The key to more muscular legs as an ectomorph, or any other body type for that matter, is the performance of basic, compound exercises that hit the primary movers of the thighs (quadriceps and hamstrings) directly and without detrimental limitations and “distractions” coming from the stabilizing muscles.
The logical choices are high-bar back squats, leg presses, some squat machines, deadlifts and leg curls. Since the leg musculature responds fairly well to volume and frequency, a higher number of sets and reps is in order.
Which Exercises Stimulate the Most Growth?
Many squat variations “deliver”, but the high-bar barbell back squat raises to the top when leg growth is the goal for the following reasons:
Leg focus. A proper high-bar squat is done with an upright back and places more stress on the quads than the low-bar variation popularized by Rippetoe. Low-bar squats are a glute-dominant drill that reduces the range of motion of the knee joint while increasing the involvement of the hips. This limits the stimulation that the quadriceps receive.
Comfort. The high-bar squat dominates the front squat and the low-bar back squat when the goal is to accumulate volume thanks to the position of the barbell.
The bar is situated higher on the traps and doesn’t stress the elbows and shoulders as much as the low-bar directive.
Meanwhile, barbell front squats are uncomfortable for high-reps and severely limited by upper back strength.
The leg press gets a lot of unjustified hate from free weight elitists, but the disdain doesn’t change the fact that the exercise hits the thighs rather nicely.
The leg press is a logical accessory/option for people with anthropometry [long femurs] that turns the squat into a hip-dominant exercise.
Machines do not develop nearly as much athleticism as free weight exercises, but they are a good way to add extra volume to a hypertrophy program.
Squats do not work the hamstrings sufficiently. Squatting for hamstrings is like benching for big biceps. This is where deadlifts come to save the day. They are significantly more hamstring focused than squats.
Deadlifts are good hamstring builders, but they are hard on the CNS. A leg curl, another movement that the functional brahs detest, is a good choice when you want to add extra hamstring volume without filling your body with copious amounts of adrenaline.
Why Do Ectomorphs Have Skinny Chicken Legs in The First Place?
Height/Length. Many, but not all, ectomorphs are tall or at least slightly above average height. Extra-long limbs, make it harder to acquire thickness which is why shorter individuals have an easier time “filling out”. This rule applies even more vividly to young men who have recently reached their new altitude.
At 16, I hit my final growth spurt over the summer. The quick “elevation” in conjunction with my bad nutritional habits transformed me into an ultra-skinny brah with joint pain. I am much older now, and when I walk around town, I often see my old self in skinny, tall teenagers with bad posture exhibiting clear traces of ectomorphism including pencil legs. I know the pain, brahs.
Slim bone structure. The only physical characteristic that applies to all ectos throughout the universe is the possession of thin bones. This trait confines muscle size since there’s a clear correlation between bone thickness and default muscle mass.
Long tendons. The longer the tendon, the shorter the muscle. The shorter the muscle, the fewer the fibers that can potentially hypertrophy. Most ectos have long Achilles and hamstring tendons.
Surplus of slow-twitch fibers. Slow-twitch fibers are designed for endurance and do not get as thick as fast-twitch fibers. Consequently, a higher concentration of slow-twitch fibers limits growth.
Are ectos slow-twitch dominant? Many of us are. The people who lift the trophies after a long-distance event look a lot like ectomorphs to me.
Why Your Calves Will Never Grow
Calf size is entirely genetic regardless of what the wishful thinkers say. In 99%+ of the cases, people with high calves (long Achilles tendons + short muscle bellies) never develop big calves because there isn’t much muscle to grow in the first place.
Yet the dreamers never stop engineering new plans for attacking the musculature of the lower leg. Let me save you some time – nothing works. Even bodybuilders on steroids fail to overcome poverty calf genetics.
But all fat people have big calves? Sure. If you go from 140lbs/63kg to 240lbs/109kg, the circumference of your calves will increase, but how much of it will be actual muscle? Remember: muscle doesn’t grow at places where there isn’t any. You cannot lure your high calves into mutating by becoming a fat boy.
Consider this: the powerlifter Hugh Cassidy bulked from 185lbs/84kg to 300lbs/136.36kg, and yet his calves remained a weak body part. You can argue that he never trained them, but when you compare his calves to those of powerlifters blessed with longer muscle bellies, you will see that the difference is structural (genetic) rather than the product of external influences (lack of training.)
For better or worse, many ectomorphs have high calves and fairly long shins. The combination results in the formation of what’s known as “table leg calves”.
You can train the calves for conditioning purposes forever, but if you don’t see noticeable growth after a fair amount of time (6-8 months), you’d be wasting your time if hypertrophy is your goal.
Because of this “curse”, many ectos are stuck with a lower body that appears less powerful than it is. The fact that the calves are the only leg muscle fully exposed to the public intensifies the sorrow.
Should I Dirty Bulk While Doing My Squats
No…unless you want to become a skinny-fat brah.
Bulking is a scam of the highest order propagated by sellers of hopes. Anyone giving you force-feeding advice is either a liar or in denial of what it does to a natural i.e. quick fattening.
Many souls delude themselves into thinking that they are gaining serious leg mass by overeating, but once they diet down, the gains (lard+water) evaporate.
Eating 200-300kcal over maintenance is more than sufficient. Honestly, even that will turn you into a fatso if you do it long enough.
How Strong Should I Get to Acquire Big Legs
That’s a tricky question, especially when it comes to lower body training.
The powerlifting community considers everything under 4 plates a joke. Yet I’ve seen women develop decent legs by just doing lunges with dumbbells and squatting pathetic weights on the smith machine for high reps. A sensible approach somewhere in the middle makes more sense.
In general, ectomorphs are bad squatters. We have poor squatting leverages and tend to turn our heavy sets into cheated good mornings – a move that reduces the stress on the legs while unnecessarily stressing the back. Therefore, it’s unadvisable for ectomorphs to chase arbitrary numbers set by strength fetishists.
Doing squats with 1.5 times your bodyweight for sets is more than enough if the range of motion is good. I’m not joking. If you weigh 160lbs/72.5, this amounts to roughly 240lbs/109kg.
I understand that those numbers may seem amateurish to all the people on the Internet squatting twice that after 3 months of Starting Strength, but the real world is different. Performing deep squats with 110kg for a set of 10 when you weigh 72.5kg yourself is not bad.
Many permabulkers would label you as weak, but if you get to meet those warriors, you will see that most of them are not stronger than you when you take into account the bodyweight ratio.
Moreover, many of them are doing low-bar squats to parallel wrapped in a thick powerlifting belt – a strategy that tends to inflate squat benchmarks.
In general, however, the numbers game is not very healthy. You don’t have to lift ultra-heavy barbells to reach your maximum leg potential.
What Could I Do with Limited Equipment?
You can condition your legs with bodyweight movements, but the methodical approach and the simplicity of generic weighted exercises cannot be beaten when the goal is mass. Nonetheless, the list below contains some decent offers.
- Bulgarian split squats with dumbbells
- Kettlebell/Dumbbell front squats
- Romanian deadlifts with dumbbells
- Lying hamstring curls
- Riding a bicycle uphill in high gear
Example Leg Routines
Two Times a Week
|Day 1 – Quad focus||Day 2 – Hamstring Focus|
|High bar squat||2 sets of 5 – heavy
3 sets of 8 – light
|Deadlift||1 set of 6-7 reps
1 set of 6-7 reps [lighter]
|Leg press close stance||3 sets of 10-12||Leg press wider stance||3 sets of 10-12|
|Calf raises (optional)||3 sets of 20-50||Leg curls||2 sets of 8 reps
1 set of 10 [lighter]
|Calf raises (optional)||3 sets of 20-50|
Three Times a Week
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3|
|Squat – 2×5, 3×8||Front squat – 5 sets of 3 reps||Squat – 2×8|
|Upper body exercise (e.g., Bench)||Leg press – 3×10-12|
|Romanian Deadlift – 3×8||Leg curls – 3×8|
|Calf raises – 3×20-50||Calf raises – 3×20-50|
Progression mechanism. Start the initial work sets with a weight that you can comfortably lift for 10 reps. Add weight every workout. Once the heavy sets of 5 become really difficult, cut back to a number a little higher than your starting point and build back-up again. This is called cycling [read more]
Let’s say that you start with 150lbs/67.5 kg [Note: The conversion is to a number that you can put on the bar.] Then, you add 5lbs/2.5kg to the squat and 10lbs/5kg to the deadlift every week. After a while, the work sets will intensify significantly. At that point, you reduce the weight to something like 160lbs/72.5kg and build up to a new best of five over the course of many weeks.
Are There Ectomorph Specific Routines?
No. Whoever tells you otherwise is a liar. People push different material as “ectomorph specific” because ectos form a good share of the clientele buying bodybuilding merchandise. Hence why the promoters of muscle want to appeal to the ectomorphic crowd so badly.
The muscle business benefits greatly from convincing you that ectomorphs have special needs, but in reality, ectos are regular brahs.
Consider the following idea – if there are routines somehow eliciting ultra-mass for ectomorphs, those same principles should yield even better results when deployed by genetically gifted people.
In other words, if a program generates gains for the skinny/inferior brahs, shouldn’t it work even better when you are genetically predisposed to building muscle? This alone negates the idea that the different somatotypes should follow highly-segregated blueprints.