Make the Most Out Of Leg Day With the Best Leg Exercises for Mass

Build stronger, thicker legs with these six lower body mass building exercises.

Big legs serve two primary purposes: First, they prevent you from looking like a pair of pecs on stilts. Second, they support the massive weights that strength athletes like powerlifters are known for putting up on moves like the back squat and front squat.

When it comes to building bigger and stronger legs, we’re sure you know what exercises to make a priority. That is compound (or multi-joint) movements that recruit more than one muscle and let you lift the heaviest weight possible (safely, that is). Allow us to refresh your memory on what those moves are and, more importantly, how to do them with picture-perfect form. 

Best Leg Exercises for Mass

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Barbell Squat

Squats, whether your goal is strength, more muscle, or endurance training, are a staple movement for nearly every lifter. But the back squat the king of all squats — allows you to overload your leg muscles with more weight than you could with any other squat variation. Your core works overtime as you brace to ensure that your torso is rigid throughout the movement (which promotes a stable and safe spine). Back squats are also great for both heavy, low-rep training or lighter, high-rep training. Higher rep squats (and lower rep but not to the same extent) cause the body to produce more growth hormones that trigger the effect of increasing your overall size and strength (1) 

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Benefits of the Barbell Squat

  • Effectively targets the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, back, and core.
  • Improved leg strength and hypertrophy. The back squat builds serious leg and back strength.
  • A more powerful lower body. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found a strong correlation between squats and jump height. (2)

How to Do the Back Squat

Step under a barbell and set a good foundation by flexing your core to lift the barbell out of the squat rack. Grip the barbell wherever allows you optimal shoulder mobility to get your elbows under the bar. Set it either high or low on your upper back (which is personal preference), unrack it, and take a few steps back. Pull the bar down into your shoulders to create tension. Keep your chest up, take a deep breath in and squat down to a comfortable depth and pause for a beat. Drive your feet through the floor until lockout. 

Romanian Deadlift

While regular/conventional and sumo deadlifts are great exercises, they aren’t the best movements to isolate specific muscles. Instead, opt for a variation like the Romanian deadlift, which has you lift a barbell from shin level to keep continuous tension on your glutes and hamstrings. You won’t be able to lift as much weight, but you will be able to target the back of your legs far more effectively.  

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Benefits of the Romanian Deadlift

  • Improved muscle hypertrophy of the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings over regular deadlifts due to the constant tension.
  • Like rack pulls, the Romanian deadlift will help improve the upper back and lockout strength for conventional deadlifts.

How to Do the Romanian Deadlift

Stand tall with your feet hip-distance apart and grip the barbell with an overhand grip in front of the thighs. With your chest up and shoulders down, take a deep breath in and hip hinge until the barbell is below your knees. Always keep the barbell close to your body. Pause for a second and exhale and use your hamstrings and glutes to pull you back to a standing position. Reset and repeat.

Hand-Supported Split Squat

Unilateral lower body exercises like split squats, and all their variations, are excellent exercises to strengthen imbalances and improve balance. Unilateral training has been shown to increase muscle activation and hypertrophy, making these great movements to program after your bilateral strength work. The handheld split squat has you hold onto a sturdy surface with one hand while holding a dumbbell or kettlebell in the other hand. Holding onto a power rack provides more stability, so your body can focus on the bigger muscles of the quads and the glutes and less on your balance (or lack thereof)

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Benefits of the Hand-Supported Split Squat

  • More stability means the quads and glutes are overloaded for more mass potential.
  • Improves leg drive on each side to help your bilateral squats and deadlifts.
  • Reduces strength imbalances between sides.  

How to Do the Hand-Supported Split Squat

Use a weight you use for farmer/suitcase carries and hold it with one hand, with the other hand holding a squat rack at around shoulder height. Get into your split squat position with the leg closest to the squat rack forward and slowly descend until either the weight or your knee touches the floor while maintaining a slight forward lean. Drive your front foot through the floor to the starting position and rest and repeat.

Belt Squat

The belt squat is a great way to train the squat without loading the spine or engaging the upper body. It is great for lifters with banged-up lower backs, hips, shoulders, and even tight elbows because all these make barbell squats difficult. As you’re squatting with a vertical torso, there is less of a compressive load on the lower back with the weight around your hips, which also helps build the quadriceps and glutes without grinding your joints.

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Benefits of the Belt Squat

  • Add more muscle to the quads as the angle mimics a front squat without the compressive load of the barbell.
  • Emphasizes the glutes because of the hip belt and the way it sits around the hips. If you don’t activate your glutes, you won’t reach full hip extension.
  • Can be trained in the higher rep ranges safely for added mass potential.

How to Do the Belt Squat

Place the machine belt around your hips, hold on to the sides and stand tall with your shoulders down and chest up. If you don’t have access to a belt squat machine, use a weight belt loaded with weight plates and stand on two boxes. Squat down, keeping an upright torso to your desired depth and push through your feet and squat back up. Reset and repeat.

Leg Press

While not an apt substitution for exercises such as squats and deadlift variations, the leg press can be a great accessory exercise to add muscle to the quads without the compressive load on the lower back that comes from the barbell.  Many lifters use the leg press to lift heavy, but this may lead to knee and hip pain in those who lack foundational movement patterns and strength often developed by squatting. So, do both movements for pain-free leg development.

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Benefits of the Leg Press

  • You can load the hip and knee joint without placing undue stress on the lower back.
  • Allows you to change up your foot placement to emphasize the quads, hamstrings, or adductors more.
  • Due to the stability of the machine, this allows it to work into higher reps ranges with heavy weight for better mass-building potential.

How to Do the Leg Press

Set up with your back and head resting comfortably against the padded support and place your feet about hip-width apart with your feet flat against the footplate. Your glutes and back should be flush with the padded support and knees at a 90-degree angle. Push through your feet until your knees are almost fully extended and slowly lower down and reset and repeat.

Hip Thrust

The hip thrust builds both strength and mass in your glutes and, to a lesser extent, the hamstrings. Though the glutes are worked during the back squat and deadlift, the hip thrust is as close to an isolation movement as exists for the glutes. And honing in on the glutes will carry over to those movements by improving lockout strength and helping you look great in your favorite pair of pants.

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Benefits of the Hip Thrust

  • Builds more glute mass, strength, and power than just about any hip extension exercise.
  • It’s less technical and easier to perform than other heavily loaded movements like back squats and deadlift variations.
  • Improved glute strength leads to better stabilization of the core, pelvis, and lower back.

How to Do Perform the Hip Thrust

Sit with your back up against the edge of a bench that’s parallel to you. With padding across your pelvis, roll a loaded barbell into the crease of your hips. Once the barbell is secure, drive your feet and back towards the bench. You want your shoulder blades to be on the bench and upper body and hips in a straight line. Keep your upper body steady as you lower your hips toward the ground and when extending into lockout.

Anatomy of the Lower Body 

Below are some of the larger muscle groups that make up the lower body and play a huge role in how your legs look and perform.

Quadriceps

The quadriceps are one of the strongest muscles of the body and run along the front of the thigh. The quadriceps are four muscles, each producing knee extension: vastus lateralis (outer quad), vastus medialis (inner quad), vastus intermedius (middle quad), and the rectus femoris, which also performs hip flexion as it crosses both the hip and knee joint.

Hamstrings

The hamstrings run along the posterior of the thigh and are responsible for hip and knee extension. Like the quadriceps, the hamstrings are composed of three muscles: biceps femoris (short and long head), semimembranosus, and semitendinosus, which forms tendons medially and laterally at the back of the knee joint.

Glutes

The gluteal muscles (otherwise known as the glutes) are composed of three individual muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, and gluteus medius, which lie underneath the glute max. The glute muscles are responsible for hip extension, abduction, external rotation, and internal rotation of the hip.

Calves

The calves are responsible for ankle plantarflexion (toes into the floor). Two individual muscles make up the calves; the gastrocnemius, the two-headed muscle you can see, and the soleus lie underneath the gastrocnemius. Both are important for all locomotion activities.

The Benefits of Training the Lower Body

There are more benefits than just aesthetics when sweating through your lower body workout. Here are three important benefits to training the lower body.

Agility training
Enfoca y dispara/Shutterstock

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Improved Agility and Balance

Being able to stop and change direction and most locomotion movements requires lower body strength. This transfers over to improved single-leg balance and avoiding falls and injuries during training and everyday activities.

Strengthen Muscle Imbalances 

Muscle imbalances occur during activities of daily living or because of the demands of your sport. Everyone favors one side of their body. But by training the lower body, you’ll go a long way to strengthening these imbalances and the connective tissue surrounding the lower body joints. For example, a common imbalance with runners is that they’re stronger and tighter through the quadriceps than the hamstrings. This can lead to muscle strains. Strengthening the hamstrings prevents this.

Run Faster and More Efficiently

Strengthing the lower body helps you run faster by improving your neuromuscular coordination, power, and VO2 max and improves your running economy through better movement coordination and stride efficiency. (3)

How to Warm-up Your Lower Body Before Training

It is important to warm up the lower body with mobility and core work to get the muscles and joints ready for adding muscle. Not only that,t but warming up well is important from an injury standpoint too. In addition to checking out the warm-up video below — which is squat-specific but still effective before most lower body movements — you’ll want to utilize ramp-up sets, too. 

[Related: Get More Out Of Your Training With an Upper-Body Warm-Up]

Ramp-up sets are when you perform reps with a barbell (or a right version of whatever tool you’re using) and incrementally increasing the weight while you decrease the reps. It’s a great way to work up to your top set for the day while 

Here’s an example of a ramp-up sets for barbell back squats:

  • 10 reps with an empty barbell
  • Eight reps with 135 pounds
  • Six reps with 155 pounds
  • Five reps with 165 pounds
  • Four rep with 175 pounds

And this type of ramp-up set works well for most lower body strength exercises.

More Lower Body Training Tips

Now that you have a handle on the best lower body exercises for mass, you can also check out these other helpful lower body training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.

References

  1. Michal Wilk et al. Endocrine response to high-intensity barbell squats performed with constant movement tempo and variable training volume. Neuro Endocrinol Lett 2018 Oct;39(4):342-348.
  2. Br J Sports Med. 2005 Aug; 39(8): 555–560. Effects of intra-session concurrent endurance and strength training sequence on aerobic performance and capacity. M Chtara, K Chamari, M Chaouachi, A Chaouachi, D Koubaa, Y Feki, G Millet, and M Amri
  3. Michal Wilk et al. Endocrine response to high-intensity barbell squats performed with constant movement tempo and variable training volume. Neuro Endocrinol Lett 2018 Oct;39(4):342-348.

Featured image: Kzenon/Shutterstock