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
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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.
- For Strength: Use between 80-90% of your one-rep max for three to five sets of three to five reps. Rest two minutes between sets.
- For More Muscle: Use between 60-70% of your 1RM for three to five sets of 10 to 15 reps. Rest for one to two minutes between sets.
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.
- For More Muscle: Do three to five sets of eight to 15 reps.
- For Strength: Perform four to five sets of three to six reps.
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.
- For More Muscle: three to four sets of eight to 12 reps on each side as part of your leg accessory training.
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.
- For Strength: Use 85% of your 1RM for four to six sets of four to six reps.
- For More Muscle: Use 70-85% of your 1RM and do three to five sets of eight to 15 reps.
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.
- For Strength: three to five sets of three to six reps using 85-90% of your 1RM
- For Muscle: three to four sets of eight to 15 reps using 70-80% of your 1RM, using a slow and controlled eccentric portion.
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.
- For Muscle: This exercise is best used to improve muscular imbalances, balance, and control. Start with two to four sets of six to 12 reps on each side.
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.
- For More Muscle: three to five sets of six to 12 repetitions with a moderate to heavy load OR two to four sets of 12-15 repetitions with a moderate load.
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.
- For More Muscle: Use a 4-4-1-2 tempo 10-15 reps for three to four sets using a moderate to heavy load.
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.
- For more muscle: two to three sets of 12-15 repetitions with moderate loads, keeping rest periods 45 to 90 seconds.
- For strength: three to four sets of six to eight repetitions on each side at a controlled speed, focusing on the eccentric portion with a moderate to heavy load.
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.
- For more muscle: three to four sets of between eight to 15 reps using a moderate load.
- For Strength: three to four sets of between four to six reps using a moderate to heavy load.
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 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