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11 Of The Best Leg Exercises

male performing squat exercise
With these exercises, you'll never want to skip leg day again. You'll find recovery tips and more in our article. So, why not add these exercises to your next workout?

Looking to strengthen the muscles in your legs but not sure where to start? You’re in the right place. We’ll run you through some of the best leg exercises that you can do from the comfort of your own home or in the gym. And to make sure you’re going about it in a safe way, we’ve included some top tips on recovery and some important things to consider when it comes to leg day.

What muscles are in your legs?

Before we dive into the exercises, it’s time for a quick biology lesson. If you want to work on your legs, it’s worth knowing the types of leg muscles you’ll be working on first. So to make it easier, we’ll start at the top of your leg and make our way down to your ankles.

The main muscles are in the following order (top of your leg to the bottom:)1

  • glute muscles
  • quadriceps (rectus femoris, vastus intermedius, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis)
  • adductor magnus
  • gracilis
  • hamstring muscle complex
  • sartorius
  • calf muscles (gastrocnemius & soleus)

11 exercises to work your legs


Let’s get down to the details. What are some of the best exercises you can do to strengthen your legs? If you’re new to this kind of thing, don’t worry. We’ve included four simple moves that you can create a routine with, without having to leave the front door. Or if you’ve got a gym membership and you’d like to make the most of it, check out seven different exercises you can do on leg day.

At-home exercises for your leg muscles

Lunges

A very popular exercise for working multiple muscles in your legs is the humble lunge. They’re said to work your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, transverse abdominis, obliques, multifidus, and erector spinae.

Here's how to do a lunge:

Here's how to do a lunge:

  1. Start standing up with your feet about hip distance apart. 
  2. Take a big step forward with one leg, keeping the front foot flat and the heel of the back foot slightly lifted. 
  3. Keeping your core engaged and your back straight, slowly bend your knee until you reach a 90-degree angle. But don’t let it bend further than your toes. 
  4. Then push up from your front foot back to your original standing position. 
  5. And repeat.

Bridge

Known as the bridge exercise, or bridge pose if you’re a yogi, this is a great move for working your glutes and hamstrings.

Here's how to do a bridge:

Here's how to do a bridge:

  1. Start lying on your back on an exercise mat. Bend your knees to a 90-degree angle with your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Your feet should be facing forward and your thighs should be parallel to each other.
  3. Lift your bum up from the floor with your hips facing upwards and keep your arms and shoulders on the ground. 
  4. With control, lower yourself back to the starting position and repeat.

Calf raises

Calf raises

Another great exercise that doesn’t require any equipment are calf raises. This targets your calves and lower leg muscles.

Here’s how to give it a go: 

  1. Stand up tall with your feet hip width apart. 
  2. Slowly raise both heels at the same time and squeeze your calves. 
  3. Slowly lower your heels until you’re back at your starting position, and repeat.

Leg lifts

Leg lifts

Much like calf raises, leg lifts are perfect for strengthening your legs at home. Targeting your hamstrings, hip flexors, and more, they’re a great move to incorporate into your workout routine.

Here’s how to do a leg raise:

  1. On your exercise mat, lie down with your palms facing the floor. 
  2. Slowly lift both legs up until you feel your lower back starts to peel off the ground. 
  3. Then slowly lower your legs, with control, until they’re back on the floor. And repeat.

Gym exercises for your leg muscles


Leg press

The leg press machine is a popular spot at the gym for building your leg strength. It is often thought to be a machine assisted version of a squat, but more on those later.

Here’s how to use the leg press:

Here’s how to use the leg press:

  1. Set the machine to a manageable weight and sit down on the seat. 
  2. Place your feet on the plate and make sure they’re roughly shoulder width apart. 
  3. Slowly extend your legs, but don’t lock your knees. 
  4. Just before they would naturally lock, bend your legs so the plate lowers, until your knees reach a 45-degree angle or slightly smaller. And repeat.

Deadlift


Okay, so this one sounds scary... but with practice you can get it, one step at a time! This is simply the act of picking up a barbell from the floor; just make sure you’re paying attention to your form.

Here’s how to do a traditional deadlift:

Here’s how to do a traditional deadlift:

  1. Stand with your feet hip distance apart, with the barbell just in front of you on the floor. 
  2. Bend slightly at the hips and knees, then slide your hands down your thighs until you can grab the bar, using an overhand grip. Make sure your hands are shoulder width apart. 
  3. Engage your core, keep your back straight, and start to lift the bar. Use the energy in your legs to stand rather than a pulling motion. 
  4. Once you’re upright and the bar has passed your knees, pause, then slowly lower until the barbell is on the floor.

It might be worth practicing without any (or very light) plates on the bar to begin with, until you’re confident with your form.

Back squat


Everyone’s favourite move, the squat, has so many variations. But we’re going to highlight three key versions for you to try, starting with the back squat!

Here’s how to do one:

Here’s how to do one:

  1. Stand strong with your feet hip width apart and toes pointing slightly out. 
  2. Place the barbell behind your head, resting on your traps – aka the muscles on each side of your neck. 
  3. Sit back into your hips and bend your knees, moving your bum towards the floor. Keep looking ahead. 
  4. Once your thighs are parallel with the ground, take a moment, then push through your feet back to starting position, and repeat.

Front squat


You can also try a front squat, which is essentially the same thing but the barbell is in front of you.

Here’s how to do a front squat:

Here’s how to do a front squat:

  1. Keep your feet hip width apart, toes pointing a little outwards.
  2. Using an underhand grip, rest the bar across your front so that it touches the front part of your shoulders. Make sure your hands are just outside of your shoulders and push your elbows forward. 
  3. Sit back into your hips and bend your knees, moving your bum towards the floor. Keep looking ahead. 
  4. Keep your weight back and your chest up so you don’t fall forward, and repeat.

Goblet squat


Switching out your barbell for a dumbbell or kettlebell, a goblet squat is great for working your glutes, quadriceps, and hamstrings.

Here’s how to do one:

Here’s how to do one:

  1. Stand with your feet marginally wider than hip distance apart and toes pointing slightly out. 
  2. Using both hands, hold the kettlebell or dumbbell right in the centre of your chest with your elbows bent outwards. 
  3. Look straight forward and engage your core, keeping your back straight. 
  4. Move your hips back and bend your knees and lower yourself down until your hips are lower than your knees and your bum is hovering above the floor. 
  5. Keep your feet flat on the ground while squatting and your elbows just in from your knees. 
  6. Press through your heels upwards until you’re at standing position again, all while keeping your back straight. 
  7. At the top, press your hips forward, pause, then repeat.

Step up


Fans of retro aerobics classes might remember this one. Step ups are a simple way to work your legs, but you may need a step or box at the gym to do them.

Here’s how to do step ups:

Here’s how to do step ups:

  1. Stand in front of the step with your feet facing forward, hip width apart. 
  2. If you want to, you can hold a dumbbell in each hand. 
  3. Place one foot on the step, using it to push your body upwards until you can place the other foot on there too. 
  4. Stand tall and squeeze your glutes, then place the first foot back on the floor, slowly lowering yourself down. 
  5. Repeat, alternating each leg.

Seated leg curl


And last up in our list of leg exercises is the leg curl. This is a machine exercise that you can do at the gym, which targets your hamstrings.

Here’s how to do a seated leg curl:

Here’s how to do a seated leg curl:

  1. Sit comfortably so that your bum and back are supported by the cushions and set your weight.
  2. Place your legs in between the padded levers, with the lower one just below your calves and the upper one just below your knees.
  3. Grasp the handles on the side of the machine and lift your legs so they’re straight ahead of you.
  4. Slowly lower again, and repeat.

Things to consider when exercising your leg muscles


Now you know the moves, it’s time to get to grips with creating a routine. Depending on your experience, you can create a progressive routine to help strengthen your legs, but you have to figure out the right amount of reps and weights. Here’s a bit more guidance…

Reps

Reps (aka repetitions) are the number of times you do a short exercise. For example, how many leg curls or lunges you do. As a rule of thumb, if you’re using light or no extra weights you can do more reps, and if you’re using heavy weights you can do less.

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 10-15 reps for muscular endurance, 8-12 reps for muscular strength, and 4-6 reps (with heavier weights) for increased muscle size.2

Sets

You can also break your workout into sets. For example, you could do three sets of 10 reps of each exercise, meaning you’d do 30 reps in total with 3 breaks in between.

Weights

As we mentioned earlier, it’s probably not the best idea to start with heavy weights. Start lighter and work on your form. Then, when you feel ready, slowly increase the heaviness of your weights as you grow stronger and more confident.

How to recover after a leg workout

It’s all well and good putting in the effort on leg day, but recovery is equally as important if you want to keep it up. To help your legs recover, here are some proven techniques:

  • get your protein in. Research shows that 20-40g, or 0.4-0.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight, can support with aiding muscle growth.
  • stay hydrated. Drinking water is recommend generally for keeping healthy, but this is super important when it comes to muscle recovery. 
  • consider taking supplements. Creatine supplementation has been shown to help increase physical performance in successive bursts of short-term, high intensity exercise.
  • try massage. Whether you use a foam roller or a massage gun. Your muscles may thank you if you massage them after exercise, as a 2020 review of scientific studies has a small but beneficial effect on flexibility and DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) after exercise.5 
  • do some stretching. There’s a reason why we stretch after working out. In fact, some studies have shown that stretching helps to reduce muscle soreness after exercise.6

The final say

Feeling inspired and ready to get your legs pumping? Just remember to take it steady and build up your strength slowly. If you’re after more information like this, check out our ultimate guide to muscle health for additional tips, tricks, and advice.

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