We all know that person who is stacked on top yet struggles to gain size and strength in their legs, despite saying they train them. Personally speaking, this was something I struggled with for years, but finally was able to get to the bottom of my small leg syndrome once and for all.
For most individuals, lack of gaining leg size can come from insufficient training volumes, lack of proper range of motion during lower body exercises, and poor recovery due to excessive high-impact cardio exercises.
In this article, I will discuss reasons why you may struggle with gaining leg size and strength, offer you some exercises and techniques to build leg mass, and share a few workouts with you that you can start doing to get your progress going ASAP.
Need a workout program? Get 3 free workouts on Fitbod right now.
8 Reasons Why You Have Small Legs
Below are eight of the most common reasons why people suffer from small leg syndrome. While these are not the ONLY reasons, these are often the easiest ones to address.
1. INSUFFICIENT OVERALL TRAINING VOLUME
When looking to gain muscle size, it is important to accumulate enough training volume to stimulate muscle growth. Most lifters who suffer from small leg syndrome aren’t training them enough (or when they do they aren’t training them properly as I discuss below).
For most individuals, aim to attack the quadriceps with 14-18 total work sets per week from mainly compound exercises. For hamstrings hypertrophy, aim for 12-16 total work sets per week (total work sets per week, not per session).
2. TRAINING FREQUENCY
I recommend you train legs twice per week.
If you are someone who tries to do all your legs once per week, and let’s assume you are training 18 work sets for quads and 16 work sets for hamstrings, that is just too much work for one day.
What often happens if after 15-20 total sets of anything, neural and systemic fatigue occur, the quality of work decreases, and you often end up accumulating trash volume (excessive sets and reps that do not increase muscle growth, but rather impede recovery and growth efforts).
For this reason, I recommend you split your weekly training volumes across two leg days, maybe even three. An additional benefit is leg days will not take as long, and during them you can really focus on perfect reps and adequate loading to stimulate growth.
3. POOR EXERCISE SELECTION
There are such things as bad exercises, and some individuals are notorious for focusing on the wrong ones.
I suggest that the vast majority of the exercises you use are from the following list:
High Bar Back Squats
Bulgarian Split Squats
Stiff Leg Romanian Deadlifts
Seated or Lying Hamstring Curls
Heavy Sled Pushes
These are made up mainly of compound exercises. Additionally, they are made up of ones that allow for progressive overload, no matter how strong or weak you are. Sometimes equipment like dumbbells and kettlebells will limit the amount of loading you can do, which can potentially be the reason your legs aren’t growing.
If you don’t have the equipment, then check out my 3 leg workouts that will help you build muscle without weights.
4. NOT TRAINING IN THE FULL RANGE OF MOTION
This is one of the most common faults I see many gym-goers doing. If you look at any lifter who has a great set of wheels (legs), there is a very very strong probability they are squatting below parallel.
When performing quadriceps focused movements, you need to allow for full knee flexion. Limiting this will limit muscular loading being placed on the quadriceps. When training the hamstrings, you should aim to flex the hips with a flat back and limit knee flexion during movements like RDLs and stiff leg deadlifts.
In the end, you should feel a deep stretch on the target muscle, and work the movement through the fullest range of motion you can achieve while maintaining a flat back and proper form. This often means lifting less weight and focusing on feeling the muscle work before you can progress back up in loading.
Check out my article on the 6 best back-friendly leg exercises.
5. TRAINING TOO HEAVY
Training heavy, often in the rep ranges of 1-5 reps can begin to limit the overall amount of training volume one can do since the intensity is often higher (usually loads above 85% max). While heavy loads do not impede muscle growth directly, only lifting near max loads can put you in a position where you are accumulating a lot of fatigue and not a lot of stimulus.
If you are someone who is always lifting heavy, try spending a few months in a hypertrophy phase where you train in the 5-10 rep range of large compound movements to allow for higher training volumes to be accumulated. You can also increase rep ranges and volumes of movements like lunges, machines, or accessories exercises during phases where you are driving strength in squats and deadlifts to account for lower than optional training volumes in strength blocks.
Check out my other article where I discuss
how to mix hypertrophy and strength training.
6. TRAINING TOO LIGHT
This can be an issue for a lot of at-home trainees, beginners, or even individuals who have issues pushing themselves in the gym.
While you do not need to max out your lifts, choosing a load that you can get 20+ reps with if you had to truly go to max may be limiting your ability to gain size in your lower body. While lifting light weights isn’t entirely bad for muscle growth, there has to be a balance between that and lifting heavier loads that drive the anabolic process and increase muscle damage.
Always lifting in the higher rep ranges can lead to your muscles not getting adequate overload stimulus (a basic principle in gaining strength and size).
If you are guilty of this, choose a main compound lift each leg session (or two), like squats and stiff leg deadlifts, and perform 4-5 sets of 5-10 reps with a load that is challenging. How challenging? If you can perform more than 3 reps at the end of every set, and are hitting 10 reps (in this case), the load is too light.
Related Article: Does Cardio Count As A Leg Workout? (Yes, Here’s How)
7. NOT EATING ENOUGH
This is really for anyone unable to build muscle mass. Being in a calorie deficit will not give your body enough energy to recover and train more frequently. If you are a beginner or have some body fat to lose, you may not have to eat more, but instead, devote more training energy to leg training. If you are leaner or a hard gainer, you need to train the legs more frequently and eat more.
Take a look at my other article on the calories and macros you should be eating for bulking.
8. EXCESSIVE HIGH-IMPACT CARDIO
I’m not against cardio, however, there is a reason why bodybuilders limit cardio during periods where the goal is muscle growth (and the cardio they do is very low impact).
If you are someone who is not gaining size in the lower body yet is pounding away on the pavement or doing a ton of high-intensity cardio, you may be breaking down muscle fibers and burning valuable calories that could be used for growth.
Try cutting back the cardio, and instead take that time to train with weights more.
Check out my article on Can Cario Burn Muscle where I discuss the science.
10 Best Exercises To Build Bigger Legs
The below exercises are some of the best movements you can do to build serious leg size and strength for the quadriceps and hamstrings.
It is important to note that these can be done with a barbell, speciality bar, dumbbells, kettlebells, and machines depending on the movement. The key with all of these is that they are not exclusive to one singular piece of equipment, but rather can be adaptive to what you have access to.
Be sure to complete all of these with loads that cover the widest range for muscle growth 8-15 reps for most individuals (however you can experiment with sets of 5-10 and 15-25 from time to time).
HIGH BAR BACK SQUATS
High bar back squats force a lifter to remain in a more vertical torso positioning (when compared to the low bar back squat), which in turn increases the amount of knee flexion (and decreased hip flexion) during the squat. This is a great exercise to develop serious quadriceps strength and size. You can use variations like the tempo back squat to further enhance muscle growth of the quads.
The leg press is a wonderful machine for building quad size and strength, however it is also the one leg machine that nearly everyone does wrong. Make sure you perform these in the fullest ranges of motion, often maxing out your pain free knee flexion angles and often using much lower loads that you are used to. Refer to this great leg growth video discussing 7 of the most common leg press mistakes people make.
The front squat places the load in a more anterior position, which further reinforces the need for a more vertical torso position in the squat. In doing so, like the high bar back squat, you force higher degrees of knee flexion and further isolate the quadriceps. This can be done with a full grip or arms crossed grip.
The hack squat machine is one of my favorite quad exercises. This machine isolates the quadriceps and allows for a high amount of loading to be applied. If you do not have access to the machine hack squat, you can use this foam roller hack squat variation (paired with kettlebells or uses for higher reps) later in workouts to finish a quadriceps focused leg day.
Machine leg extensions are a great way to add additional quadriceps training volume without having to overload the back or hips. These can be great to do to pre-exhaust the quadriceps prior to compound lifts, or at then end of a session.
BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUATS
This unilateral leg exercise builds the quadricep, glutes, and even hamstrings. The Bulgarian split squat can be done with a variety of equipment, and can be done using heavier loads or lighter loads depending on the goal. Try placing the lead leg on an elevated surface to further increase the range of motion and muscle damage.
STIFF LEG ROMANIAN DEADLIFTS
The stiff leg deadlift is a dominant hamstrings muscle builder. Unlike the deadlift, it limits the amount of knee flexion and really shifts the loading to the hamstrings (and off the lower back and supporting muscles). While you cannot do as much weight typically as the deadlift, you can still really overload the hamstrings. If you struggle with hamstring size and are deadlifting, I recommend you swap these in and really force your hamstrings to grow. Be sure to refer to this video to make sure you aren’t committing these common stiff-leg deadlift mistakes.
In addition to the stiff-leg deadlift, the Romanian deadlift can be done to increase hamstrings growth and size. This RDL allows for slightly more knee flexion, and in turn places some more emphasis on the glutes and back.
SEATED OR LYING HAMSTRING CURLS
Hamstring curls on machines (either lying or seated) are a great way to add additional hamstring training volume without having to load the lower back or hips. You can do these early in sessions to pre-exhaust the hamstrings before compound lifts, or use it towards the end of a session.
HEAVY SLED PUSHES
This is a personal favorite for individuals who want to gain leg size and strength yet may have limitations with back pain or mobility in the squat. Using the leg press takes loading of the lower back, yet allows for some knee and hip flexion and extension to occur. You can really load these up and overload the concentric contractions, which can also improve blood flow to the quads. I prefer to load this heavy, and push the sled for a total of 45-60 seconds so that my quadriceps and glutes feel pumped up (I will rest in between sets 2-3 minutes, just like I would with squats).
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2-Day Leg Hypertrophy Program
The below workout program consists of two lower body workouts per week. The first workout is quadriceps focused, whoever does have you perform one movement for hamstrings. The second workout is hamstring focused, with one exercise for quadriceps. By training both muscles each day, you are able to boost training frequency, minimize excessive muscle soreness, and allow for higher quality work during each workout.
DAY 1 – QUADRICEPS FOCUSED
High Bar Back Squat: 4 sets of 5-8 reps
Goodmornings: 4 sets of 5-8 reps
Leg Press: 4 sets of 10-15 reps
Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Machine Leg Extension: 3 sets of 20-30 reps
DAY 2 – HAMSTRING FOCUSED
Stiff Leg Deadlift: 5 sets of 5-8 reps
Machine Hamstring Curl: 5 sets of 10-15 reps
Hack Squat or Heel Elevated Dumbbell Goblet Squat: 5 sets of 10-15 reps
If you are someone who lacks leg size, there is a strong likelihood you need to train them more frequently using the exercise and training techniques discussed throughout this article. Some lifters will really struggle with gaining leg size, however, with the right program and understanding of muscle growth principles and consistent training, bigger thighs and hamstrings can be developed.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.
Mike has published over 500+ articles on premiere online media outlets like BarBend, BreakingMuscle, Men’s Health, and FitBob, covering his expertise of strength and conditioning, Olympic weightlifting, strength development, fitness, and sports nutrition. In Mike’s spare time, he enjoys the outdoors, traveling the world, coaching, whiskey and craft beer, and spending time with his family and friends.