Legs too large? WTF?


Recently came across one of your post on Talk to Me Johnnie regarding linear progression, and that in order for it to work, there needs to be fifteen repetitions of each movement. As of right now I'm not looking to gain any more mass in my lower half because I already have large legs as it is. Instead of doing my squats for 3x5 would the linear progression work if I did 5x3 to focus on strength more with minimal growth? If that would work, would I do 1x3 of deadlift rather then the normal 1x5? I understand you are very busy but if you could give me some insight it would be greatly appreciated. Thanks again for the great programming and information.

Julian C.


Really? Legs too large? Are you serious? Have you not read anything I have posted on this site in the last two years? Personally, I think your problems run much deeper if you are worried your legs are too big.

Hell, even if this site was dedicated to bodybuilding, and we had a burning desired for symmetry and men painted brown, we would still squat to have massive legs. Tom Platz, who had the biggest legs anyone had seen, squatted daily.

I realize you are at a pivotal junction in your life and training, and I feel obligated to point you down the right path. The following exert is from the 3rd edition of Starting Strength by Mark Rippetoe, which should be available in the next few weeks. It discusses the training effect different reps ranges on the body, and the need for keeping 5s in the program to drive adaption.

"How many reps should a work set consist of? It depends on the adaptation desired. Five reps is a good number for most purposes, but an understanding of the reasons for this is essential so that special circumstances can be accommodated correctly.

When you’re trying to understand the nature of any given set of variables, it is often helpful to start with the extremes, the limits of which can reveal things about the stuff in the middle. In this case, let’s compare a one-rep max, or 1RM, squat to a 20RM squat and look at the different physiological requirements for doing each set.

The single most important contributing factor to the successful heavy one-rep attempt is the ability of the muscles involved to produce force. The heavier the weight, the more force required to move it, as should be obvious. The one-rep set doesn’t take very long to do, so muscular endurance is not a factor, and neither is cardiovascular capacity, for the same reason. Even a bone-on-bone limit attempt doesn’t take more than a few seconds. The only thing the muscles must do is produce sufficient force to overcome the weight on the bar as it moves through the range of motion of the lift one time. So, in response to 1RM training, the body adapts by getting better at producing high amounts of force, one rep at a time. It does this by adjusting the components of the system that produce the force: the nervous system, the neuromuscular system, and the muscles themselves, specifically the components of the muscle that actually produce the contraction.

There are other adaptations that are secondary to the main ones, but they all involve helping the body perform a brief, intense effort. Psychological adaptations enable the lifter to overcome his fear of a heavy weight. The heart adapts by getting better at working with a huge load on the back, and the blood vessels adapt by becoming capable of responding to the demands of increased peak blood pressure. The tendons thicken to better transmit force, and the ligaments thicken and tighten to hold the joints together under the load. The skin under the bar gets thicker, the eyeballs get used to bugging out, and new words are learned that express the emotions accompanying success or failure with a new PR squat. But the primary adaptation is increased force production.

On the other hand, a heavy set of 20 reps is an entirely different experience, one of the most demanding in sports conditioning. A set of 20 squats can usually be done with a weight previously assumed to be a 10RM, given the correct mental preparation and a certain suicidal desire to either grow or die. The demands of a 20RM, and therefore the adaptation to it, are completely different. A 20RM is done with about 80% of the weight of a 1RM, and even the last rep is not really heavy, in terms of the amount of force necessary to squat it. The hard part of a set of 20 is that the last 5 reps are done in a state resembling a hellish nightmare: making yourself squat another rep with the pain from the falling muscle pH, an inability to catch your breath, and the inability of your heart to beat any faster than it already is. The demands of a 20RM involve continued muscle contraction under circumstances of increasing oxygen debt and metabolic depletion.

In response to this type of stress, the body gets better at responding to the high metabolic demand that is created. Systemic adaptations are primarily cardiovascular in nature, since the main source of stress involves managing blood flow and oxygen supply during and after the set. The heart gets better at pumping blood under a load, the vessels expand and become more numerous, and the lungs get better at oxygenating the blood – although not in the same way that a runner’s lungs do. The main muscular adaptations are those that support local metabolism during the effort. Glycolytic capacity increases. The contractile part of the muscle tissue gets better at working under the acidic conditions produced by the stress of the long work set. Psychologically, 20RM work is very hard, due to the pain, and lifters who are good at it develop the ability to displace themselves from the situation during the set. Or they just get very tough.

It is essential to understand that the 1RM work does not produce the conditioning stress that the 20RM work does, and that the long set of 20 reps is not heavy in the same way that the 1RM is. They are both hard, but for different reasons. Because they are so completely different, they cause the body to adapt in two completely different ways. These extremes represent a continuum, with a heavy set of 3 more closely resembling 1RM in its adaptation, and a set of 10 sharing more of the characteristics of a 20RM. Sets of five reps are a very effective compromise for the novice, and even for the advanced lifter more interested in strength than in muscular endurance. They allow enough weight to be used that force production must increase, but they are not so heavy that the cardiovascular component is completely absent from the exercise. Sets of five may be the most useful rep range you will use over your entire training career, and as long as you lift weights, sets of five will be important."

Posted in Lifting Weights, Talk to Me Johnnie, Training, WTF? | Tagged , , , | 27 Comments

27 Responses to Legs too large? WTF?

  1. Nathan Greaves

    I dont think I’ve ever heard anyone complain their legs are already too big before!
    People squat till they puke to get huge wheels, if your legs get big quicker than others, embrace it, dont bitch about it!

  2. Daniel B

    I had a friend that used to have the same complaint. He said it made it hard to buy pants. Indeed I believe this to be true, as when your legs get big enough the properly tailored pants tend to rise off the ankles while seated. This would suggest that you need a bigger pair, but then you run into the issue of them not fitting properly on the waist. While I don’t believe this would be adequate reason to change your programming, this may give better insight into Julian C’s problem. He just can’t find pants and wearing speedo’s with a tie to an interview is principally not fashionable.

  3. Mike

    Anyone who says “I don’t want to get big” is trying to excuse their lack of ability or commitment to GET BIG.

    I’m trying like hell to get big.

  4. Frances

    Who doesn’t like having strong-looking AND strong legs?

  5. Jeff

    I don’t the original question was all that bad. I’m kinda in the same boat in the sense that I don’t have to do all that much for my legs to grow and strength to go up on lifts like the squat and deadlift…but when it comes to benching or pressing strength increases and trying to build mass uptop, it makes me feel like a hardgainer. But I won’t stop squatting or deadlifting because of it though.

    The pants are an issue…It’s another reason why most bodybuilders and other mass monsters hate jeans.

  6. Brad

    I’m in the same boat. My legs blow up with 3×5! I have tried to modify it by using a reverse pyramid rep scheme for my lower body. Cuts the reps in half but my strength is still shooting up and I’m PR-ing every time, but I don’t get the same leg growth. Since I’m not a competitive athlete, just a dude who wants to be strong and powerful for work, having to special order or tailor pants is just annoying.

  7. Mike Hollister

    I’m also sympathetic to that question. I think what he’s asking is if there is a rep scheme to maximize strength gains without size gains. A boxer, wrestler or other weight-class athlete may desire the same thing. Or as mentioned above, someone who doesn’t want to have specially tailored jeans.

    I have a hard time finding pants. I’ve gone to buckle and tried on at least 30 separate pairs to find ONE that fit the legs without me looking like an 80s hair band star while still having a waiste that’s snug enough to slide down my backside.

    That said, I’m pretty sure I read it here a while back that heavy weights with low reps (2-3) will tend to increase strength w/o too much size by avoiding excessive hypertrophy, whereas sets with more reps (5-8) will tend to increase muscle size more. But I could be misremembering what I read.

    Either way, I think the main way to control size increase is via diet. You won’t get big if you keep the calories under control. Keep in mind though, muscles that are bigger are easier to make stronger.

  8. Alex

    -Squats are done for triples rather than fives because military personnel don’t need large thighs. Do a 20k ruck march after doing SS for 3-4 months and that rash between your legs will make this point all too clear.

  9. Nathan Greaves

    I have to get trousers too big in the waist just so they fit my quads. Its not an issue because I WANT to get big. You don’t wanna get big, stop working out. Nobody forced him to workout. Its only frustrating for me because I am a hardgainer. Any scrap of muscle I have on me I’ve fought tooth and nail to earn. We do this because we love it, for us, for nobody else. If the brother has been gifted a big set of wheels, use them to your advantage!

  10. Nate

    I call bullshit on this special order pants nonsense. If putting on muscle was that easy, bodybuilders wouldn’t obsess over diet timing and spends thousands on anabolics. I fucking guarantee that if any of you guys sent in picture of your “Giant Legs” you would find that, No, you are not a unique snow flake.

    If putting on muscle is a problem for you, I would spend less time bugging John with dumbass questions and more time sucking at life down at the planet fitness.

  11. Rob

    this post (more the associated comments) reminds me of the iron by henry rollins in his early days. pardon the incoming…

    fck what you look like or if your mind has a problem with you buying a bigger size pants. it’s the results that matter. don’t look at yourself. don’t care. quantitative reasoning applies, qualitative can wait until you’re a monster.

    that being said, there’s some “arithmetic” to apply. powerlifting+tons of food=getting big and strong. powerlifting+moderate food intake=getting kinda big and kinda strong. if the latter is your preferred method then roll with it.

  12. Julian

    John, Thank you for your insight. I think some might have taken my question the wrong way. I have nothing against having large legs, in fact I am proud of mine and intend to keep them strong, but as of right now I am in training to be an electrical lineman. It’s common that we climb forty five-foot poles while working on high voltage electricity. We can spend hour’s standing forty- five feet in the air while being supported by gaffs (one spike), so excess weight would hinder my performance and safety. My goal is to become as strong as possible meanwhile staying within a certain weight class, such as a boxer or military personnel. I do not claim to be a “unique snowflake,” I was just wondering if changing the reps and set scheme to be more tailored to my goals would help improve my power. I respect John’s knowledge in the strength field, which is why I figured he would be a good person to ask. I do have a problem with people questioning my commitment and dedication. I train, and train hard because I love it.

    http://youtu.be/NOHPmLAkB88 – Electrical lineman video

  13. Tommy

    I should start by stating the fact that having big, powerful legs is awesome. That being said, from personal experience I have to agree with Mike Hollister and say that I don’t think Julian’s question came from a concern with aesthetics. Rather with the reality that if Julian is anything like me, he probably works in the corporate world and realizes it sucks to have a 36 waist but have to buy a 42 and repeatedly spend $80+ (at least) on suit pants (and alterations) because you split your pants getting down into a rental car on your way to a business meeting or for some reason don’t like sitting at a desk all day feeling like your thighs and nuts are in compression shorts and skinny jeans.
    Personally my leg size gains slowed after cleaning up my diet. I tossed in more conditioning, shed some more fat and the 42 came down to a 40. I decided that if I could modify my training a little bit and go from a 20lb squat increase to a 10lb increase over a month and save $80, then I was fine with that. Not suggesting this to anyone else, I had to do what worked for me.

  14. Daz

    If you don’t want to look like an athlete don’t train like one, do aerobics or whatever. In rugby circles you can get an idea of how hard someone would be to tackle by the size of their legs. Every athlete I know wants bigger pins.

  15. Chad

    To be totally fair, I could see your legs being too big/bulky being an issue for rock climbers or possibly distance runners. BUT, if you’re a rock climber or a distance runner, how did your legs get big in the first place?

    Although, I suppose this could also apply to an athlete who competes in weight classes like a wrestler, boxer, MMA fighter, or weightlifter. I seem to recall an article by Glenn Pendlay about trying to not add muscle mass to his lifters while still getting stronger.

    Not sure what Julian is training for, but I’ll agree with Alex. Following Smolov (guaranteed to add mass to your legs) for a cycle and then ruck marching long distance is inadvisable unless you like not having any skin in your crotch.

  16. Mike

    Julian, I’m a journeyman lineman and I don’t think extra size on your legs is a problem at all. If anything you want big legs to keep you up there. I’m not a very big guy, but I’m the biggest guy on my crew. I’m the goto guy for climbing jobs, wood or steel. When you get on a real job and start doing real work, you’ll realize how important strong legs really are.

  17. Julian

    Mike, its great to have input with someone such as yourself. I’m also not the biggest guy, I weigh around 190. I definitely wont stop training my legs, I just wanted to put more emphasis on strength. I think the question was mistaken for aesthetics but my intention was on performance. I wanted to see if i did the 15 reps for each movement I could still progress on my linear progression with 3’s so that I could handle more weight. Just like you said, strong legs are important in linework which is why I wanted to tweak the sets and reps to get as strong as possible. If you don’t mind me asking, where do you work?

  18. Saul

    Julian, this summer I had only 3 days a week gym access and couldn’t do CFFB so with squats I did a 15 rep day, a lighter day and a 1RM day. This setup is called Texas method. My legs grow quickly and were much larger than most people’s even when I ran cross country in high school. My motivation in keeping their strength to size ratio maximized is because my second hobby after weight lifting are the gymnastics still rings.

    The 15 rep volume day was 1 rep, every minute for 15 minutes. I took the idea from John programming 8×2 and similar squatting on-the-minute this spring. The volume day went from 355 to 400 while my 1RM went from 405 to 465 over the 4 months. My legs still grew but were not nearly the size as in the past when I could do 3×5’s or 5×5’s with 400 at a higher bodyweight.

    And on the plus side, I finally got the Iron Cross on rings for a 5 second hold recently, something I wasn’t completely sure I was going to be able to do concurrently with a mid 400s squat. Still can’t do a front lever though, which is supposed to be a much “easier” skill, maybe for gymnasts who don’t work their legs.

  19. Danger

    What is a “bone-on-bone limit attempt”?

  20. John,
    I love this post and your response (as well as the comments). About 7.5 months ago I completely tore and had surgically reattached my distal biceps tendon, the one near the elbow. Fucking sucked because I could do near nothing for upper body. This forced me to squat, in fact my surgeon said he expected my squat to go up 20 pounds. However, in 6 months my squat (1RM) has gone up 80-85 pounds! I am stoked. Then I read this article and excerpt and realized I’d been neglecting squatting in a different metabolic pathway – thanks for the reminder! Today I PR’ed with a 20RM at 275. I think I could have gone heavier, but this was my 1st attempt at a 20RM.

    Also, re the comments “getting too big” – I don’t understand. Tell that to a hard gainer! I recently had an athlete quit our CrossFit Box because he was “getting to big and muscular” – he told that to my wife (not me), my wife called him a pussy! That might not be accurate, but I do think there is a movement among young males today to not want to be big; or to want to be cut without size. I’d gladly sacrifice a 6 pack (already have, LOL) for a 400# backsquat. Anyhow, great post!


  21. Mike

    Northern Michigan. But I’ve worked all over the country as a high line tramp for PAR. Now I work for a maintenance crew doing lots of swamp work including hot sticking 138KV out of hooks. Muscle endurance is very important, but so is strength when you are on one leg lifting a conductor up or hanging a 16 foot cross arm. I think that is what John was trying to point out with the Rip/SS quote. You don’t want to run out of steam around a bunch of old fuckers, but you will probably be able to out lift any of them. In case you font know; most lineman are not athletes.

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