Other than Monday being international chest day, another unwritten rule of the gym is to “never skip leg day”. Too often you see men who devote considerable time to working out their upper body, building up a chest of huge proportions, only for their legs to fall foul of the same dedication. The result is a figure that looks completely out of proportion, and leaves onlookers bemused as to how such a tiny set of pins could support such a huge upper half.
The only remedy for chicken legs, matchsticks, or whatever else you want to call them is to spend an entire gym session focusing on the legs and the lower body. Fortunately, there are numerous leg exercises and leg workouts you can perform that will see your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and even calves becoming big in no time at all.
You might not be able to walk properly for a few days after completing each leg workout session, but once you start building a serious set of thighs and filling out your jeans, you’ll soon feel the compromises are completely worth it.
So, what exactly are the best leg exercises you can add into your routine? And why are the leg muscles so important anyway? Allow us to explain.
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What Muscles Are In The Legs?
The legs are made up of various muscle groups, each containing their own sets of muscles. The most well-known are the quadriceps: a group of four muscles found on the front of the upper leg. Some of the strongest muscles in your entire body, they serve to straighten and extend your leg.
You also have the hamstrings on the rear of the upper leg, which are made up of three main muscles. The hamstrings work to bend and flex your knee.
You then have the calf muscle – also known as the soleus – the gastrocnemius, and the plantaris. When you perform leg workouts, you also work the gluteal muscles – glutes – at the same time. These are your buttocks, and ultimately, nobody wants a flat rear end, so it’s important to target them too.
Safe to say, there are plenty of muscles to be worked out, then. Fortunately, there are plenty of leg exercises you can perform as part of a complete leg day routine, that will turn your matchsticks into certified tree trunks.
Best Leg Workouts
Barbell Front Squat
The barbell front squat is a serious leg muscle builder, particularly for the quads. While you will find it harder to squat the same amount of weight as you would with a back squat, it can be considered a safer movement because of the way you have to position your body in order to perform it effectively.
Getting that form right can be a little difficult at first, particularly if you have tight lats, as you need to move your arms under the bar, with the aim to have your elbows at right angles and parallel to the floor.
How to perform: Start with the barbell at around mid-chest height on the squat rack. Approach the bar as you would with a back squat: stand with your feet shoulder width-apart and hands placed just wider than that. Twist your arms under the bar so that it is resting in your fingertips, with your elbows pointing forwards. The bar should rest on your shoulders, and your fingertips are there to just keep it in place.
If you find it difficult to get into this position, you may need to stretch out your lats, which you can do so by performing dead hangs or some resistance band lat stretches. You can also stretch your wrists by getting onto all fours, with your hands flat on the floor, and rocking forwards and backwards.
With the bar resting on your shoulders, tuck your pelvis in, brace your core, take a deep breath in and squat down. Imagine you’re sitting down on a chair, to help prevent your knees from going too far over your toes. Ensure your knees push out as you squat down. You want to get as deep as possible to put as much tension on your quads and flutes as you can. Power back up and exhale at the top of the movement.
Sets: 4 sets with a decreased number of reps per set – 8,7,6,5
Tempo: 3 seconds down, 2 seconds up
Bulgarian Split Squat
You’ll find that most leg exercises are going to involve some form of squat. Squatting down either with added weight or with your feet and/or legs in some sort of different position is going to work your leg muscles like you never thought possible and leave them shaking after.
One of the absolute best leg workouts – and mainstay in any solid leg day program – is the Bulgarian split squat. It’s a single leg variation of the classic squat, which piles far greater pressure on the active leg, thus increasing the muscle growth. It also requires your balancing skills to be placed further under the microscope, so your core stands to benefit too.
When you consider so many everyday movements require a single leg to be used – such as running, jumping and even walking – targeting individual leg muscles using movements such as the Bulgarian split will be incredibly beneficial.
How to perform: The key to performing the Bulgarian split squat is to have the rear foot elevated. The easiest piece of equipment you can use is a weights bench, but as long as whatever platform or step your rest your rear foot on is around knee height, you’re good to go.
Now get into a similar position as a forward lunge: your leading single leg a few steps out in front of you. Keeping your torso upright, pelvis ticked and core braced, squat down until the thigh of your leading leg is parallel to the ground.
Drive back up through the heel of the leading leg back to your starting position to complete one rep.
Start using just your bodyweight before adding a dumbbell in each hand or a barbell for extra weight.
Sets: 4 sets with 8 to 10 reps per set
Tempo: Slow and controlled. 3 seconds down, 2 seconds up.
For some squat movements, you want to avoid the knee going over the toes, but with the Bulgarian split, the positioning of your knee can determine which muscle group you target the most. The more your knee goes towards your toes, or even goes over it, the more quad you’ll use.
The more you’re able to keep your knee at a 90 degree angle, or slightly under right angle, you’ll engage the hamstrings and glutes more. If you feel any sort of pain or twinge in your back when you perform the squat, lean forward slightly to reduce some of the pressure put on it.
The original deadlift may be the daddy of all workout exercises, working pretty much every major muscle in your body in one go. But while the deadlift does provide some benefit for your legs, if you really want to torch your hamstrings, you need to be performing the Romanian deadlift.
This isn’t a substitute for the deadlift, but should be performed in addition to it as part of leg day, as it doesn’t require the weight to be heavy for it to be effective. Take note of that last sentence: you shouldn’t attempt to perform the Romanian deadlift with the same weight you would a deadlift, at least not to begin with. You’ll risk injuring your hamstrings.
How to perform: Equip yourself with a barbell – you can elect to start with it on the floor, or hold it first and then adjust your positioning – and set yourself up as you would a conventional deadlift: feet shoulder width apart and underneath the bar, with hands grasping it slightly wider than shoulder width with an overhand grip.
With the bar hanging down in front of you, slowly lower it down, keeping it close to your body. Slightly bend your knees at the same time and hinge at the waist, keeping the back straight and allowing the barbell to drop lower. Keep going until the barbell has gone just beyond your knees, hold for a second to feel the tension in your hamstrings, and drive back up to return to the starting position.
Sets: 4 sets with 8 to 10 reps per set
Tempo: 3 seconds down, 2 seconds up
The goblet squat is a serious quad killer, and a leg day exercise that can help to further improve your technique in the heavier-lift movements such as the deadlift and back squat. You can keep the weight quite light whilst still being effective, and as long as you have a weight you can hold close to your chest comfortably, you can perform it wherever you want.
How to perform: The easiest way to perform a goblet squat is to have either a kettlebell or a dumbbell. Whichever you use, hold it to your chest using both hands and stand with your feet wider than hip width apart.
Squat down, keeping your torso upright and your elbows inside your knee line. This is where goblet squats show their effectiveness, because having the weight in front of you will naturally cause you to want to fall forwards.
But keeping your torso upright, your thighs at 90 degree right angles and your knees pushed outwards as you squat down, you’ll find your form will improve dramatically. You should feel the burn predominantly in your quads, but your hamstrings and glutes will also get a serious workout too.
You can add in a slight heel elevation by way of a weight plate or step to place extra emphasis on the the quads.
Sets: 4 sets with 12 to 15 reps per set
Tempo: 2 seconds down, 1 second up
Walking lunges are an incredibly effective – and easy – leg exercise. And because you can perform them without any additional weight – although naturally, adding in a pair of dumbbells will increase the effort required – you can perform them during your lunch break, when out walking the dog, or pretty much wherever you want.
Lunges are an incredible exercise because they target pretty much every major muscle in your lower body. Think quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves, while the walking aspect of the movement brings your core into play, as it will be working overtime to keep your upper body upright and balanced during the exercise.
How to perform: You’ll need a good amount of space to perform the walking lunge, so make sure you have a walkway without any obstacles in the way. You’re going to want enough space to perform at least 10 full strides.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart, pelvis tucked and core engaged. Take a big stride forward using with your right leg and bend your knees to lower your body down until both knees are at a 90 degree angle and the front thigh is parallel to the ground.
Now, push up from the left foot at the rear and immediately step into another lunge, performing the same sequence as before. If you’re new to walking lunges, you can bring yourself to a standing position first, before stepping into the next lunge.
However, walking directly into each lunge will place extra effort on your leg and core muscles, as they won’t get adequate time to recover before being used again.
Sets: 3 sets with 10 reps per leg per set
Tempo: Slow, continuous walking pace
There is some debate within the fitness industry as to whether the deadlift can be considered a leg exercise, or if it slots more neatly into a back-day workout. Ultimately, it’s one of the absolute best weightlifting exercises you can do, since it works pretty much every single muscle in your body. And, since it’s your legs that are used to physically lift the weight off the ground – and the deadlift helps to target your glutes more than the squat – we feel they can very much be a part of a well-rounded leg-day routine.
How to perform: Start with a barbell on the floor, with some plate weights on either end. If you’re new to the deadlift, you’ll definitely want to start light, and perfect the form, before increasing the weight. You can also incorporate what is known as a ‘block pull’, which sees you elevating the bar by placing it on some blocks, or using some plate weights laid out on the ground. This reduces the distance from which you need to lift from, thereby reducing some of the strain.
With your bar set, grab hold of with an overhand grip and with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Position your feet underneath the bar so that it is close to your ankles. Get into a squat position, keep your chest up, lock down your shoulder blades and look forward.
Now it’s time to lift. Push up through your heels and lift the bar, keeping it close to your legs at all times. You’re not pulling with your arms, instead, they’re just being used to ensure the bar is stable and your core and back are activated to keep your upper body tense.
Once you’re standing up straight and the bar is around thigh-level, slowly bring the bar back down to the floor. Before you attempt the next rep, ensure you’re back into the correct positioning – it’s common for your shoulder to slouch forwards, so make sure they’re locked out again before lifting.
One thing to note, is to make sure you don’t perform squats and deadlifts on the same day, and ideally, keep them a few days apart. You could, therefore, use squats in your leg day program and deadlifts in your back, or squats as part of a full body program and deadlifts on leg day.
Sets: 3 to 4 sets with 4 to 6 reps per set
Tempo: 1 to 2 seconds up (it’s good if you use some explosive force), 2 seconds down