Workout Series: Chicken Leg Syndrome

A friend of mine and I are avid lifters, 3 days in a row, separated into chest, back, shoulders, etc. But I can't get my friend to do legs. I love leg days and would push myself even more if I had a partner, but unfortunately I have to do it myself. What can I tell him that would convince him that legs are also important? He says that running and playing sports works them enough. What do you think? Thanks, Joe R., Boise, Idaho

I've been working out for a few years now but I'm unable to make my calf muscles any bigger. Do you have some tips on how to get my calves to grow? Thanks, Drumsticks in Dallas

We've all seen those guys strutting around the gym... huge upper bodies and tiny little legs underneath holding it all up. It actually reminds me of the engineering marvels we see perched on hillsides here in Southern California... big house on tiny little stilts. This condition is unofficially known as "Chicken Leg Syndrome." Although not a true medical condition, Chicken Leg Syndrome is a phenomenon that is commonly seen in gyms, health clubs and hen houses the world over! What causes this horrible, disfiguring condition? Neglect, laziness and/or focusing on the "vanity muscles" that are more visible and often associated with being fit (i.e. biceps, chest, etc.). The fact that long pants can hide the hideousness of this condition only compounds the problem. Many lifters (including our buddy in Boise) don't realize the importance of developing strong leg muscles. They're often overlooked or neglected because results may be less visible or slower than smaller muscle groups. It may sound crazy... but our philosophy here at the fitness ranch is "if you're not seeing results and you're not challenging your muscle to grow, you should probably work a little harder rather than ignore it and hope it will go away."

Developing muscles equally is important not only for appearances but also to prevent muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances can negatively affect your balance, flexibility, performance in sports and increase your risk of injury. Something else to consider is that the muscles of the leg are a relatively large group of muscles. Stimulating these muscles and/or adding a little more muscle can really turn up your fat burning stove and metabolism.

We have to give our buddy in Boise a little credit. He is partially correct that cardio exercise and other sports do stimulate your muscles to a certain degree. This usually isn't enough to result in muscle growth. Of course your muscles have to work for any body movement (walking, running, throwing, sports, etc.) but because your muscles move your body weight everyday it's used to that amount of weight so there's only a little stimulation for muscle growth. To best way to stimulate muscles growth is to lift or move a weight heavier than what your body is used, encouraging your muscles to adapt to a new stimulus.

We've put together some common exercises for a leg workout to help you avoid "Chicken Leg Syndrome." We've included basic muscle information below but for a more in-depth description (including pictures, technical descriptions, etc.) you should read Anatomy 101. It's important to note that most movements (gym exercises, sports, activities, etc.) use more than one muscle.

Upper Legs

Muscles: quadriceps (the front of the thigh), hamstrings (the back of the thigh), abductors (the butt muscles), adductors (the inner thigh) and hip flexors. We didn't include much information here about hip flexors because they are used mostly for stability during movement and leg exercises; they usually don't require separate exercises.

Attachment: the quads originate on the pelvis and femur (upper thighbone) and they attach to the patella (kneecap). The hamstrings start on the pelvis and femur and attach to the bones of the lower leg. Both the abductors and the adductors originate on the pelvis and attach to the femur.
Action: the quads are responsible for straightening the leg, and the hamstrings bend your leg. The abductors mostly pull your legs apart (away from each other) but also help pushing your body up (like when climbing stairs). The adductors pull your legs together.


Leg Press: works most of the muscles of the leg and butt and can be done using one of the many different machines in the gym. While keeping your feet, knees, hips and shoulders in alignment, push the weight away from you as far as possible without locking your knees. Slowly lower the weight back towards you and stop just before your hips and lower back pull away from the seat. It's important to keep your feet flat on the platform and your back firmly against the seat back throughout the movement. The range of motion is different for everyone (depending on the length of your leg bones) and it's not necessary to bring your knees to your chest.

Squats: this exercise also works most of the muscles of the leg and butt and can be done holding dumbbells at your sides or with a barbell resting on your shoulders. Dumbbell squats are best for beginners and when you don't have a spotter. For barbell squats, you can either rest a barbell on your shoulders (behind your head) or on your chest (a little more difficult). With your feet shoulder width apart and keeping your back straight, bend your knees and lower your body towards the floor. Again, the range of motion is different for everyone and going too far can cause injury. You should go as low as you can without lifting your heels off the floor and without bending forward at the waist; this may only be 6-12 inches for some people.

Lunge: This is a great exercise for your butt, but it also uses most of the muscles of the leg. Lunges can be done either holding dumbbells at your side or a barbell on your shoulders. From a standing position, take a large step forward with your right foot and lower your left knee towards the floor. The step should be large enough that your right knee doesn't extend beyond your toes. Repeat leading with the other leg.

Leg Curl: designed to isolate the hamstrings, there are many different machines and positions (seated, standing or lying on your stomach) but all involve the same movement. Bend your leg at the knee and curl the weight towards your butt. To really isolate your hamstrings, it's important to keep the upper portion of your leg still and your butt muscles relaxed. Don't arch your back if standing and keep you butt down if lying on your stomach. Some people like to do each leg separately to really isolate each muscle and limit "helping" from your dominant leg.

Leg Extension: this exercise works the quads and can be done using a machine in the gym. Extend your legs as far as possible, without locking your knees. Keep your ankles and lower leg muscles relaxed (don't point your toes) when lifting the weight to avoid straining the muscles on the back of the leg. Each leg can also be exercised separately.

Lower Legs

Who wouldn't love a sturdy set of calves bulging out from the top of their socks? Besides looking great, strong calf muscles are important for jumping, running, dancing or just standing around. As a reminder, remember to focus on the action of the muscle and the part of the body being moved. Thinking about the movement can help you isolate the muscle as much as possible, be more efficient in your workouts and reduce your risk of injury.

Primary Muscle: gastrocnemius
Attachment: begins on the lower portion of the femur (thighbone) and attaches to the heel via the Achilles tendon.
Action: plantar flexion of the ankle (i.e. pointing your toes) and flexing the knee (shortening the distance between the ankle and upper leg.

Secondary Muscle: soleus
Attachment: begins on the upper portion of the tibia and fibula (the bones of the lower leg) and attaches to the heel via the Achilles tendon.
Action: plantar flexion of the ankle.

Although both muscles perform the same movement, the gastrocnemius muscle is mainly used in standing exercises because of how it is attached. The gastrocnemius muscle crosses 2 joints (the knee and the ankle), so when the knee is bent the muscle is shortened and its involvement is limited. The soleus muscle only crosses 1 joint (the ankle) so it is used equally in both seated and standing exercises. Your hips, knees and toes should be aligned and pointing in the same direction during calf exercises. Pointing your toes inward or outward does absolutely nothing to change the stimulation of the muscle but it will increase your risk of injury.


Standing Calf Raises: more specifically "straight leg" calf exercises, can be done using a machine or dumbbells. Some gyms also have newer seated, straight leg calf machines that work the same way without placing the load on the shoulders and back.

Machine Calf Raises: adjust the pads of a Standing Calf Machine to shoulder height while standing on the floor. Place the balls of your feet on the footplate and your shoulders under the pads. Keeping your knees straight but not locked, lift your heels and the weight stack, being careful not to favor one leg over the other. Lower your heels toward the floor in a smooth, controlled motion without bouncing at the bottom of the movement.

Dumbbell Calf Raise: step up on to an elevated step, block or platform so that the balls of your feet are supporting your weight. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand and use your left hand to maintain your balance. To isolate each leg individually, lift your left leg off the platform and rest it on the back of your right leg (i.e. top of left foot on the back of the right calf). Slowly lift your right heel and then lower in a smooth, controlled motion. After completing a full set, change positions and repeat using the other leg.

Seated Calf Raise: place your toes on the footplate of a Seated Calf Machine and adjust the kneepad to accommodate the length of your lower leg. Begin lifting your heels and release the safety knob. Continue lifting, being careful not to favor one leg over the other. Lower in a smooth, controlled motion without bouncing at the bottom of the movement.

Remember to start new exercises with a lighter weight and focus on the proper form and technique. When you're comfortable with the exercise, you should add weight in response to your specific goals. If your goal is muscle growth, you'll want to eventually use a weight that only allows you to complete 8-10 repetitions. But if you just want to strengthen and define you should choose a weight that allows you to finish 12-15 repetitions.

Some of the exercises above work the same muscles and there are also other exercises and variations. It's a good idea to use different equipment and/or exercises when planning your leg routine to keep your muscles stimulated and growing but avoid unsafe or risky maneuvers. You should periodically add weight, to keep your muscles stimulated and promote growth (again, depending on your goals)

You have all the tools you need to prevent Chicken Leg Syndrome and develop legs the size of logs! The ball is in your court! Not including every part of your body in your overall workout routines can result in an "unbalanced look," muscle imbalances and posture problems.

This information and other information on this site is intended for general reference purposes only and is not intended to address specific medical conditions. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice or a medical exam. Prior to participating in any exercise program or activity, you should seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional. No information on this site should be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any medical condition.