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Top 10 Leg Exercises to Build Muscle

split squats

If you want to develop strong and powerful legs, you need to think multi-joint as opposed to single joint.  Multi-joint movements incorporate more than one joint while performing an exercise. As an example, take the back squat. Your hips, knees and ankles are moving. Compare that to leg extensions, a single joint exercise, where only your knee joint is moving.

Multi-joint movements recruit more muscle fibers during motion which in turn build more mass.  More muscles are involved at the same time so you get more bang for your back.  In addition, there is a greater release of the human growth hormone and testosterone during these types of movements. Both are great for building muscle which helps to positively affect your anabolic metabolism.

Remember leg day should incorporate all the large muscle groups of the lower body: quadriceps (four muscles), hamstrings (three muscles), glutes (three muscles) and calves (two muscles).  On top of that your body has stabilizer muscles which also come into play during multi-joint movements.

As you go through this top ten list and incorporate them into your routine, remember to use proper form along with appropriate sets and reps for your goals.  This will allow you to gain the most benefit from these exercises.

Back Squat

This is arguably the best exercise for building your posterior chain.  Not only does the squat build strength in your quads, hamstrings, glutes and calves, but your core, shoulders and back muscles also come into play.  Do this exercise early in your routine when you are not fatigued.  If done later on, your form could be compromised and you may not be able to lift as much weight.

Targeted Muscle Groups: quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, core

back squat
By Em Bhoo (http://www.flickr.com/photos/embhoo/5759454850/) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
How-To: In the racked position, place the bar on your traps.  Hold chest up and out. Keep head aligned with the spine in a neutral position. Do not extend the neck and look up while squatting.  This puts the neck in an awkward position and causes unnecessary pressure on the spinal column.  Once you feel comfortable with the bar on your back, lift the bar off the rack.

Position feet shoulder to hip width apart toes pointing forward.  Keep back flat, chest up and abdominals tight, slowly flex at the hips first pushing the glutes back as if sitting in a chair.  Knees will follow.  Heels remain on the floor and knees should not move laterally, medially or travel over the toes.

The depth each person can go varies.  Typically dropping until the upper thighs are parallel to the floor is fine.  Some prefer to drop below parallel, but the main thing to remember is you drop and stop before one of the following things occur: heels come off the floor, the trunk flexes forward or your pelvis tilts under.  If one of these things occur, come up slightly until you are back in proper position.  That will be your end range.

Once at the bottom, extend through your hips and knees keeping the back straight, chest up and abs tight.

 

Deadlift

The deadlift clearly is an exercise where you can experience tremendous strength gains since a lot of weight can be added to the bar.  It’s a multi-joint exercise recruiting lots of muscle fibers, increasing mass and elevating hormone levels.  Fit this exercise into your routine where you can fit it into your back day as opposed to leg day.  I only suggest this so that you don’t completely fatigue your legs and can’t complete the rest of your leg day at your best.

Targeted Muscle Groups: hamstrings, glutes, core

How-To: Deadlifts are one of the most effective exercises for developing the pure strength.  It’s a full body exercise, a compound exercise, building total body muscle.  Focus on using good form for every single rep.  Proper form will reduce your chance of getting injured and allows you to use your legs, hips and back efficiently.

To begin load a barbell with weight.  You may want to use a weight you know you can handle easily to ensure your form is on point first.  Approach the bar with a stance that is hip width apart.  Shins should be right up against the bar.

Flex at the hips and drop down to grip the bar. Back is flat.  As straight as possible.  Keep your spine neutral all the way through the movement.

Use an overhand grip with both hands if you can.  If not, an alternating grip is fine too.  Place your hands just on the outside of your legs.  Your shins should still be on the bar.  Knees and hips flexed.  This is your starting position.

To perform the movement, take a deep breath and tighten your core. Back is straight. Chest is up.  Eyes should be looking forward.  Drive through your heels and lift the bar up by extending through your knees and hips to a standing position.  Drive your hips towards the bar at the top of the movement.

Pause and then slowly lower the bar by bending at the hips and knees.  Keep the bar close to your body on the way up and down.

 

 

 

Bulgarian Split Squat

This unilateral exercise is not an easy one, but it does a tremendous job of developing your quads.  The exercise does not allow for compensation which easily can happen with a bilateral exercise.  Focus is placed directly on one leg at a time.  Balance also is a benefit since one foot is placed on a bench behind you.  Not much weight is needed and this exercise can be done in the middle of routine.  Seek failure on this one.

Targeted Muscle Groups: quadriceps, glutes, core

How-To: In the starting position, begin by standing in a staggered stance with one foot in front of other. Knees are slightly bent.  Your back foot should have your heel raised with weight on the ball of your foot.  Torso is upright with eyes looking forward.  Be sure to maintain good posture during the movement.

To perform the movement, lower straight down until your front thigh is parallel to the floor.  Make sure your front knee does not travel over your toes during the movement keeping your front shin vertical. Pause briefly in the lunge and then push back up through your heel returning to the starting position.  Extend through the knee and hips completing the rep.  Then continue on the same leg to finish the set.

 

Hack Squat

By George Stepanek assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons
Most of the exercises on this list are free weight exercises since you will get the most benefits from these types of exercises.  However, the hack squat which is a machine exercise, is worthy of this list.  It is an effective quad builder and minimizes the stress placed on your back.  This is a great exercise to perform when you are fatigued since your stabilizer muscles don’t come into play.  Do this after squatting but before those unilateral movements.  Try different foot placements which will target different muscle groups.  Higher is more hamstrings and glutes while lower is more quads.

Targeted Muscle Groups: quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes

How-To: Place your shoulders and back against the pads. Set your feet comfortably on the platform. Feet remain flat during movement. Unlock the safety bar and slowly lower down, stopping when thighs are just past parallel to the platform.

Then explosively extend back to the starting position driving through your heels. Control your tempo and avoid hyperextension at the top.  This not only prevents injury, but really puts some tension on your quads.

 

 

Romanian Deadlift

By self (http://fitness.scoobysworkshop.com/legs.htm) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)
This exercise is great for developing the hamstrings which may be overlooked from all the quad focused exercises that are on this list. Movement is around the hip joint and you can really overload the bar with weight.  Do this exercise as a transition between your quad focused on hamstring focused exercises since the glutes are involved in each.

Proper form is of utmost importance for this exercise.  You need to maintain a flat back and keep your core engaged during the movement.  Rounding of the back is a big no-no.  Take it easy at first if you have never done this perform.

Targeted Muscle Groups: hamstrings, glutes

How-To: Grab a barbell with a pronated grip, meaning palms facing down.  Feet should be shoulder width apart, back straight and knee slightly bent.  To perform the movement, slowly bend forward at the waist keeping your back straight.  Lower the bar towards your toes.  Continue down until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Then while focusing on the hamstrings, slowly come up contracting your hamstrings.  Keep your back straight.  Inhale on the way down and exhale on the way up.

Keep your movement slow and controlled.  No jerking of the weigh up as this can cause an injury.  Drop the weight if you need too, to ensure proper form. If you already have back issues, I would suggest to stay away from this exercise.

Dumbbell Lunges

Lunges is another multi-joint movement focusing on hip and knee extension which stimulates the glutes and hamstrings.  There are different variations for this exercise.  For example, you can do this in place, walking, forward, or backward.  Dumbbells or a barbell can be added for resistance. Walking lunges are most preferred since they are the most functional variation. Perform this exercise when later in your workout.  In fact, they make a great finisher to your leg workout.

Targeted Muscle Groups: quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings

How-To: Select a set of dumbbells with a comfortable weight to start.  Stand with your feet shoulder width apart holding the dumbbells down at your sides.  During this movement, you want to be sure to keep your back straight with an upright posture.  It is also important that your front knee does not travel over the toes of your front foot.  Keep your knee in line with your foot to prevent injury from occurring.

To perform the movement, step forward with one leg, flex your knees and drop your hips towards the floor.  Try to lunge down so that your back knee almost touches the floor.

Then drive through your front heel extending both knees to stand back up.  Bring your back foot forward and repeat on the opposite side.

 

 

 

 

Leg Press

This exercise is not always a favorite simply because of the poor form trainers often see in the gym.  It can cause lower back injury if performed incorrectly, but if used correctly it can be very beneficial. It helps to provide variety and allows for different foot placements.  This allows you to target areas that need a little more dedicated work.  So, keep your glutes and lower back on the pad and try different techniques such as rest-pause and drop-sets for added intensity.

Targeted Muscle Groups: quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes

How-To: Depending on the machine, you will either need to place plates or select a weight on the stack.   Set your weight and sit down on the machine.  Place your feet on the platform with a shoulder-width stance.

Release the safety latches if necessary and extend your knees pushing the platform either up or forward.  Extend as far as you can without locking your knees out. Note the 90-degree angle between your torso and legs.  This is your starting position.

To perform the movement, lower the platform under your knees form a 90-degree angle.  Then using your quadriceps with focus placed on your heels, push the platform back to the starting position

 

 

Front Squat

By Everkinetic (http://everkinetic.com/) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
The front squat is another great exercise to build your legs.  This one places greater emphasis on your quads, so if you need to work on developing this muscle group, give this exercise a serious go.  Like the back squat, do this exercise early in your routine as well.  Strength in your back and core are important to maintain a neutral spine.

Targeted Muscle Groups: quadriceps (emphasized), hamstrings, glutes, calves, core

How-To: Set up the barbell at a comfortable height.  Decide if you want to start with weight at first. Bring your arms so that they are about parallel to the floor under the bar.  Elbows should be high.  This is important during this lift.  The bar should rest on your shoulders (deltoid area) and cross your arms in the front.  You can also do this exercise holding the bar in your fingertips.  The bar would rest in your first two fingers and not within the palm.  This variation does require more mobility in the wrist and shoulders.

Once you are comfortable with the bar on your shoulders, lift the bar off the rack pushing with your legs and straighten up.  Step back and assume a shoulder-width stance.  Toes should be slightly pointed out.  Head should be up with a neutral spine.  Remember to keep a straight back and chest up during the movement.  You do not want your chest to fall forward during this exercise.

To perform the movement, slowly lower the bar by flexing your hips, then knees as you maintain a straight back.  Keep your head up and chest high.  Try to lower just below parallel to the floor if you can.  Be sure your knees do not travel over your toes.  Knees going over the toes will put stress on your knees.

Once at the bottom slowly extend out of the squat straighten the knees and hips.  Push off the floor using the middle of your feet.  Return back to the starting position.

 

 

Step-Ups

Most people walk up stairs on a regular basis. So, this exercise is arguably the most functional exercise on the list.  There are many different variations for this exercise.  Resistance can be applied in the form of dumbbells, barbells, weighted vest, medicine ball, kettlebells or just your own bodyweight.  Since this is unilateral exercise, each leg benefits from the full force of the movement and there is no compensation going on.  Balance and power are added benefits to this exercise.

Targeted Muscle Groups: quadriceps, glutes

How-To: Decide on a lead leg and step up on a platform driving and extending through your hips and knees placing your entire foot on the platform. Keep your head looking forward which will help maintain a straight back.  Bring your other leg, the trailing leg, up to the platform and stand up straight with weight evenly on both feet on the box.

To step down, shift your weight back to the lead foot and drop the trailing foot off the box back to the floor.  Bring your lead foot off the box and stand up straight with both feet on the floor.

 

 

 

 

 

Hip Thrusts

This exercise is a great way to build the hip.  Tension does not let off the glutes during the entire set and by the end of the set you are feeling that deep burn.  Muscle activation is tremendous during this stable movement and your hips go through a complete range of motion building strength.  Power and leverage during exercise are added benefits from this exercise.

Targeted Muscle Groups: glutes

How-To: Position a loaded barbell across your hips. Use a pad or towel for comfort.  Face your hips forward and over your knees. Feet are firmly planted on the floor. Your back should be against a bench and remain stable during the movement. Keeping the bar stable, lift your hips up driving your glutes and heels.  Knees stay in line with toes.  Lift as high as you can and keep the spine neutral.  At the top, hips are extended, thighs are parallel and knees are at a 90-degree angle.  Return slowly and under control maintaining tension the entire time.

 

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