3 Exercises To Build A Monster Squat And Bigger Legs
There is a reason that the squat is considered the king of all exercises.
Achieving a four-plate squat takes hard work, dedication, and an incredible amount of effort. And more than that, a big squat requires a massive amount of lower body strength, a heap of persistence, and a whole lot of mental toughness to boot.
Furthermore, find me someone with a big squat and I will show you a person with a monster pair of wheels.
And there is an obvious reason for this.
A pair of pins that stretch the seams of your pants suggest a substantial amount of muscle mass. And we know that strength is directly proportional muscle mass (exercise science 101 boys and girls).
And I think most people are aware of this clear association (between a big squat and big legs).
So, as a result, they squat.
And squat some more.
And while the law of specificity would undoubtedly suggest that this is hands down the most effective way to build a big squat (and subsequently, a decent pair of wheels), in my personal experience, it isn’t.
While I am a HUGE fan of the barbell back squat, I don’t think it is the be-all-end-all.
And this appears to hold particularly true when building both a big squat, and muscular legs.
Sure, the barbell back squat does use a huge amount of muscle mass, and does allow us to utilize heavy loads (which is essential to building both strength and muscle mass), and as such should be an integral component of a well-rounded training program.
But it needs to be complemented by specific exercises to target those areas that it does not improve, allow us to build on our weakest link – leading to a HUGE squat, and maximizing hypertrophy considerably.
The Barbell Front Squat
It is truly unfortunate, but as an exercise, the front squat is forever stuck in the shadow of the barbell back squat.
While its similarities are apparent, it is very rare that someone comes up and asks you ‘how much do you front squat, brah?’
Furthermore, in some circles the front squat is regularly considered a mere ‘regression’ in which it is only used as a step towards performing a full barbell back squat.
Pretty simply, the front squat does not receive anywhere near the love that it well and truly deserves.
Which is incredibly unfortunate, because for a number of reasons, the front squat is one of the keys to maximizing your leg development, and building a truly jaw-dropping squat.
Firstly, the front squat absolutely annihilates the muscle of the anterior trunk.
And while most wouldn’t think it, this is one of the key benefits of front squatting on a regular basis – it places an extremely large amount of load on muscles of the trunk (think rectus abdominus and obliques).
This is actually due to the placement of the bar during the movement.
During a front squat, the bar is placed slightly in front of the torso. This ultimately places forces on the trunk that try to pull the spine into flexion. This, in turn places massive demand on the anterior muscles of the trunk to maintain a nice upright, neutral spinal position.
This demand makes it a fantastic way to build core strength and stability – which is absolutely essential to maintaining a strong and stable trunk position during a barbell squat.
Furthermore, this same position also increases the demand placed on the spinal erectors of the thoracic spine (which are rarely targeted during the back squat du to the bar placement sitting lower on the back).
By building stronger spinal erectors and a stronger core, we can improve our ability to maintain good positioning during heavier leaded squats – this eliminates the likelihood of caving forward during a heavy back squat (you know what I am talking about – those squats that end up looking like a good morning), reducing risk of injury AND leading to a stronger squat.
Secondly, the front squat crushed (and I mean CRUSHES) the quads.
A barbell back squat is typically more hip dominant than a front squat – which in turn places more demand on the hip extensors rather than the knee extensors (this is related to bar placement and increased forward lean during the back squat).
By only training the back squat, we can develop a HUGE amount of hip extension strength, but limit our development of knee extension strength, which can lead to imbalances that can contribute to squat weakness.
Front squats can help overcome this by placing a primary emphasis on knee extension strength, allowing us to eliminate imbalances and develop a strong, well-rounded squatting movement.
Additionally, by placing excessive emphasis on the quads, we can create some serious quad growth (seems logical really), leading to those jean-tearing legs you have always dreamed of.
Now while this may sound a little left field, bear with me for just a second.
By training bilateral squat variations all the time, we can develop good bilateral strength (which is obviously important to building a big ass squat), but doing so, we sacrifice unilateral strength AND hip stability.
When training one leg at a time using single leg squat variations, the hip is placed under much greater stability demands than when using bilateral variations.
This means that those muscles around the hip (with particular emphasis gluteus maximus and gluteus medius) and of the trunk have to work a whole lot harder to keep good pelvic alignment and femur position.
This improves our ability to maintain good pelvic position during a squat, while also improving technique by ensuring we maintain good knee alignment during the squat (avoiding knee valgus from occurring).
Furthermore, split squats provide a great way to eliminate any unilateral strength imbalances we may have, which can not only build a much stronger squat, but can also cause significant improvements in technique in those individuals who have a tendency to weight shift to one side during bilateral squatting movements.
Now, in terms of increasing leg musculature, this is where split squats really shine.
Firstly, when we decide to undertake some single leg work, we effectively end up doing twice the number of reps we would have done during a bilateral movement.
Now while I do realize that each leg is individually doing the prescribed number of reps, it is important to state that the rest of the body is working overtime to maintain stability, hold heavy dumbbells, and maintain postural position (for what would easily be twice as long as it would during a bilateral exercise).
This means that there is going to be a large increase in total workout volume (the total amount of work done per session = load x sets x reps), which immediately has the potential to improve muscular development.
On top of that, we know that such phenomena exists where if we train one limb of the body, and that limb alone, the contralateral side will still experience some improvements in both strength and hypertrophy (coined the contralateral strength training effect – suggested to be a neural response).
As a result, by training unilaterally we can further improve the hypertrophy effect of the other side by an approximate 10% – which is pretty incredible if you take second to think about it.
Now, the third and final assistance exercise that can lead to both massive growth and massive strength is the paused back squat.
While this is still technically a barbell back squat movement, I consider it a valuable assistance exercise as it is not what you would typically use in either competition or when performing a 1RM back squat attempt.
A paused back squat is basically just a barbell back squat where you pause completely (as in completely stop) at the bottom of the squat for 2-3 seconds (or longer, for those of you who are truly masochistic) for each individual rep within any given set.
Now, if we take a second to think about it logically, it makes perfect sense. Most people are weakest at the bottom of a squat, when they are coming out of the hole. As a direct result this is where they tend to fail, and where the typically feel the least comfortable.
So by simply spending a little more time hanging in the bottom position of the squat (while under load), we can become a little more comfortable in that position. This increases our confidence at the bottom, leading to a more powerful squat.
And if we look a little deeper, there are some serious benefits beyond just getting more comfortable.
Paused squats also directly build strength out of the hole.
A common thing to observe during a squat (particularly during heavy squat attempts) is an individual drop quickly into the bottom position of the squat, and then bounce up (using the momentum from their rapid descent).
While there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with this, it does have the potential to create a couple of issues.
When we drop rapidly into a squat, we rely on two things to get us out of the bottom position.
The first is the muscles ability to use the stretch shortening cycle (SSC) efficiently (The SSC describes the storage of elastic energy during the eccentric portion of a movement, followed by the use of that energy for the concentric portion of that same movement).
So using the squat as an example (seems quite fitting), during the descent the quads and glutes are lengthening under load (which is creating an eccentric contraction). During this eccentric contraction they are storing ‘elastic’ energy in the muscle and tendon tissue, which can be used too increase the amount of concentric force we produce.
Now, while this should be considered a good thing during a heavy squat attempt, it is not something we want to become too reliant on during the squat, particularly during training, as if we rely solely on the SSC to get us out of the hole, we will limit our strength development during the lift.
If we become too reliant on the SSC, we limit our ability to produce force and our capacity to increase force production – which is integral to a big squat.
Secondly, squatting in this manner places a large amount of stress on the passive support structures of the hip. This is because the hip capsule and ligaments surrounding it will take a considerable portion of the load after we rapidly drop into the bottom position.
This leads to the reliance of these structures to provide stability to the hip during the squat, rather than the muscles surrounding the hip and trunk.
While importantly this can lead to hip issues and potential injury, it also limits our ability to develop strength in the bottom position of the squat.
By pausing at the bottom of the squat we completely eliminate the SSC from the lift. This means that and we are required to rely on the muscles around the hip to provide strength and stability required to build a big squat.
Additionally, this also allows us to build strength in the bottom position of the squat (which is often the weakest position), which can increase our strength out of the hole, and increase our squat strength in its entirety.
As an added bonus, by increasing our strength in the bottom position we will also limit the stress placed on the passive structures of the hip, while simultaneously improving our ability to use the SSC out of the hole on as a result of improved muscular strength in that position.
Now, while this pause can lead to huge strength increases, it can also contribute to substantial muscle hypertrophy.
By pausing during a single repetition we increase the total amount of time under tension (TUT) the muscles are under during a given set.
Time under tension is considered on the key mechanical triggers to muscle growth, and by increasing it in this manner, we can further increase muscle hypertrophy.
So if you want massive quads (silly question, everyone wants massive quads) then paused squats are a great variation that can lead to improved muscle growth.
So, in conclusion, while the barbell back squat is a fantastic exercise that is arguably the greatest expression of strength, it is not necessarily the best way to build massive squatting strength or a muscular set of legs.
By implementing these 3 key assistance exercises into your training, you can build a HUGE squat and a sweet set of pins!