Most lifters are lacking in the leg department. Why? Because the type of training you have to do for leg growth is brutal. Here’s how to get it done.
Question: How many people at your gym have big, thick, nasty legs?
What about on-stage at the last bodybuilding contest you attended? While I can’t speak for everyone, I can say that in the last several shows I’ve been to, there hasn’t been many.
Why is this? Is the ability to build impressive wheels something you either have or don’t have, genetically? Or, do people not know how to squat? I’m going to tell you what I think the reason is later on, but first let me begin by introducing myself to the Testosterone audience and give you a little background on who I am.
My name is John Meadows, and I’ve been fascinated by looking massive and ripped from a very early age (I think I must have eaten paint chips as a kid). I started competing in bodybuilding contests when I was 13 years old, and went on to win local, state, and regional bodybuilding titles, and recently have placed high in national level contests.
I’m a big believer in not only having “street” knowledge, but also being formally educated. I have a Bachelor of Arts in Health and Fitness management, and my CSCS (Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist), and CISSN (Certified by the International Society of Sports Nutrition) accreditations.
I’ve studied under Louie Simmons, the best powerlifting coach in the country, and have been in partnership with Dr. Eric Serrano for over 10 years, learning from him. I now run a nutrition and training website and do my best to balance that with having 21-month-old twins and a day job working at a bank.
But enough about me; what is this Mountain Dog training stuff? Mountain Dog training is what I call an intense set of exercises, rep schemes, and techniques designed to push your body to new levels by not allowing it to adapt to old levels.
If you’re looking for a ‘10-minutes a day’ type of solution, or something that you might find in an infomercial, then you’re going to be disappointed. The number one prerequisite for training progress is increased intensity so prepare to train hard.
I’m going to take you through the key concepts that drive my leg training program and if you’re unsatisfied with your own set of wheels, I’d like you to give it a shot. I’ve provided some examples of leg workouts at the end of the article that I think you’ll enjoy – in a sick sort of way, that is.
Some key concepts are:
There are five concepts that I incorporate into nearly all my leg training workouts:
If there’s one technique that has given me the most leg mass/size over the years, it’s this one. It all started in the 90’s when Dr. Eric Serrano and Charles Poliquin were talking about TUT (Time Under Tension). I remember Eric telling me the optimal time to produce hypertrophy was 50-60 second sets and I immediately applied that to my leg workouts. Well, it worked – big time.
That said, I found that I don’t necessarily buy the limit of 50 or 60 or 70 seconds for hypertrophy. Your body can and will adapt to anything you throw at it if you don’t mix it up. With that in mind, I began incorporating the occasional set that took 2 to 3 minutes. I’d get on the leg press and, using a fairly heavy weight, do these until my legs felt like they were going to burst into flames.
These 3-second descents are used on four primary exercises – leg presses, barbell squats, hack squats, and stiff-legged deadlifts. We’ll use them on other exercises on occasion, but these four turn into pure nastiness when you use this technique.
Many of you are likely familiar with 21’s, the classic biceps partial-rep training sequence, but there are effective ways to employ partials on specific leg exercises, too.
My absolute favorite lower body partial reps exercise is the leg (hamstring) curl. The partials are done out of the extension portion of the movement (with the legs extended), not the contracted; so you may do 15 full range of motion reps and then add in anywhere from 8-25 partials at the end.
The pump you’ll get is incredible, and when you move on to quad training, you should notice a huge difference in how good your squats and leg presses feel. These are to be used on leg curls, leg presses, and leg extensions.
I learned this from a Tom Platz seminar in the late 80’s. Somebody asked him how he got his legs so massive and strong, and his reply was that as lifters we often get focused on heavy weight for low reps, or lighter weight for high reps, but the correct way to achieve extreme size, was to use heavy weight for high reps.
Now this is obviously very intense, so you have to be careful. You can’t get under a squat rack and try to do your max weight for high reps, unless you want to dump the weight or worse, get injured. In fact, I recommend you do notuse this on barbell squats, period.
I took this tip a step further and noticed that I got very good results with this style when I didn’t lock out all my exercises, but rather did a pumping or continuous tension style. I know this isn’t a new idea – Joe Weider invented all this stuff, right? – but constant tension with heavy weight for high reps produces incredible intensity. I use this technique primarily on leg presses, machine-type squats, and Smith machine lunges.
You have to be careful to not overdue this. One set properly performed on leg day is all you need (along with the rest of your lower body workout). This is the number one technique where pain tolerance comes into play. How far can your mind allow you to take your set? How much pain can you withstand? The answers will determine the effectiveness of this protocol.
This is a great way to develop raw strength and adductor size. I noticed that my inner thighs/adductors were getting thicker, as were my training partners when we began to go rock bottom on certain movements, pause, and then drive them up as hard as we can. I helped a gentleman prepare for the Mr. USA last year and he started employing this technique in nearly every workout, and it was amazing how his inner thighs looked after six months.
We used this technique with squats at Westside Barbell in Columbus when I was there in the 90’s and the resulting increase in leg strength was nothing short of phenomenal. Louie likes to do his famous 8 sets of 3 on speed squats, and he’s developed some of the strongest guys on the planet. I simply added some reps, and voila, huge inner thighs.
Use a full range of motion, pause at the bottom, and drive up. This technique is applicable with hack squats and machine squats, primarily.
Now this is something that will test your testicular fortitude. Again, a well-known technique for arm training zealots, but how many people do a crazy drop set on the hack squat or leg extension? How about using the 3-second technique and partials with it as well? We can incorporate these on almost every leg movement except for free weight squats.
There’s such an irrational fear of overtraining these days. It seems as if any more than three sets per bodypart is a recipe for zero gains, illness, and crippling injuries. Is this a conspiracy started by gym owners to make folks stay away?
Mountain Dog Training uses a 3-cycle approach over 12 weeks:
Phase 1 – Weeks 1-3: Use a medium volume approach, gradually incorporating the high intensity sets. I have a rule I follow called “get the most out of the least.” In other words, for most people, even very advanced trainees, the use of the high intensity techniques described above will be enough to provide initial shock to the legs. Why do 20 sets for legs, when you can get great gains with 12? This allows you to build your volume and intensity and start to reap the hormonal benefits of higher volume training later on, but more on that later. The set total ranges from 11-14 sets.
Phase 2 – Weeks 4-9: Use a high volume approach. Now we start to build in volume each week. Your body will be adjusting to the intensity you threw at in the first phase, so to keep it off balance we slowly add more overall volume over the course of the next three weeks. Typically, the number of sets will go to 16-20, with more high intensity sets added each week. This phase is a hard six-week grind.
Phase 3 – Weeks 10-12: Use a low to medium volume approach, with all high intensity sets preceded by proper warm ups. Overall volume now goes down for sets (8-10), but the sets you do will be the hardest you’ve done in your life.
Deload Phase – 2 Weeks: As with any hard program, there’s a period of deloading that will benefit you in the long run with rebounding from the cumulative neural fatigue that accompanies high intensity work. Everyone is different though – I’ve had people insert this at the six-week point, and others that have gone over 30 weeks training with lights out intensity and continued progress.
Two weeks of lighter training is my general recommendation after a brutal 12 weeks of work; sometimes you have to take one step back to take two steps forward.
There are some things that you just can’t learn in textbooks. You can learn about sarcomeres, myosin cross bridges, sarcoplasmic reticulum, A-Bands, I-bands and on and on. And I have to tell you, I love that stuff.
But you will never read that to get better hamstrings from your squats or leg presses, perform leg curls first in a certain way. That is something I learned through personal experimentation and has been confirmed by working with countless clients.
Truth is, there are many exercise sequences that I believe work better for size and strength gains, with the added bonus of injury prevention. I just don’t have the foggiest idea how to prove it scientifically.
Here are some examples:
- Do high intensity leg curls before doing leg presses or squats, and you’ll improve hamstring development.
- Perform hams and quads together in the same workout – you’ll get more overall size and thickness.
- Do your stretching type movements for hams (stiff-legged deadlifts, Romanian deads, etc.) after your hams and quads are fully pumped.
- Do leg presses or squats before you do hack squats.
- Do at least two movements for quads before you do lunges.
- Don’t do any kind of lunge or hack squat first in your routine – you won’t engage the muscle sufficiently, and you could beat up your knees in the process.
- If your quads are small, don’t do leg extensions, period; just focus on squats, leg presses, and hack squats for overall quad development. Leg extensions can be a great tool, but if you use them in place of compound movements I would call them leg “extinctions.” Same principle applies for fancy lunges. They have their place, but not until you build a certain level of leg development
Many highly successful programs such as Dante Trudel’s “DoggCrapp” training have been big proponents of fascial stretching, but John Parillo may have been the first to really put the proper emphasis on it. I actually started my very serious training at the Parillo complex back in the early 90’s, so I may be a bit biased on this; I just know from experience that it works.
Fascia is a tough, dense connective tissue that spreads throughout the body in a three-dimensional web from head to foot. A smooth fascial sheath surrounds every muscle of the body, every muscular fascicle is surrounded by fascia, and every fibril down to the cellular level is surrounded by fascia.
From this, we can come to the conclusion that it is the fascia that determines the function and length of the muscle that it surrounds and furthermore, we can postulate that if there is a malfunction of this system due to binding down or restriction, it will have widespread effects on the whole body.
Binding down and restriction of the three-dimensional web can create numerous problems like myofascial pain, poor posture, shortening and restriction of skeletal muscle – meaning no more hypertrophy!
You’re going to incorporate some intense fascial tissue stretches during two specific times: 1) when the muscle is extremely pumped, and 2) at the end of the workout. Don’t get lazy; take the time to do this, and you’ll be rewarded.
Another extreme training system, right? Can I back it up that it even works?
I could take the easy way out and rattle off the names of some well-known bodybuilders who swear by my methods, like Shelby Starnes of Troponin Nutrition. But there is a physiological basis for why this training system works so well:
- The more fibers you can recruit, the more fibers you have to potentially “remodel” during the repair phase. Doing sets as shown in the videos will get maximum muscle fiber activation.
- We know that working with heavy loads increases the cross sectional area of the muscle fiber, meaning it gets bigger. We don’t get reckless though; we sequence exercises properly, and are not governed entirely by the weight since it’s a path that cannot continue forever.
- Using higher volume results in favorable endocrine system responses, namely growth hormone and Testosterone levels increase.
Okay, now that you have read the theory behind my approach to leg training, let’s take a look at a few sample workouts:
Have someone gently push down on your lower back while you do these to keep your hips down - you won’t be able to go as heavy, but it will isolate them better.
2 x 20 (warm-up)
1 x 15
1 x 12
1 x 8
Add weight each set. Rest about 90 seconds between these sets.
1 x Drop Set.
Go back to the weight you did for 12 and do it 10 times; drop a plate and do 10 more reps, drop a plate and do 10 reps, then go back up (heavier) by one plate and do 25 partials out of the bottom – just start the weight up and come back down. Little reps: the weight will only be moving 2-3 inches.
Bend your knees at the bottom; use 25-lb plates instead of the larger 45’s to get a better stretch.
2 x warm-up
2 x 10
Flex your glutes and hams on every rep.
Feet slightly wider than shoulder width and a little lower on the platform. Start light with 1 plate on each side; during the first few sets you should still feel it in the hams and inner thighs during the eccentric. Keep going up in weight until you’re properly warmed up. Perform 3-second negatives, but explode on the way up. Do 3 sets like this with a weight that’s a hard 10. Fascia Tissue Stretch 1 minute each quad.
3 x 10 reps with a full range of motion. On the third set, use the same weight, but go down all the way and pause, then drive the weight back up hard. Maintain constant tension – do not lock out the weight. Do 10 reps like this, then cut the weight in half and do 15 more reps to finish your leg session. Fascia Tissue Stretch for 1 minute on each quad, and repeat 2 times.
Get a full range of motion, all the way up and back.
2 x 20 (warm-up)
1 x 14
1 x 12
1 x 10
1 x 35 reps.
Add weight each set. Rest 1 minute between sets. Go back to a weight that’s 1 or 2 plates lighter than what you started with and do 35 reps. The first 10 reps will be easy before the fire kicks in. It will be hard to reach 35, but do it, even if your last 10 are partials. Get through this set.
2 x warm up sets. Gradually add weight until you get to a load you could normally do for 10-12 reps maximum. Stick with that weight.
3 x 16 heavy weight plus high reps.
Standard positioning: feet shoulder width, toes pointed straight up, and medium stance on the platform. These are all done with continuous tension style - no locking out. You may have to use your hands to assist. Try to work the lower part of the movement the hardest; this is how you nail the teardrop portion of the quadriceps. Rest about 2 minutes between sets.
1 x warm up set
3 x 8
Use a weight that allows you to go all the way down and pause in a very controlled manner. Drive up, but do not lock-out. It won’t take much weight, and your legs should be extremely pumped after 3 sets of 8. Again, go deep, pause, and then fire back up. Fascia Tissue Stretch 1 minute each quad.
2 x 8 reps with a full range of motion, aka rock bottom.
1 x 8
On the last set, employ the 1-1/2 technique. Hit rock bottom, and only come up half way, then back down to rock bottom again, then all the way up – that’s one rep. Fascia Tissue Stretch 1 minute each quad.
Don’t come up all the way, and bend your knees slightly at the bottom. Focus on getting a good stretch and on each set, try to get slightly deeper. Think about pushing your hips back as you go down, and keeping the dumbbells right against you.
Well, you can use your imagination for a Phase 3 workout; think of all the possible combinations with the above techniques!
That’s an overview of leg training the Mountain Dog way, and an introduction to my overall approach to building muscular size, fast. The techniques listed here don’t necessarily apply to all bodyparts, but in my experience legs can withstand a great deal of punishment.
So punish them I do.
Going back to the first paragraph and why I don’t think there are more people out there with big strong legs? I think it’s because of two words: Pain tolerance. Along with two other words – work ethic – you simply need to have it to be successful.
I look forward to taking you through other bodyparts in the coming days.