For purists, a “top 10” of leg exercises would feature only one exercise: the barbell squat. Why not? Exercise is exceptionally simple and effective. Put a heavy barbell on your shoulders, then bend your knees and hips to get as low as you can (as the purists would say, “butt on the ground”) and then come back up.
This movement shakes the quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes and also initiates a cascade of responses throughout the body, with the core and upper body contracting and stabilizing, while beneficial, growth-promoting hormones are released in response to great stress.
We think squat fans have reasons to sell and we might as well reveal right away that we put the squat at the top of this ranking. However, we want to say that the other nine movements described here are also excellent exercises. They are all proven muscle builders and you should alternate them in a good leg training program over the course of a training cycle to maximize development.
Here are the ten best leg exercises of all time.
10. Leg Press
First of all let’s talk about what athletes hate about the leg press: when performed incorrectly it can cause lower back injuries. The most impropriety is reached when you put all the discs found in the gym on the sled to grind a few repetitions at full speed, detaching the lower back from the backrest with each repetition, in part because the hamstrings and buttocks are inflexible.
It is certainly one of the most abused exercises in the gym, probably because it gives strong sensations and can be used much more weight than with the squat; however, when used with care the leg press can give great benefits. Other importantly, it helps to increase variety in what would otherwise be a basically squat-centered leg program.
MOST TRAINED AREAS: Quadriceps (especially keeping feet low on the platform and close together), glutes and hamstrings (especially keeping feet high on the platform and apart).
BENEFITS: The leg press is a closed kinetic chain exercise, which means that the feet are supported rather than free. The closed chain creates a stronger force base with less tearing forces on the knee than an open chain exercise such as leg extension, which did not make it into this ranking for this very reason.
EXECUTION: Sit with your torso leaning against the backrest and place your feet on the sled, spacing them shoulder width apart. Keeping your torso and lower back pressed against the backrest, carefully unlock the slide. Bend your knees to lower the footplate, stopping before your buttocks release from the seat. At this point, forcefully straighten your knees to push the load up (without, however, getting to the locking of the joints).
Erin says: “I don’t use the leg press, but the machine offers the possibility to train different muscles by varying the position of the feet and eliminates the use of stabilizers. This could allow the volume of the training to be increased ”.
9. Climb on the step
It is perhaps one of the most functional exercises on this list. After all, you probably have to climb stairs quite often, right? It is a one-sided exercise and this means that a stronger leg cannot compensate for the weaker one, because each leg takes in turn the full intensity of the movement.
AREAS MOST TRAINED: Quadriceps, buttocks.
BENEFITS: There are many variations of the step climb, so it can be adapted to beginners as well as advanced athletes. For resistance you can use barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells (held at the hips or shoulder height), wear a weighted vest, or use only body weight. Climb up a step of varying height from the middle of the shin to where the thigh is parallel to the floor at the starting point. In addition to developing power in the buttocks, hips and thighs, this exercise also trains balance and jumping strength, which is very useful for those who practice a sport that involves vertical jumps.
EXECUTION: Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand in front of a bench or platform of varying height from knee to hip. Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, step onto the platform with one foot and use your thigh to push your body up. Bring the untrained leg up, reaching the standing position on the platform, then return to the floor leading with one of the two legs. You can repeat with the same leg until you complete a set or alternate the trained leg from repetition to repetition.
Erin says: “It’s a fantastic one-sided exercise. I like to perform the concentric portion of the exercise with explosiveness. It built my quads, improved my balance and increased my vertical jump ”.
8. Squat pistol
You will probably feel like an idiot when you try to learn this movement. At the low point you will fall into a sitting position and will probably lose your balance often. At first, you won’t even be able to lower yourself into a full squat. We can only advise you not to give up. Those who are able to perform this exercise have an exceptional weapon in their leg training arsenal, without the need for any tools.
AREAS MOST TRAINED: Quadriceps, hamstrings, buttocks.
BENEFITS: Sure, this is more dynamic performance than pure muscle building, but it doesn’t matter. Consider it the functional cousin of No. 9 above and remember: the more functional you are, the better you will perform any exercise or physical activity. After trying the squat pistol for the first time, your quadriceps may burn for days, a clear sign that you have used too little range of motion in traditional leg exercises for years.
EXECUTION: Begin in a standing position. Extend one leg in front of you, balancing on the other foot. At this point, squat down by lowering your hips and buttocks directly towards the floor, bending the knee until the trained thigh is below parallel. At the low point, the untrained leg and arms are stretched out in front of you for balance, while the foot of the trained leg is planted in the floor. Push through the heel to return to a standing position, making sure you never take your heel off the ground.
Erin says: “The exercises we don’t like are often the most effective. I train the non-dominant part first, which therefore determines how many reps I will do with my dominant leg as well. It’s a great way to solve asymmetries ”.
7. Glute-femoral lift
Chances are you don’t have Louie Simmons’ Westside Series Glute-Femoral Developer in your gym. It is rare to find it, unless the place where you train is frequented by massive powerlifters always dusted with chalk. In case there is, or if you can get your hands on one of these objects, use it because doing the glute-femoral lift on this tool is one of the best exercises for building strength and mass that you can do for the lower part. of the body. “We do at least 600 reps per month, just as maintenance, sometimes we use 60 kg of weight,” says Simmons, referring to the select group of powerlifters and athletes who train at his exclusive Westside Barbell gym in Columbus, Ohio.
AREAS MOST TRAINED: Buttocks , hamstrings.
BENEFITS:From the point of view of muscle stimulation, the glute-femoral lift has been shown to be as effective as an exercise higher in this ranking, the revered Romanian deadlift, as reported in a small comparative study of hamstring exercises published. in the June 2014 issue of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. With this Westside special tool the body is supported in all the right places, but don’t dissuade if you don’t have this tool. You can do glute-hamstring raises by asking a partner to hold your legs (kneel on the floor and extend your arms forward to stop when you lower your torso to the floor) or kneel on the seat of a lat machine so that the heels are under the knee rollers. Place a barbell or large stick on the floor and grab it to keep your balance (lower yourself using the force of the hamstrings and glutes, then reverse the movement).
EXECUTION: Position yourself on the bench, inserting your ankles between the rollers, your knees on the pads and your feet on the platform. Start with your torso and thighs aligned and perpendicular to the floor. Cross your hands on your chest. Slowly extend your knees by lowering your torso and getting as close as possible to parallel with the floor. Contract the hamstrings to bring the body back to an upright position. When performed correctly, the area between the calf and ankle alternately touches the low and high rollers.
Erin says: “This exercise is very effective when the knees are the lever point of the movement. Keep your hips, back and shoulders aligned and pull yourself up using your hamstrings and glutes. To make the exercise more challenging, hold a disc or use elastic bands ”.
6. Lunge while walking
The variations of the lunge are many. You can do standing lunges in any direction: forward, backward, sideways, or any point in between. It will still be a great exercise. Walking lunges entered our ranking because a) they are slightly more functional because you are always moving forward instead of standing still and b) they are the perfect ending to any leg workout. To wrap up the leg workout, eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman grabbed a loaded barbell and lunged while walking in the scorching parking lot of the Metroflex Gym in Texas. A memorable sight when you think of her 90 cm thighs.
AREAS MOST TRAINED: Quadriceps, hamstrings, buttocks.
BENEFITS: “Lunge while walking is a dynamic movement and to perform it correctly you need muscle recruitment and coordination,” explains Gene Flores, CSCS, physiotherapist and orthopedist at Vargo Physical Therapy, a day hospital in Reseda, California. Whichever way you do it, this exercise is primarily a one-sided activity that focuses on the front of the leg. Many muscles are activated above and below the knee, in the hips, core, ankle and foot ”.
EXECUTION: Holding a dumbbell in each hand, bring one foot forward. Bend both knees to lower the torso towards the floor, making sure that the front knee does not go beyond the tip of the foot at the low point. Stop just before the back knee touches the floor, then push through the heel of the forward foot bringing the back leg forward until you return to a standing position. Repeat sinking with the other leg. Continue alternating. “When I teach this movement, I always recommend keeping the torso contracted, with the spine in a neutral position or with a slight lordosis (extension),” says Flores. “Most importantly, don’t allow the front knee to bend too much inward or outward.”
Erin says: “It’s a great concluding exercise. Remember to keep the knee behind the toe. Do equal lunges with both legs and keep the upper body erect ”.
5. Bulgarian split squat
Is this movement really essential for Bulgarian athletes? The myths may not correspond to reality but this is now the commonly used name for a rather valid exercise, if you transform the common variant (shown here) as proposed by the well-known Canadian athletic trainer Charles Poliquin, who says that raising the rear leg too much (by supporting it on a bench or even higher) reduces the stability of the forward leg, thus limiting the potential for strength and increasing the risk of injury, as well as unnecessary stress on the spine. His solution? The exercise ranked fifth in this ranking: a split squat with which you lift the back leg only 15 cm from the floor.
AREAS MOST TRAINED: Quadriceps, buttocks.
BENEFITS: This movement focuses on each leg individually, so you can pay full attention to each one without the strong leg compensating for the weak one (as can happen with bilateral exercises). In other words, the weaknesses of the development of strength and mass can no longer hide.
EXECUTION: Holding a dumbbell in each hand, bring one foot forward and place the rear foot on a platform or bench, with the back of the foot facing down. Bend the knee forward to lower yourself, making sure that the forward knee does not go beyond the toe (if it does, lengthen the stride). When the knee makes a 90 ° angle, reverse the movement, pushing through the heel of the foot forward to return to a standing position. Do not block the knee joint in a violent way.
Erin says: “It’s a fixed point in my routine. Like other one-sided exercises, start with the non-dominant leg. It is always better to train the weak points when you are fresh ”.
4. Hack Squat
Although the barbell version of the hack squat – lifting a barbell placed behind the body – is perfectly acceptable, especially for those who train at home, we have chosen the machine hack squat commonly performed in gyms. It is the one with disc load and that tilts the body slightly backwards. With the limits set by the machine you will have a little more confidence than squatting with free weights, which becomes very important as the fatigue increases during the workout. This means that hacks are a great mid-workout option and bridge the squat to other movements like leg presses and lunges.
MOST TRAINED AREAS: Mainly quadriceps and glutes, secondly the hamstrings.
BENEFITS: “This exercise is performed in a functional weight bearing position, just like the standard squat,” Flores points out. “The machine hack squat allows you to use a slightly heavier weight without sacrificing too much form, as you would with the barbell squat, because the back has support, which reduces the risk of injury. It’s an important thing when the goal is to increase mass and strength ”.
EXECUTION:Enter the hack squat machine, placing your shoulders and back against the pads. Place your feet in the middle of the platform, shoulder-width apart, and always keep them well supported on the platform. Keeping your torso erect and your core contracted, release the blocks and slowly lower yourself, stopping when your thighs are just beyond parallel to the platform. At this point, push hard upward to return to the starting position, keeping the knees slightly bent even at the top to protect them from hyperextension. “For the execution of any squat movement, I always recommend avoiding excessive internal or external rotation of the knees – such as X-shaped legs or with knees and toes pointing outwards – and to keep the knees shoulder-width apart throughout the movement, “he says. Flores. “The weight must be felt on the heels, not on the toes”.
Erin says: “I use this exercise mainly to work out my quadriceps. I put my feet up on the platform and keep them close. I also perform partials at the high point to increase pumping “.
3. Romanian deadlift
Quadriceps are a very powerful four-headed beast and if you don’t develop equally strong hamstrings, your knees will always be at risk of injury. For this there is the Romanian Deadlift, or RDL. This movement trains the hamstrings from the hips, a necessary addition to the hamstring routine that would otherwise be dominated by leg curl variants (sit, stand, lie down) that train the muscle from the knee.
AREAS MOST TRAINED: Back of the thighs.
BENEFITS: It may seem repetitive to you but as with all the other exercises in this ranking, the correct form of execution is essential to obtain results with the Romanian deadlift. Keep your back flat and your core contracted. During the ascent and descent, slide the barbell over the front of the legs. This way you will build massive, massive and protruding hamstrings. If you lower your lower back during the execution, you will make the fortune of your physiotherapist.
EXECUTION:Stand erect and support a barbell in front of your thighs using a prone grip. Stand your feet shoulder-width apart and bend your knees slightly. Keeping your chest high, arms straight and core contracted to maintain the natural arch in your lower back, lean forward by bending at the waist, pushing your pelvis back until your torso is roughly parallel to the floor or up. at which you feel a good stretch in the hamstrings. At the low point, keep your back flat and your head in a neutral position. The bar must always remain very close or in contact with the legs. Contract the hamstrings and glutes to reverse the movement, bringing the bar back to the starting position. “The movement must be generated by extending the hips – pushing them forward – and not by extending the lower back,” says Flores. “In other words, don’t do the lifting with your chest, arms and back.”
Says Erin: “I usually do this exercise standing on top of a rubber disc or footplate, so the stretch is better. If you don’t have a lot of flexibility, focus on lowering the load and stop just before your back curves. Always keep your back flat and shoulders back ”.
2. Front squat
As you know, the barbell squat ranks first in this ranking but the runner-up is a favorite of many, especially those who want to build massive quads and prefer the more direct line of resistance offered by holding the barbell in front of the body instead of on the back.
MOST TRAINED AREAS: Emphasis on quads, plus glutes, hamstrings, calves and core.
BENEFITS: “The classic and front squats are great exercises for increasing leg, back and core strength and for positively influencing anabolic metabolism,” says Dustin Kirchofner, certified fitness trainer at Yuma United MMA and owner of Modern Warfare Fitness. “As for which one is best, it depends on posture, technique, past injuries and personal preferences. For example, if you have poor external rotation of the shoulders, then classic squats may not be the ideal solution. Due to poor mobility of the shoulders and thoracic vertebrae, you may have trouble positioning the bar correctly on your back. In this case, front squats would probably be a much better choice ”.
EXECUTION:Place the supports of the power rack at mid-chest height or just below and secure the safety bars at a height between the hips and knees. Approach the barbell, crossing your arms to create a support cradle formed by the anterior heads of the delts and the upper part of the pectorals. Keep your chest up, lower back, and abs tight. Look forward as you step back into a position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees and hips as if to sit, until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor, then reverse direction by pushing through your heels and pushing your hips forward to return to a standing position. “Keep your neck and back straight and your elbows high throughout the lift,” recommends Kirchofner.
Says Erin: “If you have trouble holding the bar in the turn position, try wrapping wrist bands around the bar and grasping the end of the bands. This will help you to keep the bar in the right position ”.
1. Barbell Squat
We know, putting the barbell squat first is as surprising as Donald Trump’s publicity stunts. But what else can we do? He does not call himself “king of exercises” by chance. Arguably, no other exercise is quite as effective, not only for the muscles of the lower body, which it trains directly, but also for all the other muscles: shoulders, chest and back and down to the core, all of which are activated to maintain the right posture and balance over the repetitions.
AREAS MOST TRAINED: Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves and core.
BENEFITS: “Legs need to be strong, from ankles to hips, and barbell squats train the core lower body actuators, stabilizers and synergistic muscles,” says Kirchofner. “The quadriceps and hamstrings are the muscle groups that primarily affect the stability and movement of the knees. The quadriceps come into play during knee extension, while the hamstrings are directly related to the bending of the knees and pushing against the floor, as in the case of the short sprint. Ultimately, squats develop muscle growth, strength and power, while also strengthening the stabilizers and core ”.
EXECUTION: Spread your feet shoulder width apart and place a barbell on your upper back. Bend your knees slightly and turn your toes outward. Keeping your head in a neutral position, abs tight and torso erect, bend your knees and hips to slowly lower yourself as if to sit on a chair. Lower yourself as low as you can, ideally to the point where your thighs are parallel to the floor or below, keeping the natural arch in the lower back. Then push hard through your heels and straighten your hips and knees to return to a standing position.
Erin says: “The advantage of exercises with free weights is represented by the many variations possible. Experiment with the barbell position on the back (high / low), with the position of the feet (near / far) and also with the range of motion. I started doing rack squats to focus on the top third of the movement. It allows me to use heavier weights and mimics the range of motion used for jumping ”.