For many years I made the mistake of neglecting assistance movements to the back squat. And it showed, as my leg development was not as balanced as it could have been - particularly in the lower thigh.
It is only when I started adding in unilateral leg work and some of these ideas below, that my lower and outer quads progressed like never before and my legs also gained size.
I also noticed that by making 50% of my lower body training unilateral, that some hip and pelvis/low back/QL issues I had got a lot better and my vertical jump improved too.
Adding in some machines and new movements, while focusing on time under load was another massive factor in breaking out of the leg development rut I found myself in when my squat progress started to hit a wall.
6 Killer Ways to Force New Growth in Your Legs
Stuck in rut with your leg routine? Not making any progress and need some new ideas to bring your leg development up? Try these ideas:
1) Snatch Grip Deadlifts Off Of A Podium
If you've been reading some of my writings for a while now, it should be no surprise that I am in love with this movement. Brutal and hard.
Doing a deadlift with a wide "snatch grip" not only causes you to start off lower to the ground, it necessarily invokes more quad involvement as well as the VMO group in the lower thigh. I like to pick a 2-4" platform or elevation to do these off of.
2) Barbell Hack SquatsEveryone hates these because they are demanding and brutal.
About a hundred years ago, there was a wrestler named George Hackenschmidt who did these exclusively, as the squat rack, leg press or hack squat machine hadn't been invented yet.
Barbell hack squats used to be called "rear deadlifts" once upon a time, as this is really what you are doing - a deadlift with the bar held behind your body.
At some point the hack squat machine was invented (more about that below) which took the place of this movement. I like to do these with my heels elevated on a block or some 5 or 10 pound plates.
Photo: George Hackenschmidt circa 1910. Image credit: Professional Wrestling Online Museum
3) Trap Bar Or Hex Bar Deadlift With The Low Handles
If you find that doing barbell hack squats are uncomfortable, you can pretty much emulate it by using a trap bar. Just flip the trap bar upside down to use the low handles.
To put more stress on the quads, elevate your heels on a block or pair of 5 pound plates, piece of wood or a wedge of some sort.
Paul Carter demonstrating Heels-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
The stress here runs at 90 degrees right through the center of your thigh and puts most of the stress on the outer quad, provided you don't flare your toes out too wide.
4) 120 Second Leg Presses
Don't be that guy who loads the leg press with 15 plates aside and does partial reps, instead do this to make the leg press much more effective.
Lower the weight you would normally use until you find the right load to allow you to keep the weight moving for a full two minutes.
Towards the end you might have to take some breaths between reps, but try to keep the tension on your quads (and as always with leg presses, it goes without saying to not lock your knees).
Time under load, and slow, controlled eccentric movement is what builds muscle, which makes this way of using the leg press (or any machine) the ultimate path to new growth in your legs! So, lift with intent.
5) One And A Half Rep Machine Hack Squats
An old idea, but still a killer. For each rep, do a full rep followed by a half rep, stopping mid-way to lockout. Count that as one rep.
This dramatically increases time under tension, which is key to hypertrophy (again: volume + time under load/controlling the negative/eccentric = hypertrophy)
6) Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat
I saved the best one for last. This is the one movement that everyone I train has in their routine. I think it is that important.
Sometimes also called the "Bulgarian Squat" (no idea where this silly name came from), the RFESS can be done in several ways.
You can load a barbell on your back as you would in a back squat, or load a dumbbell in each hand (bilateral loading), or hold one dumbbell in the hand opposite the leg you are working ("contralateral", which works more of the inner thigh), or hold the weight in one hand on the same side as the working leg ("ipsilateral", which puts more stress on the outer quad).
Scott Abel demonstrating the Single DB Split Squat
Some years ago, maybe a decade ago now, coach Mike Boyle really shook up a lot of conventional thinking on training the lower body with his articles on T-Nation.com, where he made the case for using this movement with his athletes.
As time went on, I think time has vindicated his arguments. Have a search online for his articles and the research that he has done on the subject of single leg training if you are still not convinced.
Hope that some of these ideas help you scorch some new growth into your legs!