When you think of superior leg development from the Golden-Era of bodybuilding, Tom Platz should be the first person who comes to mind. His quads were ridiculous and no one had seen anything like it but his hamstrings and calves were equally great as well. Now yes, he did have phenomenal genetics in this department but the man could squat 500lbs for 23 reps (yes, there’s proof) so he was no slouch when it came to training.
But the way the legends trained back in the day was certainly conducive to building massive wheels and that’s why we’ve put together some of the best old-school leg workouts from a few of the top Golden-Era bodybuilders.
For the following leg workouts, you’ll need access to…
- Squat rack/barbell
- hack squat machine
- Leg extension machine
- Lying leg curls
- Leg press
Leg Muscle Anatomy
Let’s talk about the individual muscles which make up the lower body so that you can better understand the function of each and how certain exercises can help you to develop maximum development.
1. Quadriceps femoris or quads
Located in the front of the thigh, the quads consist of four muscles (hence the name) which are the Vastus Lateralis, Vastus Medialis, Vastus Intermedius, and the rectus femoris. The Vastus muscles originate from the femur and then attach to the kneecap (rectus femoris also attaches to kneecap), while the rectus femoris unlike the Vastus muscles, inserts into the hipbone.
But the function of the quads is to extend the knee while playing a role in lower body physical movement (e.g. walking, running. etc).
The muscles of the quadriceps are the strongest in the entire body.
The hamstrings are located on the rear of the upper leg consist of three muscles which include the biceps femoris, semimembranosus (largest), and semitendinosus (longest).
The biceps femoris is located on the outer part of the upper thigh, while the semimembranosus is the largest of the hamstrings extending from the pelvis to the shinbone. The semitendinosus sits between the other two muscles and it extends from the pelvis to the tibia.
All three muscles are responsible for knee flexion (biceps femoris also rotates the knee) but the biceps femoris extends the hips, while the other two muscles extend the thigh rotate the tibia. Each muscle of the hamstring also crosses both the knee and hip joint except for the short head of the biceps femoris which only crosses the knee joint (you have to do a curl to target this muscle).
The hamstrings are highly involved in walking, bending the knees and other similar movements.
The glutes are highly engaged during lower body training and the muscles consist of the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus.
These muscles are responsible for extension and rotation of the hips. The medius and minimus abduct the legs (moves legs away from the body) while the gluteus maximus creates optimal forward movement.
The calf muscles consist of the gastrocnemius and soleus. The former is the more visible muscle of the two but both attach to the heel. The gastrocnemius flexes the foot, ankle, and knee while the soleus plays a big role in walking and standing.
Best 3 Old-School Leg Workouts
Each one of the following workouts should be performed in one single training session. Depending on the volume and your training experience, we’d recommend not doing any of the following routines more than twice per week. Allow at least 4-5 days rest in between sessions.
Note: We’ve linked to exercise instructions under each exercise.
#1. Old-School Workout, Tom Platz Leg Routine
You can’t have a list of best old-school leg workouts without a routine that was used by Tom Platz who was the king of leg development back in the day.
- Barbell Squats: 8-10 sets x 30-6 reps
- Hack Squats: 5 sets x 10-15 reps*
- Leg Extensions: 5 sets x 10-15 reps*
- Lying Leg Curls: 6-10 sets x 10-15 reps*
1.1 Barbell Squats
Squats are the king of compound leg-building exercises and you can really load up the weight for mass and strength gains. Tom Platz was a big proponent of high rep squats and he always preaches to never sacrifice technique for weight.
For the squat, we recommend warming up with half of your working weight for a few reps for one set. Then, do another 1-2 reps with a weight that is 10% more than the weight you’ll be doing your working sets with. You don’t need to do any other warm-up exercises for the workout.
Sets/reps: 8-10 sets x 30-6 reps
1.2 Hack Squats
The hack squat is a variation which places the body at an angle but due to this position, the trunk is less activated as there’s not as much stabilization required. So, you can focus more on the exercise itself rather than trying to balance and stabilize a weight.
But Tom Platz used to do this exercise a little differently than how we see most people doing it today. He’d place his feet at the bottom of the platform rather than high, then he’d touch his heels together and form a ‘V’ with his feet. So when he squatted, his knees would over his feet and he even teaches this technique to this day.
You’ll need to work your way into this body position as it requires flexibility and proficiency with heavy weight squats. But Platz considers his hack squat variation in combination with the free weight squat to be key for maximum quad development.
Sets/reps: 5 sets x 10-15 reps*
1.3 Leg Extensions
The leg extension is an isolation exercise that targets the quads. You won’t be able to use maximum weight with this exercise as too much can be very dangerous for the knee joint. It’s best to choose lighter to moderate resistance and pump out the reps.
Tom Platz believed in forced reps and static holds until there was nothing left in you so when he trained, he found every way possible to squeeze out additional reps no matter how short the range of motion. He even had someone push down in the foam padding as he continued to force out more reps.
Sets/reps: 5 sets x 10-15 reps*
1.4 Lying Leg Curls
You always need an isolation movement for the hamstrings if you want maximum development. And while it’s certainly not as functional as a squat or deadlift variation, the lying leg curl is a useful muscle builder because you can take it beyond failure and force that growth by doing small reps after each set.
Tom Platz would have someone push his ankles to help him force reps and then he’d have the same person push down on the pads as his legs were extended so he could continue to pump out reps.
His training was absolutely brutal!
Sets/reps: 6-10 sets x 10-15 reps*
* Denotes reps that went beyond failure through forced and partial reps
Platz would train calves twice per week doing one high rep and one low rep day. He would do standing and seated calf raises while also incorporate static holds where he held a lot of weight with his calves after a workout.
We recommend doing 3 sets of standing and 3 sets of seated calf raises for 10-12 reps a few times per week alternating high and low rep days. Push yourself to failure on each set.
#2. Old-School Workout
The second workout is simply based on the routines of the Old-school bodybuilders who trained at Gold’s Gym Venice (California) back in the 1970s courtesy of the legendary Ric Drasin.
- Donkey Calf Raise: 3-4 sets x 12-15 reps
- Lying Leg Curls: 4 sets x 12 reps
- Leg Extensions: 4-5 sets x 12 reps
- Squats: 4-5 sets x 15-20 reps
- Barbell Lunges: 3-4 sets x 12 reps
2.1 Donkey Calf Raise
Drasin explained in a video that the Donkey calf raise was the best single exercise for developing the main part of the calf muscles. This exercise involves placing the ball of your feet on something that will allow you to get a full range of motion in your ankles. Then, you’ll lean forward onto something using your upper body and have someone sit on your back so you can perform calf raises.
Now, this may not be ideal especially nowadays so to replicate this movement, you can use a Smith machine as the weight load on your lower back while leaning on an upright bench and placing two 45lb plates under your feet. There are many ways to do this variation.
There’s also a dedicated donkey calf raise machine however, it may not be as common. And then you also have the option of doing calf raises on a leg press machine which naturally places your body in the same position.
Drasin didn’t specify a set/rep range but we’ve recommended one below and we also shared a video example of what the donkey calf raises looks like in action.
Sets/reps: 3-4 sets x 12-15 reps
2.2 Lying Leg Curls
Thankfully we have a machine for this today but years ago, bodybuilders sometimes had to have someone wrap a towel around their ankles and one person would perform lat pulls while the other would do leg curls. This exercise is one of the best isolation exercises for the hamstrings as mentioned previously.
Sets/reps: 4 sets x 12 reps
2.3 Leg Extensions
The leg extension surely has not lost its popularity even back when it was a staple back in the 70s as it’s a very common movement used in all gyms around the world today.
Sets/reps: 4-5 sets x 12 reps
For upper legs, Drasin believes squats are among the best exercises for leg size and therefore it’ll make our list for best old-school leg workouts once again as there’s really nothing that can replace it except for maybe the front squat variation.
Sets/reps: 4-5 sets x 15-20 reps
2.5 Barbell Lunges
The lunge used as a super heavy movement apparently because the squat was typically the main mass builder. But the bodybuilders would use just the bar or 10 pounds each side and do either a front or reverse lunge. Drasin explained that this exercise would give a really nice shape to the legs.
Sets/reps: 3-4 sets x 12 reps
Ric Drasin was big on the squat and although the leg press was available back then, he didn’t think it gave the same size as the squat. But he also acknowledged that shape and genetics may determine what may work best for someone.
He also recommended training legs no more than twice a week using the exercises above as it’s taxing on the body.
#3. Old-School Workout
The last old-school workout is based on the routine of the legend himself, 8x Mr. Olympia (1998-2005) Ronnie Coleman who had some of the freakiest legs ever. But then again, he had one of the freakiest physiques period which is why he’s the greatest of all time.
In his prime, Ronnie could squat and deadlift 800+ which was just insane and his legs definitely didn’t lag behind as a result. Now, Coleman wouldn’t be considered a Golden-era bodybuilder but old-school he was! And you can’t have the best old-school leg workouts with his routine.
Ronnie Coleman always trained with maximum effort, usually in the moderate rep range although he went savage mode every now and then with one or two reps (often for the camera). But for this routine, we won’t max out on poundages although you should still use a challenging weight.
Here’s a leg workout from the King!
Make sure to warm-up with a few reps using about 50% of your working weight then do a touch-up set for 1-2 reps using 10% more than your working weight.
- Front or Rear Squats: 5 sets of 10 reps
- Leg Presses: 4 sets of 12-10 reps
- Walking Lunges: Distance/ 2 sets of 100 yards
- Leg Extensions: 4 sets of 15-8 reps
- Standing One-Leg Curl: 4 sets of 15-10 reps
- Lying Leg Curls: 4 sets of 15-8 reps
3.1 Front or Rear Squats
The front squat is an excellent variation for building huge quads as the bar position tends to shift the focus toward the front of the body. But it’s also beneficial for maintaining proper lifting posture (thoracic extension), not to mention, research has shown this variation elicit a similar degree of overall muscle recruitment as the popular back squat. (1)
The same piece of scientific literature also found the front squat is better long term for joint health with significantly less compressive forces and extensor moments.
But, of course, the rear squat is a preferred movement for a lot of people and it no doubt allows you to lift more weight overall.
Sets/rep: 5 sets of 10 reps
Check out our back vs. front squats article.
3.2 Leg Presses
The leg press takes a lot of the trunk out of the movement so that you can focus more on the exercise as opposed to the squat or a free weight exercise that requires more stabilization.
Make sure to place your feet higher up on the platform so that you can effectively press through the heels.
Sets/reps: 4 sets of 12-10 reps
3.3 Walking Lunges
The walking lunge was one of Ronnie Coleman’s favorite exercises and you’ve likely seen him a few videos where he has a loaded standard barbell on his back, covering some distance.
When you walk, lunge to vertical or slightly lower while making sure to keep your shins vertical during the movement.
Sets/Distance: 2 sets of 100 yards
3.4 Leg Extensions
Coleman went pretty heavy on these although nowadays it’s probably best to stick with lighter to moderate weight as our training knowledge has progressed. This is just a recommendation for the protection of the knee joint long term due to the open-chain nature of this exercise.
Sets/reps: 3 sets of 20 reps
3.5 Standing One-Leg Curl
Again, the leg curl is necessary to work the short head of the biceps femoris which only crosses the knee joint. Get a full stretch during each rep and focus on getting a full range of motion.
Sets/reps: 4 sets of 15-10 reps
3.6 Lying Leg Curls
Lastly, we have the leg curl which is a great isolation finisher. You’ll need to lighten up the weight here as there won’t be a whole lot left in you.
Sets/reps: 4 sets of 15-8 reps
And that’s a wrap!
Important Leg Training Tips
Here are what we believe to be valuable leg training tips so that you can get the absolute best from your workouts…
Choosing Your Weight
Just because you see other people squatting a certain amount of weight or leg pressing with the apparatus loaded to its max, it doesn’t mean this is the best strategy for you. Choosing an ideal weight depends on factors such as level of training experience and structural/joint health.
You don’t want to rush into pushing yourself beyond what your body is capable of because your joints will pay the price. But also remember what Tom Platz said about never sacrificing technique for weight. This is some of the best advice you can get.
So, worry about proper technique and developing a gradual adaptation and everything else will follow.
Breathe and Brace Properly
It’s especially important that we have a stable trunk when training legs which allows us to perform better and avoid collapsing under the weight (especially when using heavyweight). A popular method is the Valsalva maneuver which involves taking a deep breath, holding it and tightening your core. You’ll then perform a rep and breathe out during the last portion of the concentric (positive) phase of the movement.
But you want to practice and become proficient as you progress in weight as holding your breath too long can lead to fainting.
High rep leg training is not only an effective way to build great legs due to pushing yourself past a physical limit. But it’s one of the best ways to build muscular endurance and mental fortitude which is a very valuable tool to have when it comes to training or performance in general.
This doesn’t mean you should train light as you still have to implement progressive overload. But you should also incorporate low-rep training with near maximal loads which is best for building strength. So, mix up your training with low, moderate, and high-rep training.
When it comes to squat depth, for example, research shows that deep and parallel squats are both effective for hypertrophy based on a few different variables like weight load and function. But deep squats are superior for overall lower body strength, in addition to strength and team sports due to the additional functional benefits of having to overcome a load at the bottom of a squat position.
One study where fifteen young men performed two different squat depths determined that partial squats work more of the glutes while full squats activate more of the quads. So, this is something else to take into consideration and both can be very beneficial for different goals. (2)
Hip and Ankle Mobility
Limited mobility in your hips and ankles, can really put a damper on your training progress. But even worse is that this can result in overcompensation from your knees which are trying to make up for your lack of mobility in the hips and ankles. You’ll need optimal mobility to be able to get the most out of your leg training due to the required depths (e.g, back squat) and if you find yourself having troubles, you’ll want to identify and correct the issue.
Common reasons for a lack of mobility can be weak and unstable hips and/or ankles that do not have enough mobility, although too much mobility is not a good thing either. But typically, ankle stretches and strengthening the hips can improve both issues for most people.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the most common old-school leg exercises?
Bodybuilders from the Golden-Era did not have all the luxurious equipment we have today but they still had enough equipment to get amazing results.
They had access to mostly free weights which are the best way to build big, strong, functional legs anyway.
The most common exercises included…
- Barbell squat
- Hack squat
- Leg extensions
- Leg press
- Sissy squat
- Lying leg curl
- Standing calf raise
- Seated calf raise
- Donkey calf raise
Which old-school bodybuilder had the best leg development?
Most people would agree that Tom Platz had the best leg development out of all the Golden-Era bodybuilders. ‘The Golden Eagle’ had massive quads, hamstrings to match and impressive calves.
Platz also did heavy squats for high reps and a lot of partial/forced reps to build his legs.
Are old-school leg workouts better than modern leg workouts?
While we still use the same exercises that old-school bodybuilders did, it’s only normal that training science evolves. Therefore, sets, reps, technique, training frequency, volume, etc should all be taken into consideration based on what we currently know about training.
How often should I do an old-school leg workout?
It depends on the total volume and number of exercises you do per session. The less you do the more frequently you can train and vice versa.
And that’s all we have for you today. Three best old-school leg workouts that’ll slap on the size and strength based on the routines of legends.
They really were ahead of their time when it came to training, although today’s science has certainly improved upon the different variables that go into structuring a leg training routine.
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