A Rant on Chicken Leg Syndrome
Note: I got this question via email the other day, and once I started writing my response, it got so long that I just figured I’d use it as a blog post. Take it for what you will – if anything, I was just writing off the top of my head, so feel free to chime in below.
Q: This is a totally random question but one that (a) I wouldn’t mind seeing you tackle in your blog at some point and (b) has been on my mind for quite a while now.
Here goes: Why don’t we see more emphasis on great (not necessarily big, but defined) legs instead of JUST big arms and a hyooge chest? I’m all for the latter (to a point), but I find it rather odd that so many guys have guns and pecs but their legs are toothpicks. We always talk about single-leg training, squats and deads, but in my gym and everywhere else, I see no guys sans bodybuilders focusing on their wheels.
This has always been an issue for me because a great pair of wheels on a guy ALWAYS yields attention.
It’s true even of many trainers. I remember commenting to my wife that a trainer she once hired had “no legs.” She responded, “He has a nice upper body.” Then, when he finally showed up in shorts, she said “I wanted to throw up at seeing his chicken legs.”
Just a little rant, but each time I’m lunging with 110s or deadlifting 8 plates, a few of the guys with the best upper bodies always comment that they wish they had my legs and/or leg strength. I always think, “You could, if you stopped benching three days a week.”
Just wondering if there was some memo I missed.
A: Well, I’ll be the first to admit that I have the worst calf genetics known to man, so this may come across as the teapot calling the kettle black, but I’ll bite. I mean, I’ve pulled close to 3x my bodyweight off the ground, so that gives me some street cred.
I’m very similar to you in that I can look at a dude’s physique (no homo), and tell if he’s put his work in. For instance, if I look at a guy and see a thick, wide back, he’s obviously put his time in. I mean, any tool wearing a fanny pack and a cut-off shirt can have biceps and abs. However, not every guy is walking around with a back that looks like the Grand Canyon.
Similarly, we can think along the same lines with the lower body. Now, speaking from a personal standpoint, I have one goal and one goal only in life: and that’s to have a big ass.
So big in fact, that when I walk past J-Lo, all she can say is “damn!”
Nonetheless, I’m a bit skewed in my perspective since I see guys walking around with tree trunks all the time at CP; but I can definitely see your point when referring to the typical commercial gym scenario where a “leg day” usually entails some quarter squats in the Smith machine, a few leg extensions and curls here and there, and, of course, some leg presses for good measure – sometimes while reading the newspaper. Believe it or not, I once saw a gentleman doing that at a gym I used to work at. Unbelievable.
I think in the end, it comes down to a few factors:
1. Guys like training what they can see. Until the day comes where it’s socially accepted to walk around with our pants off (fingers crossed), most dudes are going to hit the push-ups and curls before they go clubbing. That’s just the way it is, and the it’s always going to be.
2. Training upper body is easier than training lower body. It’s akin to asking someone whether they’d rather go for a two mile “jog,” or go to the local track and do a few rounds of 400M tempo runs or sprints. The less masochistic in the crowd will more often than not pick the former over the latter. Similarly, what sounds more appetizing to Joe Inflated Lat Syndrome: front squats or concentration curls?
3. Training the upper body, at least in my humble opinion, lends itself to be a little more “volume friendly.” In other words, 70% of our muscle mass is below the waist line (I’ll refrain from using an obvious joke here). We have the glute max, hamstring group, adductor group, and obviously our thigh muscles, too (rectus femoris, etc). These are big freaking muscles – and when we train them (hard) it takes them a little longer to fully recover. Anyone who’s ever done a set of breathing squats for 20 reps or broken a deadlift PR can attest that you essentially feel like you got hit by a Mack truck for the next three days afterwards.
Tricep kickbacks? Not so much.
On the flip side, however, our pecs (as bulletproof as they are), are a relatively small muscle (comparatively speaking) and can be trained a bit more frequently, and can handle a bit more volume. In much the same light, we can say the same for our triceps, deltards, abs, you name it. Training our upper body generally isn’t quite a taxing on the body (especially from a CNS standpoint) as the lower body. This isn’t to say that training upper body is always a cake walk, but lets be honest, chest flies aren’t nearly as “vomit in my mouthish” as say, barbell bulgarian split squats.
As such, most (not all) guys will automatically gravitate towards training their upper body more. Heck, just look at most body building splits:
Mon: Chest and Back
Tue: Bi’s and Tri’s
Wed: Legs (again, this can vary between being a raging vagina (leg extensions) or actually putting some effort in – deadlifts, squats to actual depth, single leg work, GHRs, Prowler, etc).
Fri: Chest (again) and Fist Pumps
Weekend: eat dead animal flesh
By that token, dudes are hitting their upper body four times per week, and their lower, once. Giving credit where credit is due, as I alluded to above, if you train your legs right, sometimes once a week is plenty. But, given the likelihood that most guys (again, not all) have no idea what it’s like to use a squat rack for its intended purpose, this is a non-issue.
Anyways, to make a long rant short, I feel your pain. I think if more dudes spent more time training their lower body, they’d see marked improvements in their overall physique. But until the day comes where girls compliment a guy’s quad sweep as much as his biceps (or all these same guys actually start training in a “real” gym), it probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon.
I’d love to hear everyone else’s thoughts on this.
Comments for This Entry
Lance GoykeSome guy told me I have chicken legs over the weekend. His street cred was instantly lost, and I've been confused ever since.
June 3, 2011 at 9:07 am |
Ken AndrewsYou hit nail on the head Tony! Training legs is tough, but I think that is what makes it damn rewarding. I feel like I have accomplished more after a tough squat or deadlift session, than after an upper body session. Not to mention, when you rack a heavy squat or drop a heavy deadlift, it makes a loud noise that can't be ignored and people have to look. Of course, in most commercial gyms, the power rack is always available due to everyone benching or curling.
June 3, 2011 at 9:53 am |
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June 13, 2012 at 1:46 am |
C-Ho is my heroTony, Love the blog read it every day. I was one of those unfortunate fools who despite being an athlete ignored the lower half of my body. Then while joining my local gym I was offered a free hour with a trainer who turned out to be Chris Howard. This one hour turned into 8 months and now I have an ass that can crush cars like walnuts and I did so even with FAI (cam). Curling in the squat rack is like crapping in a urinal. Sure functionally you can do it but: 1) It's not the intended use and 2) you look like a tool bag while doing it!!
June 3, 2011 at 10:21 am |
JBThat's the problem with isolation movements: it seems like work, so it makes it hard to do the big movements. However, once you do the hard work (squat/deadlift/clean/jerk) it's easy to fill in some presses and elbow flexion/extension, because it's just not that hard.
June 3, 2011 at 10:23 am |
Dean SomersetI don't know what you're talking about. My calves evolved into steers a few years ago, and they're progressing into cattle. You even have the photographic evidence to show as well. However, I will agree that most people have tiny legs, but that is because they train them with the same set and reps schemes that they use to train their upper body, which results in more neuromuscular fatigue and the I-can't-stand-up-off-the-toilet sensation than actual growth. Using some compound movements with shockingly heavy weights will get the wheels growing faster than banging out 50 sets of leg extensions ever would.
June 3, 2011 at 10:24 am |
JP SiouFunny - I MUCH prefer squatting, deadlifting, heavy single-leg work, hip thrusts, etc. to any upper body work. It's just a much more satisfying feeling for me to barely be able to walk after a workout. That said, my pathetic bench numbers definitely reflect that bias - LOL!
June 3, 2011 at 10:51 am |
DanielThe best you can do in a commercial gym are quarter squats and lunges. If you do anything more, people will look weird at you. It is similar to the crabs in the bucket. If one crab wants to get out, the others will pull him back. Maybe it's also a strategic thing, if they can impress the ladies first with their upper bodies, they will only have to drop their pants when the lights are out.
June 3, 2011 at 11:15 am |
Michael GrayMy lower body has always been my weak link. I joking used to say that my back went straight into my hamstrings...basically-I had no ass. Seriously, zero ass. I looked like a frog standing up. But after, focusing on bringing up my weak points, squatting and deadlifting have become my favorite lifts, despite the fact that I used to hate them. Most guys fail to realize that when you focus on strengthening the areas where you're weak, you also improve your natural strengths. That being said, I think part of the problem is that most guys don't give a crap about being strong, they just want to fill out the sleeves of their s-medium polos with their popped collars when they go clubbing on Friday nights.
June 3, 2011 at 11:17 am |
Tavis BruceI've found that if you can stomach it (literally), adding volume to your lower body program can really add meat to (especially) the posterior chain. Not that I feel like mouth-vomiting is required to grow but I personally hypertrophy much better when I lift heavy-ass weight in a functional hypertrophy rep scheme (4-6 reps), with an explosive concentric and slow eccentric tempo. When I work in a maximal strength rep range I find that my strength skyrockets but my legs never end up as impressive as my upper body development. I also understand that everyone's physiology is different and fiber make-up has a big genetic role on what rep/set schemes will work best for hypertrophy and strength. I'm pulling from the floor 4 days out of 4 right now and I'm seeing the best gains in leg girth since I first started lifting back in high school. It's worth mentioning that I also hate my life as I put myself through it!
June 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm |
KaseyI must admit that I fell into the trap of "raging vagina" leg training for far longer than I'd care to admit.. Thank god I found blogs like yours, Eric's, Contreras', Robertson's, etc and Tnation. I honestly used to hate training legs because I didn't feel it was hard enough.. HA! I can't even believe I just said that. But when you do those stupid things, it is easy and you get embarrassing results. Luckily we are all able to learn daily and change our ways. Now I love leg training and wish I had super recovery capabilities so I could squat and deadlift every day.
June 3, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
KashkaI think it's more of a personal preference thing. Just because we think chicken legs is a bad look, does not mean everybody else will or should think it is. I personally know people that choose not to do any forms of leg training except sprints and sleds, because they don't want huge legs. And let's be honest, I have never seen anybody have chicken legs by just doing sprints and sleds. Another thing is the definition of chicken legs, I think Brad Pitt in Troy had chicken legs. But some people think it's the perfect size. Just like I don't think Derek Poundstone size back is a good look , while Tony thinks it's awesome.
June 3, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
TomI hate the chicken legs rant. It's unfair because you're really judging people's calves (a genetic thing), not their legs. That's all you ever see. I have the skinniest calves on the planet, but I have decent thighs. No one ever sees them though if I wear shorts. It doesn't look like I've put my time in while wearing shorts. It sucks. I can put my hand around my ankle easy and my calf muscle doesn't start until about 6 inches from my knee. All the calf work in the world won't change that.
June 3, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
Tony Gentilcore@ Tom: believe me, I feel your pain. But seriously, the real "rant" was the fact that most guys don't put nearly enough work into their lower body training as compared to their upper body. Like I said to start, this was just something I wrote on the fly. I didn't put too much thought into it, but just shared some thoughts on why most guys prefer to bang out bicep supersets compared to GHRs. It wasn't an assault against you personally, so I apologize if that's how you took it.
June 3, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
TomHahaha, Tony, I'm just messing around. No need to apologize. I know what you meant and liked the blog entry. I was just venting because people are probably unfairly saying that about me at my gym. It must be worse for you actually being in the business. We need to start the trend of calling them "chicken thighs" haha.
June 3, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
JulietPerhaps my perspective is slightly skewed, but I think chicken legs on a male are totally unattractive. And I notice them. (Well, or at least on the guys who aren't even trying) I once dated a guy who refused to train legs. And by dated... I mean 2 weeks. I suppose I'm picky.
June 3, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
FoolietNo, you're just a shallow b*tch.
July 18, 2013 at 11:08 am |
Jonathan GoodmanFunny enough i find it harder to train upper body than I do training lower body. It's a pleasure hammering out set after set of deadlifts. On the other hand I find it difficult to work anywhere close to my capacity while training upper body. In addition it takes me longer to get focused on the workout. (My theory is the larger muscles in the leg produce a larger testosterone boost and get me into that satori quicker)
June 3, 2011 at 7:53 pm |
R SmithDamn, Tony, the one time I don't start my day with your blog you feature my question. But I am glad you did. Guys/gals, I am by no means assailing big arms and hyooge pecs. My chest is JUST beginning to exist and my arms are puny. In my "goals sheet" to Eric, I told him my priorities were to get strong AND have Gentilcore arms. Once back at home to train on my own, I figured a few things out: 1. Being big is one thing; being big, mobile and athletic is quite another; 2. I'll take relative strength any day over pure size (300-plus-pound guys deadlifting a grand is impressive, but 180-pound guys deadlifting over 700 pounds is freakin amazing); and 3. What I really wanted was "the package," a nice overall body that would be appealing to anyone who saw me naked. The stronger I got, the better I looked, even though I wasn't getting much bigger--6-5, 204 to 215-ish. The legs thing became an issue because with Cressey's programs you WORK legs, and mine grew and got stronger consistently. And the less I intentionally tried to add mass to my upper body, the better my upper body looked, something I attribute to having to focus on deads, rows, chins, pushups and squats. Still, I was jealous as hell at the guys who made up their own programs and did upper body-only EVERY day. Yet when they see me lunge or squat or deadlift, they comment of how they wish they had my legs or leg strength. (And here it is, I wanted their chest and arms.) In the end, I decided that, yes, I wouldn't mind having pecs and biceps, just not at the expense of a great back and killer legs. And Tony, might be a Florida thing, but you'd be surprised at the girls who notice the teardrop, rare as they are anymore.
June 3, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
Rozin AbbasI've switched to a high-rep, high volume leg day as well as including a low-rep, low volume leg day. The additional volume is insane. Legs overall do make me want to jump off a building. I rarely ever see anyone work legs at my gym. And the people who do always look like they're suffering. I can certainly say that legs are my least favourite day which make them my favourite day. In the end, I feel like it looks wacked out when a dude has a massive upper body then he has a tiny lower. I saw a dude like that the other day. It was ridiculous.
June 3, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
RafeThe more pounds of muscle you carry, the more calories you burn on a day to day basis. The more calories you burn, the more you can eat without gaining weight. It's a lot easier to add pounds of muscle to the lower body than it is to the upper body. Ergo, if you, like me, like to eat, it behooves you to make sure you're working your lower body as much as you can stand to.
June 3, 2011 at 9:36 pm |
ori bialaThe abolishing of short shorts in the last decade or so (by the general pop.) has probably been a big contributor to the chicken leg syndrome.
June 4, 2011 at 3:18 am |
Tony Gentilcore@ Juliet: hahahahaha. That's hilarious. Hopefully you got a few free meals out of it....;o) @ Ronell: next time I'm in Florida, we need to hang out. Maybe an EPIC training session is in order. @ Ori: huh, I never thought of that! Great point.
June 4, 2011 at 4:41 am |
KujoI actually prefer lower leg training like squats, and DL's (though they are technically fully body exercises) over upper body stuff. I honestly don't really enjoy barbell bench pressing, and it's by far my weakest lift, though I'm working on improving it.
June 4, 2011 at 5:00 am |
R Smith@Tony: I'd consider it an honor. My arms could use it. (By the way, I spent a weekend in Jensen Beach recently. Loved it. Thx for leaving the town intact.) @ Juliet: you have a new fan.
June 4, 2011 at 6:01 am |
JustaTom/Tony, Genetically, I have small calves as well, but with the proper work, they do improve. I used to do calve raises and whatnot, but no longer. I've found that working out in Vibrams/and/or barefoot has helped my calves tremendously. Sprinting, jump rope, burpees, box jumps, snatches, etc. My calves will never be huge, but they are bigger, sinewy, defined, and have shape. As one woman said to me at a barbeque last week...they look like the legs of an athlete, someone that works out. And I've been able to do that without "working" my calves. In fact, since I've seen the light and focused on heavy compound movements for lower body, I can't believe the difference in how my lower body looks. It looks...powerful is the best way to describe it. Big difference than how it looks doing a few sets of leg extensions a few times per week. Oh...and there is nothing more lame than a guy doing curls in the power rack with a ten pound plate on each end of the bar. Really? I mean, everyone has to start somewhere, but...really?
June 4, 2011 at 6:58 am |
Mike SkrzekOnce being a client at CP, I can personally attest to the fact that it takes me days of walking like i have a load in my pants after training the lower body at the facility.
June 4, 2011 at 7:42 am |
PaulaTo go back to genetics for a second, I have an ex who has skinnier ankles than me, calves not much better (but strong), and then thighs each bigger than my upper torso. Strangest thing.
June 5, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
StephaneI now (unfortunately) fall into the category of chicken-leg syndrome as I tore my hip labrum and have been unable to perform ANY lower body exercises. I have now become the douchebag who wears track pants and only performs upper body.
June 6, 2011 at 6:37 am |
June 7, 2011 at 11:54 am |
PrakashTony - I read blogs from you, eric cressey and mike robertson and although all are incredibly informative and I learn something new from each one, I find myself having the loudest laughs when I read yours. Seriously, I look forward every week to reading your blogs as I know I'll be in fits of laughter which cheers my workdays up no end! Thanks and keep up the good fight - big lifts RULE! I'm afraid I'd have to challenge you to the worst calf genetics known to man. In fact I probably have the worst leg genetics known to man! I can't say I love squats because it hurts like a beyotch but I do them because you can't have a strong body without a strong base. It suits me that many are afraid of squatting it means at my gym I always get the squat rack to myself - apart from the odd days when there's a complete "raging vagina", as you so aptly put it, who think they should bicep curl inside the rack ARRRGGGGHHHHH!
June 28, 2011 at 2:54 am |
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April 25, 2012 at 10:37 pm |
DeenIve always had chicken legs and earlier hid them. I have very narrow bone structure and the putting muscle on it is as hard as finding water in the desert. Some years ago I started training legs really hard and quads and hams caught up big time with calves catching up and then herniaed my L5-S1. Since then as I couldnt train any more for next two years I lost all mass but a lot off lower body and because of nerve compression on right side, there was muscle atrophy and calve just deflated like a balloon without air. Ive started training again and slowly and gently trying to put some muscle on legs but calves remain challenging especially now that I need to work more on right calve to bring it up to left. Anyway must do what i must and must get better than ever.
July 5, 2014 at 2:44 pm |
Travis mcfarlandJB hit the nail on the head. Single joint exercises accumulates, "no sweat." You treat multi joint exercises like a job (squat, deadlift, clean/jerk), you'll experience a side of weight lifting that's euphoric.
April 19, 2016 at 4:45 pm |