How To Get Big Legs Without Squats

April 12, 2022

Sick of squatting? Or just working around an injury? There is no rule stating you must squat to grow massive legs. Muscles don’t recognize exercises. They recognize tension, and you can create tension with various exercises.

Squats preferentially target the quadriceps and glutes giving you a bigger butt and quads. You can use many different exercises to target these muscles, so you’re not doomed if you can’t squat.

I’ve got seven epic exercises below to grow massive legs without squatting.

How To Get Big Legs Without Squats

Bulgarian Split Squat

Technically, the Bulgarian split squat is a squat pattern. However, it is a single leg variation and much easier on your lower back. So, if your lower back is the reason for not squatting, you can use this squat alternative.

Bulgarian split squats primarily target the quads and glutes of the front leg. However, you’ll feel the back leg get an immense stretch through the hip flexors and quads, turning this into an excellent mobility exercise simultaneously.

This exercise is strenuous. There’s no escaping that. Having to bust out multiple reps on each leg doubles your reps within a set forcing your heart out of your chest and the burning sensation in your legs to intensify. As the saying goes, nothing worth doing is easy. Here’s how to do it:

  • Stand one step length in front of a padded bench. Place one-foot laces down on the bench.
  • Slowly descend the hips vertically. Your front shin will be near vertical, with your bodyweight distributed through your entire foot.
  • Once your knee is close to the floor, drive up with the front leg until your leg is straight.

Heavy Resisted Cycle Sprints

While heavy resisted cycle sprints are a concentric-only exercise, they are a great addition to growing huge quads. The importance of the eccentric phase (muscle lengthening) cannot be understated as the eccentric action has the most significant effect on muscle hypertrophy due to greater tension, preferential recruitment of Type II muscle fibers, and more substantial muscle damage [1].

But that doesn’t mean this concentric only exercise is useless. After performing traditional lifting (e.g., Bulgarian split squat), hit the high resistance spin bike to crank up the metabolic by-products, which is a crucial mechanism of muscle hypertrophy. Here’s how to do it:

  • Set up a spin bike and crank the resistance to near maximal. Unfortunately, typical stationary bikes don’t go heavy enough.
  • Perform 10-20 second maximal sprints with a short rest between. Feel a skin-splitting quad pump.

Reverse Sled Drag

The reverse sled drag is similar to the bike sprint, where you only perform a concentric muscle action. So, you can choose the exercise based on the space and equipment you have available. The quad pump you get from this exercise trumps all exercises—even 20 rep squats.

It’s similar to performing hundreds of mini leg extensions without rest. Anecdotally, this exercise is excellent for reducing knee tendon pain. Here’s how to do it:

  • Load your sled with a moderate load. How much you load will depend on the surface you’re pulling on due to friction. If you’re a real nerd, you can calculate this based on a friend of mine, Matt Cross’ calculation.
  • Hold sturdy straps and walk backward. Go for anywhere between 20-100 m.

Leg Press

The leg press is the go-to squat substitute. It loads the legs in the same movement pattern and targets the same main muscles of the quads and glutes. But it removes the need for the upper body to stabilize the load. This means you can perform more reps at heavier loads.

An excellent combination for maximizing mechanical tension and metabolic stress, which spurs a potent muscle-building response. Here’s how to do it:

  • Place your feet near the bottom of the platform to target the quads or at the top to target the glutes [2].
  • Slowly lower the platform until your lower back starts to lift off the pad. Drive through your whole foot until your legs are straight.

Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is the ultimate glute and hamstring muscle builder. You place the glutes and hamstrings under massive stretch with load, which enhances the muscle-building response. In my experience, this is the single best exercise for packing mass on your posterior. Here’s how to do it:

  • Deadlift the weight off the floor or take it out of the rack just below hip height.
  • Keep the knees soft, so they are slightly bent. Initiate the lift by pushing the hips back without the knees bending further. Keep the bar close to your legs throughout the exercise.
  • Once you feel an intense hamstring stretch, thrust the hips forward to get back to the starting position.

Seated Leg Curl

I prefer the seated leg curl over the lying leg curl if you have the option. You get a much greater stretch of the hamstrings, potentially leading to better growth stimulus. The main difference is the hip angle.

During the lying leg curl, the hip is slightly flexed. On the seated leg curl, the hip is flexed past 90° creating an even more significant stretch. Here’s how to do it:

  • Set the seated leg curl, so your legs are straight at the top. Lean forward and hold the handles to accentuate the stretch.
  • Drive your heels under your seated and resist slowly back to the starting position.

Hip Thrust

While other exercises on this list will target the glutes, we can directly target them with the hip thrust. Hip thrusting allows heavier loading and maximizes tension in the shortened position. I like performing this exercise before a Romanian deadlift for an epic glute and hamstring training day. Here’s how to do it:

  • Sit on the floor with your back against a bench. Roll the barbell, so it is in the crease of your hips. Use a barbell pad or mat to cushion between you and the barbell.
  • Bring your feet flat so that your shins are vertical when at the top of the movement. Shift your back up the bench, so your shoulder blades are against the edge.
  • Drive through your heels and squeeze your glutes at the top.

Are Squats Necessary For Big Legs?

Squats are not necessary to grow big legs. While squats are considered the king of lower body exercises, you can perform many other exercises to achieve your goal of building massive legs. It’s all about maximizing tension within the quads, hamstrings, and glutes by targeting them with different exercises.

Summary

Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to squat when your primary goal is building big legs. The exercises listed within the article will get you there if you push them like you would when squatting for high reps.

References

1. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research24(10), 2857-2872.

2. Da Silva, E. M., Brentano, M. A., Cadore, E. L., De Almeida, A. P. V., & Kruel, L. F. M. (2008). Analysis of muscle activation during different leg press exercises at submaximum effort levels. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research22(4), 1059-1065.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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