Whether you want to build strong, powerful quadriceps and hamstrings or just tone up your legs for summer, the best way to strengthen and firm your lower body is by adding leg exercises to your workout routine.
From classic powerlifting exercises like the barbell squat to endurance-building leg exercises like the bodyweight lunge, this blog post lists the nine best leg exercises for developing a strong, firm and highly athletic lower body.
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Are you just getting started with personal fitness? The bodyweight squat is a simple but effective exercise that will help you strengthen your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes for a firmer, stronger lower body.
Bodyweight squats are easy to perform, and you can safely do them at home with no workout equipment. Lift your arms in front of you to balance your body and squat to the point at which your thighs are parallel with the ground.
If you want to make bodyweight squats more of a challenge, try squatting using only one leg at a time. You can also hold dumbbells at your side and perform two-legged squats for a more challenging workout.
The barbell squat is a classic powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting exercise. You’ll need a gym membership or a power rack in order to perform this exercise safely, as doing squats without a rack to sit the weight on can be dangerous.
Balance the barbell on your upper back and shoulders – it should fit naturally onto the top of your trapezius muscles. Keep your legs at least shoulder width apart and squat down gradually to the point at which your thighs are parallel to the ground.
Barbell squats are one of the best leg exercises for building strong quadriceps and glutes, especially when performed with a heavy weight for five to ten reps. They’re also one of the ‘big three’ powerlifting lifts, along with the bench press and deadlift.
There are two different ways to perform barbell squats: the high bar stance and the low bar stance. Learn more about the difference between the squat techniques and learn which is best for you in our blog post on the high bar and low bar squat.
Bodyweight and barbell squats are compound exercises that work more than one muscle group. Squats work the quadriceps – the big muscles on your thigh’s front side – as well as the hamstrings, glutes and lower back muscles.
Leg extensions, on the other hand, are an isolation exercise. Rather than targeting your whole lower body and posterior chain, they isolate your quadriceps to target the four muscle groups on the front side of your thigh.
You’ll need a gym membership or leg extension machine to perform leg extensions as part of your workout. Try to perform two to four sets at a moderate weight after you’ve finished your bodyweight or barbell squats.
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The leg press is another lower body compound exercises. Unlike the barbell squat, it uses a supportive machine – in this case, the leg press machine – to reduce stress on your lower back while maximizing the amount of quad and hamstring involvement.
Performing the leg press is simple. Sit down in the leg press machine and gently lift the sled off the rack. You’ll need to pull the safety levers on the side of the machine out to allow the weight sled to travel down the machine.
Bring the weight sled down until your knees are at a 90 degree angle, then push up into the soles of your feet to return the sled to its starting position. If you’re doing leg press after squats, try performing two to four sets of eight to ten reps.
So far, all of the leg exercises we’ve listed target the quadriceps and glutes first and the hamstrings second. The hamstrings are the other major muscle of your thighs – the ‘leg biceps’ that run from the back of your knees to your buttocks.
Many people focus on squats and leg press in their training and build strong quads but weak hamstrings. The hamstring curl isolates your hamstrings and forces them to work independently of other muscle groups.
Hamstring curls can be performed in two positions: sitting, using a machine that’s similar to the leg extension machine, and from a lying position. Keep the weight as low as possible and focus on technique and endurance for this exercise.
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The bodyweight lunge is a great quadriceps, hamstring and glute exercise that you can perform without any weights. Put your legs in a running position and gradually lower your body towards the ground, placing your weight on your front leg.
Push up using your front leg and bring yourself back to a standing position. Switch legs and repeat. Bodyweight lunges target all of the muscle groups in your thigh for stronger, firmer legs.
Are bodyweight lunges too simple for you? Make your lunges more challenging by holding dumbbells on either side of your body. Hold a small dumbbell in each hand and perform the same lunge motion as you would using just your bodyweight.
Dumbbell lunges are a great addition to a workout routine build around squats and other heavy leg exercises. Keep the dumbbells light and focus on your technique, as overdoing the weight can result in injuries to your knees.
Need more of a challenge? Switch to dumbbell lunges using a smith machine or the squat rack for a more challenging, controlled leg workout. Stick to light weights and perform sets of eight to ten lunges using each leg for optimum muscle development.
Lunges are some of the best exercises for building core strength. Learn more about how to train your core for overall athletic performance and wellness with our blog post on strength training workouts for health and wellness.
Like the squat, the deadlift is one of the most challenging exercises you can perform for your lower body. It’s also one of the most rewarding, working all muscle groups in your lower body, as well as several in your back and arms.
The deadlift is an incredibly challenging exercise, and it’s best performed on days in which you aren’t performing barbell squats, leg presses and other heavy lower body movements. Stick with short sets of five to eight reps, focusing on good technique.
Learning how to deadlift can be tough, but once you’ve mastered this exercise you’ll have no trouble building a strong, great looking lower body. Learn the basics of the deadlift in our course, How to Deadlift: The Ultimate Strength Exercise.
So far, we’ve covered your quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings, as well as the various muscle groups targeted by deadlifts in your lower and upper back. What we haven’t targeted is your calves – the muscles in your lower legs, near your shin bone.
Calves are notoriously hard to develop, but one of the best exercises for developing strong, chiseled calf muscles is the calf raise. Stand on a raised platform and lift your body to stand on your toes, using one leg at a time and only your calf muscles.
Switch legs and repeat, aiming for high reps and good technique. If you need extra resistance, hold small dumbbells in your hands to give your calf muscles more of a challenge. Perform two to four sets of calf raises at the end of your workout.
Combining leg exercises with a healthy lifestyle
No matter how hard you work in the gym, you’ll struggle to build strong and healthy muscles without a great diet to back up your training. Learn how to plan your fitness routine and stick to a diet in our Built to Thrive Fit Body course.
Would you like to learn more about training your lower body? Read our blog post on the best leg exercises to do at home and start building your quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles today.