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Do not skip leg day. It’s a phrase kicked around so often in fitness circles — on social media, gym walls and even major health websites — that it’s practically the first amendment of strength training. Why? Because if you only focus on a chiseled upper body, with toned abs, massive pecs and bulging arms, odds are you’ll end up looking a bit too top-heavy. And aside from the aesthetic component, your legs are a crucial foundation for your entire body.
Think of it like a house. We all want a gorgeous rooftop patio, but does the impression of luxury really matter if the whole building is propped up by toothpicks?
Your legs create a strong base, which supports your core and upper body workouts as well. Movements like overhead presses and lateral shoulder raises hugely benefit from stronger legs. And of course, your legs are responsible for achieving simple everyday activities like walking and climbing stairs, too.
So no, you should not be skipping leg day. But training legs is hard work. That infamous phrase is also low-key a warning to prioritize leg day based on its difficulty alone. Training legs engages the whole body in a way that fires up your heart rate and burns calories. On a week you’re feeling sluggish, opting for chest or back in lieu of legs starts to look pretty appealing.
But don’t give in. We’ve got you covered with leg exercises you can knock out both at the gym and at home, along with a few products that should help boost your leg workouts no matter where you decide to tackle leg day.
Leg Muscle Anatomy
Seeing as your legs comprise literally half your body, there are a lot of individual muscles, so we won’t get too granular in this anatomy lesson. But it’s important to know the different muscles of your legs, along with their basic functions, so you can target and train them accordingly. Your leg muscles generally fall into three main groups.
- Quadriceps: Located on the from of the thigh, four different muscles make up the quadriceps — the vast laterals, vast medalist, vast intermedium and rectus femorios — and activate the straightening of your leg.
- Hamstrings: The biceps femoris, semimembranosus and semitendinosus all make up your hamstrings on the back of the thigh, aiding with hip and knee movement. If your a sports fan, you know these are delicate muscles that are particularly susceptible to pulls and strains for high intensity athletes.
- Calves: Below the knee on the back side of your legs, the calf muscles are crucial with ankle and feet mobility. The individual muscles are the gastrocnemius, soleus and plantaris.
We can also include your glutes, a group of three muscles — the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus — which make up your butt.
Serious bodybuilders are known to target these individual components of each muscle group, using different angles and leg exercises to ensure every inch of their legs is getting trained properly. If you’re not at that level, no need to worry. We’ll take a more general approach and list exercises that will help you strengthen the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and glutes.
The Best Leg Exercises for the Gym
If you have access to a gym, there are a number of fantastic leg exercises you can knock out. Most of them will target at least one of the three major muscle groups, though most will engage your entire lower half.
To start, we highly recommend getting a good warm-up in. As we said earlier, hamstrings are particularly sensitive, so it’s crucial to make sure your legs are loose and prepped for heavy lifting. We recommend some stretching and light jogging or jump rope to get the blood flowing. You can also reach for a foam roller, something this writer won’t train legs without. It’s a great way to ensure your leg muscles are loose and balanced before tackling your leg exercises.
1. Barbell Squat
The foundation of leg training, a fixture of any leg workout and a leg exercise that’s so often performed incorrectly, the barbell squat is one of the most popular compound lifts for your legs, and it’s a favorite among competitive powerlifters and bodybuilders alike. The barbell squat engages your glutes to extend your hips back into the squatting position, and your quads to extend your legs up into the standing position. Form is everything with squats, as improper technique can place tons of stress on your knees and back. We highly recommend watching the video below to ensure you’re performing this leg exercise properly, and start with a lighter weight while you master the form.
Instructions: Adjust the squat rack so the barbell sits at around the same height as your armpits. Step under the bar so it sits on your upper back. Grab the bar with a narrow grip, which will flex the muscles of your upper back and provide a nice base. Stand up and take a few steps back, positioning your legs so your feet are about shoulder-width apart. Keeping your weight centered on your feet, break at the knees and hips at the same time, sending your hips straight down until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground. Drive your legs up to return to the standing position.
2. Straight Leg Deadlift
The standard deadlift is one of the best full-body exercises out there. The straight leg deadlift, however, isolates the hamstrings by keeping the legs straight (as the name suggests) throughout the movement. It’s another great leg exercise to incorporate if you’re looking to keep those hamstrings strong.
Instructions: With a barbell on the ground in front of you, stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Bend at the waist to grab the bar and stand up straight to let the bar hang at your waist. This is technically the starting position. To begin the exercise, bend forward, keeping your legs straight and sending your hips slightly back. This should clear a path to let the bar lower straight down until it lands just in front of your feet. It’s crucial to keep the tension in your hamstrings for this exercise, as it can put a ton of strain on your lower back. Engage those hamstrings and keep your legs straight to pull the bar back up to the starting position.
3. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat takes the motion of a simple lunge and adds a twist — placing the back leg on a bench. This allows you to sink a bit deeper into the movement, engaging more of your glutes along the way. It’s most commonly performed with dumbbells in each hand, though some folks like to rest a barbell on their back.
Instructions: Find a workout bench at your gym and grab a pair of dumbbells. Stand a few feet away from the long side of the bench with your back to it, and place your back foot on the bench so your laces facing the floor. You can adjust your position here to ensure that when you lower into the lunge position, your front knee is sitting right above your foot. If your knee moves over your toes when you sink down, you’re too close to the bench. Lower yourself down, keeping a straight torso, then push up to return to the starting position.
4. Goblet Squat
The goblet squat, as you might imagine, looks pretty similar to a regular squat. In fact, your lower half is essentially doing the same motion. But instead of racking a barbell on your upper back, you’ll cup a dumbbell and hold it against your chest. This really helps engage the core, and even gives your shoulders some work as well.
Instructions: Start with your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width apart and angled outward slightly. Cup one head of a dumbbell with your two hands so it rests against your pecs. Move your hips back and lower yourself into the squatting position so your butt drops below the plane of your needs. Drive upwards to return to the starting position, ensuring you’re using core strength to keep the dumbbell against your chest and your torso straight.
How to Do Leg Exercises at Home
Not everyone has access to a gym. Luckily, your legs are one of the easiest muscle groups to train without fancy equipment. There are a number of bodyweight exercises that engage your legs, along with some leg exercises that only require some simple fitness gear, which we’ve sourced for your convenience in the next section. Many of these leg exercises can also be utilized at the gym by incorporating dumbbells or a barbell. Or if you want to tack on some weight at home, you can grab a heavy book or even something like a milk carton.
Lunges are one of the most effective leg exercises out there. You can knock them out with a barbell on your back, dumbbells in your hands or just with your body weight. But like most leg exercises, the slightest lapse in good form can lead to a less efficient exercise and contribute to joint pain.
Instructions: Instead of opting for a walking lunge, we recommend utilizing the stationary lunge. Begin with your back knee on the ground and your front foot firmly planted. Position yourself so your shoulders, back hip and back knee form a vertical line. On your front leg, the shin should be completely perpendicular to the ground. Maintain this consistency throughout the motion, and use the back leg glutes and front leg quads to push yourself up. Complete 8-10 reps then switch legs.
2. Single-Leg Straight-Leg Dead Lift
This is essentially the single-legged version of the straight leg deadlift from earlier. The benefit of this leg exercise is you can perform the single-leg deadlift with a dumbbell or only your bodyweight, making it a little more manageable outside of the gym. It’s great for engaging your hamstrings and isolating one leg at a time.
Instructions: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in one hand. Keeping your core tight, kick your right leg back as you hinge at the waist and bring your torso forward until the dumbbell reaches your feet. You should keep a straight line between your torso and the back leg. Switch the dumbbell to the other hand and repeat with the other leg.
3. Wall Sits
Wall sits are one of those leg exercises you can do literally anywhere. All you need, as you might have guessed, is a wall. Do it during TV commercial breaks. Do it while you’re waiting in line at the coffee shop. The wall sit requires no gear, only your body, and is a great all-around leg exercise. Plus, it’s as simple as they come.
Instructions: Lean with your back flat against a wall and your feet a couple of steps off the wall. Lower yourself until your thighs are parallel with the ground and your knees form a 90-degree angle. Hold for 30-60 seconds, or whatever provides a good workout. You can add more challenging variations by holding a weight against your chest, or by crossing one leg over the other to isolate the tension.
4. Bodyweight Calf Raises
There’s pretty much only one strength training exercise that isolates the calves, and that’s the calf raise. There are tons of variations here — with the options of using a barbell, dumbbells, or even specific machines for calf raises. But you can use your body weight alone and perform this leg exercise effectively at home. The calves are key to supporting the rest of your legs, so it’s best not to neglect them.
Instructions: All you need here is a small ledge, step or curb. Stand on the ledge with your feet shoulder-width apart and the balls of your feet on the step, with your heels hanging off. Let your heels drop as low as they can, then push your entire body up using the balls of your feet. It’s key to keep your knees straight and do this exercise slowly to really isolate the calves. You can snag a weight to add difficulty.
The Best Exercise Equipment for Legs
Because leg exercises so often engage the entire body, there are a few pieces of gear that can really elevate the entire workout and keep your legs healthy. Regardless of whether you’re training at home or the gym, the four products below are worth investing in.
1. Bowflex 552 SelectTech Adjustable Dumbbells
Bodyweight exercises will still offer a good workout, particularly because they help you learn and perfect the technique of your favorite leg exercises. But adding in weight is the best way to gain strength and progress your training. We recommend these dumbbells from Bowflex, which topped our list of the best adjustable dumbbells. It essentially combines an entire rack of dumbbells into one set, with a simple dial mechanism that makes it easy to adjust the weight. These range from five to 52.5 pounds.
2. 321 STRONG Foam Roller
A foam roller is one of the best fitness investments you can make, particularly if you’re eager to train legs. Using one helps to relieve muscle tightness, reduce inflammation and increase range of motion, something you’ll need for hitting those squats. This foam roller from 321 STRONG has rigid grooves for deeper muscle stimulation. In our book, if it hurts to use, that’s a good thing, as getting all that tension out of your legs will only lead to better muscle health.
3. ProFitness Knee Sleeves (Set of 2)
Knee sleeves offer tons of support and stability when performing heavy leg exercises, which explains why they’re a go-to fitness accessory for powerlifters and those with injury-prone knees (including yours truly). The neoprene material moves with you while still providing compression, and the convenient carrying bag makes it easy to transport to and from the gym. Protect those joints and snag a set of knee sleeves.
4. Nike Metcon 6
Conventional shoe wisdom assumes that more support and cushioning is a good thing. For weightlifting — especially for leg exercises — that’s not the case. Yes, you do want shoes that offer some support and stability, but what you really need is that locked-down fit that keeps your feet grounded for optimum performance. The Nike Metcon consistently ranks as one of the best weightlifting shoes, and it’s by far the most stylish option, too. We highly recommend grabbing a pair if your strength training routine features heavy squats.