Nobody empathizes more with the skinny-legged guy who feels self-conscious about his underpinnings than I do. I grew up with sisters who laughed at my legs whenever I’d put on a pair of shorts. It wasn’t until we were both adults that one of my sisters confessed: “Scott, I was jealous of your skinny legs when we were kids.” Well, thanks for telling me now, Sis. “Do you realize the childhood trauma you could have spared me if you’d revealed that before I’d hit puberty?” I inquired with irritation.
When I reached high school, I finally talked myself in to not caring about my underdeveloped “wheels” and decided to show them off when I was getting in shape for the wrestling season. I was on the first quarter mile or so of an after school jog when I saw two attractive females walking home together from our school. I overheard one of them say “look at his legs”. Then they both burst out laughing. I felt my face turn so friggin’ red that passersby in cars probably thought I was a stop sign.
It was early experiences like these that motivated me to build my muscles. And yes, I was really hell-bent on getting some respectable lower limbs beneath me. In my early twenties, I read all the bodybuilding magazines that told me to squat, squat, and squat some more. And what did I do? Well, I followed this simplistic advice. I did free weight squats until steam was coming out of my ears and members at my gym were scared to death that they were going to get called on to be my spotter. I performed my squats as heavy as possible and with full range of motion. I became a squatting machine.
So what were my results? To put it mildly: not commensurate with my efforts. Oh, I did build some size in my thighs, but not nearly what I’d wanted for adequately distancing myself from the “bird legs” which had been a focal point of my pubescent self-consciousness. What I really wanted was that unmistakable “sweep” in the appearance of my thighs when looking at them straight on. I wanted muscular contour that shows, even while wearing a pair of jeans, that I’ve got some serious power in the foundation that’s holding me up.
In my many years of natural bodybuilding, I finally discovered what I think is one of the most effective thigh-building routines. It builds sweep in the thighs by intensely targeting both the inner and outer quadriceps muscles. When performed diligently and consistently, it will soon give you a feeling that your quads are vibrating in muscular power with each impact your feet make with the ground when you walk.
But what do I mean when I say “performed diligently and consistently”? What I’m alluding to is the number one rule for successfully adding muscle to any area of the body; adequate tissue breakdown and recuperation. No specialized routine or sequence of exercises will produce positive results if we just haphazardly go through the motions of working out and taking some rest days between those workouts. We must pay close attention to how much tissue breakdown we’re inflicting on a muscle and how much rest time that particular muscle needs to fully recuperate. This varies from one person to another and even varies within the same individual from one time to another. Nowhere is this principle more important than when working the thigh and glute muscles, which constitute a lot of tissue that needs recuperation between workouts.
That said, let’s get to the meat (or muscle) of the matter for building a nice “thigh sweep”.
Exercise #1: Compound Movement for the Entire Lower Body
I believe in starting an effective thigh workout with a compound movement. It can be full squats with free weights, machine squats, or leg presses. Regardless of which you feel most comfortable with, you need to work the entire area, including the glute muscles, for power, size, and balance in your lower body.
I shoot for six to eight repetitions on all leg exercises (usually six). Neither I nor my clients have ever reaped much muscle gaining benefit by going after the higher reps. Some trainers hypothesize that it works the slow twitch fibers by doing so (thereby building all fibers). I’ve found that it builds lung capacity more than muscle size. If you want to have impressive workouts more than impressive muscles (or you want to be able to sprint up a mountain), then by all means, go for fifteen reps.
On squats as well as the following isolation exercises, I recommend doing four to seven sets only the last one going nearly to muscular failure.
Exercise #2: Horizontal Leg Press Machine with Feet Apart/Toes Pointed Out
After the squats, I target the Vastus Medialis (inner thigh) with very controlled presses on an Eagle Leg Press machine. I like to believe that this machine offers more control for this movement, but maybe I just feel like doing a lying down exercise after performing squats. At any rate, I position my feet wide apart on the platform, point my toes forty-five degrees outward, and don’t go deeper than parallel with my thighs. I also don’t lock my knees at the top of the movement, thereby creating constant tension on my trembling inner thighs.
Exercise #3: Inner Thigh Leg Extensions
Many trainers don’t realize that they can really hone in on the inner and outer thigh muscles (respectively) by doing leg extensions in a specific manner. For inner thighs, move the leg extension seat as far forward as possible, point your toes straight up, and then try to face the soles of your feet toward each other. It should feel like you’re positioned in a “pigeon-toed” manner. As you bring the weight up and extend your legs, lean your upper body forward while keeping your feet in the position described. You will feel this in the Vastus Medialis (inner quadriceps).
Exercise #4: Horizontal Leg Press with Feet Together/Weight on Heals
At this point, I go back to the horizontal leg press machine and target the front quadriceps. In order to really hit the Rectus Femoris (front quad), you should put your feet together on the platform so they’re touching each other, with your toes pointed straight up (no angle). Lift your toes up off the platform so that your heals are all that’s touching the surface. To really hit those front and outer thighs, you need to take your weight off your toes and put it on your heals. This shifts the stress from your hip and glute region and puts it on the front legs.
Again, only descend until your thighs hit the point of being parallel with the platform. Drive the weight back to the start top position and don’t lock your knees. Try to keep continuous tension on the thighs.
Exercise #5: Outer Thigh Leg Extensions
Similar to the inner quads, we can target the Vastus Lateralis (outer quads) with a bit of customized maneuvering on the leg extension machine. This time, move the seat back as far as it will adjust so that you’re almost in a supine position as you reach your feet to the extension bar. Point your toes forward instead of upward. Keeping your toes pointed forward, extend the weight upward while putting outward tension on your thighs, as if you are attempting to spread your feet apart, but can’t. This “feet-spreading tension” with your toes pointed as forward as you can point them while raising the weight will really isolate those outer quadriceps muscles.
So there you have it. Perform this front thigh workout (along with some leg curls for hamstrings) no more than once a week. Strive for higher weight volume levels through intensity of effort and adequate recuperation. With applied diligence, this routine will bring that coveted “sweep” to your upper legs.