Last updated on November 5th, 2022 at 12:09 pm
Ever wondered, “Do You Have to Squat Heavy to Get Big Legs?”
The squat is often heralded as “The King of Lower Body Exercises”.
So, you would think that if you want big legs then you have to squat.
And obviously the heavier you squat, the bigger legs you’ll get.
But, is this really the case?
Let’s find out.
Do You Have to Squat Heavy to Get Big Legs?
You definitely don’t need to squat heavy to get big legs. The legs actually get bigger and stronger in medium-to-high rep ranges, so you shouldn’t be training with your absolute maximum weight. Plus, the heavier you squat the more you’ll recruit other muscles, such as the adductors, glutes, and hamstrings. This places less stress on the quads. There are better exercises that focus more on the quads, such as front squats, hack squats, and the leg press.
1. There Better Exercises to Get Big Legs
Firstly, I will say that I believe the squat is a fantastic exercise, and also that I regularly squat.
And when I talk about the squats, I guess the same as most people, I am referring to the barbell back squat.
I think it’s important that I state that I am a fan of the barbell back squat, but I am also going to give it a bit of a bashing now.
When it comes to “big legs” we typically view the quads as the major muscle that we need to train.
And realistically there are far better exercises than the barbell back squat for building big quads.
In fact, even though squats are primarily viewed as a quad exercise, they’re definitely not the best.
So much so, that many people often complain that they can’t actual feel squats in their quads at all.
I will also say that the heavier you go, the more muscles you will recruit to help you lift the load.
And this will take even more focus away from the quads.
Squats will also work the adductors, glutes, and hamstrings to great effect.
You can also include the core, and depending on how you squat the hips and lower back may also play a role.
So, yes the squat is a great exercise in terms of the number of muscles worked.
The Legs Need More Reps Than You Think
If your aim is to get bigger and stronger legs then there are exercises other than barbell back squats which will get the job done.
Additionally, the legs tend to respond better to medium-to-high rep ranges.
If you think about it, we spend many hours a day stimulating our leg muscles in everyday life.
We stand up, we sit down, we walk about, we squat down, we bend over, etc.
So, realistically the legs require a little more stimulation than many of us give them in the gym.
If you’re looking for real quad stimulation and literally forcing your legs to grow, I have a few favourite exercises I like to turn to.
I’ve always been a fan of front squats, hack squats, and the leg press.
Plus, keep in mind the medium-to-high rep ranges when performing these exercises.
I see nothing wrong with performing a few sets of 12-15 rep front squats, 20-rep hack squats, and 30-rep leg presses.
Trust me, that will force the legs to grow, in fact often faster than your upper body.
And if you want to work the glutes and hamstrings, then barbell hip thrusts and Romanian deadlifts will be better than squats.
Get Big Legs Without Doing Squats By Dorian Yates
2. Do You Lack Flexibility While Squatting?
Unfortunately, not everyone is suited to squatting with a bar on their back.
And one of the biggest reasons for this is that many people lack the flexibility to squat effectively.
I would also say that you need to be able to perform a bodyweight squat with perfect technique before you even think about adding load.
As simple as the bodyweight squat is, a lot of people will still absolutely massacre the movement.
Pure and simple, if you can’t drop perfectly into a bodyweight squat, you have no right to start adding a ridiculous amount of weight to a barbell.
You should be able to squat deep with nothing more than your body weight.
Your shins should be angled forward, your torso is also angled forward, but remains closer to upright than parallel to the ground.
You should be able to hold the bottom position of the squat comfortably, so no shaking, leaning over to one side, or feeling as though you’re going to collapse at any moment.
The issue of ankle, knee, and hip flexibility may be stopping you from achieving this.
If this is the case, you would be better off working on your flexibility issues first, and focusing on other lower body exercises.
I rate the Bulgarian split squat extremely highly, and you can still achieve an impressively strong and muscular pair of legs with just this movement.
How to Properly Bulgarian Split Squat to Grow Your Quads
3. Is Your Injury History Affecting Your Squats?
I’ve already mentioned that not everyone is suited to the barbell back squat.
And this is especially true if you have a history of injuries that may affect your squat.
From a personal perspective, I didn’t actually barbell back squat for over 11 years following two herniated discs.
However, this was more due to the fear factor than anything else.
With that being said, if your form isn’t absolutely on-point, a history of lower back or knee injuries could be aggravated by squatting.
In truth, for anyone who does complain of lower back or knee pain while squatting, it isn’t actually the exercise itself.
This is due to poor technique while executing the barbell back squat.
Basically, when performing the barbell back squat you should never be in “pain” in any area of the body.
The squat is a basic human movement pattern and something that we have all done since we were able to first walk.
If you don’t believe me, watch a small child pick something up from the floor, or simply play with something on the ground.
All children can drop into the perfect squat and hold the bottom position for what seems like hours.
Unfortunately, with age we tend to lose this skill, and our squatting technique becomes extremely poor.
And this is typically why injuries occur from squatting once we reach adulthood.
So, even though squatting shouldn’t cause any problems with the body, if you have a history of injuries that can impact on how you squat, then the movement may best be avoided.
4. Does Your Body Type Mean You Shouldn’t Be Squatting?
Something else to consider when it comes to the barbell back squat is genetics.
Believe it or not, there are certain body types that will not adapt well to squatting.
The people who will typically squat best will have short femurs (thigh-bone) and a long torso.
Conversely, if you’re someone with long femurs and a short torso, squatting with good form is a lot more difficult.
Basically, if you have long thigh bones you will generally have to bend forward much more to keep the barbell correctly aligned.
In effect, your body position is more akin to the Good Morning exercise than it is to the squat.
You will end up bringing the hips much more into play.
To work the quads to greater effect your torso needs to remain fairly upright.
So, as soon as you start hinging at the hips, and leaning forward, when you squat, the less stress you’ll place on the quads.
You won’t actually stimulate much leg growth by squatting in this manner.
So, irrespective of how much weight you put on the bar, your legs aren’t likely to get much bigger or stronger.
Adjusting Your Squat to Fit Your Body Type
So, hopefully you can now see that you don’t need to squat heavy in order to get big legs.
In fact, the legs are typically stimulated to a greater degree in the higher rep ranges.
Therefore, you would be better off dropping some weight off the bar and performing more reps.
As I’ve mentioned, I also think that there are far better exercises you could be performing to grow your quads.
Plus, there are certain issues that may hamper your squat technique, which unfortunately will hold you back from properly activating the leg muscles for growth.
While I’m on the subject of legs check out what I had to say about still having sore hamstrings after a week.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.