Among purists, a “top 10” of leg exercises would include only one entry: the classic barbell squat. And why not? The exercise is devastatingly simple and effective. You place a heavy barbell across your back, then bend at the hips and knees to descend as far as you can (as those same purists might tell you, “glutes to grass” if you can stomach it). Then you stand up.
This movement not only rocks your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes but also kick-starts a cavalcade of responses throughout your body as your core and upper body tighten and stabilize while beneficial, growth-promoting hormones are released in response to the major stressor.
In our eyes those who love the squat are 100 percent correct, so we’ll save you the suspense: It’s No. 1 in this ranking. However, we contend that the nine other moves featured here are great in their own right. They’re all proven muscle builders and should be rotated through a proper leg-training program over the course of a training cycle to maximize your development.
Here, then, are our 10 favorite leg exercises of all time. Feel free to debate their merits, quibble over their placement and lament those we’ve forgotten on the Muscle & Performance Facebook page (facebook.com/MuscleAndPerformance). Just don’t argue that the squat is overrated, or you may be quickly overrun by the true believers. And trust us: If they’re avid squatters, their legs are huge, so that’s a stampede you want no part of.
10. Leg Press
First, let’s talk about what many trainers hate about the leg press: It can cause lower-back injury when done incorrectly. And when guys load every last plate in the gym on the sled and try to half-ass a few reps out, with their lower back disengaging from the pad on every rep in part due to woefully inflexible hamstrings and glutes, that’s about as incorrect as you can get. It’s true that it’s one of the most abused exercises in the gym — probably because you can feel like a big shot and handle much more weight than you can on a squat — but used carefully, the leg press can be very beneficial. And just as important, it helps provide variety in what might otherwise be a very squat-centric leg program.
Main Areas Targeted: Quadriceps (emphasized with feet lower on platform and closer together), glutes and hamstrings (emphasized with feet higher and wider on platform)
Strengths: The leg press is a closed-kinetic-chain exercise, which simply means your feet are planted rather than free. A closed chain provides for a stronger base of power without as much shearing force on the knee joint as can occur in an open-chain exercise like the knee extension, which didn’t make the list for that very reason.
How-To: Sit squarely in the leg press machine and place your feet shoulder-width apart on the sled. Keeping your chest up and lower back pressed into the pad, carefully unlatch the sled from the safeties. Bend your knees to lower the platform, stopping before your glutes lift off the pad. From there, powerfully extend your knees to press the weight up (but don’t lock them out at the top).
Erin Says: “I don’t train on the leg press, but the machine does offer the benefit of targeting different muscles through foot placement and eliminates the use of stabilizers. This could be good for increasing volume in the workout.”
This is arguably one of the more functional exercises on this list. After all, you probably walk up stairs on a fairly regular basis, right? Being a unilateral exercise, it also means a stronger leg can’t compensate for a weaker one, with each leg taking its turn absorbing the full brunt of the motion.
Main Areas Targeted: Quadriceps, glutes
Strengths: The step-up comes in all sorts of variations and can be adjusted to challenge beginners and advanced athletes alike. To provide the resistance, you can hold a barbell, dumbbells or kettlebells (either at your sides or racked at shoulder level), wear a weight vest or just go with your own bodyweight. Step up onto a platform ranging from a height halfway up your shin to where your thigh is parallel to the floor in the start position. Not only does this develop power through the glutes, hips and thighs, but it also helps you practice balance and jumping force, which is helpful if you’re in a sport that requires vertical hops.
How-To Hold a dumbbell in each hand in front of a knee- to hip-high step, bench or platform. Starting with your feet in a shoulder-width stance, step forward with one leg onto the platform and drive through that thigh to propel your body upward. Bring your trailing leg up and stand atop the platform, then step back with either leg to return to the floor. You can either repeat with the same leading leg for all reps and then switch or alternate your lead leg from step to step.
Erin Says: “This is a fantastic unilateral exercise. I like performing the concentric portion of the exercise with explosiveness. It has built my quads, improved my balance and increased my vertical leap.”
8. Pistol Squat
Admittedly, you’ll probably feel like an idiot when learning this move. You’ll fall on your can in the bottom position and likely lose your balance repeatedly. You won’t even be able to get all the way down into a full squat at first. We can only urge you, however, to not give up: Those who master this exercise have a tremendous weapon in their leg-training arsenal, and it doesn’t require a lick of equipment.
Main Areas Targeted: Quads, hamstrings, glutes
Strengths: Sure, this is more about dynamic performance than pure muscle building, but no matter. Consider this the functional cousin of No. 9 above and remember: The more functional you are, the better you’ll be at mastering any exercise or physical activity. You may find that your quads burn deep for days after you first try the pistol squat, which is a sure sign that you’ve been shortchanging your range of motion on traditional leg exercises for years.
How-To: Begin in a standing position. Extend one leg straight out in front of you, balancing on your other foot. From here, squat all the way down by lowering your hips and glutes straight toward the floor, bending your knee until your working thigh is below parallel. At the bottom, your nonworking leg and arms will be out in front of you for balance with your planted foot flat on the floor. Drive through that heel to return to a standing position, making sure to never let that heel come up as you rep.
“The exercises we don’t like doing are often the most effective. I perform these non-dominant side first, and let that dictate the number of reps I do on my dominant leg. It’s a great way to even out any asymmetries.”
7. Glute-Ham Raise (not shown)
Chances are, your gym won’t have Louie Simmons’ Westside Series glute-ham developer. It’s rare unless the place where you train is the type patrolled by beefy powerlifters and chronically hazy with chalk dust. But if it does, or if you can get your hands on one, do so because the glute-ham raise on this apparatus is one of the very best strength- and muscle-building exercises you can do for your lower body. “We do no less than 600 [reps] per month just for maintenance, and at other times we use 135 pounds of heavy weight,” Simmons says, the “we” referring to the select group of powerlifters and athletes who train at his exclusive Westside Barbell gym in Columbus, Ohio.
Main Areas Targeted: Glutes, hamstrings
Strengths: From a muscle-stimulation perspective, the glute-ham raise has been found to be on par with an exercise higher on our list, the revered Romanian deadlift, as reported in a small comparative study of hamstring exercises published in the June 2014 issue of The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. With the specially designed Westside bench you’ll get support in all the right places, but don’t let a lack of equipment dissuade you. You can alternatively do glute-ham raises with a partner holding your legs (kneel on the floor and keep your hands out in front to catch yourself as you lower your torso to the floor) or kneel on a lat-pulldown station seat so your heels are under the knee pads, placing a barbell or a sturdy stick on the floor that you grasp for balance (lower yourself via the power of your hams and glutes, then reverse).
How-To: Get into position on the bench, securing your ankles between the rollers, your knees on the pads and your feet on the platform. Start with your torso and thighs aligned and perpendicular to the floor. Cross your hands over your chest. Slowly extend your knees by lowering your torso as far toward parallel to the floor as you can go. Flex your hams to bring your body back to vertical. Note that when performing reps correctly, the calf/ankle area will alternate between touching the bottom and the top roller.
Erin Says: “This exercise is most effective when the knees are the lever for the movement. Keep your hips, back and shoulders in line, and pull yourself up with your hamstrings and glutes. To make the exercise more challenging, hold a plate or use resistance bands.”
6. Walking Lunge
Lunges come in more varieties than Taylor Swift breakup songs. You can do stationary lunges in any direction — front, side, backward or any point in between — and have a damn fine exercise on your hands. But walking lunges ultimately made our list because a) they’re slightly more functional since you continually move forward instead of standing still and b) they provide an excellent finisher to any leg workout. No less than eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman used to take a loaded barbell outside and lunge through the Metroflex Gym parking lot in the Texas heat to cap his leg day, which with thighs as big as 36 inches around in his heyday was a sight to behold.
Main Areas Targeted: Quads, hams, glutes
Strengths: “The walking lunge is a dynamic movement, requiring coordination and muscle recruitment to perform correctly,” explains Gene Flores, CSCS, a physical therapist and orthopedic clinical specialist at Vargo Physical Therapy, an outpatient clinic in Reseda, Calif. “This exercise is predominantly a unilateral activity no matter which way it’s performed, with emphasis on the front rather than the back leg. You’ll get a good amount of co-contractions from above and below the knee joint, from the hip and core to the ankle and foot.”
How-To: Holding dumbbells in each hand, step forward with one foot. Bend both knees to lower your torso toward the floor, making sure your front knee doesn’t pass your toes at the bottommost position. Stop just short of your rear knee touching the floor, then drive through the heel of your front foot while bringing your rear leg forward until you return to a standing position. Then step with the opposite leg into a lunge, repeating the pattern. Continue alternating down the floor. “The cues I utilize when teaching this movement are to always have your core engaged, with a neutral spine or slight lordosis (extension),” Flores says. “Most important, do not let the front knee turn in or out excessively.”
“I like this exercise as a finisher. Be sure to keep your knees behind your toes, step evenly on both sides and keep your upper body tall.”
5. Bulgarian Split Squat
Did Bulgarian strength athletes really use this movement as a training cornerstone? The myths may not match the reality, but the name has stuck to what is, all in all, a pretty solid exercise. That is, if you tweak the common variation (shown here) as proposed by well-known Canadian strength coach Charles Poliquin. He contends that over-elevating the back leg — putting it on a flat bench or even higher — reduces the stability of the front leg, thus limiting your strength potential and putting you at risk for injury while also unnecessarily stressing the spine. His solution? The exercise that lands at No. 5 on our list, a split squat in which you elevate the back leg only 6 inches from the floor.
Main Areas Targeted: Quadriceps, glutes
Strengths: This move focuses on each leg individually, so you can pay full attention to each without a stronger leg compensating for a weaker one (as can happen on any bilateral exercise). In other words, any weaknesses in your strength or thigh development have nowhere to hide.
How-To: Holding a dumbbell in each hand, step forward with one foot and rest your rear foot on an elevated platform or bench, top of the foot facing down. Bend your front knee to lower yourself, making sure that knee doesn’t track out ahead of your toes. (If it does, take a longer step out from the platform.) When your knee joint forms at least a 90-degree angle, reverse the motion, driving through the heel of your forward foot to return to standing. Do not forcefully lock out the knee.
Erin Says: “This is a staple in my routine. Just like other unilateral exercises, start with your non-dominant leg. It’s always best to train weaknesses when you’re fresh.”
4. Hack Squat
While the barbell version of the hack squat — picking up a barbell placed behind you — is perfectly acceptable, especially for those training at home, the typical machine-based hack squat you find at most gyms is our choice here. That’s the one that’s plate-loaded and angles your body slightly backward. Within the confines of the machine, you’ll find a bit more safety than you would with the free-weight squat, which becomes more crucial as you tire during a workout. That means hacks are a great mid-workout option, serving as a bridge between squatting and other moves such as the leg press and lunge.
Main Areas Targeted: Quads and glutes primarily, hamstrings secondarily
Strengths: “This exercise is done in a weight-bearing functional position just like a standing squat,” Flores points out. “The hack squat machine also allows you to go a little heavier without sacrificing too much form as you would performing bar squats since your back is supported, which decreases the chance of injury. That’s important when the goal is to increase mass and strength.”
How-To: Step inside a hack squat machine, placing your shoulders and back against the pads. Set your feet at mid-platform just inside shoulder width, keeping your feet flat throughout the exercise. With your chest up and core tight, unhook the safeties and slowly lower yourself, stopping when your thighs are just past parallel to the platform. From here, powerfully press upward to the start position, keeping your knees bent slightly at the top to protect them from hyperextension. “When performing any squat movement, my cues are always to avoid any excessive internal or external rotation at the knees — think the ‘knock-knee’ position or knees and toes pointing out — along with keeping your knees about shoulder-width apart throughout the movement,” Flores instructs. “The weight should be felt in your heels, not your toes.”
Erin Says: “I use this primarily for targeting the quads. I put my feet high on the platform and keep them together. I’ll also perform partial reps at the top to get a good pump.”
3. Romanian Deadlift
The quadriceps muscle is a powerful, four-headed beast of a muscle group, and unless you develop hamstrings with enough strength of equal measure to balance out the quads, your knees will be forever prone to injury. Enter the Romanian deadlift, or RDL for short. This movement works the hamstrings from the hips, a necessary addition to a hams routine that might otherwise be dominated by variations of the leg curl (seated, lying and standing) that all work the muscle from the knee joint.
Main Areas Targeted: Hamstrings
Strengths: You may notice a pattern here — well, you should, at least — but like the other exercises on this list, the key to results with the Romanian deadlift is pinpoint form. Keep your back flat, core tight and the bar sliding along the front of your legs on the way up and down and you’ll build thick, impressive, protruding hamstrings. Allow your lower back to collapse and take on the load and you’ll help put a Ferrari in your chiropractor’s garage.
How-To: Stand upright holding a barbell in front of your upper thighs with an overhand grip. Place your feet shoulder-width apart and slightly bend your knees. With your chest up, arms straight and core tight to maintain the natural arch in your low back, lean forward from your hips, pushing them rearward until your torso is roughly parallel to the floor or until you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings. At the bottom, keep your back flat and head neutral. The bar should be very close to or in contact with your legs throughout. Flex your hamstrings and glutes to reverse the motion, bringing the bar back to the start position. “The movement should come from the hips extending — pushing your hips forward — not from extending the lower back,” Flores says. “In other words, don’t lead the lift with your chest, arms and back.”
Erin Says: “I tend to do these standing on a bumper plate or box, which gives me a better stretch. If you’re not as flexible, focus on lowering the weight and stop just before your back rounds. Always maintain a flat back and keep your shoulders square.”
2. Front Squat
As you already know, the barbell back squat is No. 1 on our list. But the exercise ranked runner-up is a close second in the eyes of many, especially those who like the idea of big, beefy quadriceps and the more direct line of resistance offered by moving the barbell to the front versus draping it across the upper back.
Main Areas Targeted: Emphasis on quads, plus glutes, hamstrings, calves and core
Strengths: “Both the barbell front and back squats are great exercises for increasing leg, back and core strength and for positively affecting anabolic metabolism,” says Dustin Kirchofner, certified strength and conditioning coach at Yuma United MMA and owner of Modern Warfare Fitness. “As for which is better, it depends on your posture, technique, previous injuries and personal preference. For example, if you lack proper shoulder external-rotation capability, then back squats might not be your best option. Due to your poor shoulder and thoracic spine mobility, you may have issues getting the bar racked and properly positioned across your back. In that case, front squats would quite possibly be a much better choice.”
How-To: Set the pegs in a power rack just at or below mid-chest, and place the safety bars at a level between your hips and knees. Step up to the bar, crossing your arms to build a shelf to cradle it at your front delts and upper chest. Keep your chest up, lower back and abs tight, and eyes forward as you step back into a shoulder-width stance. Bend your knees and hips as if sitting in a chair until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor, then reverse direction by driving through your heels and pressing your hips forward to return to standing. “Keep your neck and back straight and elbows lifted high throughout the lift,” Kirchofner instructs. “Inhale to support the trunk and abdomen at the start of your descent, and keep your core and abdomen engaged to help minimize stress on your lower lumbar area.”
Erin Says: “If you have problems holding the bar in the clean position, try wrapping wrist wraps around the bar and holding onto the wraps. This will help you maintain bar placement.”
1. Barbell Squat
We know, ranking barbell back squats No. 1 here is about as surprising as a Donald Trump publicity stunt. But what else can we do? It’s not the reigning “king of exercises” for nothing. No single exercise is arguably as effective, not only for the intended lower-body target muscles but for all the muscles from your shoulders, chest and back down to your core, all of which fire to maintain your posture and balance as you rep.
Main Areas Targeted: Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, core
Strengths: “You need strong legs from the ankles to the hips, and back squats work the lower-body prime movers, stabilizers and synergists,” Kirchofner explains. “The quadriceps and hamstrings are the major muscle groups that affect knee stability and motion. Quads come into play during the straightening of the knees, while hamstrings are directly related to the bending of the knees and the pushing action against the ground, such as in a short sprint. At the end of the day, squats are beneficial in developing muscular growth, strength and power, all while strengthening stabilizers and the core.”
How-To: Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart and hold a bar across your upper back. Your knees should be slightly bent and your toes turned out slightly. Keeping your head in a neutral position, abs tight and torso upright, bend at the knees and hips to slowly lower your body as if you were going to sit in a chair. Go as deep as you can handle, ideally to a point where your thighs come parallel to the floor or below while maintaining your natural lower-back arch, then forcefully drive through your heels and extend your hips and knees to return to a standing position.
Erin Says: “The benefit of free-weight exercises is the countless variations you can come up with. Experiment with bar placement on your back (high/low), foot placement (narrow/wide) and even with range of motion. I started doing rack squats, which target the top third of the movement. It allows me to go heavier and it mimics the range of motion used in jumping.”
Top 10 Exercises for Calves
For added deliberation, here are our picks for the top 10 calf exercises. We know what you’re thinking: “There are 10 calf exercises?” Yes. And they are not all created equal.
Start your calf routines with a movement that targets the more prominent gastrocnemius muscle (engaged when your knees are straight), followed by the smaller yet still important soleus muscle (engaged when your knees are bent). The rarely worked tibialis anterior is activated when the toes are higher than your heels and should usually be targeted last in a complete calf workout, although you can also do it on its own or sometimes shift the order for shock value. Training your tibialis ensures balance in your lower-leg musculature and further fortifies you against injury.
The debate begins here. From the track to the Olympia stage, Erin Stern has drawn acclaim for her legs. We asked her about some of the foundational aspects of her training and what it takes to build the kind of lean, well-muscled pins that are just as adept at turning heads as they are at clearing the high jump bar. What she says about squats may surprise you…
What’s your favorite leg builder and why?
Right now, my favorite leg builder is the hex bar deadlift. I find that the bar helps me lift more weight and I can do more reps than I could with a traditional deadlift or a squat.
Do you like to train quads and hams on different days? Why or why not?
I have always taken a holistic approach to training. I’ll do two workouts per week for legs, but will instead focus on a heavy/athletic day and a light/aesthetic day. I think that too much isolation work can cause the physique to not “flow” as well.
Our list is 10 deep. Do you use a lot of variety in your leg routine, or is it better to stick to a few proven exercises?
I think it’s most important to develop a strong mind-muscle connection. This will help any lifter emphasize different muscles or parts of muscles when training. Those who are just starting out should stick to the basics until proper form, range of motion and targeting are mastered. Then add variety to break through plateaus and to hit the muscles from different angles.
Do you have a favorite intensity-boosting technique on leg day? If so, walk through it for us.
Push/pull supersets! An example would be pairing weighted step-ups (push) with Romanian deadlifts (pull). By training opposing muscle groups, you can keep your heart rate up. It also allows for an active recovery (quads rest while training hamstrings).
This article includes a few machines: the hack squat, glute-ham raise and leg press. Some purists prefer to have no machine work in their routine. What do you think?
In general I tend to avoid machines, but I do use the glute-ham machine. It’s effective for strengthening the posterior chain. That said, the hack squat can be awesome for building quads. I will sometimes do a few sets at the end of my workout, and I can go heavier than I could with free weights. The leg press? You won’t see me on it, personally. It tightens my hip flexors and hurts my lower back. Plus, I don’t want to pull out a calculator to find the cosine of the angle of the sled, multiplied by the weight added. I’ll stick to simple math!
In our list, back squat is No. 1 and front squat is No. 2. Do you agree with that assessment? Why or why not?
These are two staple lifts, and I relied on both when I was training for the Figure stage and for track and field. Now, with the goal of staying healthy and lean and looking good, I have to disagree. The squat compresses the spine and very few people can execute it correctly. This can lead to a host of problems from knee pain to back pain. If your goal is to compete in powerlifting, then yes, squats are paramount. Otherwise, I think there are smarter ways to stimulate leg growth.