Every bro knows you don’t skip legs day. That’s practically gym law.
But some guys can log hour after hour of squats and deadlifts and still not see gains in the size of their quads or hammies. And for those dudes, zeroing in on why their hard work isn’t paying off can be as puzzling as is it is maddening.
For answers, we spoke with Nick Clayton, M.S., C.S.C.S., a personal training program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Follow Clayton’s tips and you might finally manage to turn those popsicle sticks into tree trunks.
1. Sticking with the same exercises
Consistent change is essential to maintaining consistent growth—especially for gym rats. “The longer someone has been training, the more frequently they need to change things up,” Clayton explains.
But a key thing to remember is that the term “change” extends beyond exercise selection. “Changing things up can mean anything from the type of squats you’re doing to an exercise choice to a rep scheme,” he adds. “Even if someone is doing the ‘right’ exercises [for bigger legs], they might be doing three sets of 10 across the board—and that can hold them back.”
The fix: Use techniques like giant sets, dropsets, extended sets, supersets, pyramids, and varied rest periods to make every workout different from the previous one.
2. You haven’t built the strength yet
You might hear people complain that their legs are “strong, but not big”. But before making that excuse, it’s time to define what exactly “leg strength” means.
“I’d consider strong legs the ability to squat two times your bodyweight and deadlift two-and-a-half times your bodyweight,” Clayton says. “If you can squat and deadlift that and your legs are still skinny, it’s probably just lousy genetics. But I don’t see too many people who can do those percentages of squats and deads with skinny legs.”
So if you’re a 160-lb dude complaining about chicken legs but you can’t safely put up a 320 on the squat rack with a full range of motion, then it’s time to focus on strength, not size. If you haven’t added some muscle by then (and you will), then it’s time to diversify your strategies.
3. You need more volume training
There are times to go big and heavy and push yourself to the max—just don’t do it all the time. So if you’re trying to focus on size, then break free of the mindset that every time you squat the bar has to be loaded with your absolute maximum weight.
“A lot of research supports using lower loads and higher volume to build your legs,” explains Clayton. “For three weeks, try doing a higher volume using lower weight—say, 10 sets of 10 reps with something light. Recover for a week. And then go heavy with 6-10 reps, [and then] 5 sets of 3-5 reps. And then cycle back through. Each phase will either build volume or strength, and challenge the body and nervous system.”
4. You’re making things too complex
We know we said you need to change things often, and you do. But Clayton suggests keeping two things in your routine constant: the squat and deadlift.
“Variations of squats and deadlifts should be the keystone of every legs workout,” explains Clayton. “Doing varieties of squats and deads correctly is the best way to get bigger. Using a new piece of equipment…is a good way to get some variety in your workout, but your body will adapt to it, and once that happens it’s game over.”
5. You’re doing cardio the wrong way
Doing enough cardio work to keep you from huffing and puffing whenever you take the stairs is understandable. But if size is the prize, then make sure you do it the right way, since running marathons isn’t necessarily going to help you build the muscle you want.
“If your goal is to put on size, focus on strength training and make cardio a minimum,” he suggests. “Going long on the cardio is when you get catabolic and you start breaking down muscle. Even if you’re looking to get leaner, cut the cardio down and work on metabolic conditioning with circuit-style work and high-intensity intervals…so you’ll keep muscle mass and burn fat.”
6. Your carb intake needs to be higher
“Carbs” has become something of a bad word around the gym. And it’s true that if you’re seriously aiming to reduce any extra weight and get down to an epically low body-fat percentage, carbs need to get cut down. But if you’re trying to stack on size, then go find yourself some sweet potatoes.
“Carbohydrates are critical when it comes to building muscle,” says Clayton. “Carbs allow you to perform at a high level and help with recovery. Bodybuilders are 30-50lbs over their competitive weight in the off-season. You need to get calories in, and the more the better. You’ll put on some fat and a lot of muscle. You have to feed the machine. If you don’t, you won’t grow.”
For people looking to add mass, Clayton suggests constructing a diet that consists of 60% carbs, 30% protein, and 10% fats (60/30/10). If the end game is to get lean, opt for 40/30/30. However, it’s also contingent upon your genetics and how active you are. So use these percentages as a guideline, and make tweaks when necessary to fit your specific needs.
7. Your muscles aren’t under tension for long enough
Your calves need love, too—especially since they often seem to stubbornly resist growing.
When working with calves, focusing on rep counts can be deceiving, Clayton says. “Squatting six reps might take you 30 seconds, but six calf raises might take you six seconds, so it becomes a time-under-tension question,” he says. “In general, you’re looking at that 20-second time frame if you want to build strength. Size and hypotrophy should take 40 seconds, and muscular endurance is about 60 seconds. So you might need 20 reps to get that time under tension with calves.”