Lifters all over the world have a love-hate relationship with leg day. The intensity and volume required to stimulate lower body gains are grueling and, at times, gut-wrenching. On the other hand, most folks enjoy grinding through tough squat sessions for bigger quads, more total-body strength, and the power of a linebacker.
As for how to pick the best lower body exercises, that’s not too hard. The best moves stimulate multiple leg muscles while allowing you to lift relatively heavy weight. All 10 of the moves below offer up optimal bang for your muscle-building buck. Read up and then sub any of these into your next leg day for better aesthetics, more strength, and explosivity.
Best Lower Body Exercises
- Back Squat
- Hip Thrust
- Front Rack Bulgarian Split Squat
- Romanian Deadlift
- Trap Bar Deadlift
- Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
- Reverse Lunge
- Donkey Calf Raise
- Pistol Squat
- Weighted Step-Up
- Side Lunge
- Kettlebell Swing
- Glute-Hamstring Raise
- Barbell Good Morning
- Front Squat
- Belt Squat
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
The back squat is called the “king of all exercises” for a good reason. Squatting with a heavy barbell on your back allows you to overload your leg muscles with more weight than you can with any other tool. 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 hormone, which helps to increase your overall size and strength. (1)
Benefits of the Back Squat
- Improved leg strength and hypertrophy. The back squat also builds back strength as the back stabilizes and supports the bar.
- A more powerful lower body. A study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine found a strong correlation between squats and jump height. (2)
- Stimulates more growth hormone release, which can help with overall size and strength gains.
How to Do the Back Squat
Step under a barbell and set a good foundation by flexing your core to lift the barbell off 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.
The hip thrust builds both strength and mass in your glutes and, to a lesser extent, your 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.
Benefits of 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 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.
If you were to do one accessory exercise to improve your squat and deadlift, the Bulgarian split squat would be the one. Because one foot is elevated, the quad is taxed through a longer range of motion than other leg exercises.
This longer stretch stimulates more growth (over time). And with the weight being front-loaded, the core and upper back will have to work hard to support the load and keep the body stable.
Benefits of the Front Rack Bulgarian Split Squat
- Bulgarian split squats reduce muscle imbalances between legs and help to improve leg drive for squats and deadlifts.
- More leg muscle recruitment, as Bulgarian split squats make you work harder (through an extended range of motion) to recruit more muscle fibers to perform the same squat movement.
- Improves core and upper back strength and stability.
How to Do the Front Rack Bulgarian Split Squat
Clean a pair of kettlebells into the front rack position and keep your chest up and shoulders down. Put your back foot on an elevated surface and place a weight plate in front of your big toe, allowing you to change sides and not waste time finding your ideal foot position. Drop your back knee towards the floor while maintaining a slight forward lean in your torso. Push your front foot through the floor to return to the starting position.
The Romanian deadlift is like the standard deadlift, but you lower the bar to about mid-shin level instead of all the way to the floor. This tweak keeps constant tension on the glute and hamstring muscles, making it a better option to isolate those areas. It’s also easier on the lower back as most lifters use less weight for the RDL.
A stronger lower back will carry over to your regular deadlift and help prevent spinal rounding (or cat-back) during heavy pulls, which can be dangerous. The RDL is also generally less stressful on the body as it doesn’t allow you to use much weight as your standard deadlift.
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.
There is no denying barbell deadlifts are a strength and muscle-building movement. That said, if you’re not a competitive powerlifter, then the trap bar deadlift may be a more comfortable (and possibly safer) option. That’s because there is less shear force on the spine as the axis of rotation (lower back/hips) are more in-line with the load.
Also, the raised, neutral handles put the lifter in a more optimal starting position, as their range of motion (ROM) is reduced, and their grip is naturally stronger in a neutral position. This makes it easier on the lower back. If you are an athlete or lifter who wants to focus on strength with a reduced chance of getting a lifting injury, doing your deadlifts with a trap bar is a great alternative.
Benefits of the Trap Bar Deadlift
- The neutral grip puts less stress on the wrist, elbows, and shoulders
- The high handles allow for a shorter ROM. As a result, lifters can load the bar with more weight.
- Both of the factors mentioned above make the trap bar deadlift an overall more accessible lift.
How to Do the Trap Bar Deadlift
Hinge down and grab either side of the trap bar. Squeeze your shoulder blades together, keep your chest up and drive your feet through the floor until lockout. Slowly hinge back until the weights touch the floor and reset and repeat.
Along with the pistol squat, the single-leg RDL is one of the more difficult lower body movements to perform, but the benefits are many.
The benefits include better balance, reduced muscle imbalances, muscular hypertrophy, and endurance of the glutes and hamstrings. Master this move with bodyweight first before adding load because stumbling and falling is not a great look.
Benefits of The Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
- The single-leg RDL uncovers and improves asymmetries between sides.
- Increased hypertrophy and endurance of the glutes and hamstrings.
- Increases balance and stability of your ankles, knees, hips, and lower back.
How to Do the Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
Pick one foot up off the floor, finding balance on your grounded foot, and soften your working knee. Keep your chest up and shoulders down and hinge your hip back and try not to rotate the working hip upwards. Hinge until your belly button is facing the floor and you feel a stretch in your hamstring. Stabilize and return to the starting position and repeat. Once you feel comfortable, you can hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in one hand to add weight to the exercise.
Reverse lunges are arguably the easiest of all the lunge variations because stepping back the reverse lunge is a hip-dominant exercise. This puts less stress on your knees than other lunge variations. That’s great news if you suffer from knee pain. This exercise can build strength, muscle, and improve hip mobility for squatting, deadlifting, and other hip-dominant movements. As with most unilateral variations, reverse lunges help to decrease muscle imbalances and increase injury resilience.
Benefits of the Reverse Lunge
- Builds unilateral strength, leg muscle, and improves single-leg balance.
- Easier on the lower back as it remains extended, reducing stress on the lumbar spine.
- You can vary the length of the step back to emphasize the quads (smaller step back) or glutes and hamstrings (larger step back).
How to Do the Reverse Lunge
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart. Then take either a small or large step back with your left foot and lower your hips so that your right thigh becomes parallel to the floor with your right knee over your ankle. Keep your chest up and shoulders down and pause for a second. Push through your right foot and return to the starting position. You can either alternate sides or do all reps on one side, depending on your goals.
To strengthen and build the calves, you need exercises that provide a stretch at the bottom position combined with a larger range of motion (ROM) and the ability to add load. The donkey calf raise fits the bill. (If you don’t have a donkey calf raise machine, there are various ways to set it up, as demonstrated in the video below.)
There are two key aspects of this exercise that make it particularly effective. First, by angling the body forward and resting your arms on a support, you create a more stable base from which you can load heavy weight. This weight will create more stimulation. Second, standing on a box allows you to increase the move’s ROM for a greater overall stretch.
Benefits of the Donkey Calf Raise
- The ability to add load fast to strengthen and develop the calves.
- The loaded stretch at the bottom helps calf flexibility and ankle mobility.
How to Do the Donkey Calf Raise
Using your setup of choice (refer to the video above), secure your hands and hinge back at the hips and place the balls of your feet at the far edge of the step. Slowly lower your heels as far as possible to the floor, pausing for three to four seconds. Lift your heels as far as possible, squeezing your calves at the top of the movement. Slowly lower down and repeat.
Single leg strength is a premium in the gym and on the sporting field, and arguably, the king of all single-leg exercises is the Pistol squat. The Pistol squat is an advanced unilateral move that increases single-leg strength, balance, and the movement mechanics of the lower body.
It also requires the lifter to posse tremendous strength and balance. When you see a lifter pull this off for reps, you know they’re legit. Doing the pistol squat correctly will improve your balance and coordination, bolster athleticism, and strengthen your bilateral squat.
Benefits of the Pistol Squat
- Increased unilateral strength as the pistol squat helps even out muscle imbalances on each leg and supporting stabilizer muscles.
- Improved balance and coordination.
- More muscle and strength for the quads and glutes.
How to Do the Pistol Squat
Start by standing on one leg, with the toes pointed forward and/or slightly turned out. Flex your front leg and point your toes in front of you. Engage your core and hip flexors to get ready for your descent. Make sure the weight is evenly distributed on the foot that’s on the ground, and carefully sit back into a squat, making sure your torso has a slight forward lean. When you’ve reached your desired depth, use your single-leg strength to press through the floor, engaging the core to allow for maximal effort. Assume a stable and supported standing position on the working leg, and repeat for reps.
The step-up is one of the easiest single-leg exercises and can be performed by all ability levels. To do it, the lifter places one foot on a ploy box, holding dumbbells or kettlebells in each hand (or not), and then stands up by driving through the elevated leg.
It’s easy for a lifter to find balance, and the height of the box can be raised or lowered to increase stability. It’s also a popular bodybuilding movement, as, due to its ease, it can be loaded heavily to target the glutes and hamstrings.
Benefits of the Weighted Step Up
- Weighted step-ups help develop explosive leg power, which helps you run faster and develop a higher vertical jump.
- Due to minimal eccentric loading (which means you spend more energy driving up than lowering yourself down), step-ups put less stress on your knees.
- This exercise can be progressed and regressed easily according to the abilities of the lifter.
How to Do the Weighted Step Up
Stand facing a box with your resistance of choice (a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells) on your back or in your hands. Put one foot on the box and stand up, pushing through your front leg while using your back leg for support until the knee is fully extended. Slowly step down to the floor with the non-working and reset and repeat.
Side lunges help develop strength, stability, and balance in the frontal plane — that is, side-to-side movement. You’ll therefore improve your ability to go from side-to-side, which is especially handy for evading opponents in the court and on a fast-paced city street.
Plus, this move improves your adductor mobility and strength mobility and strength. That helps to prevent groin injuries and improve overall hip mobility. This will all help with your knee health and stability, too.
Benefits of the Side Lunge
- This move strengthens and mobilizes your entire hip region.
- Side lunges improve your lateral movement which will help improve your agility.
- These strengthen your glute med and adductors which are important for knee health and hip mobility.
How to Do the Side Lunge
Set up with a dumbbell front-loaded as for a goblet squat. Stand tall with your feet together and your toes pointed forward. Take a big step to the side with your left leg. Hinge back into your left hip. Keep your right leg straight with your toes pointed forward. Push your left foot into the ground. Return to the starting position. Either alternate sides or do all the reps on one side and repeat on the other.
Kettlebell swings are great for improving the strength, power, and endurance of your glutes and hamstrings. Plus, the kettlebell swing trains the stability and stabilizing muscles of your entire body.
That’s because you’re constantly adjusting to the shifting center of mass with each repetition. This improves your core stability and endurance. The kettlebell swing is also an underrated exercise for improving grip strength, which has carryover to all things pulling.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Swing
- Kettlebell swings train your hamstrings and glutes for power, strength, and endurance.
- This is a high-intensity exercise with low-impact on your joints.
- It’s a great tool to improve cardiovascular endurance and grip strength.
How to Do the Kettlebell Swing
Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart. Place the kettlebell a foot or so in front of you. Hinge down to grip the kettlebell. Squeeze your armpits and push your chest up. Hike the kettlebell behind you, keeping it above your knees. Thrust your hips forward. Use the momentum to swing the kettlebell. Finish by squeezing your glutes and quads. Repeat in a continuous loop for reps.
You can perform the GHR for higher reps to increase glute, hamstring, and lower back hypertrophy. Once the bodyweight version becomes easier, add load (plates, bands, or chains) to increase your posterior gains.
Benefits of the Glute-Hamstring Raise
- This move develops eccentric strength in your hamstrings to help prevent hamstring strains.
- The GHR extends the time under tension for your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back. This helps build strength and endurance.
- You’ll be targeting your posterior chain for muscle growth.
How to Do the Glute-Hamstring Raise
Adjust the GHR so your feet are secured. Rest your quads on the middle of the pad. Make sure you have enough space to lower your torso. Bend your knees at 90 degrees. Keep your body straight. Push your toes into the pad. Extend your knees. Fold your arms across your body. Slowly lower your torso forward until you are horizontal. Return to the starting position by contracting your hamstrings. Reset and repeat.
The barbell good morning that trains your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings. This exercise puts the glutes and hamstrings through a large range of motion for better muscle-building potential. It is a fantastic exercise to strengthen and build posterior strength.
Benefits of the Barbell Good Morning
- This is a fantastic exercise for spinal erector and glute strength and hypertrophy.
- You’ll get great engagement of your entire posterior chain and all your spinal stabilizers that help prevent spinal flexion.
- This move is purely a hinge, and your lower back is what will drive that hinge.
How to Do the Barbell Good Morning
Get under a loaded barbell that’s set in a power rack. Set up the same way you would for a back squat. Walk backward a few steps. Keep a slight bend in your knees. Hinge at your hips. Keep your chest up and your shoulders down until your torso is almost parallel to the floor. Reverse the lift by contracting your glutes and hamstrings until you stand back up.
The barbell front squat is a squat variation that puts extra emphasis on your upper back, quads, and core. You’ll hold the bar in a front rack either in your fingertips or directly on the fronts of your shoulders. In both versions, you’re supporting the bar with your front deltoids.
Because you’re holding the weight anteriorly, your quads, glutes, and hamstrings are trained differently than in the back squat. Front squats focus even more on your quads and anterior core. The vastus medialis (teardrop muscle), one of the four quadriceps muscles, is targeted more heavily during the front squat, too.
Benefits of the Barbell Front Squat
- The vertical torso position makes this squat easier on your low back because there is less compressive force on the spine.
- The front squat is a great accessory exercise for the Olympic lifts.
- You’ll target your core, quads, and upper back mobility even more with this squat variation.
How to Do the Barbell Front Squat
Assume a proper front rack position. Place the barbell high up onto your shoulders. Make sure you’re supporting the bar with your shoulders and upper chest. Stand up tall. Keep your shoulders down and chest up. Take small steps back from the rack. Descend into a squat. Keep your back neutral. Avoid leaning forward too much with your torso. Once you have hit the bottom position, push through your feet. Stand up, maintain an upright torso, chest, and elbow position. Repeat for reps.
The belt squat is a great alternative barbell squat if the traditional version doesn’t agree with your joints. That’s because you perform this exercise with an upright torso with little load on your spine. You’ll also have a high degree of knee flexion.
These positional changes will drive more action to your quads and glutes. Belt squats are either performed on a machine or using a weight belt with plates, with your feet on an elevated surface.
Benefits of the Belt Squat
- The belt squat trains the squat pattern with minimal loading on your spine.
- Holding on to the handrails increases your stability.
- Because you can do more reps with greater load, this is a great exercise for quad strength and muscle.
How to Do the Belt Squat
Place a dip belt around your waist. Kneel down to fasten it to the belt squat machine. Get your feet into your preferred squat stance. Grip the handrails lightly. Stand up and push away the stopper to squat. Squat down while holding the handrails. Once you are at your preferred depth, push through the platform. Squat back up until lockout. Repeat for reps.
Iceskaters mimic an ice skater on ice — hence the name. This exercise trains lateral power and deceleration. It’s also a great cardiovascular exercise because it trains the quads, hamstrings, and glutes when you perform it for reps or time.
The lateral power benefits come from the explosive lateral jumps, which test your strength, balance, and coordination. Plus, many people don’t get enough side-to-side (frontal plane) movement in their training, so this explosive side lunge can keep your program balanced.
Benefits of the Iceskater
- This move improves lateral power and deceleration.
- It’s a great lower body exercise that improves your cardio, strength, balance, and athleticism all at once.
- Iceskaters help make your program more balanced by integrating movement in the frontal plane.
How to Do the Iceskater
Stand on one leg with your other leg bent at the knee. Bring your leg behind you. Jump laterally. Land on your opposite leg. Stick the landing with a soft knee. Reset and jump back sideways to your starting foot. Continue this back and forth for the desired amount of reps or time.
The Benefits of Training the Lower Body
Ever seen a lifter with a fantastic upper body but neglects his lower body? Don’t be that guy or gal. It’s easy to get caught up training muscles that feel good and look good — like the arms and shoulders — but, over time, this leads to an unbalanced and injury-prone body. Instead, reap the benefits of training the lower body. These include:
Improved Agility And Balance
Being able to stop and change direction requires lower body strength. Athletes need to be able to shift their weight one way or another or rapidly change direction. Stronger leg muscles allow for stability and movement. By training your legs, you’re both enhancing your ability to move and building a more resilient lower half.
Strengthen Muscle Imbalances
Muscle imbalances occur during activities of daily living or because of the demands of your sport. 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 may help prevent this.
Run Faster And More Efficiently
Strength training in 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 Program Lower Body Exercises
Since there is no one-size-fits-all approach to strength training, these are general recommendations that will fluctuate according to your goals and what works best for you.
However, for most athletes, lower body training is important to keep your total-body strength in balance. Lower body training is tough because it involves so many big muscle groups with a high loading capacity. But, it’s rewarding if you need your lower body to support your upper body moves. Here are some general recommendations for lower body exercise order and sets and reps for strength and muscle.
Exercises that work the most muscles and require the most energy pretty much always should come first in your training. This is when you have the most energy and your muscles are not fatigued. Exercise like barbell squats, barbell hip thrusts, and front squats generally need your full attention and energy.
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When training two strength movements on the same day, use your best judgment on what comes first. You may want to avoid putting together two exercises that put a compressive load on the spine. For example, barbell squats paired with Romanian deadlifts may not feel great for your lower back, especially if you’re loading them heavy.
Strength Sets & Reps
You can build muscle and strength with a variety of set and rep ranges. But when the focus is building strength to improve your one-rep max, you want to go heavier. Try working with a load of 85 percent of your 1-RM. Keeping the total reps performed between 10 to 25 reps. You can break this up into various set and rep schemes. Three sets of five reps, five sets of five reps, four sets of six reps, or five sets of two reps are all viable options.
Muscle Sets & Reps
Most of your lower body accessory training falls under hypertrophy and endurance. The focus here is on increasing volume and time under tension. You want to provide the right stimulus to build muscle. Like strength, muscle is built within a variety of load, sets, and reps.
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Working with loads of between 50 and 80 percent of your 1-RM can help you build muscle. Aim to keep your total reps between 25 to 60. Less reps means heavier load and more sets. More reps mean lighter loads and fewer sets. Sets and rep schemes like three to four sets of eight to 12 reps, or three sets of 12 to 15 reps, can work nicely for promoting hypertrophy. Try to approach muscle failure with each rep to really push yourself and maximize results.
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 the work. You’ll improve circulation to the muscles, zone in mentally, and prime your body to lift heavier weights.
In addition to a lower-body warm-up, you’ll want to spend time performing ramp-up sets for your heavier lifts. Not only will it grease the groove and help you determine your working weight for the day, but the extra volume is also helpful for fat loss and hypertrophy goals.
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 sets works well for most strength exercises.
More Lower Body Training Tips
Now that you have a handle on the best lower body exercises to strengthen your entire lower body, you can also check out these other helpful lower body training articles for strength, power, and fitness athletes.
- The 6 Best Lower Body Exercises for Mass
- 3 Leg Workouts You Can Do at Home With Dumbbells
- No Squat Rack? Here are 5 Leg Exercises to Perform in a Smith Machine
- 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.
- 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
Featured image: Veles Studio/Shutterstock