Building bigger legs and gaining muscle is one of the main reasons why so many lifters undergo a bulking period. Increased calories often allow for increased training volume, frequencies, and recovery.
When looking to gain serious leg size during a bulking process, it is recommended to stick to compound movements like squats, hinges (stiff leg deadlifts), and exercises that allow for a high amount of muscle stimulus and fatigue without impeding your ability to recover. Training frequency is often a key factor in gaining size during a bulk.
In short, the more you can train, and recover from that training properly (smart programming and eating enough food), the more you can train, which means the more you can repeat this muscle-building princess.
In this article, I’ll review 10 must-do leg exercises if you’re wanting to build bigger legs while bulking. Additionally, I’ll discuss five training techniques that work for beginners and advanced lifers alike to take each of these exercises to the next level. Lastly, I’ll share three leg workouts you can do to gain size and strength in the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.
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10 Must-Do Leg Exercises for Building Bigger Legs
Below are 10 of the best leg exercises to build bigger legs for any level of lifter:
Stiff Leg Deadlifts
Machine Hamstring Curls
Machine Leg Extensions
Bulgarian Split Squats
For best results, be sure to perform the below exercises with the training techniques discussed in the next section.
Looking to build bigger legs, WITHOUT weights? Read my other article.
Back squats are king if you are looking to grow bigger legs.
High bar back squats are often used to maximize quadriceps growth as this allows for a more vertical torso positioning and deeper ranges of knee flexion.
Unlike the low bar back squat, the high bar back squat is the ideal choice when looking to squat for bigger quads.
You can use variations like the tempo back squat to further enhance muscle growth of the quads.
The front squat is a squat variation that allows for even greater degrees of knee flexion (deeper knee flexion equates to more quadriceps involvement).
In doing so, like the high bar back squat, you minimize loading on the hamstrings and glutes, as well as the lower back, and in turn, maximize the need for the quadriceps to accommodate the volume and respond (muscle growth).
This can be done with a full grip or arms crossed grip.
Related Article: Bulking After A Long Cut: 8 Tips For A Successful Bulk
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.
I suggest you place your feet as close to underneath you as possible, which will allow you to gain depth in the squat via knee flexion rather than limiting the range of motion or gaining depth via hip flexion (leaning forward), both of which do not equate to efficient quadriceps loading and development.
Related Article: Leg and Arm Workout: How To Structure On The Same Day
The leg press is a 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.
STIFF LEG 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.
For most individuals looking to maximize hamstrings growth, I recommend that they perform stiff leg deadlifts in place of conventional deadlifts as their stimulus to fatigue ratio is more in their favor and stiff leg deadlifts often seem to be less stressful on the lower back when done properly.
If you do not feel you are doing these correctly, be sure you are not committing one of these common stiff-leg deadlift mistakes.
Barbell goodmornings are a great exercise to build bigger and stronger hamstrings, glutes, and erectors.
This movement is popular among bodybuilders, weightlifters, and powerlifters alike as it not only improves hamstrings and glute muscle growth, but also can aid in back strength necessary for heavy squats (back and front squats) and deadlifts.
Be sure to train this with similar rep ranges as the stiff leg deadlift for best results.
Can’t squat or deadlift due to a bad lower back? Be sure to read this article where I discuss my favorite lower back-friendly exercise that builds bigger legs!
MACHINE 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.
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MACHINE LEG EXTENSIONS
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 the end of a session.
Related Article: Does Cardio Count As A Leg Workout? (Yes, Here’s How)
BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUATS
This unilateral leg exercise builds the quadriceps, 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.
Related Article: How To Bulk Up Fast: 10 Tips For Maximizing Muscle Growth
Walking lunges can be done using just about anything; a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, bodyweight, etc.
The key to building bigger legs with walking lunges is to make sure you allow for deep ranges of motion and control throughout the lunge.
Short steps that allow for the knees to go over the toes result in deeper knee flexion angles (which target the quadriceps more).
If you are looking to shift more loading the glutes (and a little hamstrings), bigger steps would be your go to. Either way, these are a great way to wrap up a leg workout and attack the lower body muscles all at once.
Wanna learn more about the best leg exercises to build bigger quadriceps and hamstrings? Be sure to watch this video where I discuss these (and a few more) in full detail!
5 Training Techniques to Maximize Leg Growth
Below are five training tips and techniques you can use with the above exercises to maximize your muscle growth during your bulk and minimize injury
ELEVATE THE HEELS
Elevating the heels in quadriceps-focused movements allows for deeper degrees of knee flexion to take place, which is exactly what is needed if you want to build thick thighs.
By elevating the heels you minimize the need for hamstring and calf flexibility, and allow for a more vertical squatting or lunging position. In doing so, you shift more loading into the quadriceps.
You can do this by placing small weight plates under the heels or by wearing shoes with an elevated heel. I do not recommend elevating the heel for hamstring-focused exercises.
EMPHASIZE THE FULL RANGE OF MOTION
Training in the fullest range of motion one can do while maintaining a flat or arched back and muscle control is key for maximize muscular stress and tension.
By training in the fullest ranges of motion you are able to load the muscle fibers and place the greatest amount of stress on them while also minimising the need for excessive loading (which may actually contribute to joint pain or nervous system fatigue in more extreme cases).
CONTROL THE ECCENTRIC PHASE
Controlling the lowering phase (eccentric) is a great way to increase tension on the muscle.
Increased tension often leads to greater muscle breakdown and ultimately growth.
By emphasizing the eccentric phase, you also help to maintain proper control throughout the full range of motion which can help minimize injury risks and keep you training (and recovering properly), both of which are key to long term leg growth.
PAUSE AT FULL RANGE OF MOTION
You can also use pauses throughout the range of motion to place extra loading demands and tension on the muscle fibers, you call when in the deepest ranges of motion.
It is important to maintain control and positbal strength (flat back, for example) when pausing, rather than allow the body and muscles to relax.
When it comes to building muscle, more often than not you want to minimize momentum when lifting.
A little body movement from time to time won’t make or break you, but if you are relying on catching the bounce of squats or slamming the bar on the floor during stiff leg deadlifts, there is a strong chance you are sacrificing gains and maximizing injury risks.
Instead, learn to control the lowering aspect of the movement, embrace pauses, and be OK with decreasing the overall amount of weight used for the sake of muscle hypertrophy!
Sick and tired of walking around with small legs? Watch this video and learn how to build some serious leg size during your next bulking cycle!
3 Leg Workouts to Build Bigger Legs When Bulking
Below are three leg workouts you can do while bulking to build strength, size, and set the groundwork for a successful strength cycle to come.
Below is a workout geared to increase muscle growth of the quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves.
This workout primary focuses on the quadriceps, and accounts for 50-75% of the weekly training volumes necessary for most individuals to gain size.
This is best paired with the hamstrings-focused workout below to maximize weekly growth.
Heel Elevated Back Squat: 5 sets of 4-8 reps, with a 2 second eccentric, and 1 second pause
Barbell High-Bar Good Morning: 4 sets of 6-8 reps, with a 2-3 second eccentric
Leg Press or Hack Squat: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, with a 2-3 second eccentric
Leg Press Calf Extensions: 4 sets of 8-10 reps, with a 2-3 second eccentric and 1 second pause
Walking Lunge: 3-4 sets of 8-10 steps per leg, focusing on deep knee flexion (big steps)
Below is a workout geared to increase muscle growth of the hamstring, quadriceps, and calves.
This workout primarily focuses on the hamstrings, and accounts for 50-75% of the weekly training volumes necessary for most individuals to gain size.
This is best paired with the quadriceps workout above to maximize weekly growth.
Stiff Leg Deadlift: 6 sets of 6-8 reps, with a 2 second eccentric
Lying Hamstring Curl: 4 sets of 10-15 reps, with a 2-3 second eccentric
Leg Press or Hack Squat: 4 sets of 8-12 reps, with a 2-3 second eccentric
Seated Calf Raise: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, with a 2-3 second eccentric and 1 second pause
QUADRICEPS AND HAMSTRINGS FOCUSED WORKOUT
The below workout is a complete lower body workout.
The weekly training volumes are towards the lower end if you are out to gain massive legs during your bulk, however, you can use this in combination with one of the two workouts above or repeat this twice per week.
Front Foot Elevated Bulgarian Split Squat: 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps, with a 2 second eccentric
Hack Squat of Leg Press: 4-5 sets of 8-10 reps, with a 2 second eccentric
Stiff Leg Deadlift: 4-5 sets of 6-8 reps, with a 2 second eccentric
Lying Hamstring Curl: 3 sets of 15-20 reps, keep rest period short (30 seconds) to increase metabolite build up in the hamstrings
Machine Leg Extensions: 3 sets of 15-20 reps, keep rest period short (30 seconds) to increase metabolite build up in the quadriceps
Seated or Standing Machine Calf Extension: 4 sets of 12-15 reps, with a 2-3 second eccentric and 1 second pause at the bottom
Building bigger legs takes months of hard work in the gym, and in the kitchen. Once you have your bulking meal plan down pat, be sure to maximize leg growth with the above workouts and exercises. Make sure you eat enough calories to support your training, recovery, and muscle roth needs, and stay consistent in the gym. You will get there!
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.