Building Bigger, Stronger Legs & Sculpted Hips Through Squat Variations

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The second biggest, strongest muscle in your body are the Quadriceps (Quads).  The Quads, as the name implies, is composed of four muscles. The Vastus Medialis is located on the lower inside of the thigh.  The tear- dropped shaped muscle that you see inside the knee and rising to mid-thigh. The Vastus Lateralis is located on the outside of the thigh.  Bodybuilders work this muscle to develop the “sweep” in their thighs to make them wider.  The Vasus Intermedius is located centrally in the thigh and is the “deep” thigh muscle proximal to the Femur (thigh bone).  The Rectus Femoris is located on top of the Vastus Intermedius, central and superficial in the middle of the thigh.

Each muscle of the Quads has a mechanical advantage dependent on different factors.  Most notably, is the foot position during leg extension movements. The reigning “King” of leg extension movements is the Squat, which is commonly used to target different muscles of the Quads.  The Wide-Stance Squat also called the Sumo-Squat directs additional stress on the Vastus Medialis. Remember that a muscle will not fully contract unless pre-stretched to 120% of resting length.  Positioning your legs wide apart in any exercise such as the Squat, Deadlift, Leg Press, Hack Squat, etc. will cause added stretch to the Vastus Medialis along with additional stress to increase size and strength gains to this targeted muscle.

One important note of the Vastus Medialis is that the lowest portion of this muscle; the Vastus Medialis Obliques (VMOs) have the greatest responsibility to stabilizing the patella (knee cap). The VMOs can be targeted by doing Deep Squats, sometimes referred to “Butt to the floor” or “Bucket Squats” and if you ever go to failure on a Bucket Squat you will learn the reason for the name! It will feel like you sat in a bucket and can’t get out.

Warning: Studies vary, but it is estimated that between 40-60% of people have knee joints that do not easily accommodate a loaded Deep Squat. The primary reason that it is industry standard to not exceed the “Knee-Hip-Line” in the Squat is to protect your client’s knees.  It is highly recommended that you start with an unloaded Deep Squat for 2-4 weeks and begin to add very light loads following all the rules and principles including the GPO Principle that you learned in the IFPA Personal Trainer Certification Course.

The Vastus Lateralis is targeted with a narrow stance or a single-leg extension movement such as a Narrow Stance (feet together) Squat, Deadlift, Leg Press, Hack Squat or single leg movements. The Vastus Intermedius and Rectus Femoris are targeted in normal/regular stance movements.

The bar placement in your Squats is also a factor in development. Bodybuilders typically place the bar high on the neck, much to the displeasure of cervical vertebrae 7.  Though all the vertebrae in your spine are tough, none of them enjoy having a heavily loaded stainless steel bar smashing down on them.  Bodybuilders use this “High Bar” position to move the load forward, in effect moving the stress of the bar onto the Quads.  Powerlifters use the “Low Bar” position which is the bar placed on top of the Trapezius on top of the Scapula to move the stress back. Powerlifters know the biggest and strongest muscle in the body is the Gluteals and this position (moving the bar backwards) allows them to Squat more weight than the “High Bar” position.  With this increased weight or load there is additional stress placed on virtually every joint and muscle in the body. This greater stress will cause a highly effective adaptation in the body where the body will increase anabolic hormone production, including HGH and Testosterone.  These hormones will increase size and strength of the hips and thighs plus the increased HGH and Testosterone create anabolism for the recovery, repair, adaptation and increases in size and strength in every muscle of the body.

You can also use the Leg Extension machine to effect shaping in the legs.  The feet held parallel to each other is the normal foot position. In this position the Rectus Femoris and Vastus Intermedius do most of the work. Rotating the leg outward from the hip will move slightly more stress to the Vastus Medialis since it will be stretched more in this position. Rotating the leg inward from the hip will move slightly more stress to the Vastus Lateralis since it will be stretched more in this position.

Warning: Any “Sumo Position” for the Squat, Deadlift, Leg Press, Hack Squat, etc. may have risks to those who are lacking flexibility in low back, hip or thigh muscles.  Try these movements unloaded several times to ensure no muscle is painful in this Range of Motion (ROM). You should be sensitive to both the primary movers as well as the secondary/synergistic/stabilizer muscles in the movement. Your Functional Range of Motion (FROM) includes all secondary movers including the antagonistic muscles involved in these movements, which include the muscles of the Hamstrings located on the back of your thigh.

The Hamstrings are composed of the Biceps Femoris, Semitendonosus and Semimembranosus. The Hamstrings must be strengthened to at least 80% of the strength of the Quadriceps. If an imbalance occurs the Quadriceps are typically much stronger and the Hamstrings are no longer capable of stabilizing you or your personal training clients FROM in leg press movements. You, the personal trainer, will observe your client’s knees rotating inward inside the knees during the exercise. This violates the IFPA KTPs for the exercise as well as the IFPA Safety Guidelines for the knee. This requires you to lighten the load on all leg extension exercises until the knees can be maintained over the toes (avoiding the “DO NOT twist the Tibia in relation to the Femur rule!).  You will also be required to work diligently to bring the Hamstrings into balance with the Quadriceps.

To correct this or any muscular imbalance you always work the weak muscle first. When Super-Setting, each Super-Set begins with the weak muscle. You probably have done what most weightlifters do and work your strongest muscle first so you can show everyone how strong you are.  Unfortunately, this exacerbates the imbalance.  You will also need to do three exercises for the weak muscle as you do for the strong to correct the imbalance. Hamstring exercises are the Lying/Seated/Standing Leg Curls, Stiff Legged Deadlifts (with the knees bent 5-10 degrees).  Note: You can reduce the risk of injury on this exercise by using dumbbells held alongside the legs throughout the movement, keeping your back straight, shoulders back, scapula retracted and head held neutral.  If you want to work the stabilizers aggressively you may stand on one leg and use one dumbbell (opposite hand of the support leg) at a time and reach across the body eventually touching the floor on the opposite side of the leg (Do equal reps on each leg/hand to avoid more imbalances!)

You can also perform leg curls with your heels on a stability ball. Perform Double Legs at first.  Once you get strong enough and stabilized enough then you can perform Single Leg Stability Ball Leg Curls for even greater effect.

You will not be able to build significant size and strength in your Quads and Glutes until your Hamstrings are strong enough to support loads.  You will hold your gains back and increase your risk of injury if you allow the imbalance to continue.

Research shows that female athletes experience ten times the amount of Hamstring tears as male athletes due to this imbalance. You may notice that your female clients more frequently exhibit their knees rotating inward during Squats. Do not allow this to continue. Fix it immediately to prevent injuries and to help them build strength. Any weakness or imbalance in strength of an antagonist muscle will inhibit the strength of their opposite agonist muscle. You must develop the body in balance to achieve your ultimate size and strength and more importantly to avoid injuries.

For load requirements to increase size and strength you can refer to Dr. Tudor Bompa’s work on Periodization.  He has developed much of what we know about Periodization. Dr. Selye started Periodization Protocols with his general adaptation theories. Though there are still many who disagree with Dr. Bompa’s Periodization Protocols, it is always a good starting point. You are invited to make your own adjustments to the Periodization Program below.  This is completely justified according to the variation and individual principles discussed in your IFPA Personal Training Manual. You are required to follow to Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands, SAID Principles, the Gradual Progression Overload, GPO Principle; the Frequency Intensity Time and Type (Mode), FITT Principle and other exercise science principles in the IFPA Personal Trainer Text Book to ensure both safety and effectiveness.

Dr. Bompa would typically have each of his athletes perform each of the following phases for 3 weeks. You should have your personal training clients do the same.

Phase Hypertrophy Strength Power Peaking Active Rest
Sets 3-5 3-5 3-5 1-3 Switch to other exercise activities
Reps 15-20 5-8 3-5 1-3
Intensity Low High High Very High

This is modified for the typical intermediate to advanced level personal training clients. Dr. Bompa’s work was originally established with world class and Olympic level strength and power athletes.

The last important step in your goal of building bigger, stronger legs and sculpted hips for the ladies, is all about what you do outside the gym. Take the time to review other FitBit articles that provide you valuable information on rest, sleep, hydration, stress management, injury prevention, nutrition, lifestyle, the right combinations of fat, carbohydrates and protein intake for your goals as well as the best quality foods for you and your personal training clients.

Good Luck

Dr. Jim Bell

CEO, IFPA

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