Working out your legs is vital for a wide range of reasons. Not only does it allow you to look more symmetrical, but working out your legs will also help with your balance, power, and reducing the chance of injury.
But what are the best leg exercises, and how do you do them? We’re here to give you all the information you need. By the end, you’ll be ready to start your journey to having more powerful and great-looking legs. Let’s get started!
The Importance of Leg Workouts
We’ve all heard the jokes about people skipping leg day. While these jokes and memes can be funny, they hide the warped perception a lot of men and women have that their upper body muscles are much more important than their lower body.
The fact is that legs are the biggest muscle group in our body but somehow get badly overlooked. Whether you are just gaining muscles to look good, or are an athlete looking to improve performance, leg workouts should be a vital part of your workout routine.
Part of the reason you need to work out your legs is aesthetic. If you have incredibly muscular biceps but pencil-thin calf muscles, then it’s going to look odd. For an all-around impressive physique, your legs need to be as impressive as your arms, traps, torso, or any other part of your body.
However, the reason to work out your legs goes way beyond looking good. Let’s look at some other reasons to work out your legs:
Balance – Only training your upper body can make you top-heavy. This reduces your balance as it raises your center of gravity. Leg muscle helps to bring that center of gravity down and increase stability, while also giving you a stronger core.
More Powerful – So much of your power comes through your legs. Even for sports such as boxing, your punches start by planting your legs. Having a stable and powerful base will increase your overall strength.
Prevents Injury and Joint Pain – More upper body muscle means more weight. That weight puts a lot of pressure on your joints, especially your knees. You need stronger muscles around the knee to cope with the added strain, otherwise you’re much more likely to get injuries.
Burn More Calories – Want to get more out of your workout? Well, when your arms are tired you can switch it up and have a leg day. Working out your whole body means you can have a better rest and workout schedule.
What is Muscle Activation, and Why is It Important?
You may have heard that you need to activate your muscles, but what is muscle activation, and why is it important?
If your muscles haven’t been properly worked for a long time, or you’ve suffered an injury, then your muscles can shut down. Here your muscles don’t contract to their full extent, which can affect their performance.
It’s common after an injury that your glutes, hamstring, or quads may need activation. If you feel this is a problem, then you may need the help of a physiotherapist. In the meantime, working on the area with specific exercises can help to build up strength.
To activate your muscles, do some stretches and light resistance exercises. Focus on squeezing the muscles you are trying to activate. This will make it so that you are able to actually work the targeted muscle instead of having the surrounding muscles compensate for the movement.
Best Machines for Building Leg Muscle
If you’re heading to the gym for a leg workout, you’ll want to know what machines you should be using and which leg muscles they work. Let’s take a closer look.
Leg Press Machine
The leg press machine is perhaps the best leg workout machine at the gym. On this machine, you lie on your back, usually at an angle of around 45 degrees. You then place your feet on a metal plate and push upwards. This isn’t quite extreme as the vertical leg press, which is where you’re pushing straight up.
While mainly a workout for the quads, you can change the position of your feet on the incline leg press to work different muscle groups. For example, a high and wide stance is great for your glutes, and a low stance is great for your calves and quads.
Hack Squat Machine
This is essentially the same as a leg press machine but the other way around. Here you’ll be sitting upright and pushing down, instead of sitting back and pushing up. There are a few machines that can be switched between a leg press and a hack squat.
The hack squat machine is brilliant for working the quad muscles and is perfect for explosive leg workouts. You can work out your quads in the same way with free weight squats, but many prefer the hack squat machine, since it’s safer while also being easier on your back and shoulders.
Leg Extension Machine
If you really want to give your quads an intense workout, then doing quad extensions on the leg extension machine would do just that. With this machine, you’re in a seated position with a foam roller situated at the top of your foot. This is an isolation exercise since it is isolating your quadriceps.
You set your desired weight and then extend your legs up and forward, raising the weight. This can be a little limited in the muscle it works, but that is the point and you won’t find a better exercise for pure quad work. Quad extensions are a great way to look down and see how your quadriceps are developing also.
Leg Curl Machine
This is similar to the leg extension machine, but it works the other way. Instead of pushing and extending your legs forward against the foam roller, you pull and curl them back toward you. This difference in motion works a completely different set of muscles.
Instead of being an intense workout for your quads, the leg curl machine instead works your hamstrings. While the hamstrings are the main muscle worked, it can also be a good way of strengthening your glutes. Just like quad extensions, leg curls are an isolation exercise and the muscle it’s targeting is the hamstring. While wide stance leg press and squats are great at targeting your hamstrings and glutes, using the leg curl machine is a great way to only focus on the hamstrings. It is also a nice sitting break, as opposed to the full body standing exertion required by deadlifts or squats.
Standing Leg Curl Machine
Just like the regular leg curl machine, the standing one is an isolation exercise for your hamstrings. The biggest differences between standing leg curls and sitting ones: (1) Standing leg curls are a much easier way to do single leg sets, because with the sitting leg curl machine it can feel awkward when it comes to finding a place to put the leg you are not using (2) It works out a different part of the hamstring. When it comes to weightlifting and targeting different parts of the same muscle, it is all about angles, and using the standing leg curl machine just allows you to hit your hamstrings at a different angle.
Hip Abduction Machine
The hip abduction machine is a great way to strengthen your adductor (groin) muscles, as well as your glutes. These machines work two ways, as you’ll sit down with pads in front of you, for your legs to rest against.
You can either have the pads on the inside of your legs, which you then squeeze inward. Or pads on the outside of your legs, which you then push outwards. Pushing in is great for working your inner thigh muscles, and pushing outwards works the outer thigh and glutes.
Calf Raise Machine
There are a few different calf machines that can be great for calf raises. Perhaps the best is the seated calf raise machine, where you sit down and have a bar in front of you that rests on your knees, which raises the weights when you push upward from your toes.
To work your calf muscles, you need to point down your toes and lift the weight that way, instead of using a flat foot. You can also use this technique for practicing calf raises on a Smith Machine or on a Leg Press Machine. To do a leg press calf raise, just put your toes at the bottom or near the bottom of the footing board, and instead of bringing the weights down for a full press, just raise your toes and push up just as you would on a seated or standing calf machine.
Sissy Squat Equipment
You won’t find a sissy squat machine in every gym, but they can be a great home workout tool due to their compact size. Here your legs will be locked in with a foam roller over the top of your feet and a roller behind your calves. You then squat down and back up, and when you do so you will surely feel the burn. It really focuses a lot on the quads, but it really works all your leg muscles.
With this exercise, you lower yourself down into a seated position and then rise back up. This motion quickly puts a burn into your quads but also helps improve your core and balance. If it gets too easy, then holding a weight to your chest increases the difficulty.
Best Exercises for Building Leg Muscle
So, we’ve convinced you that building leg muscle is important, but what are the best exercises to do it? Here we’ll look at our top five exercises for each leg muscle group.
Best Exercises for Each Leg Muscle
1 – Types of Squats
There are countless types of squats out there, as there are many different ways you can change up the basic squat. Here are our five favorite ways to get the most out of your squat.
Sissy Squat – You can do a sissy squat with or without a machine. Without a machine, you push your knees forward and lean back as far as you can. You want the line from your knees to your head as straight as possible.
Overhead Squat – With the overhead squat, you want to perform a regular squat but with a weight, usually barbell, raised directly above your head. You’ll need a wide stance and a wide grip on your bar. Ensure the weight is low enough for you to handle safely.
High and Low Bar Squat – These are two different but very similar exercises that involve a barbell behind your head. With the high bar squat, you have it resting on your shoulders, and with the low bar version, you have it across your upper back. The high bar squats work your quads, whereas the low bar is better for your glutes and hamstrings. Your feet position will really determine which leg muscles get the most focus.
Hindu Squats – With these squats, you work on your overall core and balance as well as your leg muscles. As you squat, you thrust your arms backward, and as you move down, they sweep in front of you until your arms are outstretched. You rise up and repeat the process.
Kneeling Squat – This is a simple exercise where you are in the kneeling position and gently lower yourself back so that your thighs rest on your calves. While simple, it is highly effective and you can hold a weight to your chest to make it more challenging. This is essentially like doing quad extensions only without the machine, just bodyweight.
2 – Calf Exercises
Here are our top five calf exercises, which will quickly give you a deep burn.
Seated Calf Raise – You can do this with or without a calf raise machine. Without one, all you need to do is sit down with your legs at 90 degrees and push your heel up. You can either place a weight on your legs or rest a barbell or dumbbells near the top of your knees.
Donkey Calf Raises – With donkey calf raises, you’ll be leaned over at 90 degrees in an inverted ‘L’ shape with your back parallel to the ground. You then raise your heel and push up. This works best with added weight and there are two great ways to do this. You can either tie a weight around your torso, or you can lower a Smith Machine and use that. It helps hit your calf muscles at a different angle.
Leg Press Calf Raise – The leg press is a dynamic machine that can work all the leg muscles, depending on how you use it. If you point down your toes with a low weight, then you can turn the leg press into an effective calf machine. You can also do a Smith Machine calf raise where again, you use minimal weight and lift up your heels with as many repetitions as you’re comfortable with. It works perfectly as a standing calf raise machine.
Single Leg Calf Raise – With the single leg calf raise, it’s best to balance one foot on the edge of a small step. You raise the other leg, and then raise the heel of your standing leg. Isolating the legs like this can help to address any imbalances you may have, which can also be done with a single leg press. You can also use a dumbbell for added weight, which should be held on the side of your standing leg.
Barbell Calf Raises – This is the same as the single calf raise but using both legs and a barbell on your shoulders. Ideally, you want to have a small step for the balls of your feet. A barbell weight on its side works well for this. Step on the small step/weight, lift up your heel, and try to hold the position for a few seconds before lowering back down.
3 – Hamstring Exercises
The hamstrings can be difficult muscles to target, but with these exercises you’re sure to get a great workout.
Seated Hamstring Curls – The best way to do seated hamstring curls is with a Leg Curl Machine. If you don’t have access to one, this exercise can also be done with a resistance band, making is a great Thera band exercise. Put the resistance band around the back of your feet, then attach it to something solid. With your legs stretched out, you then pull back against the resistance.
Standing Leg Curl – Similar movement to the seated hamstring curl, except here you are standing. The fam roller goes behind your calf and you will have a support pad right above your knee. This allows your hamstrings to be isolated, but at a different angle which works out a different part of the muscle.
Nordic Hamstring Curls – With the Nordic curl, you are in the kneeling position with your feet trapped into place by something solid, such as a heavily weighted barbell. From here, you drop down slowly toward the ground, and as you do, you should feel a great hamstring burn. This is an exercise you can also do on a weight bench with leg extension.
Deadlift – The deadlift requires a lot of strength and uses many muscles in your body. One of them is the hamstring, but they are also great for the glutes. Both the traditional and Romanian deadlifts are great exercises to try. Just load up a barbell with the proper weight, stand with feet shoulder length apart over the bar, grab the bar naturally, and lift up. Make sure to flex your core as you lift up and go down to help prevent injury. Try to keep your legs as straight as possible and feel the stretching in your glutes and hamstrings as you go down. Squeeze your glutes and lats as you go up and lock.
Good Morning – The good morning exercise is a curious one but highly effective for your hamstrings. You place a barbell on your shoulders and lean forward, keeping your back straight and your knees slightly bent. You want to be almost horizontal but not quite parallel to the ground.
Kettlebell Swing – The kettlebell swing is a fun exercise and almost a full body workout. All you need to do is hold up a kettlebell high with both arms and then swing it through your legs. The upswing is great for your upper body, and the downswing works your hamstring, quads, glutes, and calves.
4 – Quad Workouts
If the hamstrings can be difficult muscles to work, the quads are perhaps the easiest. Here are a few great exercises to try.
Leg Press for Quads – There perhaps isn’t a better exercise than the quad focused leg press. Putting your feet in the standard stance would be fine, but you can get an even more intense quad workout by placing them low and narrow.
Quad Extension – As we’ve discussed, the seated machine is also incredible for working your quads. You feel the burn instantly, and iit allows you to focus solely on squeezing and activating your quadriceps.
Front Squat – Front squats using a barbell under your chin and resting on your upper chest is another way to get instant quad activation. You won’t need a high weight to do this, so make sure you don’t overload yourself.
Sissy Squat – These squats can be done on either a machine or just standing up. With the non-machine version, you bend your knees slightly and lean back, keeping your knees to your head in a straight line. This is ideal for those who don’t have gym equipment.
Dumbbell Split Squat – This is another great simple exercise. All you need to do is a classic lunge with a dumbbell in each hand. You can keep your feet in a static position and switch them out, or you can do forward and backward steps as you return to the spilt squat position. Keep your back straight and push off your back foot to maximize stability and work your hip flexor muscles too.
Bulgarian Split Squat – This is the same exercise as the split squat, except you will be placing your foot on a workout bench (or otherwise elevated position) behind you. This makes it much harder since it forces you to use a lot more core and stabilizing muscles. It also basically takes away the stability and strength you are getting by pushing off your back foot on normal spilt squats.
5 – Glute Workouts
If you want to get stronger glutes, then here are a few great ways to do it. We highly recommend focusing a lot on glutes, because they are really the foundation of your legs. Without strong glutes, it will be very hard to grow your quads and hamstrings.
Leg Press for Glutes – If you want your leg press glute focused, then you just need to place your feet high and wide. The glute focused leg press is an easy way to work your glutes and you may even change your leg positions to work other muscles while you’re there.
Hip Thrust – The hip thrust is an easy exercise to do, even if it is a little inelegant! Here you lie back on a bench with your feet planted on the floor. Place a weight on top of your hip and then thrust upwards for as many reps as possible. Use a pad on the bar to make it more comfortable too.
Kettlebell Swing – We’ve already mentioned the kettlebell swing for the hamstring, but it’s great for the glutes as well. You can get more out of your swing by tensing your glutes when you get to the top of your rep.
Goblet Squat – This is ideal for those looking for a simple and effective glute workout. Hold a weight under your chin and then do a regular squat, and you’ll soon feel it in your glutes. The wider the stance the better.
Lateral lunge – These are like goblet squats where you hold a weight up to your chin. The difference is that you are stepping out to the side in a lunge position. By alternating sides, you’ll work out all your leg muscles, but with a big focus on the side of your glutes.
6 – Tibialis Workouts
The tibialis is the muscle that runs down the outside front of your lower leg, next to the shin. Getting an intense workout can be difficult, but these exercises can help. Working out your tibialis will also help prevent shin splints.
Band Calf Stretch – A great exercise for stretching tibialis anterior (the largest part of the tibialis) is the band calf stretch. This is where you place a resistance band (such as booty bands) around the ball of your foot and pull it toward you. Not only does this stretch your calf and your tibialis, but is also one of the best shin splints exercises.
Toe Raises – Toe raises can be done seated or against the wall, and they are as simple as they sound. Just lift your toes up as high as they go and repeat the process. It seems simple, but you’ll soon feel a burn in your tibialis.
Heel Walk – One of the most fun tibialis anterior exercises is the heel walk. Again, this is simple, as you just need to walk around on your heels for around 30 to 45 seconds at a time. This is great for stretching tibialis anterior.
Toe Drags – Dragging your toes is a great way to stretch out your tibialis. Place one foot behind you, with the top of your toes facing the floor. Drag your foot forward and repeat the process. You can then switch it up to doing the toe drag with another foot.
Kettlebell Toe Raises – Place the heel of your foot on a step, then place your toes through the hole of the kettlebell. Bring your toes towards your shin, then back down again. If you don’t have a kettlebell, you can do the same exercise with resistance leg bands.
Stretching Tibialis Anterior – We mentioned a couple good exercises above to help accomplish this, but we must emphasize the importance. Stretching out your tibialis anterior muscle is very important because it will help prevent injury. If you are only working out your calves, and/ore not stretching out your anterior tibialis muscle, it is likely you will get shin splints or other issues at some point.
It’s vitally important to focus on your leg workouts. They will help to improve your strength, stabilize your core, prevent leg injuries, and give you a more symmetrical appearance. We hope this article has given you all the information you need to start getting the most out of your leg workouts. For other great workout tips and exercise routines, click here for more!
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