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Top to Bottom Legs

Stuck in a leg-training rut? This 6-week program attacks the quads, glutes and hammies from every conceivable angle to build a bigger, stronger lower body.

Top to Bottom Legs

The next Monday that rolls around, go to your commercial gym and count how many people are using the squat rack – for squats, I mean, not curls, shrugs or upright rows. (Not that there’s anything wrong with doing upper body exercises in a squat rack.)

My guess is you’ll count way fewer people hitting legs hard than those hammering away at their upper bodies. I also suspect most of those squatting and lunging will be females.

Guys, let’s learn a lesson from the ladies. If you’re in love with benching and curling and light on heavy-duty lower body training, make your way over to the squat rack and carve out two days a week for some serious leg work via my Top to Bottom program. Follow it for six weeks for a bigger, stronger set of wheels that will have you itching to train legs every Monday.

A Leg Up

The Top to Bottom program will have you hitting legs twice a week to really stimulate some newfound growth in the lower body. One weekly workout will be considered your “top” workout, where the majority of leg exercises you do involve the bar being on your shoulders (hence the “top” reference) – barbell and Smith machine squats, barbell lunges, good mornings, etc. The other workout will be your “bottom” workout, where the bulk of the moves will involve the weight being on the floor to begin with (hence, “bottom”) – exercises like regular, sumo and Romanian deadlifts and barbell hack squats. Bottom workouts will also involve exercises where the weight is at your feet, such as leg presses, extensions, and curls.

In addition to alternating between top and bottom workouts, you’ll change the focus of those workouts. One week the exercises for the top workout will focus on the quads, while the bottom workout focuses on the hams and glutes, and vice versa the next week. This way you’re sure to develop well-balanced legs that are massive in the front, back and sides (inner and outer).

For example, in weeks 1, 3 and 5 the quad-focused top workout will consist of front squats, machine hack squats, and sissy squats. Front squats keep your torso more erect, limiting hip flexion (forward bend), which decreases the involvement of the hamstrings and glutes and targets the quads. Same with machine hack squats, as your back is propped up against the pad. Sissy squats focus on the quads even more than front and hack squats due to the fact that you remain up on your toes throughout the movement, which maximizes knee flexion for greater quad involvement.

In these weeks, the ham- and glute-focused bottom workout will comprise traditional deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, and dumbbell step-ups. Deadlifts are a great way to place a tremendous overload on the hams and glutes. Romanians, on the other hand, force you to use less weight than standard deads, but place even greater emphasis on the posterior leg muscles, as all of the movement is hip extension.

In weeks 2, 4, and 6 the top workout will involve squats, barbell lunges and good mornings to zero in on the hams and glutes. Squats done with the bar on the back cause you to bend forward more at the hips, as compared to front squats, which makes you rely more on the hams and glutes. Walking lunges have been shown to involve more hams and glutes than quads. Good mornings are similar to Romanians, only with the weight on your shoulders.

The bottom workouts during weeks 2, 4 and 6 are quad focused and involve sumo deadlifts (where you take an extremely wide stance), leg presses and barbell hack squats. Duke University Medical Center (Durham, NC) researchers reported in an issue of the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise that when they measured the muscle activity of athletes during the standard and sumo deadlift, sumos increased the use of the quads more than standard deads.

When doing leg presses, your back is kept in position by the machine’s seat, much like a machine hack squat. This prevents the extension of the hips you get when doing squats or deadlifts, which keeps most of the focus on the quads, particularly the vastus medialis (the “teardrop” muscle) located on the inner, upper part of the knee, as reported by Japanese researchers from the University of Tsukuba (Ibaraki) a while back.

Due to the weight being behind the body, barbell hack squats involve more leg extension and less hip extension than deadlifts with the weight in front of the body. Therefore, barbell hack squats focus more on the quads. Here's a video of me explaining and demonstrating barbell hack squats, an exercise you still don't see many people doing in gyms:

Strength in Numbers

To ensure progress over the course of the 6-week program, you’ll start off with heavy weight and low reps and increase your reps every other week. This scheme of progressively lightening weight and increasing reps over time is known as reverse linear periodization. I explain all three major forms of periodization (linear, reverse linear and undulating) in this article .

For example, in weeks 1 and 2, reps will be in the 6-8

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