The 20 Best Leg Exercises for Size and Strength
Target your quads, hams, glutes, and calves with these muscle-building movements.
Your lower body carries the most potential for power and strength than any other body part because half of your entire body is working during the majority of exercises.
This makes leg day an essential part of building a well-rounded physique. Leg day can even set the tone for the entire training week. Break from convention and skip “international chest day,” and you’ll realize that a good squat workout on Monday can fire you up to take on anything.
Whether you want a punishing leg workout that will leave your muscles sore for days or you’re looking for something that can add more strength and coordination to your daily activities, these 20 exercises will guide you down the right path.
Best Leg Exercises
Heels-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
Bulgarian Split Squat
Nordic Hamstring Curl
Barbell Hip Thrust
Seated Leg Curl
Lying Leg Curl
Standing Calf Raise
Seated Calf Raise
Tibialis Anterior Raise
The Back Squat often gets labeled as the king of lower body exercises — and that’s fair. It not only challenges every muscle in the lower body, but also places responsibility on muscles across the upper body to help stabilize the load and help protect the spine. This ends up making it one the most useful full-body exercises in your exercise selection arsenal.
In addition, the back squat reinforces a basic movement pattern we engage in daily. The ability to squat has been associated with improved quality of life and increased mobility in older adults, giving it yet another reason to be at the top of our list. (1)
How to Do the Back Squat
Place a barbell into a squat rack around shoulder-height. Position yourself with the barbell across your upper back. Keep your body and the barbell connected by contracting your upper back muscles and squeezing the bar in your hands. Inhale to brace your core before lifting the weight from the rack.
Take a few small steps backward and get your feet into position roughly hip-width apart or a little wider based on your comfort and mobility. With your core braced, squat down until your upper legs are parallel to the floor. Drive yourself back up toward the starting position by pushing your feet down into the floor.
Benefits of the Back Squat
The back squat challenges the whole body, emphasizing the lower body — most notably the quads, glutes, and adductors.
Muscles throughout the core are engaged and the muscles responsible for posture are strengthened.
The squat movement positively impacts muscle coordination and functional strength, benefiting gymgoers of all ages and with all goals.
The conventional deadlift gets a lot of attention for its back training benefits, but let’s not forget that it’s a lower-body driven exercise with many benefits for building the legs. It’s also a popular test of strength, requiring force production from your feet through your legs and glutes, across your core and upper back, and into your grip.
The proper technique for a deadlift is straightforward, but it can take a lot of practice to get right. So take your time, practice, and progress your loads responsibly. Because of the significant strength potential of the glutes and hamstrings, the deadlift is often the first barbell exercise that allows lifters to move some serious weights once they’ve mastered proper form.
How to Do the Conventional Deadlift
Stand in front of a loaded barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart, with the bar aligned just over the knots of your shoelaces. Drive your hips back and allow your knees to bend slightly as you grip the barbell outside of shoulder-width with a palms-down grip.
Keep your back and torso rigid and arms straight. Push your feet into the floor as you simultaneously pull your chest and shoulders upwards to lift the bar.
Benefits of the Conventional Deadlift
The conventional deadlift helps build muscle and strength across the upper and lower body — most notably your glutes, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and grip.
Your strength in this movement, alongside your technique, will improve substantially when performed consistently.
Because it coordinates the upper and lower body and transfers power from your feet to your grip, it’s an excellent movement for building total-body strength.
The sumo deadlift is often viewed as the red-headed stepchild of the strength world. There is ongoing debate among the fitness community that it is “cheating” compared to the conventional deadlift because sumo deadlifts travel through a shorter range of motion.
Regardless of hair color or social popularity, the sumo deadlift is an effective exercise for building muscle and strength across your upper and lower body. It shares many of the same benefits and qualities that make its conventional counterpart so beloved.
Choosing to perform the sumo variation over the traditional variation often comes down to preference, limb length, and mobility. The sumo variation also challenges the lower body muscles differently than the conventional stance due to your widened foot position, with more challenge on the quadriceps and adductors relative to the hamstrings.
How to Do the Sumo Deadlift
Stand with a loaded barbell over the knots of your shoelaces. Set your feet outside shoulder-width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward. Drive your hips back and allow your knees to bend as you grip the barbell inside of your legs, somewhere around shoulder-width, with a palms-down grip.
Keep your back and torso rigid and your arms straight. Push your feet into the floor as you simultaneously pull your chest and shoulders upwards to lift the bar.
Benefits of the Sumo Deadlift
The sumo deadlift allows a more upright torso, reducing lower back strain.
This deadlift variation emphasizes the quads and adductors.
The sumo deadlift can be a more efficient deadlift variation for taller lifters and lifters with longer than average legs.
Heels-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
Deadlifting with a trap bar, sometimes referred to as a hex bar or diamond bar, is a go-to for many lifters looking to build their lower body strength while minimizing the load on their spine and lower back. The trap bar keeps your arms in a neutral position, as opposed to being in front of your body. This neutral-position increases shoulder and upper back stability and allows your torso to remain more upright, which reduces lower back recruitment.
Because the trap bar’s unique design keeps your hands by your sides, the weight is near your body’s center which allows for a more comfortable and upright torso position. The added benefit from elevating your heels allows you to achieve more knee flexion, which increases the emphasis on the quads.
How to Do the Heels-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
Place an inclined wedge or two small weight plates on the ground inside a loaded trap bar. Stand on the wedge (or plates) with your heels up and the balls of your feet on the ground. Keep both feet facing forward, parallel to the handles.
Drive your hips back and allow your knees to bend as you securely grip the handles. Keep your back and torso rigid and arms straight. Push down into the floor with your feet while pulling your chest and shoulders upwards to lift the weight.
Benefits of the Heels-Elevated Trap Bar Deadlift
The trap bar deadlift allows you to keep the weight centered while allowing a more comfortable, upright torso position.
The trap bar demands less from the lower back than other deadlift variations, which is great if you’re working around an injury or physical limitation at the gym.
The heel elevation allows your knee to travel further forward during the exercise, emphasizing muscular tension on the quads.
The leg press is a machine-based movement that mimics exercises like the back squat or hack squat. Because you don’t have to support heavy weights with your upper body, you can often load this exercise up with more weight than you would most other leg exercises. This lower body focus makes the leg press a go-to exercise for building bigger and stronger legs.
Due to the ease and efficiency of loading and unloading the weight plates, this exercise is one of the best for safely performing more advanced techniques such as rest-pause sets or drop sets.
How to Do the Leg Press
Sit in the leg press seat and place your feet toward the middle of the platform, about shoulder-width apart. Perform a few reps without weight to ensure your feet are in an appropriate position.
Press the sled out of the resting position, move the safety bars, and slowly lower the sled towards your chest until your thigh-and-knee angle reaches roughly 90-degrees. Press the sled up by driving your entire foot into the platform. A good rule of thumb for strength and safety is that if your lower back or hips lift off the seat, you’ve lowered the weight too far.
Benefits of the Leg Press
The leg press allows you to perform the squat movement pattern without the load bearing down on your spine.
This machine can be used with more weight than you would be able to perform on most other leg exercises.
The support of the machine lets you safely and effectively perform more advanced training techniques like rest-pause sets or drop sets.
The hack squat is a modern-day interpretation of a movement performed by strength pioneer George Hackenschmidt in the early-1900s. This exercise is a close relative to the back squat and leg press, and delivers the same leg-building benefits while providing training variety.
The hack squat machine supplies a level of external support and stability, which reduces lower back strain while allowing you to work to higher levels of muscular fatigue.
How to Do the Hack Squat
Position yourself in the machine with your feet on the platform around shoulder-width apart or slightly outside, closely mimicking your back squat stance. Keep your hips and torso flush against the back pad with your shoulders snug into the shoulder pads. Maintain a neutral head position, resting on the pad if one is available.
It may help to do a few reps with no weight to ensure you are comfortable throughout the entire range of motion. Lower your body until the bottoms of your thighs reach parallel to the floor or slightly below. From this bottom position, focus on keeping your feet flat as you drive into the platform and return to the starting position.
Benefits of the Hack Squat
This exercise allows you to mimic the movement pattern of a back squat with reduced lower back strain.
The machine’s overall stability, predetermined movement pattern, and external support help you work deeper into muscular fatigue with relatively lower risk of injury when compared to its free-weight counterparts.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The split squat is one of the best single-leg exercises for building muscular size and strength. In addition, the unilateral nature of the movement challenges coordination and stability across the body.
Most importantly to the goal of building muscle, this exercise creates a high level of fatigue in the target muscle Even without added weight, the Bulgarian split squat can be challenging enough to stimulate growth.
How to Do the Bulgarian Split Squat
Hold a dumbbell in each hand while standing roughly two feet in front of a bench or box. Place one foot back on the bench with your laces down. Once you’re balanced, pull your shoulders back and engage your core.
Drive your back knee down toward the ground while your front knee bends to 90-degrees. From the bottom, press your front foot down into the ground as you stand back up into the starting position.
Benefits of the Bulgarian Split Squat
The single-leg setup challenges you to balance throughout the range of motion, positively contributing to gains in muscle, strength, and coordination.
The split squat can be adjusted to emphasize specific muscles. Leaning slightly forward during the rep emphasizes the hamstrings and glutes. Placing your front foot closer to the bench prioritizes the quadriceps muscles.
The Romanian Deadlift, often nicknamed the RDL, primarily builds muscle and strength in the hamstrings and glutes. It also challenges muscles in the upper and lower back, which both contribute to strength in big lifts such as the squat and deadlift.
It may not have the clout of other members of the deadlift family, but when it comes to targeting the back of the legs, the RDL is one of the most effective exercises in the gym.
How to Do the Romanian Deadlift
Stand in front of a loaded barbell with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grip the bar just outside the knees with both palms down. Perform a conventional deadlift to get the bar in the top position and hold.
Lower the bar by pushing your hips back while allowing your legs to bend very slightly. The bar should reach near the middle of your shins. Raise the weight by driving your hips forward and returning upright to the starting position.
Benefits of the Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift emphasizes the hamstrings and glutes.
The exercise has carryover benefits to other big lifts, such as the squat and deadlift, because it also works powerful postural muscles throughout the back.
The Romanian deadlift allows you to use more weight than many other hamstring exercises, making it extremely effective for building size and strength.
Nordic Hamstring Curl
The Nordic hamstring curl is a bodyweight movement that builds strength and resilience in the hamstrings. It has also been shown to reduce the risk of hamstring injuries. (2)
One unique aspect of this exercise is that it prioritizes the eccentric (lowering) portion of the rep, while the majority of exercises are focused on the concentric (lifting) portion. Some lifters consider this an advanced exercise, but it can be performed by all fitness levels due to several simple variations and regressions which can adjust the difficulty to an appropriate level.
How to Do the Nordic Hamstring Curl
Kneel on the floor with both feet anchored beneath something sturdy, most commonly a heavily loaded barbell. You can also ask a partner to hold your ankles. With a straight torso, extend your arms in front of you and slowly lower your hands towards the floor. The lower you get, the more challenging the movement will be as your hamstring muscles are loaded with more of your body weight.
Catch yourself with your hands and push your body back up to the starting position while curling your hamstrings. As you get more advanced, work to lower your chest to the floor and raise yourself up without using your hands.
Benefits of the Nordic Hamstring Curl
The Nordic hamstring curl can be performed anywhere you can securely anchor your feet.
This is one of the few bodyweight-only exercises to emphasize the hamstrings.
The Nordic hamstring curl builds leg strength and has been linked to healthier and less injury-prone hamstrings.
The kettlebell swing is an explosive movement that focuses on power development. Although a simple-looking exercise, it packs a functional one-two punch when it comes to mastering the hip hinge motion and developing explosive power through the hamstrings and glutes.
While a dumbbell can also be used to perform swings, the kettlebell’s larger mass and offset center of gravity make the movement more natural and more comfortable.
How to Do the Kettlebell Swing
Place the kettlebell 12 to 18-inches in front of you. Stand with your feet around hip-width apart or wider, with your feet facing forward. Grab the kettlebell’s handle with both hands, palms down, while maintaining a neutral spine.
Begin the movement by “sweeping” the kettlebell back between your legs into a loaded position before forcefully driving the kettlebell forward by extending the hips forward with your hamstrings and glutes.
Keep your arms relaxed while your hips do all the work to bring the weight in front of you. To initiate the next rep, allow the kettlebell to fall naturally back into the loaded position slightly behind your legs. Work to get into an explosive rhythm and repeat the motion.
Benefits of the Kettlebell Swing
This exercise will help develop explosive power through your hips, hamstring, and glutes.
The swing’s repeated rhythmic-based movement will help train your hinge pattern, which carries over to deadlift strength.
The kettlebell swing only requires access to a kettlebell and enough space to swing it, making it ideal for home workouts.
The walking lunge is an alternating-leg, free-weight exercise that shares the same benefits as the stationary split squat with the added benefit of requiring intermuscular coordination and control as you move through space.
This exercise will help develop leg size, strength, and total-body coordination. When performed for very high reps or long distances, it can even be used for conditioning or fat loss.
How to Do the Walking Lunge
Assume a standing position with a dumbbell at your sides in each hand. Take a step forward roughly 18 to 24-inches and plant your entire foot firmly on the ground. Lower yourself in a controlled lunge while allowing your front knee to track forward, aiming between the first and second toe, while your back knee drops straight down to the ground.
Do not rush the eccentric (lowering) portion of the rep. Allow yourself to descend under control while maintaining engagement in your core and an upright torso. To finish, drive through the floor with your front foot and return to starting upright position. Smoothly transition to step forward with the opposite leg and repeat the process. Continue alternating legs with each repetition.
Benefits of the Walking Lunge
This exercise does an excellent job loading the quads, glutes, and adductors through a long range of motion.
The walking lunge builds total-body stability while improving intermuscular coordination due to maintaining an upright upper body while actively alternating legs throughout the exercise.
This lunge variation is a more controlled movement than the forward or walking lunge, because there’s no forward momentum challenging your balance.
The relative stability of this lunge makes it great for beginners and advanced trainees alike who want to add weight to their lunge movements while focusing on the muscle’s action rather than balance or coordination.
How to Do the Reverse Lunge
Stand with your feet side by side and keep your hands at your hips. Take a large step back with one leg. When the ball of the back foot is on the ground, descend until your back knee is barely an inch above the floor.
Ideally, as your back knee reaches the bottom, your front leg should be bent at a 90-degree angle. Keep your chest up and shoulders back. Drive through your front foot and stand back up to the feet-together starting position.
Benefits of the Reverse Lunge
The reverse lunge is easier to stabilize than the other lunge-based variations, making it easier for beginners to learn and progress.
The added stability of this variation allows more advanced lifters to add load without awkwardly trying to manage the weight while moving forward (like in a walking lunge).
Barbell Hip Thrust
The barbell hip thrust has become a cult classic among glute-focused fitness enthusiasts over the past few years, and for a good reason.
The hip thrust is an exercise that focuses on the glutes more directly without much involvement from secondary muscle groups like the hamstrings or quadriceps.
How to Do the Barbell Hip Thrust
Sit on the ground perpendicular to a flat bench with your upper back (just under the shoulder blades) against the bench and your legs extended. Roll a loaded barbell above your legs so it can rest in your hip crease before bending your legs and placing your feet flat on the floor. You may want to place a padded cushion or folded towel between your hips and the barbell to lessen any discomfort on your hip bones.
Press through your feet and use your glutes to drive your hips up until your body is aligned straight from your knees to your chin. Use your hands to keep the barbell in position. Hold the top position for a second and then lower your hips toward the floor.
Benefits of the Barbell Hip Thrust
This exercise places significant tension on the glutes while minimally working other muscles in the lower body, allowing you to accumulate more muscle-building training volume directly on the glutes.
This exercise aids in developing hip extension strength, helping you improve other movements that rely on hip extension such as back squats and deadlift variations.
The leg extension is a machine-based exercise that gymgoers tend to either love or hate. Some say it’s harmful on the knee joint, while others shout its muscle-building benefits from the rooftops. If set up and performed properly, the leg extension is safe and effective for building muscle in the quadriceps.
This exercise has little to no learning curve, meaning lifters of all skill levels can perform it effectively without much practice. As a bonus, the leg extension targets the rectus femoris muscle in its shortened position. This is a quadriceps muscle that crosses the hip joint and plays a vital role in helping stabilize the pelvis in other lower body exercises.
How to Do the Leg Extension
Adjust the back pad to align your knees with the axis of rotation (signified by a dot or marker on some machines) and adjust the ankle pad so it rests just above your shoes.
Start the movement by straightening your leg to move the ankle pad, then accelerate into the rep until you reach the end range of knee extension. Ensure your toes point straight ahead, not angled in or out.
Benefits of the Leg Extension
You can target the quads with almost no involvement from other lower body muscles, making it a highly effective exercise to emphasize the quadriceps.
It targets the rectus femoris, a quadriceps muscle that crosses the hip joint and plays a vital role in helping stabilize the pelvis.
Seated Leg Curl
The seated leg curl is an excellent single-joint movement that primarily challenges the hamstring muscles with some assistance from the calves.
Due to the design of the machine, the lifter is put into a stable position, allowing the focus to be on curling the weight. The added stability makes it a great exercise for newbies in the gym and allows any lifter to safely use more weight for lower reps.
How to Do the Seated Leg Curl
Adjust the back pad so your knees align with the axis of rotation (signified by a dot or marker on some machines) and adjust the thigh pad to fit snugly just above your knees. The ankle pad should be just above your shoes.
Keep your toes pointed straight ahead and pulled slightly upwards. Flex your knees to curl the pad until it’s under the seat, then control the weight as you return to the starting position.
Benefits of the Seated Leg Curl
This exercise is great for lifters looking to place a challenge specifically on their hamstrings.
Increased external stability supplied by the machine allows the lifter to take sets deeper into fatigue while maintaining proper form.
The seated position allows the lifter to train the hamstrings in a more stretched position (hip flexion and knee extension).
Lying Leg Curl
The lying leg curl is another go-to single-joint exercise that can emphasize the hamstrings. It not only does a great job of focusing on the hamstrings, but it also challenges the calf through the beginning of the range of the movement, helping you cover more ground if you’re short on time in the gym.
With less stability supplied by the machine itself, due to your body position during the exercise, the lying leg curl requires the lifter to do more of the heavy lifting to keep the body stable throughout the exercise.
How to Do the Lying Leg Curl
Adjust the leg pad on the machine so your knees align with the axis of rotation (often signified by a dot or marker) and adjust the ankle pad to touch at your ankles. Engage your hamstrings and lift the leg pad by curling your feet towards your glutes. Ensure your toes point straight ahead. Focus on controlling the weight as you return to the fully stretched position.
Benefits of the Lying Leg Curl
All leg curls allow you to focus more training volume on your hamstrings for increased size.
The lying position allows the hamstrings to be challenged in their fully contracted position (hip extension and knee flexion).
Standing Calf Raise
The standing calf raise is a relatively easy-to-perform exercise that challenges the calf muscles. Variations of this movement can be done using a dedicated calf raise machine, a Smith machine, a barbell in a rack, or dumbbells, making it a practical exercise for any lifter regardless of where they train.
Stronger calf muscles help bring stability to the ankle and knee, which can translate into athletic performance as well as strength in compound exercises such as the back squat or deadlift. (3)
How to Do the Standing Calf Raise
Adjust the height of the shoulder pad to fit your structure, so you can enter in a quarter-squat position. Brace your core and raise the weight by standing tall.
Begin with your legs in a “soft lockout,” or slightly bent in the knees, with only the balls of your feet on the foot platform. Drive your body up while pushing your ankles forward. Squeeze your calves up to the top of the movement and lower to stretch as far as your ankles allow.
Benefits of the Standing Calf Raise
This exercise is relatively easy to set up and perform, making it practical for beginners.
The calf raise adds size and strength to the lower leg while creating stability around the knee and ankle. (4)
Seated Calf Raise
This calf raise variation has the lifter perform the exercise with the knees bent, focusing more on the soleus (one of the two heads of the calf muscle) through a complete range of motion. You can perform this movement in a machine or with dumbbells resting on your knees in a seated position.
The bent-leg position of the exercise de-emphasizes the gastrocnemius head of the calf muscle, which is more heavily involved in straight-leg raises, and more significantly activates the soleus.
How to Do the Seated Calf Raise
Load up the machine with your chosen weight, then sit with your knees bent and the balls of your feet on the platform. Secure the leg pad over your thighs.
Lift the weight and drive your ankles forward, squeezing your calves to the top of the movement. Lower the weight under control into a deep stretch.
Benefits of the Seated Calf Raise
The seated calf raise allows lifters to train the calves with no involvement of the upper body, making it ideal for lifters dealing with shoulder or back issues.
It trains the soleus through a complete range of motion while minimizing involvement from the gastrocnemius.
Tibialis Anterior Raise
A less known muscle of the lower leg, the tibialis anterior acts as an antagonist to the calf muscles and helps pivot the ankle and point the foot upwards. In addition, the tibialis anterior raise can add strength to the front of the lower leg, adding stability to your knee and helping to improve your gait cycle (the way your feet move while walking).
This exercise is beneficial for physique-focused lifters, running enthusiasts, and even aging adults who want to maintain their ability to walk and balance later in life.
How to Do the Tibialis Anterior Raise
Stand with your back and shoulders against a wall. Walk your feet roughly six to 12-inches in front of your body. From this position, raise your toes toward your face and hold for a beat. Lower your feet flat on the ground and repeat.
The farther you walk your feet out in front of you, the more challenging it will become. Start close to the wall and increase the distance as you improve.
Benefits of the Tibialis Anterior Raise
Tibialis raises adds strength and conditioning to under-focused muscles of the shin, potentially helping to avoid shin splints.
The movement increases stability around your knees and ankles.
This helps to improve your gait cycle, which is especially important for aging adults.
Air bikes, like the Assault Bike or Airdyne, are cardio machines many gymgoers dread to see in their training program because they’re always used for high-intensity workouts. Although they’re mainly used for cardiovascular benefits, air bikes also help build size to your legs, especially the quadriceps.
This movement is a sure-fire way to light up your quadriceps, increase aerobic capacity, and push your lactate threshold (your body’s ability to handle accumulating metabolic waste and fatigue).
How to Do the Air Bike
Adjust the seat height to best fit your structure and sit down with both feet on the pedals with both hands grasping the handles. When the seat is at the proper height, there should be a slight bend in your knee at the bottom of each revolution.
Pedal and propel your arms back and forth in sync with your leg drive. Focus on pushing powerfully with your legs, not pulling with your arms.
Benefits of the Air Bike
Because the resistance is only determined by how hard you pedal, it can be performed for all ages and skill levels.
The air bike is a low-impact method for building leg size and improving cardiovascular health.
The Leg Muscles
The primary muscle groups in the legs include the quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, glutes, calves, and tibialis anterior.
Credit: Dragon Images / Shutterstock
Understanding their anatomy will help increase your body awareness, mind-muscle connection, and improve the overall effectiveness of your lifting and program design.
The quadriceps, also known as the quads, are located on the front of the thigh and are made up of four separate muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. They help extend and stabilize the knee, while also playing an essential role in hip stability because the muscles attach near the hip joint. (5)
The hamstrings are located on the back of the thigh and are made up of three separate divisions, the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris. This muscle plays a role in hip extension (keeping your lower body directly under your upper body), knee flexion (bending the knee), and knee stability because the muscles cross over the knee joint. (6)
The adductors are made up of several muscles spanning down the inside of the thigh. These muscles help adduct the leg (moving the thigh toward the body’s centerline) and help support the pelvis during many lower body movements. The adductor magnus, sometimes referred to as another hamstring muscle due to its location and function, also helps extend the hip. (7)
The glutes are a popular group of muscles including the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. These muscles help the hips extend, externally and internally rotate, and abduct (moving the thigh away from the body). (8) Strong glutes are often considered the foundation for a powerful lower body.
The calf muscles are made of two heads, the gastrocnemius and soleus. Both heads of the muscle work to flex the ankle to point the foot downwards. The soleus attaches beneath the knee, while the gastrocnemius crosses above it. This is allows the soleus to be emphasized during bent-leg exercises. The calf muscles also assist the hamstrings in knee flexion movements like the leg curl and play an essential role in stabilizing the knee. (9)(10)
The tibialis anterior is located on the front of the lower leg (shin). The primary function of this muscle is to point the foot upwards. The tibialis and calf muscles are comparable to the biceps and triceps because they’re positioned directly opposite one another and they perform similar movements depending on where the resistance is applied. Building up strength in this muscle can help create a more efficient gait cycle during walking or running. (11)
How Often Should You Train the Legs
To maximize leg growth, train your legs at least one to two times per week, depending on how many total days per week you will be in the gym. Due to the different muscle groups in the lower body, it’s essential to train the legs with a handful of exercises spanning many different rep ranges.
Credit: Shift Drive / Shutterstock
Each workout may include a different amount of training volume depending on your training split. Anywhere from 10 to 12 total sets per week is a great starting point for beginners. Advanced lifters can exceed 14 to 18 sets per week, especially if their goal is to emphasize a specific body part. Increased calf training, for example, is one popular approach.
Choose one to three exercises for each muscle group to achieve this total volume and divide the sets evenly across your training week. It’s a good idea to focus on training each primary joint function — knee flexion, knee extension, hip hinge, and squat — to ensure balanced development across the entire lower body.
How to Progress Your Leg Training
Since the legs are trained with a wide variety of exercises, it’s possible to steadily add weight to some exercises every week. For example, you can add more weight more quickly with two-legged, multi-joint (compound) exercises like the leg press or deadlift than with single-joint (isolation) exercises like the leg extension or with single-leg exercises like lunges.
Credit: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV / Shutterstock
If you find any exercises require more time to improve your technique, be sure to perform those movements towards the beginning of your workouts to avoid training them when fatigued. If you’re new to lifting, improving your technique in an exercise can lead to gains in strength and muscle size without necessarily adding reps or weight. Keep in mind whenever adding a new exercise into your routine, it will take your body a few weeks to get used to the new challenge and nail down the technique.
How to Warm-Up Your Legs
Effective ways to warm-up for any muscle group is with the exercises you are performing in that day’s training session. For example, if you’re performing back squats or deadlifts, warm-up by performing reps with light weight and raise the intensity (load lifted) as you proceed toward your working sets.
This ensures that the appropriate muscles and joints are being primed, reducing the risk of injury and improving your overall training performance.
If you need additional time to warm-up, include exercises that work the muscles surrounding the joints you’ll be working in that session. For a leg workout, that would include the ankle, knee, hip joints, and the lower back.
Building Up Your Legs
Designing an effective leg workout can be fairly straightforward. Choose one to three exercises for each region of the lower body and progress those exercises over time with varying rep ranges. This detailed list gives you plenty of options to choose from, and will keep your legs growing for years to come. Stop skipping leg day and get to work.
van Dyk, N., Behan, F. P., & Whiteley, R. (2019). Including the Nordic hamstring exercise in injury prevention programmes halves the rate of hamstring injuries: a systematic review and meta-analysis of 8459 athletes. British journal of sports medicine, 53(21), 1362–1370. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2018-100045
Möck, S., Hartmann, R., Wirth, K., Rosenkranz, G., & Mickel, C. (2018). Correlation of dynamic strength in the standing calf raise with sprinting performance in consecutive sections up to 30 meters. Research in sports medicine (Print), 26(4), 474–481. https://doi.org/10.1080/15438627.2018.1492397
Mokhtarzadeh, H., Yeow, C. H., Hong Goh, J. C., Oetomo, D., Malekipour, F., & Lee, P. V. (2013). Contributions of the soleus and gastrocnemius muscles to the anterior cruciate ligament loading during single-leg landing. Journal of biomechanics, 46(11), 1913–1920. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbiomech.2013.04.010
Bordoni B, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Thigh Quadriceps Muscle. [Updated 2021 Feb 7]. StatPearls Publishing; 2021.
Rodgers CD, Raja A. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Hamstring Muscle. [Updated 2020 Aug 13]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing; 2021.
Jeno SH, Schindler GS. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Thigh Adductor Magnus Muscles. [Updated 2020 Aug 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. StatPearls Publishing; 2021.
Elzanie A, Borger J. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Gluteus Maximus Muscle. [Updated 2022 Mar 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet].
Binstead JT, Munjal A, Varacallo M. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Calf. [Updated 2020 Aug 22]. StatPearls Publishing; 2021.
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. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtumed.2020.04.002
Juneja P, Hubbard JB. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Tibialis Anterior Muscles. [Updated 2021 Aug 13]. In: StatPearls [Internet].
Featured Image: Shift Drive / Shutterstock