Can You Get Big Legs Without Squats? (Yes, Here’s How)


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Gaining muscle mass and size is not a small feat. It requires a delicate balance of loading, training volume, and time. Compound exercises like back squats and front squats are great ways to stimulate serious muscle growth and strength for any level lifter.

But what happens when you are unable to squat due to injury concerns (lower back issues), lack of proper gym equipment (no squat rack), or simply want to add variety to your workouts?

When looking to add leg size without squats, lifters can integrate unilateral leg exercises (split squats, lunges, and step ups) and machine-based movements to increase muscle growth. When performing such movements, the emphasis should be on performing the repetitions in a full range of motion with control and coordination to the growth stimulus on the muscle tissues.

In this article we will offer lifters rules to live by when building big legs without squats and offer some exercises they can do to specifically increase leg size (and strength) in the event they cannot do squats (back squats or front squats). Additionally, the below exercises are also great ways to add more direct quadriceps and hamstrings training even with programs that include squats.


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4 Tips To Build Big Legs Without Squats


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Below are four ways you can improve leg growth without doing squats in a leg training program.

STICK WITH COMPOUND LIFTS

Compound exercises are great movements to maximize muscle growth and strength in all level lifters. In training programs that omit squats, for whatever reason, lifters can still perform a wide variety of compound lifts like lunges, step ups, and stiff leg deadlifts to maximize muscle growth.

Using compound lifts as the pillars in your program can also help you improve movement quality and help you get similar benefits as if you wear to squat.

Related Article: Outer Quad Exercises: 7 Must-Do Exercises

EMBRACE THE FULL RANGE OF MOTION

Lifting in the full range of motion is key for muscle growth both in programs that include squats and those programs that do not. Increasing the active range of motion of any exercise can increase the muscular demands and force output requirements in a movement.

Additionally, by training in the full range of motion, you preload a great amount of tension on the skeletal muscles without having to use as much weight as if you were doing partial reps, which could help you minimize excessive structural stress on the joints and connective tissues.

This is key because we know that lifting very heavy loads does not always promote the best muscle growth, as the stimulus to fatigue ratio may not be as optimal as using moderate to heavy loads in a full range of motion.

USE MACHINES TO DRIVE INTENSITY AND VOLUME


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Using machines like the hack squat, leg press, and single-joint exercises like leg extensions and leg curls in a program can be helpful when looking to drive training volumes while minimizing structural loading (when compared to heavy compound lifts like squats.

These are also great ways to push intensity and minimize technique demands, which will often allow for muscular failure to occur prior to technical failure, fighting the ability to promote muscle growth.

INCORPORATE ECCENTRIC-ACCENTUATED REPS AND POSITIONAL PAUSES

Controlling the eccentric phase of the movement will result in increased muscle damage and growth.

For nearly every exercise below, taking 2-3 seconds during the eccentric phase to load the muscle fibers is suggested to help maximize muscle growth and minimize injury.

Adding pauses at the bottom of the range of motion or at various points throughout the range of motion can also be a great way to add extra tension demands and stretch on the muscle to further enhance strength and hypertrophy.


Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.


10 Exercises To Build Bigger Legs (That Aren’t Squats)

Below are ten exercises lifters and coaches of all levels can integrate within training programs to add leg size and strength without squats (back or front squats).

1. HACK SQUAT

The hack squat is an excellent option for anyone who does not have access to a barbell to perform back or front loaded squats.

The hack squat machine is designed to help specially target the quadriceps. Unlike the back squat (which can be manipulated some to better isolate the quadriceps), the hack squat machine puts the lifter in a position that promotes greater amounts of knee flexion than a standard back squat.

In doing so, the quadriceps are isolated to a higher degree, while also minimizing stress on the hips and lower back.

Related Article: Got A Big Upper Body And Small Legs? Here’s What To Do

2. LEG PRESS

The leg press, like the hack squat, is a great machine variation to build bigger legs without squats.

To maximize results with the leg press and minimize unnecessary stress on the knees and lower back, it is imperative to perform them in the fullest range of motion you can while maintaining a flat lower back.

This is often done by placing the feet towards the lower end of the sled. By also controlling the lowering phase you can properly load the quadriceps To maximize muscle growth and minimize unnecessary joint stress.

3. BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT

The Bulgarian split squat is an ideal lower body exercise for lifters looking to increase muscle growth with dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells.

Unlike bilateral movements, the Bulgarian split squat can be done using lighter loads (great for at home workouts or during times of injury) yet still produce a full stimulus to the muscles of the leg.

To best perform this exercise for quadriceps hypertrophy, you want to make sure to (1) control the eccentric phase of the movement, (2) descend into the deepest position you can while staying upright to force high degrees of knee flexion, and (3) to focus on using the quadriceps to drive the body and load upwards, rather than the back or hips.

4. FRONT FOOT ELEVATED SPLIT SQUAT

Similar to the walking lunge and Bulgarian split squat, the front foot elevated split squat can be done to increase the amount of knee flexion in a movement to further drive quadriceps growth.

By performing any of the unilateral exercises (Bulgarian split squat and lunges) with the front foot elevated, you can add a fuller range of motion to a movement to further enhance its muscle building potential.

In the front foot elevated split squat, the lifter should focus on keeping the front foot loaded throughout the movement and minimize the amount of hip flexion (hips shooting backwards or torso leaning excessively forward) if they are doing this to develop the quadriceps.

5. LUNGE

The lunge is a dynamic lower body exercise that targets the quadriceps, glutes, and even hamstrings.

This is a great exercise to not only develop bigger legs, but it can be ideal for lifers looking to build muscle and movement coordination (such as athletes and general population). This can be done with a variety of equipment (dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, bodyweight), and requires little to no set up.

To isolate the quadriceps more, you can take smaller steps and work on increasing the amount of knee flexion in every step. If you take bigger steps, you can really increase the amount of both knee flexion and hip flexion, increase hamstrings and glutes involved.

6. LEG EXTENSION

Single joint leg exercises can be a great way to add significant leg size without having to incur a lot of systemic fatigue.

By adding leg extensions within a training program you can increase hypertrophy using higher reps sets with lighter rest periods.

It is important to note there that going heavy on single-joint exercises may not be advisable for most people. Rather, use the leg extension as a warm-up or light training exercise.

7. STIFF-LEG DEADLIFT

The stiff leg deadlift is a great exercise for hamstrings strength and growth.

While squats primarily target the quadriceps and glutes, well-developed hamstrings can improve knee function and health, allowing you to further push intensity and growth with leg training.

This exercise also requires no rack, and can be done with a barbell, dumbbells, and kettlebells making it a great option for most training programs.

8. ROMANIAN DEADLIFT

The Romanian deadlift, like the stiff leg deadlift, is a great hamstring and glute exercise to develop significant amounts of muscle mass to build bigger legs.

The main difference between the Romanian deadlift and the stiff leg deadlift is that the stiff leg deadlift places more loading on the hamstrings due to the increased knee extension angles at the onset of the movement.

That said, both the Romanian deadlift and the stiff leg deadlift can be pillars of your hamstring training in a workout program geared to build bigger legs without squats.

9. SEATED OR LYING HAMSTRING CURL

Like the leg extension machine, the hamstring curl can be used to add size to the hamstrings.

This machine comes in two main variations: seated hamstring curl or lying hamstring curl. Both can be used to promote hamstrings hypertrophy.

For best results, use these as primer movements or later in sessions with moderate to light loads. Repetitions should be performed in the full range of motion with eccentric control.

10. SLED PUSH

Sled pushes can be used in warm-ups.  They are great for increasing blood flow to the quads, hamstrings, and calves without having to load the lumbar spine. Sled pushes can also be helpful for lifters who may experience knee pain or discomfort when squatting.

Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals.  The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts.  Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod

Sample Bodybuilding Program To Build Bigger Legs WITHOUT SQUATS


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This program is to be done weekly, with all leg muscles being trained twice per week. The total training volume per muscle group is as follows: 16 total sets for quadriceps, 14 total sets for hamstrings, 10 total sets for calves (sled pushes are not counted for, which can be used for all muscle groups).

To progress this, you could add one set per week to the total weekly training volume (so select one exercise per muscle group per week and add one set… do not add one set for every exercise every week) for 3-4 weeks in a row, prior to deloading and resetting the program.

DAY 1 – QUADRICEPS EMPHASIS

The goal of this workout is to develop the quadriceps and calves. Additionally, some hamstring work will be done as well, however the hamstrings will be more directly targeted on the second training day of the weekly program.

  • Hack Squat: 4 sets of 5-10  reps, slow eccentric and brief pause at full depth

  • Front Foot Elevated Bulgarian Split Squats: 4 sets of 10-15 reps

  • Leg Extensions: 4 sets of 10-20 reps

  • Leg Curl: 4 sets of 10-20 reps

  • Standing Calf Raise: 5 sets of 10-15 reps

DAY 2 – HAMSTRINGS

The goal of this workout is to develop the hamstrings and calves. Additionally, some quadriceps work will be done as well, however the quadriceps will be more directly targeted on the first training day of the weekly program.

  • Stiff Leg Deadlift: 6 sets of 5-10  reps, slow eccentric and brief pause at full depth

  • Leg Press: 4 sets of 10-15 reps

  • Leg Curl: 4 sets of 10-20 reps

  • Sled Push: 4 sets of 45-60 seconds of continuous sled push (use as heavy of weight as possible)

  • SL Standing Calf Raise: 3 sets of 20-30 reps per leg

Final Notes

Building bigger legs takes time and an understanding of training principles and joint actions. Most individuals will walk into the gym, do some squats, and call it a day. Instead, by having a better understanding of the muscles worked during a particular exercise, and how to structure a training program to better isolate muscle tissues that you want to target, you can add quality size and strength to your legs both with or without squats (back squats or front squats).


About The Author


Mike Dewar

Mike Dewar

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.