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The Best Leg Exercises Scientifically Proven for Maximum Growth

the-best-leg-exercises
Isaac Robertson
Written by Isaac Robertson
Last Updated on

Leg exercises are my personal favorite, mainly for the morale boost they give me halfway through my set.

See, when it comes to muscle power, your legs deliver some fantastic results. And let’s face it, who doesn’t enjoy looking at a barbell or leg press with a few hundred pounds on them?

But it’s not just because of the show that I love these exercises so much. There is a very significant physiological reason why they deliver so much bang for your buck.

With the majority of exercises on this list, you trigger multi-joint moves, from your ankles to your knees and hips.

Muscles are triggered from your toes to your buttocks, and when you do it right, you will feel the burn in every single muscle.

​What is significant though, is that such multi-joint exercises will release lots of testosterone and growth hormone entirely naturally. 

And that will result in faster muscle bulking so that you get the maximum gain.

Let’s dive right in and improve your next leg day routine.

​Top 14 Leg Exercises To Build Muscles

1. Barbell Squats

photo-of-a-woman-doing-barbell-squats

Areas covered: Quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.

Easily one of the best leg exercises out there, it should come as absolutely no surprise that the first exercise is the traditional barbell squat.
As one of the most versatile exercises, it will trigger every single lower body muscle including your glutes.

During the down move you will feel that your hamstrings come under significant pressure, and with the right weight, you should feel the burn after just a couple of reps. Your quadriceps will come into play as you straighten your knees back up again to complete the move.

How-To: To perform the movement, simply start with a bar placed on the back of the neck and the feet shoulder-width apart. 

Bend at the hips and knees whilst the upper body remains upright (and the back remains perfectly straight) and lower the glutes down until the hips and knees reach at least a 90-degree angle. Return to the top and repeat the movement.

Tip: Using a weightlifting belt helps increase spine and core stability, allowing you to lift heavier.

2. Leg Press

woman-doing-leg-press

Areas covered: Quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings.

While the motion may seem identical to the traditional barbell squat, the way the muscles are targeted is significantly different.

During this exercise, maximum pressure will be on your leg muscles when your knees are straight, unlike with a squat, where this is your starting position.

Leg presses are great for people who feel a little uncomfortable with large weights on their shoulders, but they aren’t as effective as squats when it comes to targeting the glutes. You might also find it easier to do more reps with the leg press.

How-To: To perform this movement, lie with the back flat against the pad and place the feet shoulder-width apart on the weight platform.

Bend at the hips and knees whilst lowering the platform until they reach a 90-degree angle, then return to the starting position whilst ensuring a slight bend is left in the knee and hip joints at all times.

3. Lunges

woman-doing-lunges

Areas covered: Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, inner and outer thighs.

Lunges are another strong favorite of mine, and is always featured in my leg day routine.

The reason that they’re one of the most effective leg exercises out there is that they require strong leg muscles as well as balance and coordination. (1)

Build strength by adding in some heavier dumbbells.

You can also do lunges for cardio and core training, as the walking lunges won’t just target the front leg muscle groups, but also your lower abdomen. Try leaning forward to get some bonus burn in your stomach.

How-To: Start with the feet shoulder width apart with one dumbbell in each hand. Proceed to step one foot out in front of the body whilst keeping one leg behind.

Bend the hips and knees to 90 degrees whilst lowering the glutes, then return to the starting position and switch legs.

4. Front Squats

man-doing-front-squat

Areas covered: Quadriceps, glutes, upper back and core.

Like regular back squats, these will make you feel every single muscle from your toes to your glutes.

But what the front squats also deliver is some added pressure on your core and back muscles, but more specifically, your quads. I’ve incorporated this into my workout routine as well as my clients and it’s given them that muscular legs look.

For people with back injuries, this can be a great alternative to back squats, as the weight is distributed more to your front. But be careful if you have shoulder injuries, as this can add quite a bit of strain, especially with heavier weights.

How-To: To perform a front squat, start with a barbell resting across your shoulder clavicle - support the bar by crossing your arms over it and resting the hands on your shoulders.

Proceed to bend at the hips and knees whilst lowering the body so that the glutes hover just above the ground and the hip and knee joints reach a 90-degree angle. Return to the starting position and repeat.

You can watch this video tutorial below to learn more about front squats.

5. Leg Extensions

man-doing-leg-extentions-workout

Areas covered: Quadriceps.

Like regular back squats, these will make you feel every single muscle from your toes to your glutes.

Leg extensions are really one of the best leg exercises to really target the quad muscles. As a resistance exercise, it’s ideal if you have any joint injuries because it will allow you to set very specific weights from a low range.

This is very different from squats where you also have to account for your own body weight. This allows you to adapt to how much pressure you want to put on your knees to avoid any further injuries.

How-To: Place the pad just above the ankle joint and ensure the knees are bent to 90 degrees. Proceed to elevate the pad by raising the legs until the calves are parallel to the floor.

Leave a slight bend at the knees at the top of the movement, and then return to the starting position.

6. Hamstring Raise

man-doing-hamstring-raise-workout

Areas covered: Hamstrings, glutes.

This is one of my favorite bodyweight exercises that directly targets the glutes and hamstrings and is a must on for your leg day routine. It does require a special bench, and if your gym has one, then make sure you take advantage.

What’s great about this exercise is that as you build up more muscle, you can either slow down the move or hold onto a dumbbell to add some pressure with fewer reps.

As a bonus, you will also engage your core muscles.

How-To: To perform this movement, position the body on the glute ham platform (ask your gym if they have one) so that the knees rest just behind the peak of the kneepads.

Proceed to lower the body by straightening the legs until they are fully extended (with a slight bend at the knee) and the body is parallel to the floor in mid-air.

Proceed to raise the body back up to the starting position purely by using the hamstrings and glutes.

7. Romanian Deadlifts

man-doing-romanian-deadlifts

Areas covered: Hamstrings, glutes.

Before you jump into the instructions, I have to make it clear that the Romanian deadlift requires perfect technique. If you mess things up and the weight transfers to your lower back, then you’ll end up paying for your chiropractor’s kids to go to college.

However, with the help of a fitness instructor, it’s actually quite easy to get right. And the effect on the glutes and hamstring muscles is amazing. (2)

You can even alternate this with different types of squats for better results.

How-To: To perform this exercise, grab a barbell and hold it at hip height with the feet shoulder-width apart and the hands gripping the bar just outside shoulder-width.

Proceed to bend at the hips whilst keeping the knees straight (with only a slight bend maintained at all times for safety) and lower the body down whilst reaching towards the ground with the bar and keeping the back totally straight.

Raise the upper body back up to the starting position.

You may also like: dumbbell vs barbell.

8. Deadlifts

man-doing-deadlift

Areas covered: Back, glutes, hamstrings.

Traditional deadlifts are fantastic for powering through some serious weight.

It’s a fast move where technique is critical to avoid back strain and injury, so make sure you have someone show you the right way before incorporating into your workouts.

What I love about deadlifts is that by switching between a barbell and dumbbells you will shift your center of gravity. With a barbell, it’s further forward engaging your core, while dumbbells allow you to shift further back to really engage your glutes.

How-To: Start with a bar at ground level and proceed to grip it with both hands whilst ensuring they are placed just outside shoulder-width apart.

Proceed to bend the hips and knees so that the body is in a seated position whilst keeping the back upright and straight.

From here, raise the body into a standing position whilst lifting the bar away from the ground until it reaches hip height. Proceed to return to the seated position and return the bar to the ground whilst keeping the back straight throughout.

​Incorporating deadlifts one or two days a week into a weight training session will develop strength in the hamstrings, glutes, low back, and upper back.

​Zach Mayer Master Trainer, Burn 60 Studios               

9. Barbell Bridges

man-doing-barbell-bridge-exercise

Areas covered: Glutes.

This one will take a bit of practice to get the balance right, so make sure you start with lower weights on the bar. The last thing you want to have to happen is the bar rolling down your body. Beyond a bruised ego it’ll likely cause some injury as well.

What’s great about it is that by holding the weight for a short while at the top of the move you can add some pressure on the glutes to really get them working. Ideally, have a friend stand by to help with getting in position and keeping the bar balanced.

How-To: ​Lie flat on the back with a barbell placed at hip height and grab the bar with a double overhand grip.

Bend the knees, and whilst keeping the feet flat against the floor, proceed to elevate the glutes up and away from the ground whilst keeping the feet and back of the shoulders in contact with the floor.

Lower the body back down without letting the glutes touch the ground and repeat the movement.

From here, raise the body into a standing position whilst lifting the bar away from the ground until it reaches hip height. Proceed to return to the seated position and return the bar to the ground whilst keeping the back straight throughout.

10. Glute Kickbacks

woman-working-out-outside

Areas covered: Glutes.

Similar to leg extensions, glute kickbacks are ideal if you want to limit the amount of weight and strain you place on your leg joints. With a gradual increase in weight, you can put a lot of pressure on your butt muscles with great results.

This is also a great option for anyone that struggles with barbell squats or if you have some sort of back injury. The weight is applied in a targeted way that avoids unwanted strain and pressure. You can also attach leg weights to your ankle.

How-To: Assuming you’re using a cable machine, place the foot stirrup around the base of one foot whilst lowering the body down until it is on a 45-degree angle parallel to the floor.

Whilst reaching the arms out to support the upper body, push the leg with the stirrup attached out and backwards away from the body (in a “donkey kick” motion) whilst keeping the opposite leg straight and anchored to the floor.

Return to the starting position and repeat the movement for the desired rep count before switching legs.

From here, raise the body into a standing position whilst lifting the bar away from the ground until it reaches hip height. Proceed to return to the seated position and return the bar to the ground whilst keeping the back straight throughout.

Improve your glute kickbacks by watching this video below.

11. Pistol Squat

man-doing-pistol-squat

Areas covered: Quads, hamstrings, glutes.

One of my favorite leg exercises, if you’ve never done pistol squats before, then prepare yourself for some serious burning both in the down and up moves. Unless you’re a yoga master, keeping your balance is going to force you to slow down the move which adds strain.

It’s very likely that just a couple of reps will have you crawling out of the gym with jelly legs, and especially your quads will be sore for a few days after. But that pain is well worth the gain you will start noticing in muscle size.

How-To: Start in a standing position with your arms stretched out in front of you. Lift one leg straight up until it’s parallel to the ground.

From here, slowly lower your body down until your buttocks are below your knee.

Your arms and outstretched leg will provide balance, which you will need especially on the way back up.

Push yourself up through the heel and return to a standing position, ideally without falling over. It’s a good idea to practice this one in private to avoid some damaged ego in the gym.

12. Hack Squats

man-doing-hack-squat

Areas covered: Quads, glutes, hamstrings.

One of the few leg exercises I perform using a machine, perfect if you struggle with regular barbell squats. The physical motion is very similar, and you engage a lot of different muscles including your core.

The advantage is that you won’t have to struggle with balance as the machine does that for you.

Also, if you have any kind of back or shoulder injury that restricts how much weight you can add during a squat, then the design of this machine will help you to achieve higher goals.

How-To: First of all, locate the hack squat machine at your gym. No, this is not some sort of medieval torture device, but if you work it right it might feel that way after. Step inside the machine and press your back and shoulders firmly against the pads.

Your feet should be a little less than shoulder width apart and remain flat throughout the move. Lower your body slowly until your thighs are parallel with the platform before pushing up through your heels.

Make sure you don’t hyperextend your knees at the top by keeping them slightly bent. This is especially important with heavier weights.

13. Seated “Donkey” Calf Raises

shirtless-man-at-the-gym

Areas covered: Calves

While your calf muscles do get engaged in many of the above exercises, you will probably notice a lack of burn in your lower legs. One way to rectify that is through calf raises. In this seated position version you can minimize the amount of strain on joints.

It’s ideal if you have any kind of injury or weakness in your leg joints. And the results are great, as you can make sure that your lower legs don’t look out of proportion to your upper legs.

How-To: To perform a seated donkey calf raise, place the pad on the thighs above the knee joint whilst in a seated position.

Proceed to elevate the pad by raising the feet onto the tips of your toes, then return to the starting position without letting the feet go completely flat against the ground and repeat for the desired rep count.

14. Standing Barbell Calf Raises

man-doing-standing-barbell-calf-raises

Areas covered: Calves

This is a perfect companion to back or front squats. During a regular squat, your lower legs muscles won’t really start to burn. Through some calf raises with added weight, you will only need a couple of reps to feel the pain.

While this is the last exercise on this list, it’s actually quite an important one if you want to avoid your lower legs looking like cocktail sticks compared to bulky thighs.

How-To: To perform a standing barbell calf raise, place a barbell on the back of the shoulders, and proceed to elevate the body by raising the feet onto the tips of your toes. 

Return to the starting position without letting the feet go completely flat against the ground, and repeat the movement for the desired rep count.

Bonus tip: When you switch between sets, try moving your toes to an outward or inward position. This will trigger quite a difference to the strain you feel, making it a more effective exercise.

Other recommended resources:

Best Leg Exercises: The Bottom Line

For many people, the motto is “chest day is the best day,” but I always find leg days to be highly motivating.

Yes, it’s great to be able to show off with some huge weights on a barbell, but for me, the motivation comes from developing some strong legs, writing down those numbers and reaping the benefits when I play basketball with my friends. These key exercises ​was what allowed me to increase my vertical jump.

You shouldn’t try to fit in all the above exercises in one day, as it will be a lot more effective to vary things around a bit over multiple leg workouts a week. But using these in your workouts is guaranteed to work wonders for your leg muscles.


​References

​1. DoctorNDTV, Benefits Of Lunges: 6 Reasons Why You Must Practice Lunges Daily, retrieved from https://www.ndtv.com/health/benefits-of-lunges-6-reasons-why-you-must-practice-lunges-daily-1895962
2. Pete McCall, ACE Technique Series: Romanian Deadlift, retrieved from https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/prosource/january-2016/5767/ace-technique-series-romanian-deadlift

About the author

Isaac Robertson

Isaac Robertson

I’m a personal fitness trainer and nutritionist living in sunny Indianapolis, IN. I’ve spent the last 8 years staying at the forefront of the health and fitness industry. In that time, I’ve helped hundreds of people shed the excess weight and get into shape, maintaining their healthy new lifestyle through proper training and eating habits. You can read more about me here​.

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