Find out the best leg exercises for building legs like tree trunks. On this page, I’ll go over my top 5 exercises for leg training.
To give you an overview, here’s my top picks for the best leg exercises:
3. Barbell Step Up
4. Dumbbell Lunge
5. Leg Press
The rest of this article will discuss how to perform these 5 movements and why you should do them.
Start by placing a barbell in a squat or power rack at about shoulder height.
Get under the bar and rest it upon your upper traps muscles. Hoist it up and over the rack pins and take a step back.
Stand with your feet hip width apart and toes pointed. Maintain a slight arch in you lower back, keep your upper back straight and head facing forwards.
Keep your torso as close to vertical as is possible throughout the movement (you will lean forward somewhat).
Squat down by bending your knees and hips until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground.
Squat up by extending your knees and hips until you’re standing fully upright. Repeat.
Note: The type of squat I describe (and recommend) is a high bar squat. But some people prefer to do low bar bar squats. See the difference by reading my post on high bar squats vs low bar squats.
Barbell squats are considered by many to be the most effective of all leg exercises. Obviously I think so, too. Otherwise I wouldn’t have given them the #1 spot in my list of the best leg exercises!
Squats target the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes. However, this massively popular leg exercise is truly a full body workout.
The squat exercise enables you to axially load the entire skeletal structure with maximal weight. As such, you are putting heavy compressional force through the center of your body…
…What this means is that you’re able stimulate a lot of muscle growth and strength development, while also creating exceptionally dense bones.
Begin with a loaded barbell on the ground. Stand in front of the barbell so that it is directly above the middle of your feet. Your feet should be hip width apart with toes out.
Bend over at the hips and bend the knees slightly, to lower your torso until your shins touch the bar.
Grab the bar with a shoulder width mixed grip (one hand over, one hand under). Your arms should be just outside of your knees.
Put your chest out and have your head facing forwards with your back straight and arms fully extended. Your hips should be as high as possible without rounding your back or lowering your chest.
Pull the weight up to your knees, using mostly knee extension. When the bar gets to your knees, drive your hips forward by squeezing your glutes. Go until you lockout. Keep the bar touching your legs the whole time.
Go in reverse to lower the weight back to the floor, keeping the bar against your legs.
Deadlifts are one of the best leg exercises, which hits your posterior chain (lower back, glutes, hamstrings, calves) with the force of a thousand suns!
As with squats, deadlifts work out more than just your leg muscles. They’re a full body exercise, with a lot of emphasis on the back. In fact, I consider deadlifts one of the best back exercises, too.
Since you are utilizing so many muscle groups while taking advantage of the leverage involved in the deadlift mechanics, you are able to swiftly pick up heroic amounts of weight off the ground…
…So if you haven’t started doing deadlifts, then you can expect rapid and consistent strength gains on this and other lifts once you start doing it.
3. Barbell Step Up
Stand in front of a box (or a sturdy bench) with a loaded barbell on your upper back.
Assume a hip width stance with your feet forward. Keep your chest up, eyes forward and torso upright for the movement. Raise one knee up and plant your foot down onto the box. Your thigh should be parallel to the floor.
Extend your leading knee and hip to step up and bring your other foot onto the box.
Reverse the motion by bending your leading knee and and hip and carefully stepping back with your leg.
Repeat. Switch sides and execute the same number of repetitions.
The step up is a unilateral movement, meaning you train each leg separately. As such, its most obvious benefits are better balance and muscular symmetry.
However, the real reason this exercise made the list of best leg exercises is because it trains single-leg explosiveness (or general strength) with more weight and greater efficacy than any comparable lifts.
…The step up allows you to develop so much power because it requires that you produce a lot of force and velocity to get you through a relatively large range of motion.
This exercise also mimics real-life jumping and sprinting motions, which means this is a no-brainer for athletes (or anyone who wants to increase their explosiveness off one foot).
4. Dumbbell Lunge
Hold a pair of dumbbells in your hands using a neutral grip (palms facing in), with your arms at your sides.
Stand with your feet hip width apart and toes forward. Keep your chest out, torso upright and and eyes forward during the lift.
Take a step forward with one foot, your heel is hits the ground first. Lower yourself in a controlled manner by bending your trailing knee, leading knee and leading hip. Go down until your knee touches the floor. Your leading knee should never go past your toes.
Return to the starting position by pushing off your leading foot and straightening your legs to step back into the starting position.
Repeat. Then the do the same number of reps on the other side.
Lunges are a fundamental leg exercise that will benefit you, regardless of your goals.
While squats and deadlifts are best for pure strength and muscle building purposes, they lack the benefits of unilateral exercises such as lunges. As I mentioned when talking about step ups, unilateral exercises train one side of your body separately from the other side.
As you can imagine, training on side at a time with lunges will vastly improve your balance and agility.
But the best advantage is that you can “even out” strength and muscle imbalances by independently training your weak side. In effect, this can improve your squat and deadlift weights by eliminating the bottleneck, or weakest link, that’s holding back progress.
Dumbbell lunges may actually be better than step ups for beginners, since they’re safer and easier to learn.
5. Leg Press
Sit down on the leg press machine. Put your legs up and place your feet about shoulder width apart on the platform with your feet pointed slightly out.
Push the weight up and release the safety handles to unrack the sled.
Grasp the grip handles tightly and pull down on them to keep your butt on the seat pad during the lift. Also, make sure your back stays firmly pressed against the back pad.
Lower the sled by bending your knees and hips until your knees are at 90°. Don’t do a partial rep and don’t go so deep that your lower back rounds.
Extend your knees and hips to press the weight up until your legs are locked. Repeat.
The leg press is a is great for your upper legs, especially your quadriceps. It gets a lot of a flack from the “hardcore” crowd because its a machine exercise. But I wouldn’t put it in my list of best leg exercises if it was indeed an ineffective movement.
The leg press is quite similar to the squats. The main differences are that you’re sitting down with your hips and back stationary, while your feet are moving. Whereas with squats, your hips and back are in motion and your feet are stationary.
So the drawbacks are that you don’t get the full body workout that you’d get with squats. However, you get a more direct leg workout because you don’t have to focus on balancing and using stabilizers the move the weight.
In short, the leg press still lets you to use big-boy weight. So, despite what the stuck-in-their-ways meathead crowd would have you believe, you can gain plenty of muscle and strength with the leg press.
Plus, it’s an excellent alternative to squats if you have major mobility/flexibility issues or injuries that prevent from squatting correctly or safely.