“I don’t train legs.”
This is a pretty common theme in the average gym and something I heard more than ‘can you change the TV channel’ when I spent a brief 6 month spell working in a commercial gym in Nottingham.
There’s 3 main reasons for this occurring, and now you know, you’ll spot the signs a mile off when you walk in the gym.
Maybe even before you notice the hot girl on the treadmill.
Okay, maybe it’s not that obvious, but as you are now entering a world of REAL strength training, you will start to sniff out things that will multiply in intensity until you can’t stand the thought of being in the same road as a gym that does not have three or more squat racks.
Reason 1) Leg training hurts. Really, really hurts. If you do it properly. If you don’t, it’s not leg training it’s ‘working out’ so it’s not the same thing.
Reason 2) Your gym may not have a squat rack. I was told by the local leisure centre here in Guernsey that they DELIBERATELY don’t have a squat rack, because they don’t want ‘big guys’ in the gym.
Draw your own conclusions as to what squatting does to your training and attitude and why YOU want this in your life!
Reason 3) It’s easy to just wear a pair of trousers and show off your upper body beach muscles in the summer.
The fact is that squatting will hurt, but you will soon form a love-hate relationship and appreciate the following:
1) No exercise releases the same level of growth hormone as squats.
This growth hormone will aid leg growth but also growth systemically throughout your body so other body parts will grow more too.
2) Girls like a guy with a good pair of glutes and tear drops in their quads.
3) Some would argue with deadlifts, some weight hoisted overhead, but for me, nothing feels as good as beating your squat record.
You walk out the gym knowing that, whilst 99% of people walking past you don’t give a shit, you have just done something monumental.
This makes you better than them.
But where’s the best place to start?
Below are what I consider to be the most effective squat training plans for different levels of lifters.
As with most goals, there is more than one way to skin a cat and it’s hard to distinguish between an intermediate and advanced protocol simply because an intermediate program done with brutal intensity will smoke even those who might think they are advanced.
I’ve been humbled in this way a few times!
Just make sure your recovery protocols and nutrition are up to scratch to help you recover from which over program you choose.
If you’re not sure if you are beginner or intermediate, you’re beginner.
Someone who is new to squatting (but dabbled with weights before) or who has not regularly completed sets of full depth squats but instead thought loading a bar and bending their back as they dropped all of 8 inches was a squat.
For such people, I recommend two options.
The first hits different rep ranges so your strength and size increases at the same time, preparing you for even more brutal methods.
Depending on what phase of training you’re in and your sport specific training requirements, you will squat once or twice per week.
As you’ve not yet done full depth, hard squat training you are unlikely to have a 1RM for the squat, nor would it be safe or very fruitful to try to test it until you have some volume under your belt and great technique.
So the first session or two requires some educated guesses, ensuring full range of motion.
Give yourself 3-4 days between squat sessions.
Set 1 and 2 ‘Preparation sets’ with about half of what you expect to lift in your heaviest set.
You should be able to perform 10-12 reps comfortably with perfect technique. These can just be an extension of a good mobility warm up.
Set 3 – 6-8 reps leaving 1-2 reps ‘in the tank’. Rest 2-3 minutes or superset with upper body exercise
Set 4 – Add weight and perform 3-5 reps leaving 1 rep in the tank. Rest 2-3 minutes or superset with upper body exercise
Set 5 – Reduce weight below what was used for Set 3 and perform 9-11 reps leaving 1 rep in the tank. Rest 2-3 minutes or superset with upper body exercise
Performing this twice per week for 3 weeks will lead to consistent gains in strength and muscle size.
You should be able to add 2.5-5kg to corresponding sets, every week.
In Week 4, halve the volume by performing just 3 sets.
One easy set, one middle range set and one top end set.
You should halve the reps in each set as well.
You may then repeat the protocol increasing the weights from Weeks 1-3, or you may move on to the intermediate protocol.
This is plain and simple. It doesn’t need to be any more complicated.
You should be at a stage when you can accurately perform a 1RM test with great technique.
5 x 5: Perform 5 sets of 5 reps.
Let’s assume my 1RM is 100kg.
Set 1: 5 reps at 40% of your 1RM = 40kg EASY
Set 2: 5 reps at 50% of your 1RM = 50kg STILL EASY
Set 3: 5 reps at 70% of your 1RM = 70kg WORKING
Set 4: 5 reps at 75% of your 1RM = 75kg HARD BUT A COUPLE OF REPS LEFT IN THE TANK
Set 5: 5 reps at 85% of 1RM = 85kg VERY HARD
If you are looking to gain size, you can also add a ‘back off’ set of 8-10 reps with 70% of your 1RM.
If your focus is to get the weights up in that final top set, you can reduce the reps in Sets 3-4 to leave more in the legs for the top set.
So your sets would instead go 5, 5, 4, 3, 5 reps.
Beginners however should focus on getting higher volume largely to initiate faster neurological and technique improvements.
Advanced – Option 1
One of my favourite intermediate to advanced protocols comes from Dan John, one of the most widely respected strength coaches in the game with an athletic background behind him and some quality athletes in his care.
In his phenomenal book Never Let Go: A Philosophy of Lifting, Living and Learning
, Dan proposed this as part of a ‘one lift per day’ program. So you may well only do this once per week for squats and repeat for other compound lifts such as bench press, deadlift, military press or Olympic lifts.
Knowing your 5RM is useful for this 4 week protocol.
Week 1 – 7 sets of 5
Set 1: 5 reps at 80% of 5RM
Set 2: 5 reps at 85% of 5RM
Set 3: 5 reps at 90% of 5RM
Set 4: 5 reps at 95% of 5RM
Set 5: 5 reps at 82.5% of 5RM
Set 6: 5 reps at 87.5% of 5RM
Set 7: 5 reps at 95-100% of 5RM (dependent on what you have left in your legs and if you have spotters)
BONUS: Add 3-5 max height jumps as soon as you rack the bar.
PROBLEM: Walking tomorrow. You’ll get over it.
Week 2 – 6 sets of 3
Repeat Week 1 dropping one preparation set but add more weight to each set, making sure you hit three quality reps.
Week 3 – 5, 3, 2
Have a couple of prep sets then hit 100% of your previous 5RM from a few weeks ago.
Increase the weight to hit 90-95% of your 3RM – you should have a fair idea from Week 2.
Hit a set of two heavy.
Week 4 – Deload
No matter how much you want to keep trying to push on with your new found gains, by the time you get here, you will probably WANT a week off.
Play around with new exercises, go swimming, play sport. Do what you like, but don’t go near any heavy squats or other exercises for that matter.
Get a deep tissue massage.
Often this week is when the most muscle gain is achieved as the body finally gets a chance to recover.
Dan John suggests performing these sets and reps for ONE LIFT each day. My own experience leads me to agree…!
Your week may therefore look like this:
Tuesday: Row or clean
Friday: Military press
Try it and report back….
Advanced Option 2 – Smolov Squats
This is a 13 week cycle – so get ready for a long-haul. But expect your best results ever.
You should download the Smolov Spreadsheet and use it to calculate what should be lifted when.
The introduction cycle to prepare your legs.
In Week 1 you squat three days in a row working up towards heavy singles.
The rest of the week is spent stretching to speed up leg recovery.
In Week 2 you squat every other day.
The base cycle where you’ll squat four times a week for 3 weeks.
Monday is 4×9
Saturday 10×3 reps
The weight increases each workout, each week.
Week 4 is a rest week where you need to choose a day (Wednesday works well) and re-test your 1RM.
This is a two week phase designed to give you some much-needed rest physically and mentally.
The intensity cycle is where the fun really starts.
You’ll only squat three times a week but nearly half of the time it will be using weights between 80 and 90% of your maximum…
The 1RM re-test. Stand and marvel.
Performing just these routines will do wonders for your squats and leg growth/strength.
However, I would also recommend adding the following the exercises into your training programs to bring up stability and shift the training focus to different areas of your lower body whilst performing slightly different movement patterns.
This will have a positive impact on your squat training as well in a self-serving feedback loop.
3-4 sets of 8-12 reps supersetted with a non-competing exercise such as upper body or abs/core exercise will work well.
– Step ups and lateral step ups
– Bulgarian split squats
– Reverse lunges (on the flat and with elevated front foot)
– Heavy kettlebell swings (use dumbbells if you don’t have KB’s)
– Glute ham raise
– Reverse hyper
Of course, you should also have deadlift variations in your training.
A sample lower body session might look like this:
A1: Squat 4 x 9 Rest 90 secs
B1: Reverse hyper 4 x 10 Rest 45 secs
B2: Hanging knee raise 4 x 12-15 Rest 45 secs
These programs are useless unless applied with intensity and focus.
Don’t start one then drift on to something else or try to adjust it.
Yes they hurt – which is largely why they work.
Do them well and do them properly with great technique and you can expect excellent results.