Leg Day With Evan Centopani
Leg day is brutal—that's the point. But there's no doubt it can make a tremendous difference in your physique if you take it seriously and give it space to work. Just ask IFBB pro Evan "Ox" Centopani, who has been experimenting since his teens to find just the right combination of movements, scheduling, and technique tweaks to help him build his world-class wheels.
THE OX APPROACH
Name: Evan Centopani
Occupation: IFBB Pro Bodybuilder
Location: Trumbull, CT
So what has worked for Ox? A two-pronged attack that includes not only his favorite movements and reps, but also takes things like scheduling into account to make sure his lower body has every opportunity to grow—and keep on growing. But he wants to make sure you know this is his plan, not his message of how everyone else should train.
"Although I've been hammering away for many years and can honestly say that I've learned a thing or two, I definitely don't know everything. More specifically and importantly, I don't know you," he says. "I've spent every training session since the time I was 15 trying to figure out exactly what is optimal for me. If you're smart, you'll realize that there is no one right way to train."
Take his tips for what they are, he says, but recognize that leg day is a sacred ritual for every serious bodybuilder. Give it the respect it deserves, and you'll earn a leg up on the competition.
A MATTER OF TIME
When you think of a typical workout, you probably imagine it primarily in terms of the work you're going to perform: movements, sets, and reps. Depending on the particular workout, the time it takes to finish could range from 45 minutes to two hours. Rather than focusing on a certain number of total sets, Ox looks at the time frame he has available and works backward. "If you can't effectively stimulate the muscle in about an hour, you're most likely not overloading the muscle," he says.
As for where in your week that time frame is located, Ox has a suggestion: Monday, and not too early. "It's a hell of a way to start off the week," he says. "You might find you've got a little more juice, a little bit more energy to dedicate to them. Plus, you get them out of the way for the week."
We caught up with Ox at his hometown gym in New Haven, Conn. around 10 a.m. on Monday, but he says he normally prefers to train legs a few hours later. "I've always found that training in the afternoon, my body just feels a little more warmed up," he explains. "All night long, your body is dehydrated; it's inactive. [But] if you've been up all day, even if you're a relatively sedentary person, you've moved around more than if you wake up at 6 o'clock in the morning and go straight to the gym."
HOW MANY REPS?
"I do believe 6-8 rep squats have a place in bodybuilding, but I don't believe they should be done on your beginning sets. For me, those sets take place either after fatigue has set in or when I am feeling incredibly secure with moving heavier weight. In short, move as much weight as you can over as many reps as you can."
STEP UP TO WARM UP
Leg day in an hour? Ox can't possibly warm up, right? Wrong. While Ox isn't a fan of stretching out his legs as part of his warm up, he always starts with a few minutes of walking on either a stair machine or a treadmill with the incline turned up to the max.
"I'm not going fast or anything like that," he says. "I'll still warm up when I get on the gym floor with the weight. But this just kinda gets everything moving a little bit looser, more movement in my hips, and I feel like it helps to warm up my lower back a little bit. If I take the time to warm up on the treadmill or stepmill and just get blood everywhere, I find that my range of motion is better and I feel stronger."
After his brief warm-up, Ox moves to his main workout. Leg day for this IFBB pro normally consists of just six exercises: squats, leg presses, dumbbell lunges, lying hamstring curls, hyperextensions, and deadlifts. Let's break down his cues for these classic movements.
The barbell squat, done with proper form, is a great movement for gaining lower body mass—not just quad mass. So approach it as the whole-leg developer that it is. "I wouldn't advise trying to isolate the quads with the squat, because it's not an isolation movement," Ox says. "If you want to isolate your quads, do extensions. Done properly, the squat will pack size on your quads, your glutes, and your hams. You don't just want big quads; you want big legs, period."
To this end, Ox also prefers to squat with a relatively wide stance, which he says feels "safer and more natural" to him. "I tried for years to squat with a narrow stance. Aside from the pain it caused, I found that it wasn't really giving me the results," he recalls. "Doing it with a wider stance enabled me to involve more of my whole leg: inner thighs, quads, glutes, hams, the whole bit. My legs really started to take off."
He also prefers to keep his hands close and the bar as low as possible on his traps, even if it means he has to take a little time to stretch his shoulders and get into position. "I always feel more stable and powerful with my hands in a little bit closer [to the body]," he says. "You see guys sometimes with the bar a bit higher up on their neck, but I've always felt that if I can get my bar down on my back and across my traps, it enables me to keep my back straighter and just puts me in a more powerful position."
"I approach the leg press much the same as squats," Ox says. "With my feet wide, pressure on my heels throughout the movement, I engage the hips rather than the knees." He's no stranger to loading the sled up with 20 plates or more, but advises not to get too caught up in numbers. "Obviously you want to challenge yourself with heavy weight and all that," he says. "But it's bodybuilding, not powerlifting. Make sure you're working the muscle, too."
Ox has one other recommendation for this popular piece of equipment: Don't sit too low on it. "If I sit all the way down in the seat on the leg press, when I lower the platform to the point where my hips are fully engaged, my ass is off the seat and my lower back is rounded. Not good," he explains. "It's not only unsafe, but you're also in a less than ideal position for stimulating your legs. I have found that moving up on the seat a good six inches or so allows me to lower the platform all the way down without my lower back rounding or my ass lifting up. Furthermore, I'm able to maintain better tension in my legs."
Especially after a brutal onslaught of squats and presses, Ox is a fan of changing course with some strategic supersets. He'll mix movements like dumbbell walking lunges, curls, or more presses in order to maximize the blood flow throughout his legs.
"I've had really great workouts where I superset quads and hams, and by the time I'm done the entire leg is engorged," he says. "There are plenty of guys who would superset bis and tris, but they wouldn't think of doing hams and quads, probably because the amount of weight they would use would be cut down a little bit."
LYING LEG CURL
These movements are great for a pump, but Ox is adamant that compound lifts are his bread and butter. He draws another analogy with his arms. "What have I found most effective for arm mass? Direct, isolation work? No, it's heavy back training and heavy chest training—pulling and pressing, not curling and extending. I find the same is true for legs," he explains. "So I'll include hamstring curls in my training, but I feel that hyperextensions and deadlifts, in addition to the indirect work done by pressing, will ultimately give me the greatest results."
Deadlifts come at the end of Ox's leg workout, rather than on back day. "You might think it's a lot to squat and deadlift in the same workout," he says. "It definitely is. But if you do your quad stuff first, and you kind of have a period where you're doing a couple of movements for hamstrings that aren't super intense and heavy, then chances are by the time you get through those, you'll be able to squeeze out a couple sets of deads."
Aside from proximity, another thing that Ox's deadlifts share with his squats is that he likes to go wide with them—especially at the tail end of a grueling leg workout. "I find it to be to my advantage to widen my stance so that the range of motion is shorter, making it that much easier to keep my back straight and all the tension on my hams and glutes—and off my lower back," he says. "When you come up, there's no need to roll your shoulders back and contract your back. Just thrust your hips forward, because all you're looking to do is squeeze your hams and your glutes. So there's no sense in wasting all that energy locking out your back."
OVERLOAD OVER ALL
A leg day like Ox's requires you to think in terms of whole-leg strength to survive. Simply focusing on isolating individual muscles won't be enough. And especially on leg day, he reminds us to leave the ego at the door and not try to add too much weight to any exercise.
"The main priority is overload," he says. "It's overload that forces the body to respond by fortifying itself with greater size and strength to better endure future beatings. Remind yourself of this every time you step foot in the gym."
3 warmup sets of 15-20 reps, 3 working sets of 8, 10, 12 reps
1 warmup set of 20 reps, 2 working sets of 15, 12 reps
2 working sets of 10-12 steps with each leg
Lying Leg Curls
1 warmup set of 20 reps, 2 working sets of 15, 10 reps
Hyperextensions (Back Extensions)
3 sets of 8, 10, 12 reps
Wide Stance Deadlift
2 warmup sets of 10 reps, 1 working set of 10 reps