Bodybuilding Leg Workout for Strength and Size (Revealed)

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Published by James Cunningham, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Last updated: March 12, 2024
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I've been a fitness expert for over ten years, and I always tell my clients how important it is to include a good leg workout in their bodybuilding routine.

Strong leg muscles are like the base of a building – they're essential for overall strength and make your body look better. I've looked into many leg exercises and picked out a few that are really effective.

In this article, we'll talk about the best leg exercises for bodybuilding. They'll help your muscles grow and make your legs stand out.

Quick Summary

  • Effective bodybuilding leg workouts for strength and size include squats, leg extensions, Romanian deadlifts, and seated hip adductors.
  • A well-rounded bodybuilding leg workout involves a combination of isolation movements (targeting specific muscle groups) and compound movements (working multiple muscle groups simultaneously).
  • According to research from the Cleveland Clinic, a comprehensive leg day should target major muscle groups, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, and calves.
  • In my experience, focusing on leg exercises that cover the full range of motion and continuing until your muscles reach fatigue enhances strength and improves the overall appearance of your legs.

Killer Leg Workouts for Bodybuilding

A person doing bodybuilding leg workout

Transform your legs with these bodybuilding workouts our team has found effective, combining different exercises to strengthen muscles like quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves.

1. Squats

Primary Muscles Worked: Quads

Squats are the king of all exercises. This compound movement targets multiple upper-body and lower-body muscles, like the core, quads, glutes, and hips.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Squat with your feet slightly less than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keep your back as straight as possible throughout the squat.
  3. Try not to hinge the hips too much.
  4. Squat as low as possible.

As a fitness trainer, I strongly advise using a squat rack with safety bars, especially when squatting all the way down, for safety reasons.

“Nothing compares to squats … I don’t care how much weight you use, I’d rather do 3 good plates and get in 15, 20 good reps and reap the benefit.”

- Tom Platz, Former Bodybuilder

Related article: Best Power and Squat Racks

2. Leg Extensions

Primary Muscles Worked: Quads

Leg extensions serve as an ideal follow-up to squats. For optimal results, ensure you perform leg extensions with a complete range of motion.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Put your hands on the hand bars.
  2. Lift the weight until your legs are straight.
  3. Keep your back against the backrest, maintaining a straight back.
  4. Lower the weight back to starting position.
  5. Complete three sets of eight to 12 repetitions.

3. Romanian Deadlifts (RDLs)

A person doing deadlifts in the gym

Primary Muscles Worked: Hamstrings

Romanian deadlifts work your glutes and strengthen your hamstrings in a lengthened position, leading to stronger and more flexible hamstrings.

Here's how to do a single-leg Romanian deadlift:

  1. Stand on one leg and lean forward with a slight bend in the knee.
  2. Keep your back straight at all times.
  3. Lower with a slow and controlled motion until you feel the stretch in the hamstring of your standing leg.
  4. Return to the starting position.

4. Lying Leg Curls (Dumbbell or Machine)

Primary Muscles Worked: Hamstrings

Perform lying leg curls with either a machine or dumbbells. If you prefer heavier weights, use the machine; for targeting hamstrings from different angles and adding instability, opt for dumbbells.

Here's how to do lying leg curls using dumbbells:

  1. Lie on your stomach.
  2. Position a dumbbell between your feet.
  3. Brace your abdomen.
  4. Encircle your feet around the dumbbell.
  5. Squeeze your hamstrings and glutes.
  6. Curl up until your legs reach a 90-degree angle.
  7. Gradually lower your feet back to the floor.

Other effective leg curling exercises include the following:

  • Seated leg curl (needs a machine)
  • Stand leg curl (needs a machine)
  • Reverse-weighted lunges
  • Ball leg curl

5. Sumo Squats

A person doing sumo squats for leg muscless

Primary Muscles Worked: Adductors

This squat variation is simple and effective in strengthening the adductors. Incorporating them into your leg routine will have a strong carryover effect on your squats.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Keep your back straight and tighten your abs.
  2. Ensure that your knees remain in line with your toes.
  3. Inhale as you squat.
  4. Push through the heels once your hips are slightly lower than your knees.
  5. Return to the starting position while exhaling.

6. Seated Hip Adductors

Primary Muscles Worked: Adductors

This exercise might be uncomfortable to perform the first time because it isolates your adductors. But doing it every week can help you prevent groin-related injuries in your other workouts, as per the National Institute of Health [1].

Here's how to do it:

  1. Sit on a chair with your back straight and feet flat on the floor.
  2. Place a small cushion or ball between your knees.
  3. Squeeze your knees together, engaging your inner thighs.
  4. Release and repeat for 15-20 reps.

7. Donkey Calf Raises

A person doing calf raises in the gym

Primary Muscles Worked: Calves

In my opinion, donkey calf raises are one of the best exercises to have in your calf workout. It’s best to do them using a Smith machine because it’s easier to load. Just make sure you have a spotter to help you re-rack the bar.

Here's how to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hinge at your hips and bend your upper body forward.
  3. Push into the fronts of your feet, activating your calf muscles.
  4. Return to a regular stance.
  5. Repeat the movement pattern for the desired number of repetitions.

8. Seated Calf Raises

Primary Muscles Worked: Calves

The seated calf raise focuses on the soleus muscle, enlarging the calf's appearance by pushing out the gastroc (the meaty part). For best results, load the exercise with as much weight as you can handle in your rep range.

Here's how to do it:

Sit up tall in your chair, with your feet hip-width apart.
Bring your feet back, positioning your heels behind your knees.
Lift your heels off the floor, rising onto your toes from this position.
Hold briefly, then gently lower your heels back down.
Repeat for the set number of repetitions.

Related: How to Get Big Calves Fast

What Does a Good Bodybuilding Leg Workout Routine Include?

A good bodybuilding leg workout routine includes a strategic blend of compound and isolation exercises to effectively engage various muscle groups in the lower body.

Compound movements like squats and lunges are crucial for overall leg strength and development, targeting the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.

Isolation exercises such as leg presses and calf raises further isolate and intensify specific muscle groups, ensuring a well-rounded approach to leg training.

As a fitness trainer, I think a well-rounded lower body workout entails diverse exercises targeting various muscle groups, fostering balanced growth and strength.

Workout Split

A person doing leg presses in the gym

This leg training routine comprises many exercises that target all your leg muscles, so it’s best to perform it once a week.

Here’s what the split will look like:

Quad workout

  • Back squats: 3 sets x 8–12 reps
  • Leg Extensions: 3 sets x 10–15 reps

Hamstring workout

  • RDLs or a stiff-legged deadlift: 3 sets x 12–15 reps
  • Hamstring curls (or other leg curl exercises): 3 sets x 8–12 reps

Adductor workout

  • Sumo squats: 3 sets x 10 reps
  • Seated hip adduction: 3 sets x 12–15 reps (each side)

Calf workout

  • Donkey calf raises: 3 sets x 12–15 reps
  • Seated calf raises: 3 sets x 8–12 reps

What Muscles Make Up the Legs?

A graphic of the muscles in the legs

The quadriceps, hamstrings, adductors, and calves are the main muscles that make up the leg.

Let’s look at each of them in detail:

  • Quadriceps: Comprising four muscles at the front of the thigh - rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius - they aid in knee extension and hip flexion.
  • Hamstrings: Found at the back of the thigh, the biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus contribute to knee flexion and hip extension.
  • Adductors: Located on the inner thigh, the adductor magnus, adductor brevis, adductor longus, pectineus, and gracilis work collectively to bring the legs together.
  • Calves: Positioned at the back of the lower leg, the gastrocnemius and soleus collaborate in plantarflexing the ankle, pointing the toes downward.

Training Tips

A person in the gym doing barbell workouts for legs

Here are some tips that’ll help you make the most of your leg day workout.

1. Optimize Range of Motion

According to the National Institute of Health, utilizing a full range of motion in exercises to activate all leg muscle fibers for a significant hypertrophy response promotes balanced development [2].

2. Maximize Effort

Research from PubMed suggests pushing your legs to failure for muscle growth by creating micro-tears in muscle fibers. Develop a mind-muscle connection during those final reps [3].

3. Prioritize Knee Strength

A graphic of knee joints on a person

Strong knees are crucial for full range of motion and additional reps. Incorporate knee-strengthening exercises like ATG split squats, Poliquin step-ups, and tibialis raises into your leg workouts.

4. Effective Leg Training

Avoid relying solely on HIIT and the leg press machine for leg bulk. Instead, focus on compound exercises and isolation movements for comprehensive training till failure.

Hypertrophy vs. Strength Gains

A muscular man flexing leg muscles

When it comes to building pure muscle mass (hypertrophy), we recommend performing all your leg workouts in the 8–15 rep range, provided the last reps push you to muscle failure.

According to the National Institute of Health, anything below this could help you build bigger legs, but the 1–5 rep range works on your neuromuscular strength [4].

As a fitness trainer, focus on using heavy weights and fewer reps for compound movements, and choose lighter weights with more reps for isolation exercises to tailor the approach for improved strength and muscle development.

FAQs

How Often Do Bodybuilders Train Legs?

Most bodybuilders usually train legs once a week. However, some bodybuilders train legs thrice a week, while others train them once every two weeks. It depends on what works best for them.

Do Legs Respond Better To Higher Reps?

No, legs don’t respond better to higher reps. Legs respond well to all rep ranges. However, the key to building bigger legs is training them till failure.

Can You Overtrain Legs?

Yes, you can't overtrain legs. You can train and overtrain any muscle by training it two days in a row or more without taking proper rest periods in between. From my observation, overtraining the legs is counterproductive as it will lead to declining performance or serious injury.

What Is the #1 Leg Exercise?

The number-one leg exercise is the squat. It’s a compound movement that works the most muscles compared to other exercises. It’s also the best exercise to add muscle mass and strength to your legs.

How Long Should a Leg Day Be?

Leg day should ideally be between 20 minutes and an hour, depending on the intensity of your training. If you train them more than once a week, your session can be under 30 minutes. If you train them once a week, it should take an hour at most.

Why Won’t My Legs Bulk?

Your legs won’t bulk because you might not be training them till failure. You might also not be getting enough sleep or eating enough protein to rebuild your leg muscles.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5455186/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6977096/
  3. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31895290/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7927075/
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About The Author

James Cunningham, BSc, CPT
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
James Cunningham, BSc, CPT holds a BSc degree in Sport & Exercise Science from University of Hertfordshire. He's a Health & Performance Coach from London that brings a unique blend of academic knowledge of health supplements and practical exercise experience to the table for his readers.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC
Staff Writer & Senior Coach
Benedict Ang, CPT, PN1-NC is an ex-National Soccer player turned MMA and Kickboxing champion, with ACE CPT and PN1-NC certifications. His advice is rooted in education and experience, ensuring that readers receive scientific and battle-tested insights. His mission is to empower his clients and readers to realize their potential and become the best versions of themselves.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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