Following on from one of my most popular articles – how to get bigger arms as an ectomorph, It’s become glaringly obvious that arms are not the only thing ectomorphs struggle with when it comes to building muscle.
To be honest ectomorphs struggle with building up the majority of their muscles but a particular issue is actually building your legs. Ectomorphs typically have longer limbs and smaller joints which are not a great combination when it comes to getting bigger legs.
To say it takes some hard work to build your legs would be the understatement of the century, especially if you are 6 foot or taller in height! The comforting fact however, is that training legs is difficult for the majority of the population.
It’s why so many people hate leg day, you rarely get a nice pump like when training arms and instead end up light headed, have cold sweats, feel nauseous and you’re unable to walk properly for the next few days.
I’m probably not selling this to you well but after the first few weeks of hard work you’ll soon get into the rhythm and start to actually look forward to leg day. The reason for this is that with the legs being such a large muscle group the progress comes quickly and your weights increase at a rapid rate.
How can an ectomorph get bigger legs? To get bigger legs as an ectomorph you need to perform some heavy compound movements while also making use of heavy weights with a combination of high reps. This is because the muscle fibres of the leg muscles are much more resilient to fatigue.
In this article I’m going to run through all the basics as well as advanced techniques that you can use to start building your legs.
How Can an Ectomorph Get Bigger Legs
It took me a number of years before I could start training my legs properly and this wasn’t for lack of motivation but rather a lack of decent equipment. When I first started training at home I had roughly 60kg in total weights but couldn’t lift that overhead to squat because I wasn’t strong enough.
Then my first gym was limited in equipment so besides from a leg press and leg extension machine I was again limited in choices. Keep in mind that this was before I discovered exercises like Bulgarian split squats, goblet squats or Romanian deadlifts.
In fact my legs were my strongest muscle group from years of running and plyometric style training so I used to want to train legs just so I could lift the most weight.
When I finally joined my first bodybuilding style gym the very first thing I did was try out all the leg machines. It was a trial session and I wasn’t prepared for the combination of hack squats and heavy leg presses after some barbell squats and left the gym in a cold sweat on the verge of passing out.
Why am I telling you my life story? Well leg training is hard, I’ve trained legs 2-3 times per week for a number of years and even once did a squat program where you squat everyday for 40 days. My strength skyrocketed and I added about an inch to my legs but my knees did not appreciate it unfortunately.
With that said It took me years to build up my legs to the point where they pass as being in proportion to my upper body.
Along the way I’ve absorbed everything to do with leg training and this article is to help you skip the majority of mistakes I made along the way as well as taking some expert tips from the pros (John Meadows and hypertrophy coach Joe Bennet to name a few).
Anatomy of the Legs
What you first need to understand when training legs is the anatomy and function the each muscle group provides. I’ll be brief on this section so that you don’t get bored with a human biology lesson but trust me, understanding a muscle groups function is a game changer when it comes to building muscle.
Understanding the anatomy is crucial for exercise selection and effective form. A lying leg curl and seated leg curl are two different exercises to work the hamstrings but perform the same function. If you do both in the same workout then you might as well just be doing 6 sets for either one of them.
Therefore It’s important to understand the function of the muscle and how you can target it with different exercise movements, not just different exercises.
The quads, as the name suggests, is made up of four different muscle heads which make up the entirety of the muscle group.
- Vastus Lateralis – outside of the thigh and often referred to in bodybuilding as the outer sweep
- Rectus Femoris – mid section of the quad
- Vastus Intermedius – mid section of the quad running underneath the rectus femoris
- Vastus Medialis – inner section of the thigh and often referred to as the ‘tear drop’ due to its appearance
As I promised not to bore you with the full anatomy, the key things you need to know are that these muscle groups attach at the knee and are responsible for extension of the knee which essentially means straightening your leg.
The key point that many don’t realise is that while the vastus muscles all connect to the knee joint, the rectus femoris (which also connects to the knee joint) also connects to the hip bone. This means that it is also responsible for bringing the leg closer to your midsection.
If anyone has ever done hanging leg raises but felt it in your quads as well as your abs then this is the reason why, it’s a function of hip flexion. It’s also the reason you feel the top of your quads working when cycling as you bring your thigh up towards your torso and then down again.
The hamstring is made up of three heads and is often neglected in most beginner programs. This is because you get a better ‘pump’ training the quads and because the hamstring is not a mirror muscle, meaning you can’t see it when training, it often gets neglected as a result.
The three heads of the hamstring are:
- Bicep Femoris – the largest and strongest hamstring muscle located on the outer portion of the leg
- Semimembranosus – lower inner hamstring muscle
- Semitendinosus – upper inner hamstring muscle
The main function of the hamstring is to open the hip joint and bring the leg backwards and also to create flexion of the knee (eg curl your leg similar to a bicep curl).
As with the cycling example for quads, when sprinting and pulling your leg back this is a hamstring function. It’s most engaged when your leg is flat and force is then generated backwards to propel you forwards.
The hamstring is an incredibly strong muscle group and can grow rapidly when training correctly.
Finally we come on to the calves, quite possibly the most stubborn muscle group when it comes to growth for the majority of people and especially ectomorphs who often have poor insertion points meaning their capacity for growth is limited from the outset.
The calves are made up of two heads which are:
- Gastrocnemius – upper calf muscle and the most disting in size
- Soleus – lower, inner calf muscle that runs below the gastrocnemius
The soleus is often ignored when it comes to calf training which is why many struggle to fully develop their lower legs but we will cover that shortly.
Compound Exercises for Leg Growth
Before looking at any specialized routines or exercises to get bigger legs you first need to make sure that you are covering the absolute basics when it comes to multi joint, compound movements.
These movements work the most muscle groups and allow you to use the most load (weight). It therefore goes without saying that squatting is the key compound movement when it comes to lower body training.
Not everyone is built to squat, this is something that I am fully aware of however due to the number of squat variations that there are the vast majority can use one of these to get progressively stronger over time.
You have a low bar back squat, high bar back squat and front squat to choose from. A low bar back squat will involve much greater hamstring and glute activation whereas a front squat with an upright posture will heavily involve the quads.
With that being said, all muscles of the upper leg will be active to some extent when squatting, foot placement, width and bar placement will only place greater emphasis on a particular muscle group, it won’t exclude others.
Another movement that many don’t consider to be a compound movement is the lunge. The lunge involves both flexion and extension of the knee as well as flexion and extension of the hip. A movement that requires multiple joints to function is also one that requires the use of multiple muscle groups.
People often confuse the ability to lift more weight as making something a compound exercise whereas a compound exercise is one that involves multiple joints and muscle groups to be active. A leg curl only uses the knee joint and hamstring muscles to function and this is what makes it an isolation exercise.
Therefore including compound movements in your routine is essential when it comes to maximally recruiting muscle fibres, releasing more growth hormone and getting stronger (an essential component of building muscle).
Best Exercises for Bigger Legs
With the above said it’s important to note that besides the compound exercises, certain exercises will contribute to more leg growth than others. My point from earlier still stands true in that a leg curl seated or lying is still a leg curl and therefore uses the same muscle group and functions.
To take your leg development up a level you need to make sure you are targeting all the necessary muscle groups with exercises that are optimal.
I mentioned the lunge as a compound exercise however I won’t include it in the below lists because of the variations you can do. A narrow width lunge will target the quads whereas a wider lunge will target the hamstrings and glutes.
Therefore if you split your workouts into a quad dominant and hamstring dominant session then finish each with walking lunges to target the specific muscle group you trained. They are a great finisher for when a muscle group is already pumped with blood.
Best Quad Exercises for Bigger Legs
Quads do not need to be over complicated, there are a few key exercises that will provide all the stimulus you will need. The key to good quad development is to mix up your rep ranges doing a combination of heavy weight and low rep work and heavy weight and high rep work.
The above is not a spelling mistake, the quads are a powerful muscle group with a high number of muscle fibres (both fast twitch and slow twitch). Therefore to really tax the quads you need to do some high rep work in the region of 20+ reps with some heavy weight relative to your strength level.
Pyramid sets are good for this as you work up the weight you can keep your reps consistent.
Heel Elevated Front Squat
A front squat is a great exercise, particularly for the taller guys, as it allows you to stay in a more upright position meaning the line of force is placed over the quad muscles. The heel elevation allows you to get a deeper squat and a greater stretch on the quads.
You can test this with body weight against a stair or large book. Simply squat with a narrow stance, arms folded across your chest and with your feet flat on the floor. Once you’ve done this make a note of your depth and quad activation.
Now raise your heel by placing it on top of your chosen object, this will put you into a slightly tiptoed position. Now squat down using the same form as before, you should notice It’s much easier to squat deeper and will also feel a greater stretch and engagement with the quads.
This obvious benefit besides this is of course the fact that it is a compound lift so you can go heavy with this over time and continue to get stronger through progressive overload.
Narrow Stance Leg Press
The leg press is a great exercise for building the leg muscles but often comes under debate within the lifting community. The reason I like it is because you can load it with a lot of weight (good for muscle hypertrophy) and when done safely (no movement with lower back) can be a great muscle builder.
To target the quads you will want to take a narrow stance and place your feet positioned lower down on the platform. The theme with quad training is a narrow stance will then to target the quads more.
The good thing about the leg press is that you can utilize some advanced techniques to really fatigue the muscle fibres of the quads. Drop sets, pyramid sets and rest pause sets are all great ways to take the quads to technical failure at a range of rep ranges meaning you can fatigue more muscle fibres.
The quads are a stubborn muscle group to go and the leg press is the safest exercise to really ramp up the weight whilst keeping the quads under tension at all times.
The leg extension is the exercise that quite literally performs the function of the quads and that is bringing the knee into extension. Not much needs to be said about the leg extension from an exercises standpoint.
There are no fancy tips or hacks, people say you can point your toes outwards and inwards to target different heads more (ie outer sweep and teardrop) but the key is to just include this exercise in your quad routine.
One tip I do have however is your upper body placement on the machine. I mentioned earlier that the rectus femoris attaches to the hip bone and therefore the more you lean back the more you will target the upper portion of your quad and place it under a greater stretch.
If you lean forward then the vastus muscles will be more active to the hip flexion negating the involvement of the rectus femoris to an extent. Therefore you can use this information to target particular areas of the quad with the leg extension.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The final exercise to target your quads is a bulgarian split squat. This involves having a rear elevated foot and is performed as a single leg exercise. The purpose of this is to engage the smaller stabilising muscles and create a greater stretch for the quad muscle.
The key to this is to take a narrow stance and stay as upright as possible during the movement. This can either be used as a body weight exercise to warm up the quads or as a finisher when the quads are already pumped with blood (this would be my recommendation).
Again nothing fancy about this movement, it’s just something you can do with limited equipment and work the quad harder in the lengthened position which is important as a leg extension for example works the quad in the shortened position which is where the movement is hardest.
Best Hamstring Exercises for Bigger Legs
When it comes to hamstring development you only need to focus on two specific exercise movements to isolate the hamstrings.
Before listing these I first just want to say that a barbell back squat and mid-wide stance leg press are your two compound movements. These will allow you to lift the most weight and while I mentioned that these movements work multiple muscle groups, the hamstrings are still a prime mover in these exercises.
Therefore with a hamstring dominant training session I’d include these two and will demonstrate that in an example program later on.
Lying Hamstring Curl
The lying hamstring curl is an excellent exercise to target the hamstrings because you can work the hamstring fully in both the lengthened and shortened position. A seated curl might over the opportunity to shorten the hamstring slightly more but the lying variation still hits both ranges very well.
The key takeaway for a lying hamstring curl however is that you need to make sure your hips stay locked and in position for the duration of the movement. This is the most difficult thing to stick to when it comes to a lying hamstring curl.
As soon as your hips come off the bench to grind out some reps or lift a heavier weight then the tension will shift from the hamstrings towards the lower back and glutes which is not what you want for an isolation exercise.
Therefore you either need to have a training partner hold your hips down during the movement or if this isn’t an option you will need to get your ego in check and lift a weight you can handle without this happening.
There is no point trying to lift more weight if the tension is not on the target muscle, you might think you are lifting more weight and working the hamstrings but as soon as those hips come up off of the bench then you are wasting your time.
Seated Hamstring Curl
With this you should do one or the other per session when you also have access to a lying leg curl, you can alternate them in different training blocks or weekly if you have to but just stick to one per session because they perform the same movement.
What is good about the seated variation is that you can get locked in under the pads allowing you to create maximum muscle tension and you have the benefit that your hips are also locked into position.
Therefore the seated variant is excellent for overloading the concentric/lifting portion of the movement. The downside is the limited tension when in the extended and lengthened position which is what makes the lying variant effective.
Just to point out a champion bodybuilder could do both in the same session to work the different resistance profiles of the exercise, this is when you are getting into the 1% of physique development though and as an ectomorph your focus should be on picking a few exercises and getting incredibly strong in them.
An RDL or stiff leg deadlift at similar concepts but crucial for the hamstring development because they work that second function of the hamstring which is to open up the hips (like in a squat) and bring your leg back.
If you feel you have underdeveloped hamstrings but only ever perform curls then this is likely the reason.
The other reason is because you spend too much time curling for another body part but if you are guilty of this then you know.
I prefer an RDL to a stiff legged deadlift because the slight bend in the knees takes away some of the tension placed on the joint that often comes with locking out a movement. Ectomorphs tend to have smaller/weaker joints so a very slight bend or ‘soft knees’ is a good way to go.
For the best hamstring recruitment during this movement you are not going up and down like you would in a traditional deadlift but instead you are initiating with your hips. To lower the weight with an RDL you want to move your hips backwards and keep forcing them back as though you are about to sit down.
Then the key to keeping active tension is to squeeze your glutes together as tightly as possible when coming back up. I once heard a powerlifter say you should imagine you are trying to crack a nut between your glutes. Weird imagery I know but you get the idea.
** Side note, another hip thrusts and glute ham raises work the same movement pattern as an RDL by initiating the movement with the hips but both also target the glutes as the primary muscle group which is why I’ve not included them.
Best Calf Exercises for Bigger Legs
Finally we go onto the calves. The most stubborn muscle group of all. There are literally hundreds of articles giving you tips on building up stubborn calves and this is one of my favourite articles of all time that features a snippet from another routine by Charles Poliquin.
What I will do is give two simple exercises that you should do. If you do these two exercises then you can implement any other technique into your training via rep schemes, tempo times or anything else but these two exercises will be required for full calf development.
Standing Calf Raise
Probably the one you are most familiar with and the best way to target your gastrocnemius which is the most prominent muscle group in the calf. A straight leg will place the gastrocs into a stretched position and will make them the primary mover during the exercise.
An advancement on this is a donkey calf raise which really increases the stretch by flexing at the hips but not many gyms have these anymore. Something you can use is a dipping belt and then you bend over a bench. It’s not the same as a machine variation granted but it atleast mimics the movement.
There honestly isn’t much to say about this other than what is already out there, use heavy weight, take a pause at the bottom, do 12-25 reps per set and get stronger over time.
Seated Calf Raise
The seated calf raise is what is holding many back in their calf development. The reason for this is because the soleus muscle is the primary mover when the knee is bent and therefore if you never perform a calf movement with legs bent then you are only ever fully targeting the gastrocnemius muscle.
Even if you don’t have the machine in your gym to use this you can always put some plates or dumbbells on your thighs and at least mimic the movement. The key takeaway is that to fully train your calves you need to train them with a straight and bent knee.
This vital piece of information often rarely gets mentioned and could be holding many people back in their calf development, especially if the insertion points for the gastrocnemius is high up.
Example Leg Program
As the legs are a very demanding group of muscles to work it’s often best to split your workouts into quad focused training sessions and a hamstring focused training session and vary your rep ranges for each exercise to fully fatigue the muscle fibres.
You’ll see intense programs like 20 rep squats but it’s important not to become distracted by them when you are first trying to build up your legs. Intense and advanced programs are created for a reason and it’s often to break plateaus, not to build foundations.
The below is a two week split that will see you perform 4 leg sessions in total, 2 for the quads and 2 for the hamstrings. There is nothing fancy about it but if you lift some heavy weight, perform some grueling high rep sets and get stronger over time then you will build up your legs in now time at all.
Ok, maybe it will take some time but that doesn’t sound as motivating does it!
Workout A (Quad Focused)
10 minute spin to warm up (remember this works the rectus femoris muscle so a cycle is a good thing to warm up with)
Bulgarian split squat – 3 sets x 12 reps
Heel elevated front squat – 4 sets x 10 reps
Narrow stance leg press – 4 sets x 25 reps
Leg extension – 3 sets x 12 reps
Standing calf raise – 4 sets x 15 reps
Workout B (Hamstring Focused)
10 minute stairmaster to warm up (remember that applying force to bring your leg backwards is good to warm up the hamstrings)
Lying leg curl – 4 sets x 12 reps (good to get blood into the hamstring and around the knee joint so do this first)
Barbell back squat – 5 sets x 5 reps (go heavier here)
Wide stance leg press – 3 sets x 15 reps (add a drop set onto your final set)
RDL – 4 sets x 8 reps
Seated calf raise – 3 sets x 15 reps
Workout A (Quad Focused)
10 minute spin to warm up
Lying leg curl – 3 sets x 10 reps (this is to warm up the hamstring and get blood around the knee, no focus is on training the hamstring)
Front squat – 5 sets x 5 reps (go heavier here)
Leg extension – 3 sets x 15 reps
Narrow stance leg press – 3 sets x 15 reps
Walking lunges – 3 sets to failure
Standing calf raise – 4 sets x 12 reps
Workout B (Hamstring Focused)
10 minute stairmaster to warm up
Seated leg curls – 3 sets x 12 reps
Wide stance leg press – 4 sets x 25 reps
Barbell back squat – 3 sets x 12 reps
RDL (with dumbbells) – 3 sets x 12 reps
Walking lunges – 3 sets x 10 reps
Seated calf raise – 3 sets x 12 reps