Muscles of Iron

Kirkley on Building Super Leg Strength

The late George Kirkley was a former weightlifting champion, magazine editor, international weightlifting referee, and senior coach of the British governing body for weightlifting. He remains one of the most influential writers in physical culture history, and he spent many years instructing at weightlifting and weight training clubs throughout Europe.

During the early 1960s, Kirkley wrote a classic book entitled Weight Lifting and Weight Training. This work focuses on weight lifting as a competitive and Olympic sport, and it provides much instruction for physique building and improving health. Kirkley's book is divided into three main sections. Part One covers general weight training and bodybuilding for health and physique building; Part Two covers weight training for athletes; and, Part Three is devoted to Olympic-style weightlifting.

Cover photo of Weight Lifting and Weight Training, a book by George W. Kirkley
Published in 1963, George W. Kirkley's Weight Lifting and Weight Training provides an outstanding and comprehensive treatment of competitive Olympic weightlifting and physique building.

In the third section of his book, Kirkley has a chapter entitled Advanced Training and Assistance Exercises. This chapter is primarily written for weightlifters who specialize on the Olympic lifts. However, the information provided is also applicable to bodybuilders seeking to acquire greater strength and power. The Squat is among the many “assistance” exercises that the author covered in this chapter. Kirkley said of this exercise:

“One of the finest of all strength-building movements is the Squat, or Deep Knee Bend. The legs play a major part in the Snatch and Clean and Jerk, particularly when using the squat style of lifting. And regular, progressive practice of the Squat is recognized as one of the greatest of all power builders. All the great strong men—past and present—have used the Squat as the key movement in building power.”

For building greater strength and power in the legs, Kirkley recommended performing half (parallel) and quarter squats, both with the barbell held behind the neck and with the barbell held in front. The weightlifting coach considered the partial squat to be the most effective assistance exercise for strengthening and adding power to the legs, hips, and back, especially when heavy weights are used and low repetitions are employed. His recommended squat program was as follows:

  • Full Squat
  • Done as a warm-up, do one set with a moderate poundage, 7 to 10 repetitions. Then, move on to the parallel squat.
  • Parallel Squat
  • Start with a weight in excess of best clean and jerk. Do two sets, 6 repetitions each.
  • Add 20 lb. to the bar and do two sets, 5 repetitions each.
  • Add another 20 lb. to the bar and do two sets, 4 repetitions each.
  • Take a breather for four or five minutes, but stay warm. Then, move on to the quarter squat.
  • Quarter Squat
  • Add another 20 lb. to the bar and do one set, 6 repetitions each.
  • Add another 20 lb. to the bar and do one set, 5 repetitions each.

Kirkley offered many guidelines for implementation of his squat program. He emphasized, however, some self experimentation and variation may be required to determine optimal training frequency, rest periods, number of sets and repetitions, etc. With this understanding, here is a summary of his general recommendations for getting the most benefit from his prescribed leg-building workout:

  • Except where noted for a longer pause, rest one to two minutes between sets of squats.
  • Steadily lower yourself while squatting, and resist the weight to avoid a rapid descent.
  • As soon as the low position is reached in the squat, return to the starting position.
  • Take one or two deep breaths between each repetition.
  • Keep your back as flat as possible and keep your head up. This will assure that your legs do most of the work and derive the most benefit.
  • Work up to the heaviest weight you can correctly handle for the target number of repetitions.

Most lifters will probably benefit most by practicing the above routine once every five to seven days, ideally as part of an abbreviated training program. This routine can be practiced with either the back squat or the front squat. However, Kirkley did not recommend doing both styles of the squat during the same workout. You can alternate each style from workout to workout, or you can use one style exclusively for a few weeks, or even for a few months. Then, you can switch to the other squat style.

Kirkley suggested that although “real power” is best built with heavy partial movements, the full squat should also be practiced as a supplemental exercise. This is especially true, the coach stressed, if you are a competitive lifter who practices the squat-style snatch or clean. Additionally, bodybuilders may want to add a few sets of full squats to the suggested routine to ensure complete leg development. Just be careful to avoid over-training.

So there you have it—a nifty squat routine recommended by George Kirkley for developing enormous leg strength and power. If you are struggling to build stronger and more powerful legs, perhaps you should give this program a try. It has worked for some of the best lifters in the world, and chances are it could work for you too.

Yours in strength and health,
Rob Drucker

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