in mind that the goal is to make your thighs big and meaty. It's not for cutting. It's not something you do in the middle of baseball season. There's no functional benefit here. Size is the one and only goal.
In order to achieve that size, you need a lot more calories than usual. Whole milk was fine before the advent of potent supplements like Hydro Whey and Cluster Dextrin, the same way a horse and buggy was fine before we invented Lamborghinis. You'd be nuts not to take advantage of these new formulations.
The goal of this program is obvious enough: Gain a lot of size, and gain it ASAP.
The precautions aren't quite as obvious, but I think most of our readers know what they're getting into when they try something extreme. It's hard. It hurts. It's incompatible with performance-related training. It's not for the newbie, and it's not for the guy who's cutting calories to get that summertime six-pack to sport on the beach.
You need a brass-filled nutsack to do this, and a lot of food and supplements to get the most out of it – none of which are deal breakers for most of you, I guess.
So the real caution concerns your health, particularly your lower-back health. Your back extensors are going to get fried, and your core muscles are going to sue you for violation of muscle-labor laws! If those muscles quit on you, your back is vulnerable to injury. But that's why this program is for experienced lifters only. You have to know what your back feels like when your lumbar spine is in a safe, neutral position, and no matter how tired you get, you have to be cognizant of any changes to that position. If you don't think you can do another rep safely, you have to back off. Period.
Quite a few giants of the iron game have used high-rep leg training safely and effectively for many years, and if you have the uevos for it, I highly recommend giving it a shot. If nothing else, you'll realize what a serious workout is supposed to feel like, so you grow a pair.
Of good legs, of course.