The Best Leg Exercises

Legs are quite often neglected when it comes time to work out. You see it all the time in the gym, a big bulging chest and shoulders on top of stick legs. What’s crazy is some of these guys are personal trainers (here’s a hint, steer clear of them and their fitness advice). It’s certainly a shame because the exercises that work the legs are the most beneficial to your workout routine. Especially if you are wanting to lose the gut. The big exercises such as the lunge and squat are difficult, but they burn the most calories per repetition than almost any other exercise. These exercises not only hit the legs but recruit the core muscles as well helping to improve your posture at the same time.

On top of being neglected in the gym, our legs are neglected at home as well. Between

Your legs may not be what you see every time you look in the mirror but trust me, neglect them and everyone will see it, all the time. So, stop doing your once a week “leg-day” routine. To spend four days a week devoted to your upper-body is absurd. To get more information on how to organize your workout routines I suggest reading What’s the Best Workout Routine

Leg Exercises:

Quads

Squat

Split Squat

Lunge

Cable Adduction

Glutes/Hamstrings

Hip Raise

Reverse Hip Raise

Barbell/Dumbbell Deadlift

Barbell/Dumbbell Straight-Leg Deadlift

Kettlebell Swings

Barbell/Dumbbell Stepup

Cable Hip Abduction

Calves

Standing Calf Raise


Quads


Squat

Target muscles: Primary muscles are the quadriceps. You will also be engaging your core and almost every other muscle in your lower body. Including your glutes, hamstrings, and even your calves.

How to perform the Squat:

Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keep your head up and shoulders down and back.

You can extend your hands out in front of you or place your hands on your hips.

Focus your eyes on something slightly above you to keep your head up. This will ensure your chest stays upright and out. Brace your core like someone is about to punch you in the gut.

Start the movement in your hips but don’t lean too far forward. Go down till your thighs are at least parallel to the floor.

Pause for one second then push both of your heels into the ground while driving the hips forward. Return all the way up to the starting position.

Pro Tip:

  • To get good at the squat start by sitting upright in a chair. Slide your feet towards you till they are underneath you but are still flat on the ground. Shift your weight forward, drive your heels into the ground, and stand up. Practice sitting down and standing up a few times to get comfortable with the movement. Adjust your stance as needed.
  • When you are at the bottom of the movement try pushing out with your feet like you are trying to split the ground beneath you. This will help engage the glutes allowing you to lift more weight.
  • If your body is in the correct position with your weight on your heals you should be able to lift and wiggle your toes throughout the whole movement.
  • This is the standard for the squat no matter what modification you are performing.

Modifications:

  • Prisoner Squat: Hands behind your head
  • Stability Ball Squat: With a stability ball between the wall and your back. Lean back more on this one.
  • Jump Squat: Perform an explosive jumping action
  • Iso-Jump Squat: Hold the down position of the squat for 2-5 secs then jump. Feel the burn!
  • Barbell Squat: With a barbell on your shoulders. Keep your shoulders back and stand tall.
  • Sumo Squat: Feet wide. Keep your knees in line with your toes!
  • Barbell Front Squat: Elbows bent and out in front with your wrists bent back so the hands can hold the bar in front of you.
  • Barbell Siff Squat: Stay on your toes the whole time.
  • Overhead Barbell Squat: Arms straight overhead holdings barbell. Be sure your torso stays upright!
  • Dumbbell Squat: Hold dumbbells at your side
  • Goblet Squat: Hold one dumbbell out in front of you like a goblet

Do it at home:

To do the squat and all of the modifications listed above you will need the following equipment:

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Split Squat

Target muscles: Primary muscles are the quadriceps. You will also be engaging your core and almost every other muscle in your lower body. Including your glutes, hamstrings, and even your calves.

How to perform the Barbell Split Squat:

With a barbell on your shoulders stand with feet staggered about two to three feet apart. Your toes should be line with your knees and the heel of your back foot off the ground.

Stand tall with your shoulders back and brace your core. Allow your back knee to drop as you bend the front knee to a 90-degree angle.

Focus on your back knee going straight down as opposed to bending the front knee. This will help keep you from leaning forward.

At the bottom of the movement, your knee should almost touch the ground. Pause and then return to the starting position.

Pro Tip:

  • Be sure to focus your eyes on something just above eye level and keep them there. This will keep your chest up and out.
  • Drive your front heal as your return to the starting position. You should be able to lift your front toes throughout the movement.

Modifications:

  • Elevated-Front-Foot Split Squat: Place your front foot on an elevated step
  • Elevated-Rear-Foot Split Squat: Place your back foot on an elevated step
  • Barbell Front Split Squat: Elbows bent and out in front with your wrists bent back so the hands can hold the bar in front of you.
  • Bulgarian Split Squat: Back foot on a bench
  • Dumbbell Split Squat
  • Dumbbell Split Squat Jump: Alternate feet as you jump explosively.

Do it at home:

To do the Split Squat and all of the modifications listed above you will need the following equipment:

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Lunge

Target muscles: Primary muscles are the quadriceps. You will also be engaging your core and almost every other muscle in your lower body. Including your glutes, hamstrings, and even your calves.

How to perform the Lunge:

Stand tall with good posture and feet in line with your hips. Place your hands on your hips and brace your core.

Step forward and slowly lower your front knee to 90 degrees. Do not let your front knee go past your toes. Your back knee should almost touch the ground.

Pause at the bottom of the movement and then drive your front heal and straighten your leg to return to the starting position.

Continue with the same leg until you achieve the prescribed number of sets.

Pro Tip:

When performing the lunge imagine your body moving up and down as opposed to back and forth. Always keep your chest up and your core tight. The lunge can be performed with a barbell or a dumbbell. The modifications below will indicate which to use in the name of the movement. If it does not specify than it may be done with either

Modifications:

  • Alternating Lunge: Switch feet after every repetition
  • Walking Lunge: Continue the movement forward as opposed to pushing back to the starting position.
  • Reverse Lunge: Step back as opposed to stepping to forward
  • Box Lunge: Step forward onto a box or step about six inches high
  • Side Lunge: Step to the side as opposed to stepping front or back.
  • Stepover Lunge: Lunge onto a step. Keep the front foot on the step and continue over with the other foot into another lunge. Then reverse the movement.
  • Dumbbell Lunge Rotation: Hold a dumbbell to your chest. When at the bottom of the lunge position rotate your torso towards the front leg and then back to the front.
  • Overhead Dumbbell Lunge: Hold dumbbells overhead
  • Dumbbell side lunge and touch: Lunge to the side and touch the dumbbells to the floor. Keep your shoulders back and core tight.

Do it at home:

To do the Split Squat and all of the modifications listed above you will need the following equipment:

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Cable Adduction

Target muscles: This exercise targets the adductors muscles. These are located on the inside of your thigh and pull your legs together.

How to perform the Cable Adduction:

Use an ankle strap attached to your right ankle on a low cable pulley.

With your right side facing the weight stack take a big step to the side away from the weight stack.

Your feet should be wider than shoulder-width with your right foot extended out to your side. Keep your left knee bent slightly.

Pull your right foot in with out bending your knee. Pull it all the way across your left leg. Pause for one second and then return to the starting position.

Pro Tip:

There are a few thing to keep in mind when performing this exercise. First, the leg you’re are exercising should remain straight the entire time. Second, hold the cross-member of a crossover machine for support. Lastly, keep tension on the cable at all times. Don’t rest the weight stack until finished.

Modifications:

  • Valslide Hip Adduction: You can do this on on the floor with a couple Valslides under your knees.

Do it at home:

To do this one at home you will need a Crossover Cable Machine or you can do the modification with a Valslide.

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Glutes/Hamstrings


Hip Raise

Target muscles: Glutes and hamstrings. To perform this exercise you will also need to engage your abdonminals and lower back to stabilize your hips.

How to perform the Hip Raise:

Lie face up on the ground with your knees bent to about a 90 degree angle. Place your arms out to your sides.

Drive your heels in to the ground and push your hips up towards the ceiling. Squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement and pause for up to several seconds and then slowly return to the starting position.

Pro Tip:

Drive your heals as opposed to pressing with your toes when you are at the top of the movement. Also, turn your palms up to minimize pushing with your hands.

Modifications:

  • Weighted Hip Raise: Hold a weight plate on your hips
  • Hip Raise With Knee Squeeze: Squeeze a med ball between your legs
  • Stability Ball Hip Raise: With feet on a stability ball
  • Single-Leg Hip Raise: Keep one leg straight
  • Stability Ball Hip Raise Leg Curl: With legs straight and on a stability ball. Raise your hips and bend your knees to a 90 degree angle.
  • Single-Leg Stability Ball Hip Raise Leg Curl: Same as above but keep on leg straight and up
  • Sliding Leg Curl: Use a couple of Valslides under your feet

Do it at home:

To do this one and its modifications at home you need:

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Reverse Hip Raise

Target muscles: Glutes and hamstrings. To some extent you will also engage your lower back and core.

How to perform the Reverse Hip Raise:

Lying face down on a bench or Roman chair allow legs to hang down as low as possible. Try not to let them rest on the floor.

Raise your legs till they are inline with your hips and shoulders. Hold for up to several seconds and then return to the starting position.

Pro Tip:

Squeeze your glutes tight at the top of the movement and try to hold it for up to five seconds. Slowly lower your feet back down and don’t let them touch the ground. Do your best to keep your muscles under tension as long as possible.

Modifications:

  • Stability Ball Reverse Leg Raise: On a stability ball with hands flat on the ground

Do it at home:

If you don’t want to invest in a Roman chair this one can easily be accomplished with a Stability Ball.

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Barbell/Dumbbell Deadlift

Target muscles: Glutes and hamstrings. Deadlifts also activate your quadrriceps, core, back, and shoulders.

This is arguably The Best Exercise you can do. It activates heaps of upper and lower body muscles. Although it’s important to do this one correctly and maintain good posture!

How to perform the Barbell/Dumbbell Deadlift:

With weights loaded onto a barbell move close enough to where it is touching your shins. Standing straight with good posture bend your knees and lean forward and grab the bar just wider than shoulder-width. Do not lose the natural arch of your back!

You will have to round your shoulders a little bit to reach the bar but your feet should be planted, butt out, and thighs parallel to the floor.

Begin the movement by pressing your heels into the ground and driving your hips forward. Keep the bar as close to your shins and body as possible. Squeeze your glutes as you stand all the way up. Reverse the movement keeping the bar as close to your body as possible.

Pro Tip:

Ensure good posture with this movement. Don’t allow your knees to straighten before your hips have the chance to pull the weight. Your knees and hips should straighten at the same rate.

Modifications:

  • Wide-Grip Deadlift: Hands well outside of shoulder-width
  • Single-Leg Deadlift: Rest one foot on a bench behind you
  • Sumo Deadlift: Feet wide with toes out. Grab the bar with hands inside the legs about 12 inches apart.
  • Dumbbell Deadlift: Perform the same movement with a pair of dumbbells as opposed to a barbell.
  • Single-Arm Deadlift: Holding a dumbbell in one hand to your side. This offsets the lift making your core work harder

Do it at home:

All you need to perform the Deadlift and the modifications above is the following equipment:

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Barbell/Dumbbell Straight-Leg Deadlift

Target muscles: Glutes and Hamstrings. These will also strength the muscles in your lower back and rear deltoids.

How to perform the Barbell/Dumbbell Straight-Leg Deadlift:

Hold a barbell at arms length just wider than shoulder-width. Stand tall with chest out and shoulders down and back. Brace your core.

Bend at your hips as you move the bar down your body. Keep the bar as close to your body as possible. Besure not to round your back as you lower the bar.

Once your upper body is parallel to the floor pause and then return to the starting position.

Pro Tip:

Focus the movement on your hips. Imagine as if your hips are moving back and forth. When your torso is even to the floor squeeze your glutes and drive your hips forward. This will engage your glutes and help keep the strain off your lower back. Keeping your core stiff will help keep you from rounding your back. Unless specified all the modifications can be performed with dumbbells or a barbell.

Modifications:

  • Dumbbell Straight-Leg Deadlift: Hold a set of dumbbells in front and perform the same movement.
  • Single-Leg Straight-Leg Deadlift: Kick one leg out behind you as you perform the exercise.
  • Rotational Dumbbell Straight-Leg Deadlift: With a dumbbell in one hand kick the opposite leg out behind you and rotate to the stationary foot as you go down.
  • Barbell Good Morning: With a barbell on your shoulders perform the same movement
  • Seated Barbell Good Morning: With a barbell on your shoulders seated on a bench

Do it at home:

To do the straight-leg deadlift and all of its modifications you will need the following:

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Kettlebell Swings

Target muscles: Hamstrings and Glutes. To some extent your quadriceps, core, and shoulder muscles. This is performed in an explosive manner which means it will target the fast twitch muscle fibers.

How to perform the Kettlebell Swing:

From a standing position squat down while holding a kettlebell with an overhand grip. Let the kettlebell hang down between your legs.

Keep your arm straight and loose as you drive your hips forward and thrust the dumbbell out in front of you. Your arm should have enough momentum to push the kettlebell all the way up until your arm is parallel to the floor.

As the weight returns to the starting position squat back down and allow the weight to come between your legs. Repeat the movement for the prescribed number of reps.

Pro Tip:

Focus on your hips with this exercise. Your hips should travel in a back and forth motion as opposed to an up and down motion. Also, Your body should form a 45 degree angle with the floor in the down position.

Modifications:

This can also be performed with a dumbbell or adjustable dumbbell as well.

Do it at home:

To do this one at home you will need a Kettlebell, Dumbbell, or an Adjustable Dumbbell.

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Barbell/Dumbbell Stepup

Target muscles: Glutes and Hamstrings. This exercise will also hit your quadriceps.

How to perform the Barbell/Dumbbell Stepup:

Stand in front of a bench or a step with either a barbell across your shoulders or dumbbells in your hands.

Place one foot on the bench and firmly drive your heel to raise your body straight up. Raise all the way till your leg is straight.

Pause for one second at the top and then slowly lower back down to the floor. Continue with the same leg for the prescribes number of reps and then switch legs.

Pro Tip:

If you can’t keep your balance try staring at one fixed spot. Keep your front foot planted on the bench for the entirety of the exercise. All the modifications below can be performed with a dumbbell or a barbell unless stated otherwise.

Modifications:

  • Lateral Stepup: Step onto a bench from the side as opposed to the front.
  • Crossover Dumbbell Stepup: Same as the lateral stepup but with the outside leg stepping on the bench

Do it at home:

To do this one you will need the following:

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Cable Hip Abduction

Target muscles: Gluteus medius. This muscle is used primarily to move your leg in an outward motion away from your center line.

How to perform the Cable Hip Abduction:

Standing upright at a cable crossover machine use the low pulley with an ankle strap. With your right side facing the weight stack attach the ankle strap  to your left leg.

In the starting position your left leg should cross over your right leg. Stand tall and raise you left leg out to the side as far as you can go.

Pause briefly and then slowly return to the starting position. complete the given number of repetitions and the switch sides and do the other leg.

Pro Tip:

Keep tension on the cable at all times during the exercise. Don’t slouch! Maintain good posture at all times.

Modifications:

This exercise can be done with an exercise band as opposed to a cable machine.

Do it at home:

To do this exercise at home you will need a Cable Crossover Machine or you can use an exercise band

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Calves


Standing Calf Raise

Target muscles: Gastrocnemiums and soleus. Standing or straight leg calf raises target the gastrocnemius muscle as opposed to bent knee calf raises which targeting the soleus.

How to perform the Standing Calf Raise:

Stand with toes on an elevated platform 3-4 inches high. a weight plate makes a suitable platform is you don’t have anything else.

Stand up straight and raise up on your toes as high as you can go. Pause for a moment and then return back to the starting position.

Pro Tip:

This can be done with a barbell on the shoulders or a dumbbell in hand.

Modifications:

  • Single-Leg
  • Single-Leg Dumbbell Bent-Knee Calf Raise: With one knee bent holding a dumbbell.

Do it at home:

to do this one at home you will need the following:

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This is one part of the jeffsmithfitness.com’s The Best Exercise Series. To check out the other exercises in the series go to The Best Exercises main page.


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