You did not hear it here first, but it bears repeating: train your legs. Leg day can be a painful, DOMS-inducing experience, but ignoring your lower half also robs the body of more muscle, enhanced movement, and increased calorie burn. Also, do you want to look like Hercules upstairs and Chicken Little from the waist down?
Beyond aesthetics, leg training is integral to your performance if you play, well, just about any sport out there (strength-focused or otherwise). Your leg muscles produce power on the lifting platform and propel you forward on the field.
To further enlighten you to the benefits and, dare we say, the fun of training your legs, we compiled a list of the best leg exercises. Further down, we also dive into the benefits of leg training, how to train your legs properly, and a whole lot more. Let’s get into it.
Best Leg Exercises
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Bulgarian Split Squat
- Leg Press
- Hack Squat
- Romanian Deadlift
- Nordic Hamstring Curl
- Landmine Goblet Squat
- Reverse Lunge
- Barbell Hip Thrust
- Leg Extension
- Seated Leg Curl
- Lying Leg Curl
- Standing Calf Raise
- Prowler Push
- Assault Bike
- Kang Squat
- Kettlebell Swing
- Cyclist Squat
- Belt Squat
Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.
The back squat — often referred to as the king of lower body exercises — is a compound exercise that challenges every muscle in the legs. It also requires muscles in the upper body to stabilize the load and protect the spine — making it one of the most effective full-body exercises you can do.
The back squat leads to strength and muscle gain and reinforces movement patterns we engage in daily, awarding it the triple crown when choosing an ideal exercise.
Benefits of the Back Squat
- The back squat allows for more loading compared to many other leg movements.
- The back squat recruits the core and strengthens your postural muscles.
- This exercise leads to a gain in functional strength, allowing lifters of all ages to reap the benefits.
How to Do the Back Squat
Set a barbell in a power rack to shoulder height, loaded with an appropriate amount of weight. Get under the barbell, set the bar across your upper traps, or set the bar across your shoulder blades if you’re performing low-bar squats.
Brace your core and lift the weight out of the rack. Take small steps back one foot at a time to get yourself into position. With your chest up, squat down until the bottoms of your thighs are parallel to the floor. Now, drive back up by pushing your feet through the floor.
Coach’s Tip: Your squat stance and technique is highly individual. Take time to work out your most comfortable and sustainable posture.
Sets and Reps: Use the back squat to build strength and muscle simultaneously. Go for 3 to 5 sets of 4 to 6 reps.
The front squat can be a tremendous substitute for the traditional back squat. If you find that the barbell back squat aggravates your lower back or you have a shoulder injury, this front squat variation may suit you instead.
Because you hold the barbell in front of you, this squat variation challenges the upper back and torso muscles — shifting the load from the back to the front. This also requires more thoracic stability and forces the lifter to be upright, better for core recruitment and posture.
Benefits of the Front Squat
- The front squat can be more comfortable on the back for some lifters than a back squat as the weight is loaded in front of the body.
- The front-loaded position recruits more of your core and strengthens your upper back muscles to help improve your posture, too.
- This move does not allow lifters to load the exercise too heavy, improving their ability to focus on proper technique.
How to Do the Front Squat
Set a barbell in a power rack to shoulder height, loaded with an appropriate weight. Extend your arms directly out in front of you so that your hands are touching the bar. Place your middle three fingers on the bar, and then drive your palms up. Bring your elbows underneath the bar so that they’re pointing straight forward.
Step back, so the bar is out of the rack, and keep your elbows pointing forward. With your chest up, squat down until the bottoms of your thighs are parallel to the floor and drive through the floor with your feet to the top.
Coach’s Tip: If the front rack position is uncomfortable, you may need to stretch your lats or mobilize your thoracic spine.
Sets and Reps: Start with 3 or 4 sets of 5 reps.
Elevating your leg on a bench creates instability and increases the exercise’s range of motion. The Bulgarian split squat’s instability forces you to balance, which recruits smaller stabilizing muscles in your hips and quads.
Squatting with a more extended range of motion increases the muscle’s stretch — enhancing your mobility and the muscle-building tension placed on the glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
Benefits of the Bulgarian Split Squat
- The increased range of motion for better mobility and more muscle recruitment.
- The unilateral (single-sided) setup helps build coordination and improves balance.
- The Bulgarian split squat creates instability, which recruits smaller stabilizing muscles.
How to Do the Bulgarian Split Squat
Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand about a foot in front of a bench. Place one foot, laces down, on a bench. Brace your core and squat down until both of your legs bend to 90 degrees. You can squat down a little further, but don’t let your knee touch the floor. Hold this down position for a beat and then drive back up.
Coach’s Tip: The closer your working foot is relative to the bench, the more emphasis you’ll place on your quads via forward knee travel.
Sets and Reps: Pump your legs up with 2 or 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps.
The leg press doesn’t have you load your torso with weight and your back braces against a pad, which gives you more driving force. As a result, you can load this exercise up with more weight relative to most leg exercises. This factor makes the leg press a great accessory to getting bigger and stronger thighs.
It’s also safer as you can rack the sled simply by turning the handles in and out. As a bonus, you can load and unload the leg press more quickly, making it useful for drop sets. You can perform a high-rep set, strip the weight plates, do another set, strip the plates, and so forth.
Benefits of the Leg Press
- You can press heavier weights with just your legs.
- The leg press allows you to essentially perform a squat but without the weight bearing down on your spine or torso.
- This is a great movement for high-rep sets and drop sets.
How to Do the Leg Press
Sit in the leg press seat, and place your feet in the middle of the sled, about shoulder-width apart. Press the sled out of the rack, lower the safety bars, and then slowly lower the sled towards your chest until your thighs break 90 degrees. Press the sled back up but do not lock out your knees. If your lower back or hips lift off the seat as you drive the weight back up, you’re going too far down.
Coach’s Tip: Try a slightly wider foot placement to avoid having your thighs collide with your torso.
Sets and Reps: Go hard and heavy with 3 or 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
The beloved brainchild of George Hackenschmidt, the hack squat has evolved to become one of the most popular and effective machine variations to add serious strength and muscle to your legs. Sharing attributes with the back squat, this exercise reinforces the squat movement pattern to build strength that translates into countless other lifts.
As a bonus, the machine creates external stability, safeguarding against injury and helping work around pre-existing injuries as it has a predefined movement pattern.
Benefits of the Hack Squat
- Because it’s a machine, the hack squat provides more stability compared to free-weight squat variations.
- This move’s predefined path safeguards against injury and helps work around pre-existing injuries.
How to Do the Hack Squat
Your stance on the foot platform will closely mimic that of your back squat stance. You want your feet slightly outside shoulder width with feet angled slightly outward — they should be in line with the knee as it tracks forward during the descent.
Your torso should be stable with your abdominals engaged and your lower back flat on the back pad. Maintain a neutral head position as you lower your body until the bottoms of your thighs are parallel to the foot platform and drive through your feet to the top.
Coach’s Tip: You should be able to sink into a low squat here even if you can’t during a free-weight squat.
Sets and Reps: Try 3 sets of 12 reps here with a moderate to heavy weight.
This deadlift variation is nearly identical to the standard deadlift, except that you lower the barbell to mid-shin level by driving your hips back while keeping your core engaged with tension on your hamstrings and glutes.
The Romanian deadlift is regarded as one of the best physique development variations, helping you build muscle, improve your regular deadlift, and strengthen your hips and lower back, resulting in a lesser chance of injury performing similar movements.
Benefits of the Romanian Deadlift
- The Romanian deadlift specifically targets the hamstrings, a muscle that flexes the knee joint.
- The Romanian deadlift forces you to lift lighter weight with more control, strengthening your hips and lower back.
- This move will carry over to your traditional deadlift.
- The slow and controlled movement will help to build more hamstring muscle and strength.
How to Do the Romanian Deadlift
Load a barbell up with less weight than you would for a traditional deadlift, but get in the same deadlift position — feet shoulder-width apart and hands gripping the bar just outside the knees. Raise your chest up and then drop your hips and pull-up on the bar until your hips are fully locked out.
Now, push your hips back and lower the bar until it’s in the middle of your shins. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Finish by driving your hips forward, bringing the weight back up to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Your knees should be unlocked throughout the set, but don’t bend them on purpose.
Sets and Reps: Start with 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps.
This bodyweight hamstring curl has you kneel, with your feet anchored behind you, and lower your body towards the ground by flexing only your knees. This puts the onus on the hamstrings, and the hamstrings alone, to support your body weight. The Nordic hamstring curl is an excellent move to build muscle and prevent injury.
One study in the Journal Physiotherapy had 50 elite soccer teams in Denmark complete their usual hamstring training for 10 weeks during a mid-season break. Half of the teams added two to three sets of five to 12 reps of Nordic hamstring curls one to three sessions per week. During that season, the group that added the Nordic curls had 15 total hamstring injuries compared to 52 in the non-Nordic curl group. (1)
Benefits of the Nordic Hamstring Curl
- More muscle as you’re targeting your hamstrings primarily with your body weight.
- Less risk of hamstring injury as eccentric (or lowering) strength has been linked to healthier hamstrings.
- It can be performed anywhere you can anchor the foot.
How to Do the Nordic Hamstring Curl
Anchor your feet underneath something sturdy — a loaded barbell, a bench, the legs of a cable machine — and kneel on an exercise mat. Extend your arms out in front of you, keep your torso straight, and bend at the knees to slowly lower yourself towards the floor. The lower you get, the harder the move will feel as you’re further from the anchor point. Catch yourself with your hands, and then push your body back up to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: You may want to place a small mat or cushion on the floor in front of you for comfort.
Sets and Reps: Work your endurance on this one by doing 2 or 3 sets of as many reps as possible with good form.
The landmine goblet squat is a great beginner-friendly squat variation that can be done anywhere you can access a barbell. The weight is loaded in the front, which forces your back to stay upright (otherwise, you’d collapse forward). The arc that the bar travels allows you to get into the bottom of the squat easier while staying upright in the torso, building and strengthening the quads.
These are great for lifters with mobility issues or for adding volume without the compressive load of the barbell on your back.
Benefits of the Landmine Goblet Squat
- The arc of the barbell and the anterior load allow lifters with mobility issues to get into a good squat position.
- Less compressive load on the spine allows the lifter to accumulate more volume with a lower risk of injury.
- The upright position takes some pressure off the low back.
How to Do the Landmine Goblet Squat
Set one end of a barbell into a landmine base and rest the other end on a training bench or a plyo box. Load the elevated end with 45-pound plates. Ensure that the box is low enough so that you can squat to at least parallel without the plates bumping into the box or bench. Do not start this exercise from the floor; it’ll strain your lower back. Grab the barbell’s sleeve in both hands, stand up so that it’s off the box, and then perform a standard squat.
Coach’s Tip: Think about sitting back a bit more than you would during a standard squat.
Sets and Reps: Go for higher reps here; 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
Like any lunge, the reverse lunge is a unilateral exercise, which means it works one side of the body at a time. This alone is useful as it allows the target muscles (glute, hamstrings, and quads) on either side of your body to catch up to each other if there’s an imbalance in strength or size.
The reverse lunge is also more stable than the forward or walking lunge as you’re not being thrown off balance by forward momentum. Instead, the reverse lunge is generally a more controlled movement.
Benefits of the Reverse Lunge
- It’s easier to control compared to other lunge variations, making it beginner-friendly.
- You’ll work one side of the body simultaneously, allowing lagging muscles to play catch up.
- Advanced lifters can load up this lunge variation more safely than others as it’s stable.
How to Do the Reverse Lunge
Stand with your feet together, and keep your hands at your sides or on your hips. Take a step back with one leg until it’s behind you and your knee is an inch or so above the floor. Your front leg should bend at a 90-degree angle as well. Keep your chest up and facing forward. Now, drive through the balls of your front foot and stand back up with control.
Coach’s Tip: You can step backward and slightly out to the side to improve your balance.
Sets and Reps: Try 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps here with a light weight to start.
There are a few major benefits to the barbell hip thrust. For one, you can directly target your glutes, which are usually an auxiliary player in moves like the lunge, squat, and deadlift. Also, it helps strengthen your hip extension mechanics since that’s the primary function of the movement.
Lastly, stronger glutes mean you’ll rely less heavily on your lower back for most related exercises, and so you should reduce your chance of low back injury.
Benefits of the Barbell Hip Thrust
- You can directly target your glutes, more so than any other exercise, which will carry over to other exercises that require glute strength.
- Stronger glutes will take some of the mechanical stress off of your lower back, which can reduce the chance of injury.
- Seeing as the barbell hip thrust is a hip extension exercise, you’ll get far better at hip extension — and that also benefits other moves like the deadlift and squat.
How to Do the Barbell Hip Thrust
Load a barbell with rubber bumper plates (if possible), as you want the bar higher up off of the ground. Now, roll the barbell towards you, so it’s sitting on your hips. Place your upper back on a bench and bend your knees with your feet flat on the floor. Squeeze your glutes and drive your hips up, holding onto the barbell with both hands to prevent it from falling until your body is in a straight line from knee to chin. Hold this position for a beat and then lower the weight back down.
The leg extension gets a lot of hate. Some people think it creates too much force on the knee and that it’s harmful. The leg extension is a stellar exercise to hone in on your quads when performed with control and proper form.
Other benefits: It’s easy to learn and execute (there’s practically no learning curve), it doesn’t load your spine in any way, it requires less weight to be effective, and it targets the rectus femoris muscle in its shortened position — a quadriceps muscle that crosses the hip joint and plays an important role in helping stabilize the pelvis in other strength training exercises.
Benefits of the Leg Extension
- You can directly target your quadriceps while avoiding adding more volume to other tissues.
- Beneficial for training the quadriceps without the need to load the spine.
- It loads the rectus femoris.
How to Do the Leg Extension
Adjust the back pad on the machine and line your knee up with the axis of rotation (signified by a dot or marker on the machine) and adjust the ankle pad, so it rests on your shoelaces to touch just above the shoe. Extend the knee to move the ankle pad, then accelerate into the rep until you reach the end range of the knee extension. Ensure your ankle is in dorsiflexion — toes pointed straight ahead or slightly up. Lower weight back down with control.
Coach’s Tip: Grab onto the handles of the seat and actively try to pull your butt into the pad the entire time.
Sets and Reps: Do 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps for a serious quad pump.
You probably think that the prowler push is strictly for conditioning. At the very least, even if you know of its lower-body benefits, you’re probably wondering what it’s doing on our best leg exercises list. The driving force behind a prowler push is your legs. If you load up a prowler with heavy weight, you’re taxing your legs and eliciting a strength and hypertrophy response.
It’s also less taxing on your back, as you’re bracing against the prowler with your upper body — nothing is sitting on you. Pushing a prowler also translates directly to your ability to sprint and run as you’re in the same position while pushing the prowler.
Benefits of the Prowler Push
- Allows you to tax your legs with heavy weight without stressing your lower back.
- Improves your sprinting mechanics as you’re strengthening your legs in a more natural running position and practicing a powerful leg drive.
How to Do the Prowler Push
Load a prowler up with as much weight as you can handle for multiple sets of pushes. Stand in front of the poles, extend your arms, and grab them with your hands. Now, lean into the prowler with your arms bent to around 90 degrees. Your body should be at an angle with your feet behind you as if you were leaning into a sprint. Drive the prowler forward by pushing with your legs, and continue to move your legs in a slow and rhythmic motion.
Coach’s Tip: You should maintain a straight visual line through your hands, elbows, shoulders, spine, and hips.
Sets and Reps: Use this as a warm-up or finisher by doing 3 or 4 rounds, pushing as far as you have free space in your gym.
This seated leg curl variation is a great way to challenge the hamstrings and calves. The pad on the machine helps create external stability — increasing stabilization of the pelvis — making it a great option for beginners. The increased stability allows for lower rep sets with a lot of weight. It’s also viable for higher rep sets that are taken deep into fatigue.
Benefits of the Seated Leg Curl
- Creates a safe environment for beginners to accumulate volume on the hamstrings.
- Increased stability allows for sets to be taken deeper into fatigue while maintaining form.
- Challenges the hamstrings in a stretched position (hip flexion and knee extension).
- Trains the calves in their role of knee flexion.
How to Do the Seated Leg Curl
Adjust the back pad on the machine and line your knee up with the axis of rotation (signified by a dot or marker on the machine). Adjust the thigh pad to touch just above the knee. The lower leg pad should be just above the shoe on the back of the leg.
Start the movement by flexing at the knee. Continue the repetition until you reach the end position. Ensure your ankle is in dorsiflexion — toes pointed straight ahead or slightly up. Control the weight as you return to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Really emphasize the eccentric portion here so you can feel your hamstrings stretching out.
Sets and Reps: Do 2 or 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps with a moderate weight.
The lying leg curl offers a unique benefit: It allows you to fully isolate your hamstrings — which can be great for additional muscle gains.
Keeping your abs and lats engaged throughout the range of motion helps stabilize your upper body, making it easier to create more force in the lower body and keep the focus on the hamstrings.
Benefits of the Lying Leg Curl
- Allows beginners to accumulate volume on their hamstrings.
- Challenges the hamstrings in their fully contracted position (hip extension and knee flexion).
- Trains the calves in their role of knee flexion.
How to Do the Lying Leg Curl
Adjust the leg pad on the machine and line your knee up with the axis of rotation (signified by a dot or marker on the machine) and adjust the ankle pad to touch just behind the ankle. Engage the hamstrings and bring your heels to your butt. Ensure your ankle is in dorsiflexion — toes pointed straight ahead or slightly up. Control the weight as you return to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your pelvis firmly locked into the pad the entire time.
Sets and Reps: Try 2 or 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps.
The standing calf raise can be done using a machine, standing with a barbell on the back, or holding a pair of weights to the sides. Since the lifter is standing, the knees are extended (not locked out), which targets the gastrocnemius and soleus in their role of flexing the ankle.
Benefits of the Standing Calf Raise
- Strengthens and adds size to the calves.
- Stronger calves add stability around the ankle and knee.
- Easy to load and perform.
How to Do the Standing Calf Raise
Stand up straight with your legs extended (slight bend at the knee) with the balls of your feet on the step and the load atop the shoulders. Unrack the weight and slowly lower your heels as far as possible to the floor. Then lift your heels as far as possible, squeezing your calves at the top of the movement. Slowly lower down and repeat.
Coach’s Tip: Pause at the bottom of each rep to remove momentum from the equation.
Sets and Reps: Go for higher reps here; try 3 sets of 15 reps.
The machine that everyone loves to hate. Take one good look at sprint cyclists like Robert Förstemann, and you’ll realize how effective biking can be for building lower body strength and muscle size. When used in conjunction with the rest of the exercises on this list, sprints on the assault bike add more direct training volume to the quadriceps, glutes, and calves.
The bike is also great for building up aerobic endurance and increasing how much lactic acid your body can handle during training — also known as your lactic threshold.
Benefits of the Assault Bike
- Low impact way of building muscle, power, and endurance.
- Builds muscle in quadriceps, glutes, and calves.
- Easy to set up and perform for are ages and skill levels.
How to Do the Assault Bike
To set your seat up, place the ball of your foot on the pedal. After adjusting your seat height, sit down on the seat, placing both feet on the pedals with hands grasping the handles. Do not lock out your legs at the bottom of a revolution. Pedal and drive your arms back and forth in sync with your leg drive. The legs are what should be producing the most power, not your arms.
Coach’s Tip: The assault bike is a test of willpower as much as it is a leg-worker. Place it at the end of your session as a finisher.
Sets and Reps: Two or three rounds of intense pedaling for about 30 seconds should torch your legs.
A good leg exercise should be both stimulating and mobilizing. The Kang squat hits both marks and then some; it is equal parts squat and good morning, making it an awesome exercise for training your muscles and making you more flexible.
Benefits of the Kang Squat
- Great for warming up your hips at the start of a leg workout.
- Requires very little weight to be effective.
How to Do the Kang Squat
Unrack a barbell as if you were going to perform a standard back squat. Assume your footing and then sit down as far as you’re comfortably able to. From the bottom of your squat position, deliberately shoot your hips out behind you. Your torso should be almost parallel to the floor. From here, stand up.
On your next rep, begin by shooting your hips back and tipping over into a good morning. Then, sit down into your back squat bottom position. That’s a Kang squat.
Coach’s Tip: Your best bet is to use the Kang squat as a warm-up prior to your first compound leg exercise.
Sets and Reps: Go for 2 or 3 sets of 5 reps with the empty barbell.
You may think of it as, primarily, a conditioning tool, but don’t get it twisted. The kettlebell swing is a perfectly viable leg exercise if you’re looking to break a sweat and build up your posterior chain at the same time.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Swing
- Reinforces proper hip hinge mechanics.
- Helps you break a sweat in no time.
- Absolutely torches your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
- You can find kettlebells in just about every gym.
How to Do the Kettlebell Swing
Take a shoulder-width stance, or slightly wider, with a kettlebell on the floor between your feet. Hinge down and grab the handle of the bell. From here, sweep it back between your legs to establish momentum.
Extend your hips to thrust the bell forward and up. As it descends again, fall back into a hinge position. Once you get into a rhythm, you should be able to swing the weight by snapping your hips into extension.
Coach’s Tip: Keep your arms tucked to your sides at the top of each rep; the bell should swing up to about the height of your navel.
Sets and Reps: Try 3 or 4 sets of 20 swings with a moderately-heavy kettlebell at the end of your workout.
If you’ve ever squatted while wearing weightlifting shoes, you know how much of a game-changer it can be to elevate your heels. The cyclist squat takes that idea to the next level; by placing a high wedge under your heels, you can hammer your quads and take other muscles out of the equation almost entirely. The cyclist squat is one of the best quad-focused squat variations out there.
Benefits of the Cyclist Squat
- Places almost all tension directly onto your quads.
- Can be effective even with very light weights.
- Works great as a finisher movement after you’re done squatting.
How to Do the Cyclist Squat
You’ll need to prop your heels up onto an elevated surface for this one, such as a bumper plate. Anything that’s at least an inch or two in height. Place your feet close together and stand fully upright.
From here, slowly sink down into a narrow-stance squat by allowing your knees to travel far in front of your toes. You should be able to easily compress your hamstrings onto your calves. Pause for a moment at the bottom and then flex your quads to return to the starting position.
Coach’s Tip: There’s such a thing as too much heel elevation; if you feel yourself falling forward on every rep, you’re likely using too much.
Sets and Reps: Start with no external weight and do 2 or 3 sets of 10 to 15 reps.
If you have access to a belt squat machine in your gym, you’d be foolish not to make use of it. While somewhat rare, the belt squat is an invaluable tool for building your legs. The defining feature of the belt squat is that instead of the weight pushing down on your spine, it pulls down on your hips.
This makes the belt squat an amazing workaround if you’re nursing an injury or want to squat without fatiguing your posterior chain at all.
Benefits of the Belt Squat
- Allows you to squat without dealing with axial, or on-the-spine, loading.
- Great for isolating your quadriceps.
- Reinforces balanced squatting mechanics.
How to Do the Belt Squat
If you have a belt squat station in your gym, this exercise is pretty grab-and-go. If not, you can wrangle it with a dip belt, some weight plates, and by standing on two high boxes. Assume your normal squat stance or slightly wider and sit into a deep squat by allowing the resistance to pull your pelvis directly downward.
Coach’s Tip: Avoid gripping the handrail too tightly and using it to pull yourself up out of the squat. Let your legs do the work.
Sets and Reps: Accumulate volume here with 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps.
How to Warm Up Before Training Legs
A well-designed warm-up helps reduce the risk of injury and improves readiness heading into your training session without generating excessive fatigue. Increased body temperature, an activated (excited) nervous system, and a prepared mental state can help increase readiness for the upcoming day of training.
A good warm-up protocol has two phases; general and specific. Your general warm-up is about mental preparation for the workout, getting your head in the game, and increasing your core temperature. You should break a light sweat, but that’s all.
Afterward, proceed to your specific warm-up; drills or exercises that prepare you for the tasks at hand. On leg day, this often takes the shape of dynamic mobility work, perhaps some pre-activation, and then ramping up toward your working sets.
Sample Leg Day Warm-Up
The amount of “work” you do during your warm-up should be enough to prepare you to train, but not tire you out at all. If you’re healthy, flexible by default, or not performing many intricate movements on leg day, you needn’t spend 20 or 30 minutes getting ready to lift.
Run through this protocol and modify it as needed to match your level of fitness. If you’re feeling cold or sluggish, add a few more minutes of cardio. If your squats or deadlifts feel out of whack or inconsistent, add a couple extra ramping sets to dial in your technique:
- 5-10 minutes of light cardio (stair-stepper, incline treadmill, elliptical, or sled push)
- 1-3 dynamic mobility drills (high knees, leg swings, kickbacks, or Cossack squats)
- 1-4 ramp-up sets of your first compound exercise, beginning with the empty barbell and slowly adding weight. Perform only a few (1-5) reps per set.
How to Structure Leg Training
The leg muscles give strength and structure to the lower body. As such, you’ll either want to train your legs on their own or paired with a couple of your upper body workouts. Here are three benchmarks for leg training — it’s up to you to decide how to integrate them into your routine.
Sets and Reps
Performing 12 to 18 sets per week is likely a great starting point for anyone looking to grow their legs. More advanced trainees could potentially exceed 18 sets per week if their goal is to grow a specific part of the legs over another. Choose three to four exercises from this list and divvy up your training sets equally among them. Try to balance movements that focus on hip flexion/extension and knee flexion/extension for equalized development and stimulus.
Remember, there is a limit to how much you can do per workout while still being productive. If you notice your performance dropping off, it may help to split up some of the training volume to a day later in the week. A training frequency of two to three sessions a week has been recommended to help maximize muscle growth. (2)
The exercises you choose play a significant role in the muscles that bear the most load. Your leg muscles work in synchronicity to achieve a wide range of movement patterns. Therefore, different muscles will be biased more depending on the actions being performed. When choosing exercises to perform, you want to pick exercises that:
- Give sufficient load to the muscle without excessive stress on the surrounding joints.
- Line up the resistance with the muscle(s) you want to train.
- Work around pre-existing injuries or limitations.
- Can be performed with the equipment in your gym space.
When it comes to training the legs, there are many great options for exercises and tools to get the job done — including cables, machines, free weights, and even your own body weight.
It’s not only about what you do and how you do it; it matters when. Placing compound exercises first in your workout is wise, especially for beginners. This is because the more fatigued you get, the worse your technique will likely become, limiting your capacity for high-quality sets.
Placing exercises like deadlifts and other barbell variations — that demand more from your body — toward the start of your workout will increase the effectiveness of your training. Here’s an example of how you may order the exercises in your next leg workout:
- Back Squat
- Romanian Deadlift
- Leg Extension
- Seated or Lying Leg Curl
- Prowler Push or Assault Bike
The heavier, more challenging compound lifts are performed first while you’re nice and fresh, tapering down to targeted isolation work towards the end of the session.
Leg Training Tips
When training your legs to grow or get stronger, there are a handful of rules that can help you improve your performance while limiting the risk of injury.
Breathe and Brace
When loading heavy weight on your back, breathing and proper bracing become vital to your ability to safely and effectively maximize performance. The more you sharpen this skill, the more rhythmic and natural it becomes.
For free weight exercises and machines, it is a good rule of thumb to breathe in before you start the motion or go through the eccentric portion; breathe out as you push through the concentric part of the exercise. To remain braced, maintain engagement of your core throughout your reps.
Your Technique Matters
You won’t be able to reap the benefits of leg training without having proper technique. Poor form leads to other muscles compensating for the ones that should be working. Someone with weak hips, for example, may hinge forward during a squat, placing undue stress on their lower back.
If you find yourself performing any of the movements listed above with poor form, the solution is most likely to lighten the load and build good habits before returning to a heavier weight.
Choose the Best Exercises for You
Finding exercises that work well for you — your skill level, structure, and mechanics, alongside your goal — is important for maximizing your training experience. As you can see, there are many different ways to train your legs.
If, for example, you have been injured performing the back squat in the past, there are other ways to mimic this same stress on the body, such as the hack squat or leg press. There are no absolute must-do movements when it comes to leg training.
Benefits of Training Your Legs
There are plenty of reasons to train your legs: Leg training improves one’s ability to explode; leg exercises burn more calories; leg muscle is aesthetic, and all of the movements on this list will help you move better overall. Here, we’ll dig deeper into the reasons why you shouldn’t skip leg days.
You’ll Become More Powerful
Almost every full-body movement starts from the ground up — sprinting, jumping, even throwing a punch. So it reasons that strengthening your legs will result in more effective movement all around.
One study published in the Journal of Sports Medicine had 20 athletes perform four sets of 10-rep max back squats twice a week for six weeks to see how it affected their strength and power output. After six weeks, the subjects improved their leg press strength, countermovement squat jump performance, and sprint. (3)
You’ll Burn More Calories
There are many factors in play when determining how many calories a person burns per exercise — like their weight, height, body fat percentage, how hard they’re working, and so on. It turns out, which exercise you choose matters, too.
A 2017 study in the journal PLOS One measured the calorie-burning effect of eight exercises (three lower-body moves and five upper-body moves). The researchers divided 58 males into four groups and assigned two exercises per group.
The subjects performed a five-minute-long constant intensity set with as much as 24% of their one-rep max. They then performed “exhaustive bouts” with 80% of their one-rep max. The results showed that the leg exercises (half-squats, leg press, and leg extensions) performed with 80% of one’s one-rep max produced up to 20 calories burned per minute. (4)
You’ll Be More Symmetrical
You don’t need a fancy study to tell you that if you don’t train your legs, they won’t grow — and then, what, you’ll be the guy with biceps the size of his thighs? Even if you never plan to compete in a bodybuilding show, there’s an aesthetic benefit to having muscular legs to go along with your chest, back, shoulders…you get the idea.
Leg Training Can Improve Your Ability to Move
Aside from moving more quickly and powerfully, training your legs can improve your everyday mobility. Though you think you’re only hip-hinging or squatting when you’re in the gym, that’s not the case. Any time you bend over to pick something up, you’re hinging at the hips. If you get up and down from a chair, you’re squatting. Heck, walking down the stairs is essentially a lunge. See the point?
The squats, lunges, and deadlifts you perform in the gym will, over time, make you stronger and more proficient at the movements you engage in daily. This is especially true as you age. Older folks are subject to muscle and strength losses, as well as a reduction in flexibility and general mobility.
An analysis of studies on PubMed that explored the effects of strength training in the elderly concluded that strength training in the senior population could reduce sarcopenia (or muscle loss) and retain motor function. (5)
Anatomy of the Legs
Knowing about the muscles in your legs and their functions may help you understand how to better train your lower body. Here are the major muscles involved in most standard leg exercises.
The glutes are key players in hip stability and strength during walking, jumping, sprinting, and strength training. The gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus help the hip extend, externally and internally rotate, and abduct (moving thigh away from the body).
Strong and functional glutes can help alleviate lower back pain and make everyday movements, such as standing, walking, and climbing the stairs, that much easier.
The muscles of the inner thigh — known as the adductors — adduct the thigh (moving thigh toward the body) and act as important stabilizers of the pelvis during any movements.
The adductor magnus (the largest muscle in this group and sometimes referred to as the “mini hamstrings”) is a powerful hip extensor that contributes to movements like the back squat and Romanian deadlift.
The hamstrings attach to the pelvis and run down the back of the leg. These important muscles play a prominent role in hip extension, knee flexion, extension, and knee stability. If you’re training your lower body, your hammies are involved in one way or another, even if you are not dynamically flexing and extending at the hip or knee.
The calf muscles — most notably the gastrocnemius and soleus — flex the foot and ankle. Functionally, the calf muscle assists in knee flexion in movements like the leg curl and is an important muscle in stabilizing the knee during loaded carries and sled pushes, like the farmer’s carry and prowler push. (6)
The quadriceps — made up of rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius — flex and stabilize the knee and play a role in hip stability. During walking exercises like the farmer’s carry and prowler push, the quadriceps work double-time to help stabilize the hips while also extending the knee during the carrying stage.
More Leg Training Content
The benefits of leg day go far beyond this article. After all, there are more than 20 moves to train your legs with and a myriad of ways to apply them to your training. Your next read is right here:
- Schache A. (2012). Eccentric hamstring muscle training can prevent hamstring injuries in soccer players. Journal of physiotherapy, 58(1), 58.
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2016). Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 46(11), 1689–1697.
- Wirtz, N., Zinner, C., Doermann, U., Kleinoeder, H., & Mester, J. (2016). Effects of Loaded Squat Exercise with and without Application of Superimposed EMS on Physical Performance. Journal of sports science & medicine, 15(1), 26–33.
- Reis, V. M., Garrido, N. D., Vianna, J., Sousa, A. C., Alves, J. V., & Marques, M. C. (2017). Energy cost of isolated resistance exercises across low- to high-intensities. PloS one, 12(7), e0181311.
- Mayer, F., Scharhag-Rosenberger, F., Carlsohn, A., Cassel, M., Müller, S., & Scharhag, J. (2011). The intensity and effects of strength training in the elderly. Deutsches Arzteblatt international, 108(21), 359–364.
- Alshami, A. M., & Alhassany, H. A. (2020). Girth, strength, and flexibility of the calf muscle in patients with knee osteoarthritis: A case-control study. Journal of Taibah University Medical Sciences, 15(3), 197–202.