leg training bodybuilding

Posted 1 year ago

5 Reasons your legs aren’t growing

In the bodybuilding scene, everyone wants big legs. It’s often the trademark sign of a very good bodybuilder and someone who has been at it for a while. For as much as these a readily sought after though, very few people will actually possess “big” legs. In fact, there will be many of you who feel like your legs are simply not growing, and that they never will.

Does this sound familiar?

Any muscle in the body that isn’t developing will have similar reasons as to why that might be the case. However, there are some specific common reasons that I have seen over the years when it comes to leg development. Therefore, the purpose of this article we will be to look at the 5 most common reasons as to why your legs aren’t growing.

Training intensity: Are you training hard enough?

Now, if this is something you’ve read and instantly got offended at, it’s probably because you don’t train very hard at all. Whenever I pose the question to new potential clients, the answer is always “yes I train really hard”; yet after analysing their training intensity through videos, it’s often the opposite.

This is mainly down to the fact I don’t think many people understand just how hard you can push yourself when you’re locked into a hack squat, leg press, pendulum, or leg extension (just to name a few). There will have been very few occasions in your life where you have been exerting a lot of force and found it hard to move. This is effectively what you are going to have do to every time you train your legs: push yourself to the point where you are exerting maximal force but finding it very difficult to move.

My suggestion would be to rate each set out of 10, 1 being that the set was “easy and could have done more” and 10 being that the set was “too heavy and couldn’t physically perform another rep”. What if I told you that every set needs to be around a 9: could you answer truthfully and say that this is usually the case for you? Or if you sat and critiqued how you train, do you find your intensity is probably around a 5 or so?

Getting to that sort of training intensity cannot be taught, it must come from within. Whenever you are nearing your limit, a voice inside your head will encourage you to stop; however, when this comes on, you’ve usually got about 3-5 more reps in the tank. That want and desire to go for another 3-5 reps when every fibre in your being is telling you to rack the weight and stop is something that needs to be learnt over time. You need to convince yourself that you won’t “die” or “crush yourself”, and instead will get more than you thought.

Find your limit on each exercise, progress it every single week, and once you’ve hit your target rep range, add more weight the week after or accumulate more reps at the same load, or improve muscle fibre recruitment.

Mechanical tension: Focus on the muscle, not the movement!

Going in and adding more weight over time might seem easy, but if you become too focused on the weight, you might not be working the target muscle group much at all. What do I mean?

I’m sure you’ve maybe been in the gym and seen someone dive bombing the hack squat or bouncing out the bottom of leg press and smashing it against the safety pin. What is happening in both these scenarios is that the movement is becoming more about momentum than muscle contraction. Moving weight is important, but how we move it is equally as important.

With each lift, we want to have as much muscle fibre recruitment in the target muscle group as we possibly can. This will mean moving slowly, moving with intent, and actively initiating, squeezing and maintain tension in the intended muscle as you move.

With that in mind, next time you’re on the hack squat, think about this: is it moving you, or are you moving it? Look at any male/female with big legs, watch how the move weight in the gym and you’ll soon see the secret. Immense weight but with immense tempo: that is one of the secrets to growing your legs.

Training frequency: Legs on a Friday bro?

No one ever built a set of quads or peachy glutes by training them only once a week. The sad reality is that many gym goers might be stuck in the old “bro split” method, in which they train one body part on one given day of the week, and they categorise legs into one day, and give their arms one day. Ask yourself, which one has more muscles to work?

You guessed it: legs! Therefore, does it seem wise to train your: hamstrings, quads, glutes, hamstrings, adductors, and calves all on the one day, and then hit them again 7 days later? When you put it like that…not really!

A far more effective strategy I’ve found success with is splitting up leg days into two or three sessions across the week. This could be on Monday and a Thursday (males) or a Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday (females). Each session can be designed to target different muscle groups: for example, your Monday session could be more quad-focused whilst tagging in glutes/hamstrings, and then your Thursday session could be the opposite way around: glute/hamstring focused whilst tagging quads.

If you’re wondering why I’ve suggested females hit legs more frequently, check out this article I wrote on female glute development.

Time in the trenches: Be prepared to invest years

The next time you walk past that guy with the massive quads, or that girl whose glutes are bursting out their shorts, do me a favour: go and ask them how long they have been training for. The answer you get back will no doubt be the same each time: years.

It’ll be common knowledge to you that to build a big chest, or capped delts, it’s going to take time. Well here the thing, it’s going to take even longer to grow your legs. This is simply because of the size and surface are of the muscle, and if you’re tall, it might take you that little bit longer – but not all is lost, I’m 6’4 so it can be done. The problem is that most people don’t have the patience for it. Have you ever trained hard for 6 months, not seen the results you want and then simply just stopped?

Then a few months go by, all that hard work is undone, and then you have to start the process all over again. The thing about bodybuilding is that there is no instant gratification visually. It requires times, a lot more than you once thought, to see those visual changes. Therefore, if you truly want to grow your legs, give it 2-3 years of training very hard, eating your meals and ensuring your recovery is on point, before you say, “My legs won’t grow”. If you don’t believe me, here is a picture of my legs in 2016 vs 2021 (Figure 1):

Figure 1

That’s 5 years of never missing a leg day, never missing a meal, and doing the same movements over and over again. Let that sink in.

Train smart: Mindless volume won’t cut it

It’s all well and good thinking that more is better, but in bodybuilding that isn’t always the case. You may currently be doing too much volume to recover from before your next session. We all have a limit, and it’s called maximum recoverable volume (MRV). This will always be person dependant but figuring out how many sets you can perform and recover from over the week it hugely beneficial.

It avoids any mindless thoughts of, “Oh I’ll just add a set here” or “I need to do more to grow”. In fact, I’ve often found the opposite to be true, i.e., that the bigger and stronger I’ve become, I need to do less to grow. This is mainly because the amount of fatigue I put on the body by lifting heavier loads takes longer to recover from.

If you don’t currently know where your limit is, then it’s time to figure it out. I know for certain that some of you who are complaining about your legs not growing might not even be taking note of how many sets you do per workout, let alone the weight you do on each exercise. Does this sound familiar? If so, then begin to log-book your workouts, and figure out if you are getting stronger each week or are roughly staying the same. Remember the three variables that must increase for you to gain new muscle mass are: weight on the bar, number on the scales, and the food on your plate.

In summary, there could be a magnitude of reasons your legs aren’t growing; however, there are some common ones you should consider. First, ask yourself if you are training hard enough and whether you’re truly at your limit. Next, get the muscle strong, not the movement, and recruit every muscle fibre you can throughout each part of the lift. In the early years, train your legs twice a week and be sure to invest time (years) to see any real significant change. Lastly, don’t mindlessly do junk volume, logbook each lift and find out how many sets you can recover from across the week.

Vaughan Wilson Bsc Hons