LEG EXERCISES WILL be the bedrock of any successful strength training program. There's no getting around it, whether you dread lower body workouts or eagerly look forward to your time in the gym for the sessions dedicated to your lower half. Guys joke about the old saying being an immutable commandment for any self-respecting meathead—but there's nothing funny about the success you'll find if you follow through on it.
Your legs have some of the body's largest muscles that power the most important types of movements you can make. Yes, workouts focused on the lower body can be some of the toughest sessions you'll face on your path to peak physical condition, filled with exercises that push you to work to the full extent of your capabilities.
Even if you're not a true gym buff, you likely know that a typical leg day workout consists of exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges. But once you get beyond those tried-and-true cornerstones and you're looking to level up your fitness routine, you might be a bit less confident about the best leg exercises to include in your training plan. Which exercises will lead to be strongest leg muscles and the gains you're hoping to achieve?
Answering that question will depend on a few factors, like what your training goals are, your level of gym experience, and what equipment you have on hand. But it's also important that you understand exactly what you're working with—more specifically, the muscles in your legs you're looking to train and why you should be training them. The key muscles leg exercises will target are the big ones: the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and and calves. There are other, smaller support muscles, but the most useful and common leg day moves will hit these large ones. In tandem, they're responsible for the movements you make.
This is why it's important to have variety in your leg training and to build the legs from a holistic point of view. Simply going through the motions and doing the same exact movement pattern day-in and day-out are selling your legs short for what they're capable of doing.
Simply put, if your workout routine doesn't include exercises focused on your leg muscles, you're wasting your time. There are countless benefits to training your legs, from achieving athletic goals (being able to run faster and farther, jump higher, etc.), meeting aesthetic ideals (who wants stick-skinny legs?), to simply living better as you train the muscles that enable you to stand up, walk around, and more. Your leg muscles are among the biggest in your body, so ignoring them is ignoring half of yourself.
We're covering a variety of leg exercises that range from single-joint to , and we've also added multiple regressions and progressions for the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Compound lifts (a.k.a. multi-joint exercises, think squats and deadlifts) are important, and will be the big lifts that center your workouts. Single-joint exercises are important, too—these allow you to home in on a single muscle for more targeted training. We did this so you can break out of your norm and select leg exercises that align with your training goals.
On top of the regressions and progressions provided here, we've also included some exercises to help you break out of the sagittal plane of motion, which includes forward-to-backward movements (think squats, etc.). Far too often, we limit our leg days to this sagittal plane, keeping our feet planted, and in doing, we're selling our leg growth short.
For balanced leg training, you should be mixing up implements, (which means adding side-to-side movement in the frontal plane and rotational movement in the transverse plane), and yes, even sprinkling in some isolation exercises from time to time.
Our advice for building leg muscle is to build a plan, stick to it for a set period, and track variables that align with your goals. Then, add in leg exercise variations based on the feedback you get from following your program. Happy training!
Why: This is a great leg move that can go anywhere with you, and it’s trickier than you may think. Most people make the mistake of thinking squatting is about your knees and don’t sit back as much as they should. Learn to sit back and you’ll attack your glutes and hamstrings more. Bodyweight squats level up more than you think, too: Add a pause or pulse in somewhere, and you’re creating challenge without necessarily adding weight.
How to Do It:Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, squeezing your shoulders and core to create tension.Push your butt back, then lower down, bending your knees. Descend to just below the point where your thighs are parallel to the ground, or however deep you feel comfortable.Press off the ground to stand up, squeezing your glutes to drive your hips forward.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 30 seconds
Why: Sure, there are other variations of this exercise out there (more on that shortly)—but when you say the word "squat" to just about any lifter, they're probably going to assume you're talking about this one. The back squat is a classic for a reason: there are few better, simpler ways to train the major muscle groups of your legs. The exercise is also an entry point to other variations, so it helps to get the OG form down pat.
How to Do It:Approach the barbell on the rack, gripping the bar with both hands. Lower yourself slightly, then pull yourself up into position, creating tension in your mid-back, with the bar on your back below your neck. Stand up to lift the weight, then step back to get into position. Your feet should be just wider shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointed slightly out (this will vary depending on your anatomy; you'll find your ideal squat position through practice).Take a deep breath, engage your core then push your butt back and lower down into the squat. Lower down until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as close as you can get; work with lighter weight if that's keeping you from depth).Push off the floor to power up, squeezing your glutes at the top.
Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Why: As we previously stated, there are a variety of barbell squat variations. Few, if any, will give you more bang for your buck than the front squat. The front-loaded nature of the move is going to push you to develop shoulder, ankle and hip mobility, and here’s the best part of all: Your entire core has to be firing the entire time to protect your spine and make the move possible. It’s an ab workout wrapped in a leg workout.
How to Do It:Approach the barbell on the rack. You'll either take a clean grip (grasping the bar, pulling yourself up and in under the bar to rest it across your shoulders with your wrists flexed) or a powerlifter grip (resting the bar across your shoulders and crossing your arms to support it with your hands).Stand up to lift the weight, then step back to get into position. Your feet should be just wider shoulder-width apart, with your toes pointed slightly out (this will vary depending on your anatomy; you'll find your ideal squat position through practice).Take a deep breath, engage your core then push your butt back and lower down into the squat. Lower down until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or as close as you can get; work with lighter weight if that's keeping you from depth). You'll need even more core engagement than a back squat, so remember to keep engagement. Push off the floor to power up, squeezing your glutes at the top.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Why: Consider this the king of all posterior chain-focused exercises, and a great way to pack muscle onto your entire body. Whether you’re doing it sumo style or conventionally, you’ll be hammering your core, training your back and your forearms more than you think, and, most importantly, you’ll be challenging your hamstrings and glutes with serious load. This is destined to be your strongest lift in the gym.
How to Do It:Stand in front of the loaded barbell with your feet about shoulder-width apart (this might vary by your anatomy and personal preference with experience). Your feet should be under the bar, with your shins touching it (or close to it).Push your butt back and hinge at the waist to bend down to grab the bar on either side of your legs. Grasp it in both hands using an overhand grip.Make sure your hips are lower than your shoulders. Squeeze your shoulder blades together to set your lats, then engage your core. Keep your neck in a neutral position; don't look up.Push your feet through the floor and pull the weight up, keeping the bar close to your body. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the lift.
Why: Yes, we love the standard barbell variation of the deadlift—but for some people, the trap bar might actually be a much better pick. The weight is no longer in front of you (as it is with the barbell) and you can use a neutral grip. That’s a much more natural motion, and will be better for people whose anatomy isn’t ideal for barbell work.
How to Do It:Position yourself inside the trap bar, with your shins aligned with (or just in front of) the center of the bar.Push your butt back as far as possible, bend your knees, and reach down to grip the handles. Grip as tightly as possible.Keep your head in a neutral position, keeping your gazed fixed at something in front of you. Squeeze your shoulder blades to create tension, and turn the pits of your elbows forward, facing out.Make sure your hips are lower than your shoulders, then prepare to initiate the lift.Push your feet through the floor to stand straight up, squeezing your glutes at the top.To finish the rep, push your butt back as far as you can, then bend your knees to set the weight down.
Sets and Reps: 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Why: First off, it’s fun to swing a weight around. Secondly, when you do it with a good-form kettlebell swing, you’re hammering your core, driving your heart rate through the roof —and piling size, strength, and power into your hamstrings and glutes. A well-done kettlebell swing builds serious lower-body explosiveness, and the oomph you get from it translates beyond the weight room, too, adding to your vertical leap, broad jump, and other more athletic moves. This one’s a must-have in your leg day library.
How to Do It:Stand with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart, with the kettlebell on the floor slightly in front of you. Hinge at the waist to bend over to grasp the handle with both hands. Turn your armpits forward and activate your lats to create tension. 'Hike' the bell back between your legs, then stand up hard, driving your hips forward and squeezing your glutes to swing the weight up. Don't try to use your arms to power the movement; think of them as ropes attached to the bell. Only swing as high as the momentum of your hip drive carries the weight. Allow the weight to come back down between your legs so you can shift into the next swing.
Sets and Reps: 4 sets of 10 to 12 reps
Why: That’s right: We’re not falling in love with the stationary lunge too early. The walking variation is superior due to the fact that the trail leg can “step through” to the next rep. That trains the glutes more effectively and keeps the lift more dynamic in nature. On top of this, the knees take less stress forces due to less need to constantly start and stop or change direction. Start by learning basic lunge mechanics, which you can do right here.
How to Do It:Stand in an athletic stance with your feet shoulder-width apart. Squeeze your glutes, core, and shoulders to create full-body tension. Step forward and slight out with one leg, landing heel first. At the same time, bend your knees at 90-degree angles and squeeze your glutes. Keep your chest high.Drive off the ground using your front heel to step forward (or back into the starting position, if you're not progressing forward).Add a load using whichever implement or grip you prefer.
Sets and Reps: 4 rounds of 10 reps per side
Why: Remember all that talk about the planes of motion? This lunge variation breaks from the sagittal plane for front-to-back movement and challenges you in the frontal plane for side-to-side movement.
How to Do It:Start standing, holding a kettlebell or dumbbell at your chest, core tight.Step to the right a few feet with your right leg, taking a relatively large step.Land. Keeping your left leg straight, bend your right knee and push your butt back, lowering slowly. Lower as far as you can comfortably, aiming to get thigh parallel to the ground. Then explosively drive up and to the left, driving back to a standing position.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 6 to 8 reps per set
Why: Consider this move your ultimate squat tutor. If you’re struggling to achieve good squat depth or keep your torso in the proper upright position, doing goblet squats is a perfect way to solve those issues. You’ll learn good mechanics, and start to understand your ideal body position for a squat. One more secret, too: Holding that heavy weight high in a goblet squat will fire up your core a ton too.
Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Why: Few exercises build leg strength while simultaneously challenge your balance and your leg mobility as much as Bulgarian split squats. Elevating your rear foot onto a box or bench instantly creates a challenging stretch for your quads and hip flexors on your back leg, and it places more of a balance challenge on both your front leg and your hips. It’s a great way to build mobility toward a deeper squat. Overall, you’ll smoke your quads and glutes while also sparing yourself unwanted back pain.
How to Do It:Start on the floor in front of the bench. Place one foot up onto the bench, then get into a position where your front foot is planted on the floor with a vertical shin (in relation to the ground). Your thigh should be parallel to the ground, forming a 90 degree angle at the knee.Grab the weights off the floor. Tighten your core and drive your ribcage in. Keep your neck neutral, looking straight ahead. Squeeze your shoulder blades to create tension.Stand up, hinging forward slightly to avoid overextending your back.Lower yourself down, working to keep your shin in that vertical position. Don't allow your back knee to hit the ground; stop an inch from the floor if you can.Squeeze your glutes hard to keep your knee in the proper position, then press your front foot off the floor to drive up.
Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps per side
Why: Sure, you want to ostracize this movement as being “not functional enough”, consider the tremendous benefits. First, it’s a great way to hit the quads with plenty more isolation than most squat variations can deliver. More importantly, it’s a joint-saving lift for lifters with their share of battle scars (think back, hip, and knee issues. Should the leg press be the backbone of your workout? Should you load it up with titanic amounts of weight and ego-lift? No. But don’t run away from the machine, either.
How to Do It:Press through the sled with your feet, maintaining tension in your torso. Release the sled from the safety lock, then control the weight down.Watch your knees as you lower the weight, making sure you don't allow them to cave in or track excessively outward.Lower down as far as you can, maintaining upper body tension with your back flush against the pad. Don't allow your butt to raise off the seat; if you shift you've gone too deep.Press through the pad with both feet to raise the wait back up, extending your knees.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 15 to 20 reps
Why: This is a prime hamstring builder, using free weights that you can really load up. It’s as simple as that. Perhaps the best part of the Romanian deadlift is how it prioritizes a controlled negative (or eccentric) contraction, a changeup from most leg moves (and exercises in general sometimes), which push you to focus only on lifting the weight and never challenge you as you lower the same weight.
How to Do It:Stand up with your feet at or just wider than shoulder-width apart, holding a loaded barbell. Squeeze your shoulder blades and engage your core to create tension. Push your butt back and hinge at the hips, lowering the weight down. Keep your back straight and the bar close to your body.Lower until you feel the stretch in your hamstrings. Pause briefly, then squeeze your glutes to stand back up. Don't overextend the spine when you stand back up.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
Your hamstrings deserve love too, and this exercise will give it to them. You'll also give your glutes some attention, too. The key here is bracing with your core, owning your hip hinge, and keeping your back from rounding. Make sure that you work your way up with the load—think about pushing your butt back, rather than folding at the hips.
How to Do It:Stand with the barbell resting on your shoulders, with your feet at or just wider than shoulder-width apart. Squeeze your shoulder blades and brace your core to create tension. Push your butt back, hinging forward to lower your torso down to the floor. Keep your core tight, your spine neutral, and your legs straight (but don't lock out your knees). Do not allow your back to round; work with lighter weight if you can't control your descent.Squeeze your glutes to raise back up to the starting position.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 5 to 8 reps
Why: Lunging backward rather than forwards stabilizes the front knee. You also get to focus on the all-important posterior chain, which includes your glutes and hamstrings, instead of relying so much on your quads and hips. But a reverse lunge gets even more intense once you add a deficit by standing on a plate or a slight platform. Now, you’re leading leg and glute work even harder to drive back onto the box, but it still all happens in a safe way.
How to Do It:Start with both feet up on the platform.Lift one foot up and off the platform, stepping back behind you into a rear lunge.Allow the back knee to come as close to the floor as possible. When it comes to this move, one of the most common mistakes is cutting the depth of your back leg. If you’re stopping the movement at 90 degrees, you’re defeating the purpose of adding the elevation. Drop as low as possible, you should be nearly touching the floor to get that hip stretch this move was intended for.Squeeze your glutes and drive at the top. You want to each rep to be powerful, so drive with power. Each rep, think about standing with power as you squeeze your glutes and drive with your hips.
Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 10 reps
This is a great way to bear plenty of load to challenge the glutes and hamstrings, without having to fear excessive low back or spinal stress. Since the force angle is horizontal and not vertical relative to the body, this is a tool for both healthy lifters, and those on the mend from a back flare-up. Even better, you can do hip thrusts more frequently than some other leg exercises, since your upper body doesn’t have to bear as much strain. This one’s a glute-developing go-to.
How to Do It:Start with a barbell and bench to set up. Get down on the ground, with your back facing the bench. Place your shoulder blades against the bench. Keep your gaze neutral.Lift your hips up to find the proper position for your feet. Your shins should be parallel with the floor, with your feet about hip-width apart.Roll the bar up to your hips just above your pelvis (for comfort, use a pad on the bar if possible). Grasp the bar with a tight overhand grip.Drive the weight up, squeezing your glutes as much as possible. Open your knees up as you drive to help protect your knees. Pause at the top, emphasizing the contraction.Lower back down to the start.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps
Why: Think of the glute bridge as a variation on the hip thrust that requires only a load (think barbell or resistance band) and floor space. You’re hitting the glutes from a slightly different angle compared to hip thrusts, and involves a shorter range of motion that’s even more isolated to the glutes. Plus you don’t have to fidget around with a bench to find the best position. If you’re struggling to learn hip thrusts, step down to this and enjoy it. Bonus: You can do it anywhere, even in your living room if you’re just using bodyweight.
How to Do It:Lie flat on the floor, with your knees bent and your heels driving into the floor. Squeeze your glutes to drive your hips straight up. Hold for a count, still squeezing your glutes.Lower back down to the floor under control.
Sets and Reps: 3 to 4 sets of 10 to 12 reps
Why: The classic step up, when actually done with good form, is a hidden weapon for knee health, hip and glute strengthening, and unilateral stability. The key is stepping up with good form, keeping your glutes tight, and your knees turned out, not in. Do so, and you’re blending strength, flexibility, and balance into one move — and a worthwhile move no matter whether you’re a bodybuilder, CrossFitter, or general strength enthusiast.
How to Do It:Stand in front of a box, bench, or step. Place one foot firmly on the surface, keeping a vertical shin.Drive off the front (elevated) foot to raise yourself up, extending your hips. Don't use the rear leg. Squeeze your front glutes and hold for a count. Lower back down slowly.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 5 to 7 reps per side
Why: If you want to be an athlete, you have to be strong not only when operating on two legs but also when operating on one. And few leg exercises will challenge you on one leg quite like the single-leg deadlift. You’ll hone balance, and coordination on this one, and you’ll build more core strength than you think as you work to stay in balance and keep your hips square on every single rep.
How to Do It:Stand holding a pair of dumbbells with your feet slightly staggered. Squeeze your shoulders and core to create tension. Raise the rear foot off the floor. Push your butt back then hinge at the hips to lower the weights down. You can maintain a slight bend in the knee. Rather then kicking back with the rear leg, keep your rear foot close to your planted leg.Descend down until you feel a stretch in your hamstring or rounding in your lower back. Pause for a count, holding your balance. Work to avoid dropping your rear foot. Drive back up and squeeze your glutes to bring your hips into extension.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps per side
Why: Strength is important, but so is power and explosiveness. The jump squat gives you an opportunity to hone these important athletic characteristics without raising the degree of difficulty too much for beginners.
How to Do It:Start standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Push your butt back and bend your knees to descend down into a squat, lowering to a point above parallel, with your butt above your knees. Your arms should be straight and held just behind your torso.Explode off the ground to jump straight up with power. Press your feet off the floor and shoot your arms up above your head to help drive the movement. Land under control, bending your knees to reset back into the starting position.
Sets and Reps: 3 sets of 20 seconds on, 40 seconds off
Why: When is a sprint not merely a sprint? When you’re trying to sprint uphill. Whether you’re doing that on a treadmill or on an actual hill, you’ll be hammering your glutes and quads, and you’ll naturally be honing better sprint form, simply because of the challenge of the angle of the hill. Make sure you sprint for no more than 20 seconds at a time, though (with solid rest in between). Go much longer than that, and you’re basically just running uphill instead of actually sprinting.
How to Do It:Find a hill. Run up it as fast as you can. Walk back down slowly for rest between reps.
Sets and Reps: 4 to 6 sets of 20 seconds