These are the 13 best leg exercises for leg hypertrophy (muscle growth).
You’ll never skip leg day again after incorporating these exercises into your training routine. Building up your legs will do more than make your legs strong, but powerful legs will significantly improve your overall strength, believe it or not. If you did not know, your legs play a crucial role in the “big three” compound movements, deadlifts and squats certainly, but also the bench press requires leg drive. Three exercises that are a great indicator of your overall strength. Keep reading to learn what the 13 best leg exercises are.
Best Leg Exercises
These are our picks for the best leg exercises:
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Leg Press
- Hack Squat
- Dumbbell Lunge
- Barbell Lunge
- Dumbbell Squat
- Lying Leg Curl
- Leg Extensions
- Dumbbell Step Ups
- Cable Pull Through
- Seated Calf Raise
- Calf Raise
The back squat is often referred to as the king of all exercises. Tom Platz, who had some of the best legs on the planet and was known for his brutal leg day, is a huge advocate of the squat. Compared to other leg movements, this compound barbell lift lets you use a heavier weight. It targets all the muscles in your lower body (glutes, hamstrings, quads) and will increase your overall strength.
Benefits of Back Squat
- This exercise targets all the muscles in your legs.
- The barbell on your back enables you to lift heavy.
- It gets you overall stronger.
How to Do Back Squat
Set a barbell in a power rack and get into a quarter stance with the barbell lying on your traps with a shoulder-width grip. Lift the barbell off the rack and stand up straight, then take a step back with each leg one at a time. This is your starting position. Squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or slightly past) with your chest and knees behind your toes, then explode up to the starting position.
The front squat is performed with a barbell, too, except on the front of your midline rather than behind. Compared to the back squat, this exercise engages more of your quads and places less stress on your back and knees (1).
Benefits of Front Squat
- This exercise targets your quads.
- It places less stress on your back compared to back squats.
How to Do Front Squat
Set a barbell up the same height in a power rack as you would for back squat, but place the barbell on your upper chest. And wrap your fingers around the barbell in a shoulder-width grip. As you would on a barbell back squat, take a step back with each leg, squat down, and drive the barbell up. Your arms should be parallel to the ground.
*Note: This movement requires wrist mobility and takes time to adjust. At first, it may feel uncomfortable. For beginners, it’s recommended that you cross your arms so they’re touching your opposite shoulders to hold the barbell.
Benefits of Leg Press
- It extensively targets your thighs.
- This leg exercise is safer and doesn’t place as much compression on your back.
How to Do Leg Press
Sit in the leg press machine with your feet shoulder-width apart. Ensure the machine is set to where your legs form a 90-degree angle or slightly past that. Press the weight of the machine up, then release the safety bars and drop the weight down to its lowest point, and fully extend your legs to press the plates back up until your legs fully extend (without locking out your knees to protect them).
The hack squat is the machine version of a barbell back squat, and it is another staple of Tom Platz’s leg day, along with many other bodybuilders as it is extremely beneficial for your overall development of the lower half. It engages all the leg muscles in your lower body weight heavy weight, but it takes out the stability the back squat requires, so you can really focus on the legs.
Benefits of Hack Squat
- It’s safer than back squats since it gives you more stability.
- It gets you used to the motion of back squats and safely strengthens your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
How to Do Hack Squat
This movement will mimic the barbell back squat, except you’ll do it while standing on a foot platform and brace the weight on your shoulders with machine padding. Make sure your back is flat on the back pad, and keep your head in a neutral position.
The dumbbell lunge is a unilateral (single-limb) leg exercise that targets your glutes, hips, hamstrings, and quads; it challenges your stability and balance. In addition, since it’s a unilateral movement, it will engage your core more.
Benefits of Dumbbell Lunge
- Dumbbell lunge will target your core more.
- This exercise will improve your balance.
- It will help correct any muscle imbalances.
How to Do Dumbbell Lunge
Grab dumbbells and stand upright in a neutral position. Then lunge one leg forward while keeping your torso straight, and lunge down with the back leg. Your back leg should go down as far as possible without letting your knee touch the ground. Your front leg’s toe shouldn’t go over your toes. Return to the neutral position, then lunge in the same motion with the opposite leg.
The barbell lunge will strengthen your core, glutes, and thigh muscles. In addition, the barbell lunge will allow you to use more weight than dumbbell lunges. Therefore, it will get you more robust but also place more load on your spine and increase the chance of injury.
Benefits of Barbell Lunge
- This movement will improve your core strength.
- This exercise is a unilateral movement that lets you use more weight to get your legs stronger compared to other unilateral exercises with dumbbells.
How to Do Barbell Lunge
Set a barbell up on an open power rack (so you have plenty of room to lunge without hitting an enclosed squat rack) in a position that allows you to get underneath the bar while resting on your traps in a quarter-squat stance. Next, grasp the barbell with a shoulder-width grip and take a few steps back from the power back to give you plenty of room to lunge forward without the power rack interfering. Finally, lunge down the same way you would for a dumbbell lunge.
The dumbbell squat is a great compound lower body workout for targeting all the muscles in your leg while placing less strain on your back than the barbell squat. Dumbbell squat is also an excellent exercise for beginners before transitioning into barbell squat.
Benefits of Dumbbell Squat
- This exercise is beginner-friendly.
- It’s a compound movement that engages your glutes, quads, and hamstrings.
- It places less compression on your back than a barbell squat.
How to Do Dumbbell Squat
This movement is similar to a barbell squat, except you’ll hold a dumbbell of the same weight in each hand. Stand shoulder-width apart and squat down while holding dumbbells until your knees create a 90-degree angle with your thighs (or slightly lower), then press through your heels to stand upright.
Lying Leg Curl
The lying leg curl isolates your hamstrings. Since your hamstrings are isolated during this exercise, it is a movement that will help to increase your overall leg strength and help you push more weight on more significant movements like squats. Also, since your quads are composed of four muscles, training your hamstrings will help prevent leg injuries since the hamstrings are made up of only three muscles and are antagonists–opposing muscles that lengthen during contractions–of the quads.
Benefits of Lying Leg Curl
- This exercise isolates your hamstrings.
- This movement prevents leg injuries.
- It strengthens your lift on compound movements like squats.
How to Do Lying Leg Curl
Lie down with your chest and thighs flat on a lying leg curl machine. First, ensure the axis of rotation is the proper height to allow you to comfortably lay with the rotation padding on top of your lower calf just above your shoe. Then, while grasping the handles (below head padding), curl the leg padding until the padding is close to touching your hamstrings.
The leg extension works the antagonistic muscles of the hamstrings, your quads. It’s another isolation movement that doesn’t place any load on your spine and strengthens the anterior portion of your legs to correct muscular imbalances and grow thicker thighs.
Benefits of Leg Extension
- Leg extensions isolate your quadriceps.
- This exercise doesn’t place any load on your spine.
- It will make your thighs thick and strong.
How to Do Leg Extension
Sit in a seated leg extension machine and adjust the axis rotation to lie above your shoe at the bottom of your shin and aligned with your ankle. Then, sit back and rest on the back, padding with your chest up. Lastly, grasp the handles at the bottom for support, then extend your legs until they’re straight. Next, lower the weight back down. It’s essential to control the weight throughout the entire range of motion without kicking your legs to raise and lower the load.
As the name suggests, the dumbbell step-up requires you to step onto a bench or box one leg at a time. This motion challenges your balance to target the muscles in your legs. It’s better to use a lighter weight on this movement because of the biomechanics of the exercise. And it’s great for overall conditioning. However, your forearms will also start to burn since it can take longer to complete a set.
Benefits of Dumbbell Step-up
- This exercise improves your balance.
- It will increase your endurance.
- It’s a good forearm workout.
How to Do Dumbbell Step-up
Grab dumbbells in your hands and stand in front of a sturdy bench/box slightly below your knee height. While keeping your body straight, step onto the bench one leg at a time until both feet are flat on the surface and you stand straight. Then, return each leg to the ground, stepping down one leg at a time. Alternate each leg for each rep to make sure each leg is doing the same workload.
The cable pull-through isolates your glutes to make them stronger and bigger. The glutes are the largest muscle in your body, so performing this movement will carry over to big compound movements like squats or deadlifts, particularly at the lockout part of the lift. Also, this exercise requires a hip hinge, making it excellent for preparing you for other hip-hinge workouts, such as the deadlift and Romanian deadlift (RDL).
Benefits of Cable Pull-Through
- It strengthens and grows your glutes.
- This movement focuses on the largest muscle in your body.
- This exercise strengthens the hip-hinging compound movement deadlift.
How to Do Cable Pull-Through
You’ll place the cable axis to its lowest height with a cable-rope attachment. Face the opposite direction, grab the cable rope, and step forward a couple of feet. With a slight bend in your knees and a slightly farther than shoulder-width stance, hinge your hips to make your torso parallel to the ground. Then, explode your hips forward and fully extend them.
Seated Calf Raise
Benefits of Seated Calf Raise
- This exercise isolates your calves to make your lower body appear bigger.
- It improves your sprinting and jumping ability.
How to Do Seated Calf Raise
Sit comfortably on a calf raise machine and place the padding on your thighs while holding onto the handles. Place the sole of your feet on the platform’s edge at the bottom. This gives your heels enough room to lower past the height of the platform. Remove the safety handle, lower your heels as far as you can, then press through the sole of your feet and raise as high as possible.
Standing Calf Raise
The standing calf raise is similar to the seated calf raise, except it’s performed while standing. The benefit of standing is that it will allow you to target your gastrocnemius and soleus calve muscles.
Benefits of the Standing Calf Raise
- It will improve your vertical.
- It targets your gastrocnemius and soleus calf muscles.
How to Do a Standing Calf Raise
Place the padding of the seated calf raises machine on your shoulders. And put the balls of your feet at the edge of the platform. Lower your heels past the platform, then press through the balls of your feet to extend them back up.
About the Legs
Your lower body comprises glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, calves, and hip muscles. And it hosts the biggest muscle in your body, your glutes. Strong legs are imperative to improve your overall strength, and they play a big part in how strong you are on big compound lifts (squats and deadlifts) which are part of the “big three,” along with bench press–an indicator of your overall strength. In addition, your legs are essential for athletic performance and play a significant role in jumping and sprinting (2).
Your quadriceps comprises four muscles: rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. They’re responsible for extending your knees.
The hamstrings are on the posterior side, and three muscles make up your hamstrings. These muscles help extend and flex your knee.
Two main muscles make up your calves–gastrocnemius and soleus. They’re responsible for flexing your foot and ankle.
These are your hips muscle. They abduct (move thigh away from your body) and adduct (move thighs towards your body). And your adductors help stabilize your pelvis during exercises.
Benefits of Training Your Legs
There are many benefits of training your legs. Your legs will add mass to your frame since they have big muscle groups, including the glutes. Therefore, you’ll be stronger. The stronger your legs are, the stronger your “big three” lifts will be since your legs play a crucial role in deadlifts and squats. Furthermore, your legs will make you more explosive and athletic, and powerful legs will improve your sprinting speed and jumping ability.
How to Train Your Legs
Depending on the movement will determine the reps you do. If you’re performing a compound free weight barbell movement like barbell back squat and barbell front squat, it’s best to use heavier weights and do fewer reps–stick in the 6-8 rep range. However, you can increase the rep count to 8-10 on compound movements like the leg press. And for unilateral movements or exercises where you’ll be using lighter weight, e.g., dumbbell lunges, aim for reps in the 10-12 rep range.
Rules to Follow
Warming up is vital before a leg workout to prevent injury and increase your overall performance. Before compound movements like squats, perform a couple of sets with a lighter weight.
Watch Your Knees
You can strain your knees if you aren’t careful with specific leg movements. For example, ensure that your knees never go past your toes on exercises like squats and lunges to prevent injury.
Perform Compound Bilateral (Multi-joint) Movements First
Before doing unilateral or isolation movements like dumbbell lunges or cable pull-through, start with the more critical exercises like leg press or squat for optimal leg strength and hypertrophy.
More Training Tips for Legs
This article covered the best leg exercises. But your legs are composed of your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, so check out some of our other leg workouts to build a more complete lower body:
- Gullett, J. C., Tillman, M. D., Gutierrez, G. M., & Chow, J. W. (2009). A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 23(1), 284–292. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0b013e31818546bb
- Wirtz, N., Zinner, C., Doermann, U., Kleinoeder, H., & Mester, J. (2016). Effects of Loaded Squat Exercise with and without Application of Superimposed EMS on Physical Performance. Journal of sports science & medicine, 15(1), 26–33.
- Elzanie A, Borger J. Anatomy, Bony Pelvis and Lower Limb, Gluteus Maximus Muscle. [Updated 2022 Mar 28]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK538193/