Optimizing Leg Development
by Mike Robertson T-Nation
If the title of this article got your attention, then you probably want one of three things:
Thighs the size of tree trunks.
The ability to squat or deadlift weights equivalent to an Escalade.
Vertical jumping ability that *****s LeBron James, or speed like Adrian Peterson.
And maybe you're just a greedy bastard that wants all of the above!
When it comes to leg training, I firmly believe we leave a lot of gains on the table because we don't train all ends of the spectrum. Let's start with an age-old debate, and finish with some tips to help take your performance to the next level.
The Great Debate Begins
I'll go to my grave saying that I'm blessed for being born when I was.
Why, you might ask?
Because I got introduced to T Nation and its experts early in my career. When I first started training, I was force-fed the "training programs" used by professional bodybuilders.
This was bad news for two reasons:
I didn't want to be a bodybuilder. I wanted to get strong and feel athletic.
The programs weren't an accurate reflection of how these guys actually trained!
I followed bodybuilding protocols for a few years, but when I got turned onto T Nation, everything changed.
Two guys I was lucky to learn from early on were Charles Poliquin and Ian King.
Both these super-smart guys were talking about smarter leg training, breaking things down into quad dominant and hip dominant movements.
I loved the classification, but I always felt there was something missing. Maybe I'm just dumb, dense, or a combination of the two, but none of the definitions seemed complete.
For example, a front squat and a powerlifting-style box squat are both squats, right? But any lay observer can watch from the side and tell you the two look fundamentally different.
So what gives?
Stop Talking about Patterns!
The problem with the whole quad versus hip dominant argument surfaces when you name a movement (i.e., the squat) and then try to force it into a quad or hip dominant category.
Coming back to our front squat versus box squat debate, they're both squatting exercises by name, but the end-result (and muscles trained) are vastly different.
Instead of focusing so much on the name, look at what the movement is doing – or what position the body is in – and you'll have a much clearer perspective on what you're trying to accomplish.
One way is to look at the position of the tibia. While Stuart McGill is famous for coining the term "neutral spine," Charlie Weingroff is the first person I've heard use the term "vertical tibia."
Gray Cook took it a step further (at least for me) when he talked about vertical versus angled tibia exercises. If your goal is to build your glutes and hamstrings, your goal should be to keep your tibia as vertical as possible.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, think about what happens when you have a very angled tibia position.
When those knees get out over those toes, believe it or not, God doesn't kill kittens. No, when you get into an angled tibia position, you put far more stress on the quads (or anterior chain) than you do on the posterior chain.
Here's another way to think about it. If you don't like talking about the tibia, consider what happens to the torso instead, because they often go hand-in-hand.
If your torso is very bent-over, you're going to load the hips/hamstrings more; if your torso is upright, you're going to load the quadriceps more.
Now if you take those definitions, you can make a lot more sense out of those squatting variations. In a front squat, you're typically very upright through the torso and the tibia gets very angled. This is the definition of a pure quad dominant exercise.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have a box squat where you're trying to keep the tibia very vertical. As a result, you're forced to sit way back, and lean the torso forward. This is the definition of a pure hip dominant exercise.
Maybe these definitions will help a bit:
Angled Torso + Vertical Tibiae = Hip Dominant
Vertical Torso + Angled Tibiae = Quad Dominant
But can we go too far with these in our programming?
At least in the case of angled tibia work, I think so.
Angled Tibiae – When Good Knees Go Bad
Traditional thinking says that if getting the knees over the toes (like you would in a front squat, or Olympic-style back squat) is good, getting them even further is better.
Not so fast.
I think a line needs to be drawn in the sand, and that line begins and ends when you exhaust normal mobility through the foot and ankle joints.
If you've been around bodybuilding long enough, you've likely seen bodybuilders perform quad dominant exercises where their rear foot is actually coming off the ground, so as to allow the knee to shoot ever farther and farther forward.
Here's the rub: the more you let those knees glide over the toes, the more compressive forces you place on the patello-femoral joint. While this may be awesome for building huge friggin' quads, I'd argue that it's going to put a serious limitation on your long-term training goals.
Quite simply, unless you're a total freakazoid or have cartilage made out of concrete, you're not going perform exercises in this fashion for long without breaking down.
If your goal is to build huge quads while simultaneously training as long as possible, front squats are the end of the road. In a front squat, you get all the quad-building benefits from angled tibia work while minimizing the ridiculous compressive loads you get when you start to drive the knee excessively over the toe.
This is also why so many lay trainees still believe the myth that the knee shouldn't travel over the toe when lifting/squatting.
First, watch any baby squat and their form and alignment is impeccable. The knee travels over the toe and they can camp out there for days while playing with a toy, pulling your hair, or even whistling Dixie.
But watch the average sedentary adult squat down and their heels come up, the knees shoot forward, and they bellyache about how squatting hurts their knees.
I'm quickly reminded of my favorite Dan John quote of all time:
"Squatting doesn't hurt your knees – how you're squatting is hurting your knees!"
Now that we have all that cleared up, let's examine how we can use this knowledge to create a superior training program.
Rather than give you a cookie cutter program, I'm going to give you some principles that will really benefit your training.
Here's a table that depicts both quad and hip dominant exercises, along with the ever-popular grey area:
Olympic Style Back Squats
Powerlifting Back Squats
Powerlifting Box Squats
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts
Now keep in mind, virtually all of these exercises can be moved from one section to another. If you conventional deadlift and you start with your knees 2 inches in front of the bar, it's no longer as hip dominant as it should be.
Or if you do a box squat but your torso is bolt upright, it's going to be more quad dominant than usual. At the end of the day, it all comes down to execution. From a programming perspective when you're starting out, you probably need a ton of hip dominant work.
Gray Cook often talks about performing four times as much volume for the deadlift versus the squat. Another favorite quote from Gray is that "You build the deadlift, and maintain the squat pattern."
And I totally get what he's saying – the quads are typically strong to begin with, why make them stronger? Instead, focus on the weak link.
But that little voice in the back of my mind, and the strength athlete that lies in my heart, always wants me to push my squat up, too!
Lessons from Bodybuilders
Bodybuilders tend to do a really good job of delineating between hip dominant and quad dominant work – sure, some of that is carried out on a hamstring curl or leg extension machine, but at least the intention is good!
All that talk of training muscles, or the mind-muscle connection, pays dividends.
Powerlifters, in this case, can learn a thing or two from bodybuilders. Most powerlifters languish in the grey area outlined above when it comes to their movement patterns. And as a recovering powerlifter, I'm no different.
My squats look like deadlifts, and my deadlifts look like squats. Seriously, it's like I'm doing the same movement every day, with the only difference being sometimes the bar is on my back, while other times it's in my hands!
I've recently made it a goal to work opposite ends of the spectrum. Not only do I feel it will improve my strength foundation, but it's breaking the monotony and making training fun again.
When I want quad dominant work, I get quad dominant work. I let my ankle mobility do its thing and I'm focused on using my quads. Front squats are my main exercise in this regard.
In contrast, when I'm doing vertical tibia work, I want to keep my tibia as vertical as possible. The goal isn't range of motion here; it's simply to push my arse as far back as possible in an effort to maximally load my glutes and hamstrings. I really like either Romanian deadlifts or trap-bar deadlifts in this case.
And this may shock you, but plenty of people screw up RDL's by going too heavy. When they come out of the bottom, their knees shoot forward and the torso becomes more upright.
Make sure that tibia stays vertical and doesn't angle forward, especially when coming out of the bottom!
I've quoted and cited more authors in this article than in all my other T Nation articles combined, so it only seems fitting I reference someone in my summary.
Think of all this as a continuum. Dan John has already coined the "squat-swing" continuum – I prefer "squat-hinge," but the end-goal is all the same. If you want quads, let the ankle go and keep the torso upright (within reason).
If you want glutes and hamstrings, keep the tibia vertical and the torso inclined as much as possible.
Spend dedicated time every training year on both ends of the spectrum, and you'll end up bigger and stronger to boot.