How To Get Stronger Legs According To A Pro Weightlifter

how to get stronger legs according to a pro weightlifter

Weightlifters have the most pronounced legs of all strength sports athletes, and rightfully so because they squat, deadlift, clean, and snatch multiple times a week. As a weightlifter myself, I can teach you how to build legs like a weightlifter without ever having to do the Olympic lifts.

To get stronger legs, you must squat at least twice a week (often three times), improve your squat depth and technique, and train with 80-90% intensity. Failure to squat heavy, and often, is the main reason that many lifters struggle to gain leg strength.

To help you get stronger legs, I put together my top tips for gaining leg strength and highlighted the most common mistakes I see lifters make.

I’ve also included a 6-week training program that you can use to train lower body strength, three times a week, to maximize your strength results.

If your legs struggle to gain strength, let Fitbod help. On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Try Fitbod for free.

Train Like A Weightlifter For Stronger Legs

Having strong legs is a critical part of the sport of Olympic weightlifting, which involves the snatch and the clean & jerk. 

You need strong legs to perform these movements because your leg muscles drive the weights off the floor and allow you to stand back up after receiving the bar in a squat position. Your legs also contribute significantly to the success of overhead jerk movements.

For this reason, all successful weightlifters train their legs 2 to 3 times weekly with squats and hinging movements (like Romanian deadlifts). 

In addition to training those strength movements, weightlifters will accumulate a lot of lower body training volume (muscular work) by executing snatches and cleans.

Weightlifters arguably have the strongest legs of any strength athlete because they spend the most time training their legs with heavy loads. So if you want stronger legs, you should consider training like a weightlifter.

Related Article: 4-Day Push/Pull Workout to Build Strength

Leg Muscles Used In Weightlifting

It’s important to strengthen each lower body muscle group to build stronger legs because they work together to help you lift heavier weights.

If you neglect a muscle group, it will likely become a limiting factor for how strong you can get.

The four muscle lower body muscle groups used in weightlifting are:



The quadriceps are the muscles on the front of the thighs and are responsible for straightening the knee. Weightlifting trains the quads primarily with squatting and lunging movements.

It is important to note that squats done for quadriceps emphasis must have the lifter in an upright position. A vertical torso position (rather than leaning forward), places more emphasis on the quads because the knees will be more bent, meaning the quads have to work harder to extend the knees. 

An upright position is also necessary for a successful lift in the clean and snatch, which is why many weightlifters train the high bar and front squat.

The weightlifter style squat, which often has the knee going into deep angles of flexion at the bottom of the squat (where the lifter is squatted well below parallel), is the primary reason for pronounced quad growth.



Hamstrings are the muscles that run along the back of your thigh. These powerful muscles contribute significantly to overall pulling strength when lifting weights off the floor. 

Strong hamstrings are developed from hinging movements, like Romanian deadlifts and clean/snatch deadlifts, and through accessory exercises like hamstring curls.

Strong hamstrings also help support knees, which is critical for weightlifters who often put their knees into compromising positions when receiving a weight.


Weightlifters rarely train the glutes in isolation since they get plenty of training volume from deep squatting, lunging, and hinging movements.

The glutes are highly active during deep squats, so most weight lifters only need to add glute isolation work to their training if they develop a side-to-side imbalance or they lack hip stability.

If glute strength needs to be addressed, weightlifters can include hip thrusts or glute isolation exercises (i.e. hip external rotations) to improve glute function.



The calves extend the ankle joint (plantarflexion). Strong ankles assist in the final extension phases of both the snatch and the clean and jerk, contributing to overall leg strength in squats and pulls. 

The calves typically get enough volume from snatch and clean variations; however, if you’ve had a previous calf injury or you know they are a weak point, you can include some isolation work.

Some lifters add straight or bent leg calf raises at the end of the sessions to help strengthen their calves outside of the main movements.

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How To Strengthen Your Legs

Now that you know which movement patterns and muscles to focus on, here’s how you can strengthen your legs.

Train Legs Three Times a Week

Weightlifters squat at least twice per week, with many performing lower body strengthening exercises 2-3 times a week. This is in addition to the squatting done during cleans and snatches (competition lifts).

When you train legs more frequently throughout the week, you can spread your total weekly leg training volume across 2-3 days rather than 1-2 days. In doing so, you often can lift heavier loads in higher volumes. 

The quality of your training is usually higher when you train more frequently because you are generating less fatigue than lifters who spend longer in the gym trying to get enough volume and intensity to build strength in 1-2 sessions per week.

For example, lifters who only train legs once a week will need around 20 total sets in one session. The first 8-10 sets may be high-intensity and good quality, but fatigue will limit the last 8-10 sets, making them sloppy and less productive.

Instead, I recommend you train like a weightlifter with 3-6 sets of legs per session and 2-3 sessions over the week. This allows you to achieve the same volume as the person who does it all in one day but with the ability to push harder and heavier on all sets rather than just half of them.

Squat Deeper

Squatting deeper will encourage more muscle growth with every rep, as increased ranges of motion and the stretch of the muscle under loads have a significant effect on overall muscle growth

Squatting deeper will also help you strengthen the weakest areas of your squats and lower body exercises (deep ranges of hip and knee bending).

Lastly, by squatting deeper, you can train a larger amount of your muscle mass with less loads; over time, this can help minimize overuse injuries. 

While using less weight may seem counterproductive when your goal is to be stronger, taking the time to improve your technique and sit lower into squats will help you build more muscle, which, in turn, down the road, will increase your strength.

Use Phasic Training Blocks

If you want to build stronger legs then there needs to be structure to your training program, you can’t be switching things up every week or lifting heavy all the time. It’s best to approach your training with a phasic training process.

Phase 1 – Build a Base for Strength Development (Hypertrophy)

You need to start by entering into a hypertrophy-based block that can help you build more muscle tissue. Hypertrophy training for weightlifting is often done in the 5-10 rep range, emphasizing less on how much you lift and more on feeling the muscles working and growing them.

Many weightlifters will perform squats and hinging movements (deadlifts) with controlled tempos and pauses (increasing time under tension) to force their leg muscles to grow while reinforcing good technique and positions. 

In this phase of your program, the total sets throughout the week for your legs should be around 15-20, with 6-10 total sets completed each workout (2-3 leg sessions a week). Rep ranges of 5-10 are common, with loads of 70-80%.

Phase 2 – Train New Muscles to Express Force (Strength)

After the first phase, you should have more muscle tissue so in this next phase the goal is to strengthen the muscle mass that you’ve built. This strength block has you training in the 2-5 rep range on most compound free-weight movements (front squat, back squat, deadlift, and other hinging movements). 

These movements should be performed with heavier loads (80-95% of one rep max). Total work sets throughout the week are between 12-20, with total sets per session being around 6-10 (2-3 sessions per week). 

Accessory movements are still implemented to help reduce injury by addressing smaller muscles that may not get as much attention when lifting heavier.

Keep It Simple

Struggling to get stronger can be frustrating and often leads lifters to think they need to do some new groundbreaking exercise, workout, or mobility drill to break through. While there may be some cracks in your strength foundation, the reality is that most lifters just do not realize how long it takes to get strong.

Talk with any accomplished lifter, and they will tell you that the most impactful factor in developing long-term strength is to have a plan, stick to it, and do that for years. There are no shortcuts. 

Often, the same movements that make you stronger in the beginning phases of training will be the same ones that will get you stronger over the long term.

If your program is not built around the basics of back squats, front squats, good mornings, Romanian deadlifts, hamstring curls, lunges, and leg machines (hack squat, leg press, belt squat, pendulum squat, then you need to re-evaluate your program.

Eat Enough

To build stronger legs, you need to make sure you are eating enough calories and protein to allow your body to train hard, recover from said training sessions, and have enough calories left over to build new tissue.

If you want to build strength but you are restricting calories, you will find it very difficult to get stronger (especially as loads get heavier and sessions get more demanding). You could also increase your risk of injury by failing to supply your body with enough energy to support training and recovery.

If you are a lean individual who struggles to gain size and strength, you need a calorie surplus of around 500 calories. This means you should be eating 500 calories more than you need to maintain your weight. 

If you are not as lean and want to gain strength while minimizing body fat accumulation, eat at maintenance (the number of calories you need to maintain your weight). If you are recovering and performing well, you do not need to eat in a calorie surplus because your body should be able to use energy from stored body fat.

Include Accessory Exercises

Training main strength movements like squats and deadlifts is necessary to get strong; however, doing accessory exercises that train the muscles more directly also plays a massive role in muscular development and injury prevention. 

Do not skip your accessory movements, as they support the main strength movements and fill in any gaps in your program.

Aim to include 2-3 accessory movements per session and do them after completing your main strength movement of the day.

How Long Does It Take To Get Stronger Legs?

how long does it take to get stronger legs

It will take approximately 8-12 weeks to see significant improvements in leg size and strength. This time frame allows for proper accumulation of training volume (work) to minimize injury, build muscle tissue, and prepare the body for more strenuous heavy lifting in the final weeks of your strength phase.

The first 4-6 weeks of your training program will focus on building muscle so you should notice that your body measurements are changing. 

If you are lean, you can expect your measurements to increase as you build muscle; however, if you have more body fat to start with, you may notice that certain measurements are decreasing as you trade fat for muscle.

The last 4-6 weeks of your training program should have you training barbell squats and deadlifts in the 2-5 rep range with loads above 80% of your maximum to build strength. The final 1-2 weeks of this phase could even have you lifting in the 1-2 rep range with loads above 90% to peak your overall strength by the end of the cycle.

At the end of the 8-12 weeks, you should notice an increase in strength. If you’re a beginner-to-intermediate lifter you’ll notice a large increase in strength; however, if you’re an advanced lifter you may only experience a modest increase in strength.

Mistakes To Avoid For Stronger Legs

Mistake #1: Not Squatting Frequently Enough

If you aren’t squatting consistently, it will be very difficult to gain leg strength. Strength is built by continuing to challenge your leg muscles with new stimuli (i.e. heavier loads) week after week (aka progressive overload). 

If you aren’t challenging your muscles frequently enough to give them a reason to get stronger, then they won’t get stronger.

Aim to squat 2-3 times a week, including high bar back squats and front squats, to give your legs a reason to get stronger. 

Mistake #2: Squatting Too Light

If you are looking to improve your strength, then you need to be training in the 2-5 rep range. While higher rep ranges can improve general strength for beginners, as you progress you will need to be lifting loads that are above 80% of your max, often into 85-90% for 2-5 reps per set.

Squatting too lightly does not have the same effect on the nervous system, which needs to be trained to become more efficient with heavy loads. Without training the nervous system, it will be very difficult to become stronger.

Mistake #3: Lifting Too Heavy

If you are pushing every set to failure and lifting in the 2-5 rep range, you could be setting yourself up for overuse injuries, connective tissue injuries, or (if you are more advanced), overtraining.

Knowing when to push hard and when to back off is incredibly important for building strength. I use a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale of 1-10 with my lifters so they know how each set should feel. 

1 = absolutely effortless

10 = could not have gone heavier or done any more reps

Ideally, the majority of their training is done at an RPE of 8-9, meaning that they have 1-2 good reps left in the tank before failing.

If every set feels like an RPE 10, then you need to lower the weight. Other signs that the weight is too heavy include form breaking down, changing the depth to which you squat, and joint pain.

Mistake #4: Doing Too Much Volume in A Training Session

As I mentioned earlier, if you try to do all your lower body training in one day (i.e. 15-20 sets in one session), you will find that after the first half of the workout, your energy levels fall. This has nothing to do with willpower or motivation, and everything to do with your body’s nervous system. 

Many lifters believe that being unable to push through those sessions means they are weak. However, it is typically the strongest of athletes who can handle the least amount of heavy volume in a workout because the heavy sets they are doing are so much more strenuous on their body.

One of the main reasons that weightlifters train legs 2-3 times a week (instead of once) is that it allows them to keep the quality and intensity of their lower body training to the highest standard and make better progress. 

Mistake #5: Not Prioritizing Strength 

To get stronger legs, you need to stop doing things that may compete or conflict with strength development. 

If you are someone who enjoys all forms of fitness (running, CrossFit, high reps, etc.) you may be doing too many other types of exercise, which are limiting your strength potential.

Doing too many types of exercise at once makes it challenging for your muscles, joints, and nervous system to recover between hard strength sessions and it becomes more difficult to fuel yourself properly to encourage strength and muscle growth.

For the best results, you need to commit to the 12-week plan and prioritize your recovery by making sure you are getting enough sleep, eating enough calories, and limiting other forms of exercise that may compete with your training.

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 Fitbod for free.

Sample Program For Building Leg Strength

sample program for building leg strength

Before following the program below, which focuses on strength development, you should spend 4-6 weeks in a Hypertrophy phase to build a solid foundation.

According to Matt Eulau, a US national level 81 kg (176 lbs) Olympic weightlifter who squats nearly 500 lbs, front squats over 400 lbs, and clean and jerks 350 lbs…

“Pure hypertrophy phases (before a strength program) are vital to any good strength program. In that beginning phase, if you aren’t feeling the muscles you want to target working, they aren’t working and aren’t growing. Once you have spent a few months feeling the muscles working, you can transition into a more strength-focused block where you rely more heavily on the entire system (nervous system, connective tissues, etc.) and minimize injury”.

You can turn the following strength plan into a more hypertrophy-based plan by doing 10 reps during weeks 1-2, 8 reps during weeks 3-4, and 6-8 reps during weeks 5-6. The loading relative to your one rep max will be lower, often between 70-80% (instead of 82+%).

Once you’ve completed a hypertrophy phase, you can dive into the following program.

Note: These workouts are not found in the Fitbod app as they are written below, however, you can use this sample training plan as a template to create your own workouts within the app. All exercises are in the Fitbod app, complete with how-to videos.


  • Week 1: 5 sets of 5 reps with 78% of your 1RM (1 rep max)
  • Week 2: 5 sets of 5 reps with 81% of your 1RM
  • Week 3: 6 sets of 3 reps with 84% of your 1RM
  • Week 4: 6 sets of 3 reps with 87% of your 1RM
  • Week 5: 8 sets of 1 reps at 90% of your 1RM
  • Week 6: Test for a 5RM (5 rep max)

Day 1

  • Barbell Back Squat: see chart above
  • Hack Squat of Leg Press: 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Seated Hamstring Curl: 3 sets of 15 reps

Day 2

  • Barbell Romanian Deadlift: see chart above
  • Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Leg Extension: 3 sets of 15 reps

Day 3

  • Barbell Front Squat: see chart above
  • Barbell Good Morning: 3 sets of 8 reps
  • Seated Hamstring Curl: 3 sets of 15 reps

About The Author

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.