You either love it or hate it, but the fact that you are reading this article would indicate that you are looking to get more out of your leg workouts.
If you want to build a strong, athletic physique, a set of powerful legs are the foundation.
That means you need to focus on the right leg exercises to build mass and strength.
A common occurrence in guys is to focus on the chest, back and arms and fail to give the lower body the emphasis that it needs and deserves.
I get it, leg training can be hard, and it can be easy to give in to the temptations of not turning up to the gym on leg days or making a last minute change to your routine to hit a second chest day this week.
I have to warm you though that focusing your workouts on the upper body “show muscles” that look good in singlets and you can end up looking like this.
Leg training can be rewarding, not only by giving you a set of tree trunks for legs, but yes it is possible to start loving your leg workouts as much as your other gym workouts.
Having strong legs will help you in all facets of life.
If you’re an athlete and want to be more explosive and powerful, proper leg training will help you.
If you’re a normal guy or gal having a strong base will help you in all kinds of activities.
If you’re all about the looks, your physique isn’t complete without a strong, muscular set of legs.
The bottom line is no matter who you are you need to be training your legs.
In this article we are going to break down the best leg workouts and exercises that you can do to get bigger, stronger and more toned legs and start to enjoy training legs.
The Low Down on the Muscles in Your Lower Body.
Before you figure out how to build the muscles in your legs you first need to know what they are and how they work together.
The major muscle groups in your legs are.
- The glutes
- The quadriceps
- The hamstrings
- The calves
The gluteus muscles or glutes are made up of three muscles that form your backside.
- Gluteus Maximus
- Gluteus Minimus
- Gluteus Medius
This is how they look:
A well developed butt does more than just look great in jeans.
The gluteus muscles play a key role in stabilising our body throughout our day to day lives. They are also the recruited to generate force in lifts like the deadlift and squat.
Sedentary lifestyles that involve a lot of sitting can result in the glutes becoming overstretched and underused.
A typical leg workout comprised of compound exercises will activate the glutes and train them sufficiently.
However if you feel your glutes need extra attention or just want your booty to pop then there are some specific exercises that can target them directly like the hip thrust.
The quadriceps are the four (hence the name) large muscles that make up the top, front of your legs.
The four muscles are:
- The vastus lateralis.
- The vastus medialis.
- The vastus intermedius.
- The rectus femoris.
This is how the muscles of the quads look:
The quadriceps muscles work together to extend (straighten) the knee.
The quads are the “show ” muscles of your legs. They make up the bulk of the size of your legs and are what creates that tear drop effect down next to your knee.
Leg exercises like the back squat, front squat and lunges are all great movements to train the quads.
The hamstrings are three muscles that form the back of your legs.
- Biceps femoris
This is what they look like:
The hamstrings are responsible for knee flexion, hip extension and rotation on the knee joint when flexed.
Although the hamstrings are a crucial muscle they can often get overlooked in workout routines. As the quads are bigger and more visible they often get the most attention in the gym.
As with any muscle groups, training one side of the body more than the other will lead to imbalances which not only look strange but can lead to injury.
If you think that squatting alone will be enough to train your hamstrings you are mistaken.
Squats are a great lower bod exercise, however the quads do the predominant amount of work in the lift.
So it is beneficial to include exercises like the romanian deadlift in your workout that focus more one the posterior muscles of the legs.
The calves are made up of two muscles on the back of your lower leg.
- The gastrocnemius
- The soleus
This is what they look like:
The calves are the thorn in the side of many a lifter.
They’re small stubborn muscles that can take what seems like an eternity to grow.
While some people won the genetic lottery and have developed nice, big calves the rest of use have to work hard to grow out of our toothpicks.
Leg Training Principles
When looking to train your legs to grow muscle naturally there are many ways that people are told to go about it.
There are machines, bodyweight programs, and free weights. You can do heavier, strength style training for less reps or lighter weights for more reps.
When it comes to leg training here are the principles you need to follow:
Heavy Compound Exercises
The best type of training for natural lifters is heavy compound lifts. To build muscle you have to put a lot of overload onto your legs. Without and increase in overload your legs will not need to grow. This means you need to load up on the basic compound lifts like squats, leg presses and romanian deadlifts in the low rep ranges.
While bodybuilding magazines may be pushing other fancy high rep routines with drop sets and supersets, this is not the best way to go.
The common thinking behind higher rep training is that that it is safer on your joints, so you can do more volume and grow bigger without risking an injury.
The problem is that the people that high volume training works best for are usually on steroids. They can do rep after rep and continue to grow without risking an injury on their tendons and ligaments which wouldn’t be able to handle heavier loads at that same amount of volume.
So stear clear of the machines and don’t be afraid to squat heavy!
If you are looking to build muscle this should should be your one focus. If you don’t continue to get stronger you won’t continue to get bigger.
This means that you need to track your workouts to make sure each time you walk into the gym you know what you need to do to improve on last session.
Each session you should be focusing on getting an extra rep than you did last session.
So lets say for example you did the barbell back squat and performed 4 reps at 250 lbs. The next session you train you would want to aim for 5 reps at 250 lbs.
If you are training in the 4-6 rep range you would want to build that up until you can hit 6 reps. Once you get 6 reps, your next set you will add more weight and aim for 4+ reps again.
Leg training sins
When training your legs there are a lot of common mistakes you can make.
Make sure you avoid these 3 sins of leg training:
-Focusing on high rep training
As we explained before, if you want to put on size and strength then you need to be lifting heavy.
In fact you should aim for the majority of your leg exercises to be compound movements and heavy lifting (80 to 85% of 1RM and higher.)
-Doing the wrong exercises
Too many people spend too much time on the machines at the gym. Machines like the leg extension and other isolation exercises don’t allow you to lift heavy weight. Make sure the bulk of your exercises are heavy compound lifts and save the isolation movements to the end of you workout.
-Using poor technique
Half reps are only part of the problem here. You need to make sure you are going all the way down in your squats but also avoid other common mistakes like rounding your lower back and bowing the knees in. After all, you can get bigger if you’re injured.
An important and sometimes overlooked part of training is getting the right volume. By volume I am referring to the amount of weekly reps you perform on each major muscle group.
If you do too little volume then your training will progress slowly. The other mistake is to go out guns blazing and do too much volume which can also lead to overtraining in the long run.
This becomes important to be aware of if you are focusing on heavy weightlifting as the rule goes:
The heavier you train, the lower your weekly volume needs to be.
Training with heavier weights requires a longer recovery period. This means you can’t do as much every week.
When training with weights in the range of 80+% of your 1rm, reviews have shown optimal volume to be around 60 to 70 reps every 5 to 7 days.
Your legs will respond best to heavy compound lifts and progressive overload. I like to aim for the 4-6 rep range. This allows you to lift heavy and build the maximum amount of muscle.
Best Leg Exercises
Now to the part you’ve been waiting for. When it comes to leg workouts there are dozens of different leg exercises that you can use. Of the many exercises available there are a few that stand tall as the best options to add real size and strength to your legs.
The best exercises to add real size and strength to your legs are:
Barbell Back Squat
You’re probably not surprised that the squat is at the top of the list of leg exercises that you need to be doing.
The barbell back squat is a full body compound movement however a large amount of work is done by the legs.
People can often say that the squat is an unsafe exercise or that it’s bad for your knees. This is only the case when the squat is performed with incorrect form.
Here is how to correctly (and safely) perform the barbell back squat.
Barbell Front Squat
The barbell front squat is a variation of the back squat that puts more emphasis on your quads than the back squat (which involves more hamstring). The other benefit of the front squats is it puts less stress on your knees and lower back, which can be beneficial if you have problems in those areas.
The front squat can feel awkward at first but the more you do it the the better it will feel.
This is how to perform the front squat.
The lunge can be done with either a barbell across your back or with dumbbells in your hands.
The barbell lunge is a great exercise for your legs.
Here is how to perform the exercise correctly.
The leg press is my favourite machine for training legs.
There is a couple of variations of leg press machines. There is the more upright variation that usually has a weight stack and you press the weight straight out and back.
Then there is the 45 degree angle variation. I prefer this one as you aren’t limited by the weight in the stack and you can get a better range of motion.
Here’s how you do it.
The romanian deadlift is a variation of the deadlift that allows you to isolate the hamstrings.
This is how the exercise should look.
The calf raise is the standard calf training exercise. There are a lot of variations that you can perform during your workouts. The 3 ways I like to perform calf raises are:
- With the leg press
I like to rotate between these variations of calf raises on my leg days.
Here is the standing calf raise:
The Best Leg Workout
Barbell Back Squat
3 sets 4-6 reps
3 sets 4-6 reps
3 sets 4-6 reps
3 sets 8-12 reps
3 sets 4-6 reps
Give yourself a full 3 minutes rest between each set. If this sounds long to you, that’s okay. If you’re going to be lifting heavy you need to give your body time to recoup strength before going again.
Once you can complete 6 reps on an exercise it is time to add more weight.
Remember the golden rule of muscle building.
You have to continue to add weight to the bar if you want your legs to grow.
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