Build Big Legs - A Complete Leg Workout Without Barbell Squats

Build Big Legs - A Complete Leg Workout Without Barbell Squats

Barbell squats, the king of all leg exercises. The man maker. The one exercise that no one can do without if they hope to build an impressive pair of legs.

The exercise that only wimps leave out of their leg workouts. Or, an exercise, although undoubtedly effective, has been a bit overhyped by many trainers. One that may not be absolutely imperative for athletes new to strength training, dealing with past injuries, have structural differences, or even just a lack of available resources at their local gym.

After battling the lasting effects of an old high school hip injury, I eventually quit trying to force myself to barbell squat and began programming different variations of the squat movement. These helped me to stave off injury while still overloading my muscles for muscle growth and strength progression.

Below is a twice-per-week leg training program that leaves out barbell squats altogether, but provides plenty of stimulus to all the major muscle groups of the lower body to continue spurring new growth.

Why These Leg Workouts?

Muscle Protein Synthesis

There are specific reasons behind training legs twice per week. The first reason is for the optimal promotion of muscle protein synthesis (MPS). Research continues to show protein synthesis within a recently trained muscle group remains elevated approximately 36-48 hours post-workout. [1][2]

This means a trained muscle group is undergoing recovery and experiencing the growth of new tissue for around two days after the workout. Although conventional bodybuilding wisdom says a body part should only be trained once per week, by doing so, after that 48-hour MPS elevation has come and gone, that leaves roughly 4 full days of little to no stimulation in those muscle fibers or subsequent MPS elevation before the muscle group is trained again. This reduces the potential for improvements in muscle growth and strength.

On the other hand, if we aim to train a muscle group twice each week, spaced evenly throughout the week, we will be training a given muscle group just after that 48-hour window closes. Again, promoting further MPS elevations once recovery and growth from the previous session has ended. In the long run, this means optimal muscle stimulus and not leaving any muscle growth "on the table" by waiting too long between training sessions.

Varying Repetition Ranges

The second reason why training a body part at least twice per week is a good idea for athletes is the ability to train in a variety of rep ranges. Once again, looking to modern strength-training research, it seems using multiple rep ranges leads to better overall size and strength gains than training in one rep range alone. [3][4][5]

This being considered, having two training sessions for a body part each week allows athletes to have a low-rep focused and a high-rep focused workout.

Of course, as training progresses, the range of "low" and "high" rep workouts should change, and anything from as low as 1-4 reps to as high as 20-30 reps per set can be advantageous for people training to improve appearance. At the end of the day, from training block to training block, specific rep ranges can and should be adjusted.

But keeping one workout to more low repetition sets and the other to higher repetition sets can help to again maximize training results. This allows for effective workouts even if the "must have" exercises aren't currently in your program.

Some of these exercises are similar to barbell squats in terms of the overall movement pattern. However, these tend to place less stress on the hips and lower back compared to loaded barbell squats. This allows for sufficient overload of each muscle group performed safely.

Movements like the landmine squat and goblet squat have helped immensely for those who struggle with the barbell back squat but still want to maximize their training sessions.

Why These Exercises?

The barbell squat has been an all-time favorite to so many largely due to the amount of muscle fibers activated during the movement.  When just squatting, everything from the quads to hamstrings, glutes, and even the core and to a smaller degree, calves are activated. A loaded barbell provides for a large amount of progressive overload to be introduced, allowing athletes to easily add weight as they become stronger, and to continue gaining strength over time.

Many people fall into the thinking the barbell squat is the only leg movement that provides this array of benefits. Although the challenge of maintaining stability is lessened, and the movement pattern is slightly altered, exercises like the Hammer Strength machine squat, or dumbbell goblet squats provide very similar activation while simultaneously reducing the amount of load placed on the lower back.

At the end of the day, two important factors are performing a variety of multi-joint movements that stimulant a large proportion of muscle fibers and allowing for continued progression in training load. Even if your training routine doesn't include exercises deemed "normal" by most gym goers, I would dare say that as long as the necessary intensity is present and programming is correct, there are few exercise that a lifter has to perform throughout their career in order to make significant progress.

Choose exercises you can safely and correctly perform, continually challenge yourself by lifting a given weight for more reps, more sets, or using more weight, and you can without a doubt continue getting bigger and stronger even with somewhat unconventional resistance training exercises.

The "No Squat" Leg Workout Program

Day 1
Lower Rep Focus
Exercise Sets Reps
Hammer Strength Squats - 120 seconds rest between sets  4  4-6
Leg Press - 120 seconds rest between sets  4  4-6
Hex Bar Deadlifts - 120 seconds rest between sets  4  6-8
DB Romanian Deadlifts - 120 seconds rest between sets  4  6-8
Hip Adductor - 90 seconds rest between sets  4  6-8
Hip Abductor - 90 seconds rest between sets  4  6-8

Day 2
Higher Rep Focus
Exercise Sets Reps
Landmine Squats - 90 seconds rest between sets  5  15-20
DB Goblet Squats - 90 seconds rest between sets  5  15-20
Leg Extensions - 90 seconds rest between sets  5  20-25
Standing Machine Leg Curls - 90 seconds rest between sets  5  20-25
Seated Calf Raise - 90 seconds rest between sets  5  20-25

So, What Now?

Now that you have your leg training planned, a good rule of thumb is to follow a given program for roughly 6-8 weeks before considering changing anything. This length of time allows for the athlete to develop a feel for some movements they may not be as familiar with, improve motor patterns, and of course get progressively stronger in each lift.

If you're still making progress and feeling good with the workout after that time period, then there's no need to fix something that isn't broken! However, as plateaus in a given exercise begin to creep up, or you simply want to change up the exercise selection a bit to keep things interesting and shift the emphasis of each muscle group, below are some other non-barbell squat leg exercises that can be done in addition to varying the amount of sets/rep ranges you train in.
  • Walking Dumbbell Lunges
  • Dumbbell or Cable Box Step-Ups
  • Barbell Hip Thrusts
  • Bulgarian Split Squats
  • Hack Squat
  • Dumbbell Sissy Squats
  • Machine Donkey Kicks

Drop It Like a Squat?

There's no question that barbell squats are a highly effective leg exercise. For the vast majority of healthy people, I believe they should be a focus of most leg programs.

However, for those just getting into strength training and may not have adequate motor skills or flexibility for a full barbell squat just yet - or others that have old injuries that make them painful to perform - it would be crazy for a trainer not to realize that other options are available, and likely just as effective as long as other variables like training volume, progressive overload, and adequate intensity are monitored correctly. You may not get strong, great-looking legs without doing squat, but you can certainly get them without doing barbell squats!
1) Macdougall, J. D., Gibala, M. J., Tarnopolsky, M. A., Macdonald, J. R., Interisano, S. A., & Yarasheski, K. E. (1995). The Time Course for Elevated Muscle Protein Synthesis Following Heavy Resistance Exercise. Canadian Journal of Applied Physiology Can. J. Appl. Physiol., 20(4), 480-486. doi:10.1139/h95-038
2) Kim, P. L., Staron, R. S., & Phillips, S. M. (2005). Fasted-state skeletal muscle protein synthesis after resistance exercise is altered with training. The Journal of Physiology, 568(1), 283-290. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2005.093708
3) Jones, K., Bishop, P., Hunter, G., & Fleisig, G. (2001). The Effects of Varying Resistance-Training Loads on Intermediate? and High?Velocity-Specific Adaptations. J Strength Cond Res The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 15(3), 349. doi:10.1519/1533-4287(2001);2
4) Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The Mechanisms of Muscle Hypertrophy and Their Application to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872. doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181e840f3
5) Morton, R. W., Oikawa, S. Y., Wavell, C. G., Mazara, N., Mcglory, C., Quadrilatero, J., . . . Phillips, S. M. (2016). Neither load nor systemic hormones determine resistance training-mediated hypertrophy or strength gains in resistance-trained young men. Journal of Applied Physiology J Appl Physiol. doi:10.1152/japplphysiol.00154.2016
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