A strong lower body is essential to so many everyday functional movements. Your lower body strength allows you to live your life. Moves as simple as climbing steps or squatting to pick up something require strength and stabilization—you guessed it!—your legs.
Plus, leg workouts naturally engage other muscles in the process. For example, consider a squat. You’ll engage your glutes, quads, and core all in one move. Training large or multiple muscle groups increases your heart rate and, as a result, you combine strength and cardiovascular movements. That is a bang for a metabolic buck.
The Leg Muscles
The glutes are vital for hip stability and strength during walking, jumping, sprinting, and strength training. The gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus help the hip extend, externally and internally rotate, and abduct (moving the thigh away from the body). Strong and functional glutes can help alleviate lower back pain and make everyday movements, such as standing, walking, and climbing the stairs, much easier.
The muscles of the inner thigh, known as the adductors, adduct the thigh (moving thigh toward the body) and act as essential stabilizers of the pelvis during any movements. Less known, the adductor magnus (the largest muscle in this group and sometimes referred to as the “mini hamstrings”) is a powerful hip extensor that contributes to movements like the back Squat and Romanian deadlift.
The hamstrings attach to the pelvis and run down the back of the leg. These critical muscles play a prominent role in hip extension, knee flexion, extension, and knee stability. If you’re training the lower body, they are involved in one way or another, even if you are not dynamically flexing and extending at the hip or knee.
The calf muscles flex the foot and ankle, notably the gastrocnemius and soleus. Functionally, the calf muscle assists in knee flexion in movements like the leg curl and is essential in stabilizing the knee during loaded carries and sled pushes.
The quadriceps made up of rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius, flex and stabilize the knee and play a role in hip stability. During walking exercises like the farmer’s carry and prowler push, the quadriceps work double-time to help stabilize the hips while extending the knee during the carrying stage.
The Benefits of Training Your Legs
There are plenty of reasons to train your legs: Leg training improves one’s ability to explode; leg exercises burn more calories; leg muscle is aesthetic, and all the movements on this list will help you move better overall. Here, we’ll dig deeper into why one shouldn’t skip leg days.
You’ll Become More Powerful
Almost every full-body movement starts from the ground up — sprinting, jumping, and even throwing a punch. So it’s reasonable to surmise that strengthening your legs will build baseline strength that can holistically affect power.
You’ll Burn More Calories
Many factors are in play when determining how many calories a person burns per exercise, like their weight, height, body fat percentage, how hard they work, etc. It turns out that which exercise you choose matters, too.
You’ll Be More Symmetrical
If you don’t train your legs, they won’t grow, and then, what? Will you be the one with big ol’ biceps and sick-looking chicken legs? Even if you never plan to compete in a bodybuilding show, there’s an aesthetic benefit to having muscular legs to go along with your chest, back, and shoulders. Let’s be honest; feeling great is fantastic, but we all want to look good too.
Leg Training Can Improve Your Ability to Move
Aside from moving more quickly and powerfully, training your legs can improve your everyday mobility. Any time you bend over to pick something up, you’re hinging at the hips. If you get up and down from a chair, you’re squatting.
Over time, the squats, lunges, and deadlifts you perform in the gym will make you stronger and more proficient at your daily movements. This is especially true as we age. The older one gets, the weaker one can become and, as a result, less coordinated and mobile.
An analysis of studies on PubMed that explored the effects of strength training in the elderly concluded that strength training in the senior population could reduce sarcopenia (or muscle loss) and retain motor function.
The Best Leg Exercises
1. Back Squat
The Back Squat — often referred to as the king of lower body exercises — is a compound exercise that challenges every muscle in the legs. It also requires muscles in the upper body to stabilize the load and protect the spine — making it one of the most effective full-body exercises you can do. The back Squat leads to strength and muscle gain and reinforces movement patterns we engage in daily, awarding it the triple crown when choosing an ideal exercise.
Benefits of the Back Squat
- The back squat allows for more loading compared to many other leg movements.
- The back Squat recruits the core and strengthens your postural muscles.
- This exercise leads to a gain in functional strength, allowing lifters of all ages to reap the benefits.
How to Do the Back Squat
Set a barbell in a power rack to shoulder height, loaded with appropriate weight. Get under the barbell, set the bar across your upper traps, or set the bar across your shoulder blades if you’re performing low-bar squats. Brace your core and lift the weight out of the rack.
Take small steps back, one foot at a time to get yourself into position. With your chest up, squat down until the bottoms of your thighs parallel the floor. Now, drive back up by pushing your feet through the floor.
2. Front Squat
The front Squat can be an excellent substitute for the traditional back squat. If you find that the barbell back Squat aggravates your lower back or you have a shoulder injury, this front squat variation may suit you instead.
Because you hold the barbell in front of you, this Squat variation challenges the upper back and torso muscles — shifting the load from the back to the front. This also requires more thoracic stability and forces the lifter to be upright, better for core recruitment and posture.
Benefits of the Front Squat
- The front Squat can be more comfortable on the back for some lifters than a back squat, as the weight is loaded in front of the body.
- The front-loaded position recruits more of your core and strengthens your upper back muscles to help improve your posture, too.
- This move does not allow lifters to load the exercise too heavily, improving their ability to focus on proper technique.
How to Do the Front Squat
Set a barbell in a power rack to shoulder height, loaded with an appropriate weight. Extend your arms directly before you so your hands touch the bar. Place your middle three fingers on the bar, then drive your palms up.
Bring your elbows underneath the bar so that they’re pointing straight forward. The bar should be resting across your upper chest. For lifters who lack the mobility to get into this position, another alternative starting position is to rest the bar on your collarbone (Pickup a foam collar to protect your collarbone if this position is uncomfortable) and cross your arms, so they’re touching the opposite shoulder. This position is called the genie rack position.
Step back so the bar is out of the rack, and keep your elbows pointing forward. With your chest up, squat down until the bottoms of your thighs are parallel to the floor, and drive through the floor with your feet to the top.
3. Reverse Lunge
Like any lunge, the reverse Lunge is a unilateral exercise that works one side of the body at a time. This alone is useful as it allows the target muscles of your body to catch up to one another if the right or left side is dominant.
The reverse Lunge is also more stable than the forward or walking Lunge, as you’re not being thrown off balance by forward momentum. Instead, the reverse Lunge is generally a more controlled move. The stability of this Lunge makes it great for both beginners and advanced trainees who want to add weight to the movement. Most beginners have an easier time loading a reverse lunge.
Benefits of the Reverse Lunge
- It’s easier to control than other lunge variations, making it beginner-friendly.
- You’ll work one side of the body simultaneously, allowing lagging muscles to play catch up.
- Advanced lifters can load up this lunge variation more safely than others as it’s stable.
How to Do the Reverse Lunge
Stand with your feet together, and keep your hands at your sides or on your hips. Take a step back with one leg until it’s behind you and your knee is an inch or so above the floor. Your front leg should bend at a 90-degree angle as well. Keep your chest up and facing forward. Now, drive through the balls of your front foot and stand back up with control.
4. Seated Leg Curl
This seated leg curl variation is a great way to challenge the hamstrings and calves. The pad on the machine helps create external stability — increasing stabilization of the pelvis — making it an excellent option for beginners.
The increased stability allows for lower rep sets with a lot of weight. It’s also viable for higher rep sets that are taken deep into fatigue.
Benefits of the Seated Leg Curl
- It creates a safe environment for beginners to accumulate volume on the hamstrings.
- Increased stability allows for sets to be taken deeper into fatigue while maintaining form.
- Challenges the hamstrings in a stretched position (hip flexion and knee extension).
- Trains the calves in their role of knee flexion.
How to Do the Seated Leg Curl
Adjust the back pad on the machine and line your knee up with the axis of rotation (signified by a dot or marker on the machine). Adjust the thigh pad to touch just above the knee.
The lower leg pad should be just above the shoe on the back of the leg. Start the movement by flexing the knee. Continue the repetition until you reach the end position. Ensure your ankle is in dorsiflexion — toes pointed straight ahead or slightly up. Control the weight as you return to the starting position.
Common Questions About Leg Workouts
- How many sets and reps should you do in your leg workout? Your reps, sets, and rest times vary based on your fitness goals. If your goal is building strength and power, do 2-5 reps and 2-5 sets. If your goal is building specifically in size, aim for 6-12 reps and 3-5 sets. If your goal is muscular endurance and cardiovascular health, increase to 12+ reps with 2-3 sets.
- How many times per week should you work your legs? When you’re starting, two sessions per week is a good target. As you progress, you can train your legs two to four times each week on non-consecutive days. Leg days help you build/maintain strength, but training them too frequently can be counterproductive.
- How should you warm up for leg workouts? Warm-up moves are critical for a good training session. Warming up your lower body loosens the joints and increases blood flow to your muscles. Not only does this help you perform better, but it will also aid in injury prevention.
- How should you cool down properly? For your cool down, it is important to allow your body to recover gradually to return your heart rate and blood pressure to its pre-exercise level. It also helps regulate your blood flow, which aids in proper recovery and helps lower the presence of muscle soreness. Jumping jacks, good mornings, and glute bridges are good warm-up exercises.
- What is the most effective leg exercise? Look for multi-joint or compound exercises. These work several different muscles simultaneously to build muscle strength and size efficiently. Hip thrusts, dumbbell step-ups, and Romanian deadlifts are also great options.