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10 Best Leg Training Exercises to Build Muscle

It involves heavy weight, compromising body positions, and lots of post-workout soreness. As a result, many gym goers are constantly on the lookout for ways to either completely forego or, at least, minimize their leg training. If you’re serious about building your body, though, you need to give just as much attention to your lower body as you do to your chest and biceps. In this article, I reveal the 10 best exercises to pack muscle onto your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.


Why You Need to Train Legs


Most of the time your legs are likely to be covered up. So, why bother putting yourself through all the agony of training them?


For one thing, leg training includes working the glutes, which are the largest muscle in your body. Your quadriceps are also a major muscle group, as are the hamstrings. Building strength in the glutes, quads, and hamstrings will develop the power base of your body. Conversely, having strong upper and weak lower body muscles would be like throwing a football while you’re standing in a canoe!


The muscle imbalance that results from having weak lower limbs is a recipe for injury. They simply will not be able to meet the demands that your chest, back, and arms are asking of them. Then, of course, there is the aesthetic imbalance of your physique. Even when you’re wearing track pants or jeans, you simply cannot hide chicken legs. And it doesn’t matter how striated your triceps are, if you don’t have any wheels, people are going to dismiss you as a pretender.


For the final word on who you should train your big lower body muscles, here’s a quote from bodybuilding legend Reg Park (this former Hercules star was Arnold Schwarzenegger's idol) . ..


Far too many bodybuilders spend too much time exercising the smaller muscle groups such as the biceps at the expense of the larger muscle groups such as the thighs, and then they wonder why it is that they never make gains in overall size and strength."


The 10 Best Leg Exercises


Ok, let’s gown to business; here are the absolute 10 best moves to build your legs. But before we do, let me address the elephant in the room - barbell squats do not feature on this list! That may sound like sacrilege to you, but the unblemished and emotionally detached reality is that this is not the best quad developer. Barbell squats overload your spine, only move the quadricep’s prime mover (the tibia bone) through a 30-degree range of motion and, as a result of reciprocal innervation, shut off the quads as they work the glutes.


Cable Squats



Why Do It

The cable squat allows you to load the quads without putting a load on the spine. You are also able to lean back as you descend to allow for a much greater tibia range of motion and provides a better angle of resistance than free weight squats to match the direction of muscle fiber.


How To Do It

  1. Set the pulleys on a double cable machine to their lowest setting.
  2. Stand three feet in front of the machine, facing it.
  3. Grab the handles, set your feet shoulder-width apart, and lean your body back to around 30 degrees.
  4. Set your heels and lower down to a parallel squat
  5. Push through the heels to return to the start position.


Leg Extension


Why Do It

The leg extension is the single best quadriceps exercise that you can do. That is because it perfectly emulates the natural biomechanical function of the quadriceps; knee extension. Do not bring the weight all the way up or down to maintain time under tension. Move through the middle 80 percent of the movement.


How To Do It

  1. Sit on the leg extension machine and set the pads for your height.
  2. Grab the handles and extend the knee to lift your lower legs, stopping 10 percent short of full extension.
  3. Lower under control, stopping 10 percent short on full contraction.


Seated Leg Curl


Why Do It


The seated leg curl isolates your hamstrings, working them through a full range of motion without stressing your spinal erectors.


How To Do It

  1. Sit on a seated leg press machine and adjust the pads for your height.
  2. Push down on the ankle pad to bring your lower leg down to full extension.
  3. Pause, squeeze the glutes and slowly return to the start position.


45 Degree Leg Press Calf Raise


Why Do It

The 45-degree leg press machine allows you to work both of your calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) without having to overload your spine, as you would with the standing calf raise.


How To Do It

  1. Sit in the leg press machine and place your feet on the platform so that the balls of your feet are resting on the bottom of it and the rest of your foot hanging down.
  2. Without bending your knees, extend your toes to fully flex the calf muscles.
  3. Hold the contraction for a second and then reverse the movement.


Multi Hip Machine Glute Extension


Why Do It

The multi hip machine allows you to perfectly emulate the biomechanical movement of the glutes, which is to bring the leg down from a raised knee position. It does this in isolation so that you are not watering down the exercise by bringing in other muscle groups.


How To Do It

  1. Position yourself on a multi hip glute machine with your inside leg over the knee pad so that the knee is in line with your lower chest.
  2. Grab the support handle and push your leg down to full extension.
  3. Reverse and repeat. Be sure to perform the exercise in a fluid, non-jerky manner.


Reverse Lunges


Why Do It

Reverse lunges are another glute-centric exercise that allows you to work that muscle without placing stress on the spine. You are also able to work each glute unilaterally, which has been shown to produce greater muscle and strength gains.


How To Do It

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width and a pair of dumbbells in your hands at your sides.
  2. Take a large step back with your right foot.
  3. Descend into a lunge position, dropping the right knee to about an inch from the floor.
  4. Push through the left heel to return to the start position.


Step Ups


Why Do It

Steps Ups allows you to work your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves (all of your main lower body muscles) with a handheld load through the full range of motion. Use as high a platform as your fitness level allows.


How To Do It

  1. Stand in front of a platform or step with a pair of dumbbells in your hands.
  2. Step your left foot onto the platform.
  3. Follow through with your right foot to stand on top of the platform.
  4. Lower and repeat.




Why Do It


Lunges allow you to unilaterally work the glutes and hamstrings without loading the spine in a dynamic movement.


How To Do It

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width and a pair of dumbbells in your hands at your sides.
  2. Take a large step forward with your right foot.
  3. Descend into a lunge position, dropping the right knee to about an inch from the floor.
  4. Push through the left heel to return to the start position.


Sissy Squat


Why Do It

The Sissy Squat stimulates your quads more than other versions because it allows your tibia (lower leg muscle) to extend to near-maximal range of motion. This is the key to activating the quadriceps.


How To Do It

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and one hand holding onto a secure upright.
  2. Descend into a full squat by bringing your hips forward and kennels down toward the floor. In the bottom position, your knees should be well over your toes and near the floor.
  3. Reverse the movement to return to the start position.


Lying Leg Curl


Why Do It

The lying leg curl is another exercise that allows you to isolate your hamstrings. It’s not as good as the seated version of the exercise because the straight leg position causes excessive quad stretch which results in a weakening of the hamstrings. If your gym doesn’t have a seated leg curl however it is a good alternative.


How To Do It

  1. Lie on a lying leg curl machine and hold the handles.
  2. Keeping your hips down, curl the ankle pad up to full extension.
  3. Lower and repeat.


Putting It All Together


Your lower body workout should involve at least one exercise for each of the four key lower body muscle groups:


  • Glutes
  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves


Perform 8-10 sets for each muscle group, with reps ranging from 30 with a light weight down to 6 reps with the heaviest weight you can handle with good form. Train your legs once every 5 days to give your wheels the time they need to recuperate and grow.


About the Author


Steve Theunissen is a freelance writer living in Tauranga, New Zealand. He is a former gym owner, personal trainer and school teacher and is the author of six hardcopy books and more than a hundred ebooks on the topics of bodybuilding, fitness and fat loss. Steve also writes history books with a focus on the history of warfare. He is married and has two daughters.


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