Frustrated by a lack of leg gains? Here’s what the science has to say on adding lower-body bulk.
Feed your Thighs
“You will need to be in a calorie surplus to grow, or at least hovering just above your maintenance level,” says PureGym PT Peter William.
“Aim for one gram of protein per pound of body weight. So if I want to weigh 220lbs, I’ll aim for 220 grams of protein per day. Also, hit your calories. After you’re happy that you’re getting enough protein in, it’s all about making sure you’re eating a surplus of approximately 500 calories a day.
“That 500 extra calories a day is a good amount to start with, as you’ll be looking for small gains of maybe 1 to 2lbs a week to avoid storing any excess weight in body fat.”
Roll Out Recovery
Foam rolling and stretching should be part of your leg routine in order to release tight muscles, as well as improving your range of motion.
A 2019 round-up of studies published in the Journal of Sports Science & Medicine found that the use of foam rollers, in combination with stretching protocols, can help improve core strength and range of motion.
Do the Splits
Consider splitting the muscle groups in your legs up to make sure you don’t have too much recovery pain.
“So for example, one session focuses more on hamstrings and glutes, and one focuses more on quads and calf muscles,” suggests Williams.
Doing drills that work the hip flexors at the top of the legs – such as Bulgarian split squats and Romanian deadlifts – can also boost your agility and sprint speed, according to research from the University of Florida.
Listen to your Heart
It’s a complete, unsubstantiated myth that cardio will harm your muscle gains.
“Realistically the only thing that will stop you from growing is not eating and sleeping enough, if you are training regularly,” says Williams. “There’s good evidence to show that cardio sessions in the long term can actually help improve leg muscle gains.”
Sports science shows that aerobic training increases inter-muscular DHT (a derivative of testosterone), which binds more readily to androgen receptors (and stays bound) allowing the DHT to exert its anabolic effects for longer.
“In layman’s terms, if you’re able to stay in an anabolic state longer you increase your chance of building muscle,” says Williams.
“Testosterone is one of the most anabolic hormones that the human body releases, so flooding your body with it when working out is of course a good thing.”
Focus on Frequency
If you’re trying to stimulate growth in any particular muscle group, you need to be training it regularly.
“Training your legs three times a week, steadily, will stimulate more growth than training once and really going for it,” says Williams. “Not only does training once put pressure on you to have an amazing session every time, it’s also less productive.”
Accessory movements can build additional strength in the leg muscles. “These are movements where you use only one muscle while doing them without a compound session, such as quad extensions, hamstring curls and calf raises,” says Williams.
They add an extra kick to your workouts and help strengthen your quality of compound lift.
Williams continues: “They generally burn less calories per rep, so they are worth doing at the end of your workout or if you are simply not feeling 100 per cent that day.”
Enter the Compound
Compound moves are widely acknowledged as one of the best ways to develop all-round leg muscle strength and definition.
“The major compound movements for legs are squats, deadlifts, lunges and hip thrusts,” says Williams.
“By definition, a compound movement should allow you to lift more weight as you are using more muscles. The more weight you lift, the more strength you will have and therefore the bigger your muscles will need to be.”
“If you aren’t completing movements correctly, they may not be having the desired effect,” warns Williams. “If you’re squatting without getting enough depth and your knees are caving in, you will be missing out on the full activation of your quads, hamstrings and glutes.”
In other words, if your technique is shoddy, your effort is going to waste. “Generally, if you are struggling with form you’ll need to scale back the weight and work on your mobility,” adds Williams.
“If you’re not adding extra weight or reps to your workouts, it will be very difficult to progress in strength or size,” says Williams.
Research from a number of studies focusing on periodisation and progressive overload training methods show that increasing weight load over time provides the most noticeable results when it comes to building leg muscle.
Don’t Skip It
Devoting designated leg days to building your lower body muscles won’t just increase muscle mass, boost testosterone levels and fill your shorts.
According to new research from the University of Milan, routinely training legs also has a beneficial effect on the development of brain cells and the function of the nervous system.