Leg exercises are a vital component of any resistance workout. Some people avoid leg training, as it can be extremely physically demanding. But whether you’re a bodybuilder or just want to look good on the beach, leg training can help you improve your legs’ appearance while building strength. While there are no definitive “best” leg exercises, the ideal routine includes effective exercises to work all leg muscles.
The squat is often referred to as the king of leg exercises, and for good reason. According to Danny O’Dell, owner of Explosively Fit Strength Training Gym, full-depth back squats increase muscle mass in your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and glutes. They also strengthen joints and tendons, boost your metabolism and release endorphins. Former bodybuilder and seven-time Mr. Olympia contender Tom Platz believed squats to be the best all-around leg exercise, and could squat 635 lbs. for 12 repetitions and 500 lbs. for more than 20.
It’s likely that those who don’t believe that the squat is the best overall leg exercise think the deadlift takes that title. Strength coach Eric Cressey advises that deadlifts are the single most effective exercise for your posterior chain muscles — the hamstrings, glutes, adductors, and lower back. If you’re an athlete, a strong posterior chain can help you run faster, jump higher and generate more lower-body explosive power.
Many people underestimate the effectiveness of single-leg exercises such as pistol squats, step-ups and lunges. According to corrective exercise specialist Mike Robertson, exercises like these help to boost leg muscle growth, strengthen your tendons and ligaments, reduce your risk of knee and ankle injuries and improve your balance and coordination. Split squats are one of the toughest single-leg exercises. Place your front foot on the floor and your rear foot on a bench behind you. Grab a pair of dumbbells and squat as low as you can. When you begin these will be very tough, so use light weights.
Glute Ham Raises
You don’t often see glute ham raises performed in commercial gyms, yet they are a staple exercise of many bodybuilders and strength coaches. Most gyms won’t have a specialized glute ham developer, so you will have to use a lat pulldown instead. Kneel on the seat, facing away from the weight stack, with your ankles secured under the pad. Bend forward from your knees and descend toward the floor. Try to go slowly by squeezing your glutes and hamstrings as hard as possible. When you get to the floor, use your hands to push back up again. These will pack some serious mass onto your hamstrings.
In order to build a well-rounded, powerful pair of legs, you also need to train your calves. Calf training can be difficult with just your body weight or free weights, so utilize any machines you have at your disposal. Perform either seated or standing calf raises — just ensure that you explode up on each repetition, hold the peak contraction at the top for a second or two and then descend as low as you can again over a count of five.