As you would probably agree with me, leg days are killers. I have a love and hate relationship with leg days. I do enjoy the amazing feeling I have after my session, but I feel like dying during the session. There are so many effective and amazing lower body exercises that can help us develop muscles and strength in legs and glutes.
I have here more than 10 best exercises that you definitely need in your leg day session. Well, not all of them in one session, but you need to give them a go once in a while.
First, let’s have a look at the basic anatomy of legs.
I do not want to overcomplicate this so I would like to concentrate just on basic muscle groups on our lower body.
If we take it from our hips to our feet, the muscle groups are as follows:
Obviously, with different exercises, we target different muscles. Sometimes even just with slightly different positions of our feet, we can target different muscles even though we are performing the same movement.
Training legs is hard. As you can see, legs are large muscle groups, so it is absolutely normal to feel exhausted and shattered after your training. Just make sure you are eating and drinking enough during the day and take some time for active recovery. Get enough sleep at night and allow your muscles to recover. If you will do that consistently, you will be surprised how you can improve during training and with the results, you will soon start seeing.
So, let’s have a look at some great exercises.
1. Squat variants
No, I could not start with any other exercise than SQUATS. There are SO MANY squats variants you can do. If you are a beginner, please ensure you are performing the squat with the correct technique. If you learn the correct technique at the very beginning and will get comfortable and familiar with the movement, you will save yourself so much time in the future.
Squats are extremely effective on almost all muscle groups on your legs. You are working on quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes. You can also engage adductors when performing deep sumo squat. You just need to decide what muscle group you want to target the most and what squat variant will be the most effective for you.
The most basic rules when squatting would be:
Ensure your posture is correct and keep your back straight and always keep your core engaged.
Try to avoid that ‘butt-wing’, your lower back should be straight.
Your knees should go in the same direction your feet are pointing to.
Your knees should not be falling in too much (of course we are not robots so sometimes when you push in a lower position your knees will move slightly inwards but try to keep the movement minimal and lower your weight if it’s too much).
A squat is an ‘up & down’ movement, not a forward bend.
First, I would recommend learning the correct bodyweight squat. Then you can start with a goblet squat (holding the dumbbell just below your chin). Ensure your back is straight when performing the goblet squat and make sure your shoulders are not falling forward due to the weight of the dumbbell. If your shoulders start falling forward put your elbows closer to your body, that will help you keep the correct posture. You can perform regular goblet squats as well as sumo goblet squats. Both are very effective in getting more comfortable with the squat technique and are such a great starter before moving to barbell squats.
If you are already familiar and comfortable with the correct squatting technique, go and try barbell squats in the squat rack.
In a squat rack you can perform either high bar back squat, low bar back squat or front squat. The position of the bar will affect what muscles you are targeting.
High bar squat X Low bar squat
Those 2 are basically just saying where you are placing the bar on your back. There are few other differences between the two, but the basic squat movement will stay almost the same. When performing low bar squat, you will lean a little bit more forward than high bar squat and your hips will go a little bit more back but both of them are highly effective.
Back Squat X Front Squat
Again, the main difference is the placement of the bar. When performing a front squat, the bar will be placed on the front part of your shoulders, not on your back. Also, with the front squat, you will target quads a little bit more than with the back squat.
Hacken squat is another great tool to grow your legs and glutes. Because it is usually performed on a machine you can actually load it with more weight than you would regular squats. Usual Hacken squats are targeting mainly quads.
If you do not have a Hacken squat machine you can always use a smith machine instead. Lean towards the bar on the smith machine and place it as if you would want to perform a low bar squat. Do a step forward so you are not standing straight and do not be afraid to fully lean towards the bar. Your feet should be narrow and pointing straight forward.
There are so many other different variants of squats, but I think those are the most important to learn and then it all depends on your programming and goals.
2. Deadlift variants
Deadlifts are another amazing exercise. And so complex! Again, make sure as a beginner you will learn the correct technique. With deadlifts, you are not targeting just the lower body but also back muscles and core which makes deadlifts amazing for full-body workouts.
Some basics when performing any variant of deadlifts:
Make sure you engage your core; it is extremely important and will help you keep your back straight.
Keep your back straight. And I am serious about this. We all have seen so many scary videos on the internet where people injure their backs because of incorrect deadlifting techniques.
Manage your breathing – breath in, perform the lift, return to starting position, breath out, repeat. The deadlift is a dynamic exercise; you do not have to hold it for several seconds.
Make sure your starting position is correct. Ensure your hip position is correct – it should not be too deep or too high.
Different variants of deadlift will mainly target your muscles differently.
The classic deadlift will engage your whole body, mainly hamstrings and glutes and your back muscles.
Romanian deadlifts (or straight leg deadlifts) will target your hamstring, glutes and engage your back muscles. I swear by them when building hamstrings and general strength. Once you learn the correct technique, they become extremely effective when targeting hamstrings and really helps you develop your grip strength.
Sumo deadlifts will target your glutes a little bit more than classic deadlifts and starting position will be a little bit deeper.
If you do not feel confident enough to start deadlifting with a barbell, try dumbbells first. Once you will become more comfortable you can start with barbell deadlifts. Deadlifts will help you so much on your fitness journey. You will not just strengthen your legs, back and core but you will also learn how to breathe correctly, you will develop a general and grip strength and your overall posture will get much better.
3. Split squat variants
Split squats are excellent unilateral lower body exercises. They allow you to concentrate on each leg separately which is also important because we all have some smaller or bigger differences between the strength of the left part of your body and the right part of your body.
With split squats, you will engage your quadriceps and glutes mainly. Hamstrings also but that really depends on how deep you can squat. If you want to target more glutes than quads, lean a little bit forward in your hips. That will help you engage glutes more.
Slip squats that I find the most effective:
Bulgarian split squat
Your back feet are elevated (it can be rested on a bench for example). By elevating your feet you can actually get a little bit deeper and really effectively engage your glutes and quads. I personally have the most passionate love and hate relationship with Bulgarian split squats. I know how amazing they are but let me tell you, they really hurt and can be very intensive. But it’s all worth it – and hard work will always pay off.
With reverse lunges, you engage more glutes than quads. Make sure your front leg is fully engaged and helps you keep balance.
Pulse split squats
Pulse split squats are very intensive and painful exercises. By leaning a little bit more forward in the hips, you will engage more glutes. By staying more straights in the hips, you will engage more quadriceps.
Forward lunges are targeting mainly your quadriceps. Make sure you can keep a balance when performing this exercise and ensure safety around you.
Any form of lunges or split squats is highly effective and should definitely be included in your leg training session. Another great benefit of them is working on your stability. In the beginning, it might be difficult to keep balance, but practice makes perfect. Just give it time and practice and you will get better.
You can perform all variants just with your bodyweight or with dumbbells or barbells. If you are really struggling with your stability, try using a smith machine where you will feel more stable. But do not rely on it completely and work on your balance in a meantime.
4. Hip-Thrusts and Glute Bridges
Hip-Thrusts and Glute Bridges are some of the most effective exercises when growing your glutes. The movement of both is mainly the same. The main difference is that with hip-thrusts you have your shoulder blades rested against a bench so you can actually get a bigger range of motion and bigger stretch in your glutes.
I recommend learning first correct technique and how to fully engage your glutes performing glute bridge. You can start with your body weight and then add a barbell. Once you will feel comfortable with the movement and you are sure you can engage your glutes properly, move to hip-thrusts. If you have mastered glute bridge, your hip-thrusts will be amazing and so effective. Do not be afraid to progress with weight. Your hips are actually stronger than you would think.
Few tips for great hip-thrusts:
Make sure your chin is tucked, and your head is not falling back. What really helps me is to keep my eyes constantly on the barbell. By doing so I can ensure my chin stays tucked. Do not be afraid of the double chin, that peach is worth it.
Your knees should be at 90 degrees. If your feet are too forward or too close to your body, you will target more hamstrings and quadriceps. If you are not sure if you are in the correct position and there are no mirrors, turn a front camera on and put your phone next to you so you can see the position of your feet and knees.
Make sure you are fully engaging and squeezing your glutes in the top position.
Make sure you are getting enough range of motion – do not do just pulses with a barbell, go deep down just a few centimetres above the floor and then up again. That will allow your glutes to stretch more, and it will allow you to engage them more easily.
Both hip-thrusts and glute bridges also engage your lower back and core which makes them even more beneficial.
5. Leg press
The leg press is amazing when it comes to building strength. Even if the movement is fairly like squatting because you are using a resistance machine, you can actually load it with much more plates. Just please, make sure you are never ever locking your knees when pushing the weight from you. If you do so you can easily injure yourself very badly.
On the leg press, you target your whole lower body, but you can decide where you place your feet which will then affect how much it will target each muscle.
You can either place your feet in a wide position or a narrow position. A wide position will target more of your hamstrings and glutes, narrow will target more of your quadriceps.
You can also try a single-leg leg press to work on certain disbalances in strength.
6. Walking lunges
Walking lunges are amazing on their own but try to add them as a second exercise to superset or a finisher of your leg day session and thank me later. As it was with split squats – you are targeting mainly quadriceps and glutes. If you lean a little bit forward, you will engage your glutes more, if you stay more straight you will engage your quadriceps more.
If you want to target more your quadriceps you can do shorter lunges – the shorter the lunge will be, the more you will engage quads. If you are struggling with keeping a balance, try to find some straight line on the floor, make sure you have your legs a little bit wider than your hips and follow the line. As you will concentrate on the line and on performing the lunges in a wider position, it will actually help you keep balance easier.
You can start walking lunges with your body weight but do not be afraid to add some dumbbells or barbells to make them more interesting.
7. Glute abduction
Glute abduction machine is targeting...abductors. If you do not have this machine in the gym you can also do glute abduction with resistance bands. Make sure the movement is slow and controlled. You do not need to stand up on the machine or face the other way round as it quite often showed on social media. Just use the machine as it is supposed to be used. It will do the work, trust me.
8. Leg extension
A leg extension is a torturing machine to completely set your quadriceps on fire. I would like to say that I am joking now, but it is true! Because the leg extension machine is built to target just and only your quads, it can be very intensive.
Make sure to perform the exercise using the strength of your legs, not swinging the weight up, but mindfully pushing it to the fully extended position and do not be afraid to hold for a second before going back down.
9. Hamstring curl
If leg extension is a torturing machine for quadriceps, hamstring curl is a torturing machine for hamstrings. There are several types – sitting type of machine or where you are casually lying on your belly while destroying your hamstrings. Both are very effective.
Because hamstrings are built of more different muscles (it is not just 1 single large muscle) we need to make sure we are targeting them all in training sessions so please do not skip hamstring curls even if you did deadlifts. Both of those two exercises are targeting your hamstrings differently, both are equally needed.
Weighted step up on bench or box is great for engaging your whole lower body while also working on your balance. By leaning slightly forward in the hips, you will engage more glutes. By staying more straight you will engage more quads. In both variants, the hamstring is engaged too to help you actually step up. How much you will engage hamstrings also depends on how high the top position is and how much you will stretch your hamstrings when placing your feet on the bench. Do not be afraid to grab some dumbbells to add on more weight and try not to rest too much when you actually step up.
There could be another 10 great exercises to build your legs and glutes, but I think those mentioned here are the most effective and sometimes it is best to stick to basics and ensure we can perform basic exercises with excellent technique before trying some new.
What are your the most favourite exercises?
What exercise do you love/hate the most?
Let me know in the comments!