This week in my blog, I want to talk about how my leg training changed from the time I started out as a 14-year-old kid just trying to get huge to a more intelligent and targeted routine that I used while training for the Mr. Olympia competition. Many of you will find it useful, because I think it mirrors the goals of many bodybuilders. At first, raw mass is the driving motivation every time you hit the weights. But as time goes by and especially if you start competing, you'll find that things like shape, proportion, and muscle separation take on a greater importance.
When I was 14, I joined a hardcore powerlifting gym in Highland Park, New Jersey called Health and Strength. The older lifters there saw how dedicated and serious I already was, and basically took me under their wing to teach me the three power lifts: the bench press, deadlift, and squat. Of those three, squats were the lift I loved the most: there was nothing quite like the feeling of that heavy bar bending across my back! By the time I was 18 or 19, I had bulked up to 240 pounds and I could squat 700 for a couple reps. But of course, I squatted like a powerlifter. My stance was very wide, and I would bend forward and stick my butt out as I lowered down to parallel. My legs were huge, but they were shapeless; like tree trunks. I also noticed that my butt and my obliques were growing. Since I wasn't the tallest guy and I didn't have a naturally tiny, narrow hips and waist, I started to get concerned. By now I was competing, and a thick, blocky midsection was going to be a liability.
From there, I joined Ron Capodanno's Gold's Gym in Milltown, New Jersey, where I would train until I was competing in the Mr. Olympia. Here there were plenty of bodybuilders, and they had a totally different training style than the powerlifters. When it came to squats, they put the bar higher up on the back, stayed more upright in the torso, and used a more narrow stance, about shoulder width. This way of squatting put more emphasis on the quads and less on the glutes and lower back. They also did more reps as a general rule. It took a little while for me to adjust, but soon I was handling some very decent weights: 405 x 25, 495 x 15-20, and 585 for 10 reps.
But at a certain point, I could see that my obliques were still being worked too hard from squats, and they certainly weren't getting any smaller. It was then that I made the decision to only squat occasionally and instead, I started doing a lot more front squats, leg presses, and hack squats as my compound pressing movements for quads. I could also see that my hamstrings were falling behind my quads in development, so it was time to start focusing more on them too. After a year of that, they had come up a lot. And as for my quads, they weren't shapeless blobs anymore! Now the outer quads had better sweep, there was more meat over the knees, and my quad separations were deeper and more clear.
This is how a leg workout of mine looked in the mid-1980's when I was taking second at the Mr. Olympia year after year:
4 x 15-20, 2 x 50-75
On these I would increase weight each set, and the last two sets were extended drop sets with three or four weight drops for a total of 50-75 reps. On the very last drop on those two final sets when the weight was lightest, I had a training partner push down on my ankles to give me 'forced negatives. 'Just trying to resist at that point was brutal!
4 x 15, 2 x 65
Here, I would start with 6 plates a side and go up two plates a set. I usually shifted my foot positions around the platform every two sets to hit different areas of the quads or inner thighs. My last two sets started with 14 plates for 15 reps, then I would take off 2 plates and do 10 reps for every drop, until I finished with just 4 plates.
Hack Squat 4 x 12-15, Sissy Squat 4 x 15-20
Drop sets were a favorite technique of mine, but super sets were also always an effective way to crank up the intensity for a ridiculous pump and burn. I went right from the hack to sissy squats, one hand holding a plate across my chest and the other holding on to an upright of a power rack for support.
3-4 sets of 15 steps each leg
These were actually my favorite, and the funny thing is; at that time I was the only bodybuilder I knew who did these. The reason I started was that I wanted complete leg development, and I considered glutes part of that. I didn't want any area to be soft, and these did a great job at hardening up the area between the glutes and the hams. I would use 225-275 pounds.
After this, I typically rested for about a half-hour before I worked hamstrings. I might have had a little something to eat except that my quad workout left me too nauseous. Too bad I didn't have SizeOn Maximum Performance and Aminolast back then, or else I could have sipped on that to help me gear up for hams!
Lying leg curls:
4 x 12-15, 2 x 45
I did these pretty similar to what I did on the leg extensions: moving up in weight for four sets, then doing drops on the last two sets with forced negatives from a training partner.
Standing single leg curls:
3-4 x 12-15
Dumbbell leg curls:
2-3 x 12-15
This is a really old-school way of doing leg curls that has a completely different feel than any machine. You lay on your stomach on a decline bench, head up top, and have a partner put the dumbbell between your feet.
3 x 15
To get a deeper stretch, I always either stood on a block or on top of a bench.
As you can see, my leg workouts were about effort and intensity from day one, but as time went by I made many changes so that I wouldn't just have the biggest legs on the Olympia stage, but the best!