It’s always tempting to skip leg day, mostly because no-one enjoys the DOMS that tends to follow, but no weight training plan is complete without at least one leg-focused workout a week. So to ensure you’re never struggling for ideas of exercises to do on leg day, we spoke to Andy Page, strength and conditioning coach at the new Pure Sports Medicine Chancery Lane clinic.
Here are Page’s top leg exercises for beginner, intermediate and advanced gym-goers, and a few of our favourites too.
Beginner Leg Exercises
“Any lower-body programme should be built on the ability to squat,” says Page, “and the goblet squat is the ideal way to perfect the movement before moving on to its more complex cousins.
“Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell close to your chest, push your hips back and squat down slowly until your thighs are parallel to the ground. From this position, drive up to standing, leading with your chest. Working in front of a mirror will help to keep your knees in line with your feet and torso upright.”
“The step-up is an ideal introduction to the world of single-leg exercises.” says Page. “Set the step at a height that means the thigh on your leading leg doesn’t go beyond parallel to the floor.
“Holding dumbbells at your side, plant your foot on the step securely and drive up powerfully, focusing on contracting the glute muscles on the same side as your leading leg. Bring the opposite knee up and stand on the step to complete the movement.”
“The glutes are often overlooked but they’re a key muscle group,” says Page. “Strong glutes will make everything from running and squatting easier, as well as helping to keep you injury-free. One of the most common causes of lower-back pain is poor glute activity.
“The bridge is a great way to work on your glutes. Lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, squeeze your glutes and push your heels into the floor to lift your hips into a bridge. You should finish with your hips straight and abdominals tight.”
This simple exercise is just about the best way to work on your calves, which are not the easiest muscles in the body to target. If you’re a keen runner or sportsperson then calf raises are an absolute must, whether you do them in the gym or while waiting for the kettle to boil.
While standing, push down through the balls of your feet and raise your heel so you are up on your toes, then lower again. You can also do calf raises with your toes on the edge of a step which allows for a greater range of movement at the bottom of the move, or add weight to increase the challenge.
The leg curl requires the use of a dedicated weights machine, so it’s one to do in the gym unless your house is unusually well kitted out with a multigym. The reason for doing leg curls is simple – it’s one of the most effective ways to strengthen your hamstrings. To do a seated leg curl (some gyms also have machines you lie on to perform the move), sit on and set up the machine so the padded lever sits just below your calves (also refer to the instructions on the specific machine you’re using). Raise your legs in front of you, then pull the lever back down using your legs.
This weights machine exercise isolates your quads and is simple to perform, but it’s best done with light weights at first to avoid any risk of damaging your knees. Sit on the leg extension machine with your back straight against the backrest and adjust the pad so it sits on your shins just above the ankles. Hold the side bars and extend your legs out in front of you, making sure you’re powering the movement with your quads rather than kicking up with your feet.
The leg press is another machine move, but unlike the leg extension and leg curl it doesn’t just focus on one muscle group: it works the quads, glutes and hamstrings in one fell swoop. Sit back on the machine with your feet on the plate shoulder-width apart. Release the handles so your legs take the weight, then lower your legs towards your chest slowly. Drive them back up, but don’t lock out your knees.
A nice easy one, this. Find a wall and sit back against it so your thighs are parallel to the ground and your knees are bent at 90°. Wait, did we say easy? We meant horribly hard, because after the first 15 seconds or so holding this position becomes absolute murder on your thighs. It’s worth it, though, because you’ll build serious strength in your quads. If you’re a runner you’ll be pleased to learn the move can help prevent the all-too-common injury known as runner’s knee.
You don’t see many people skipping in a gym nowadays, which is a shame because as well as being a great cardio move it does wonders for your leg muscles, working the calves and building the quads and hamstrings. Grab a skipping rope and hold each arm out wide. Start with the rope at your heels and then move your wrists to swing it around and over your head. As it comes round, jump over it with both feet. Too easy? Try mastering these trickier techniques.
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing out slightly. Keeping your back straight, bend your knees and sit back until your thighs are parallel with the floor (or as close as you can get). Then explode straight up, pushing through your heels, into a jump. Land softly and go straight into the next rep. Aim to do either three sets of ten reps or three sets of 30 seconds.
Intermediate Leg Exercises
Hex bar deadlift
“Deadlifting is a great way to build strength in the posterior chain – your hamstrings, glutes and back – and lifting with the hex bar makes it far more accessible,” says Page.
“Standing inside the hex bar, hold both handles securely and lower your hips so they are as close to the height of your hands as possible. Slowly take the tension on the bar and then stand up, pushing through your glutes, to lift the bar. Keep your chest high with your head facing forward during the whole movement. When performed properly, the hex bar deadlift is a particularly good option for anyone with a sore back from years of orthodox deadlifting.”
Walking lunge with dumbbells
“The ability to lunge with good form has great carryover benefits to many other sporting movements as well as strengthening your hamstrings, quads, glutes and hips,” says Page. “With a dumbbell in each hand, lunge forwards and bend your front knee until your back knee is just above the ground, then drive back up. Bring the back leg through to initiate the next lunge and walk forwards to continue the movement. Focus on keeping your torso upright.”
Single-leg Romanian deadlift
“This move incorporates balance, proprioception (your sense of where your body parts are positioned) and glute control as well as hamstring training,” says Page, “making it a great way to make the most of your training time.
“Holding a kettlebell or dumbbell in your left hand, lift your left leg straight behind you and lean forwards over your right leg by pushing your hips backwards, feeling the stretch down your right hamstring. Practise facing the mirror to keep your head up and your back straight, and make sure you are moving in straight lines and not rotating over your standing leg.”
The kettlebell swing is an excellent compound exercise that works an array of upper- and lower-body muscles; in your legs, the hamstrings and quads are the main beneficiaries.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding the handle with an overhand grip in front of you. Hinge at the hips, moving your torso forwards and hips back, and swing the kettlebell back between your legs. Drive your hips forwards to stand up straight and swing the weight up to shoulder height. Control the swing back down between your legs. Make sure that on each swing up you’re using the movement of your hips to power the motion rather than your upper body.
Like the hex bar deadlift, the sumo variation of the exercise goes easier on your lower back, and so can be a better option for people fairly new to weightlifting. The main change is to your stance: stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing out at a 45° angle. This means your torso is closer to the ground so you don’t have to lean over as far to grab the bar. Bend at the hips to lower and grab the bar, keeping your back flat, then extend your knees and hips to drive back to standing.
There’s a limit to the weight you can carry in this move, but that doesn’t mean your legs will have it easy – they’re going to spend more time under tension than in a typical sets and reps move. Walk holding heavy dumbbells or kettlebells by your sides with your core braced and chest up.
Shifting a prowler sled is a tough but low-impact move, which makes it a fine option for runners who go to the gym to cross-train. Grasp the handles of the sled as low down as possible – if you hold on too high you may apply force downwards rather than forwards – with either bent or straight arms. Then push off the balls of your feet to drive the sled forwards. Getting going is the hardest part; it gets somewhat easier after that. If you’re looking to develop power, choose a light weight and move fast, aiming for four one-minute rounds. For strength, load up the sled and do sets of short distances, resting after each effort.
Single-leg glute bridge
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Extend one leg, keeping your thigh in the same position. Push through your heel and raise your hips until your knees, hips and shoulders are in line. This also hits your core muscles hard because they need to work overtime to keep your balance.
Work one leg at a time, aiming for three sets of ten reps on each leg. If you want to add to the challenge, rest a weight on your lower abdomen and pelvis.
While some leg exercises increase your strength, this plyometric exercise will improve your power and can be a real pulse-raiser too. Find your gym’s plyo box – pick a height that you’re sure you can land comfortably on – and stand facing it square on. Looking at the box, pick a spot that you want to land on, squat down to half depth to help generate power then explode up, swinging your arms forwards as you do to ensure that your jump takes you onto the box. Land softly, bending your knees to absorb the shock, then stand. For your knees’ sake, step down from the box rather than jumping.
Advanced Leg Exercises
“If you can master the king of lower-body exercises, you’ll see the effect on your lower-body and core strength, shoulder stability, and mobility from your shoulders to your ankles,” says Page. “Holding a bar over the crown of your head, with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart, squat down as low as possible and use your glutes to drive back up to the starting position. Start with light loads until you master the technique – and prepare for a challenge!”
TRX Bulgarian split squat
“This move both challenges single-leg stability and hits the posterior chain really hard,” says Page. “The position should resemble a lunge and targets similar muscle groups – the difference is that it recruits more muscle fibres.
“Face away from the rig with one of your feet in the handle of a TRX (or any suspension trainer), keeping your head up. Squat down on your standing leg. Ensure you are pushing back with the suspended leg and keeping your torso upright during the movement to minimise strain on the knee and maximise glute activation.
“At first, no weight will be needed and only light weights should be added as you progress.”
“The slower of the two Olympic lifts, the clean is a fantastic way to build power and explosiveness,” says Page, ”and the hang clean is a great version of the move to start with because it doesn’t require substantial mobility to perfect.
“Starting with the bar held at mid-thigh height, lower yourself into a powerful jumping position. Then forcibly extend your ankles, knees and hips to drive the bar up towards your shoulders. Drop under the bar, pivoting your arms around to catch it across the front of your shoulders. You should definitely ask one of the trainers in the gym for some tips before attempting this for the first time.”
This is a combination of a front squat and an overhead press, and brings the benefits of both moves to the table. A barbell is the ideal free weight to use for the move if you have one, but it can also be done with a couple of dumbbells or a single kettlebell held in both hands.
Hold the weight at your chest with your elbows pointing straight down and your palms up. Lower into a squat, then drive back up and use that momentum to push the weight straight above your head. Lower it under control to your chest, then drop into another squat.
The deadlift is one of the fundamental exercises you’ll see people doing in the gym, so you might find it strange that we’ve put it in the advanced category, but that’s our way of emphasising that flawless form is crucial. Doing the move the right way will produce the best results and give you the best chance of avoiding injury, so whether you are new to the gym or already a regular visitor, it’s worth having your deadlift form checked by an expert if possible.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with the bar on the ground in front of you. Reach down and grasp it with your hands slightly wider than your legs, then lift the bar by driving your hips forwards. Lower the bar back to the floor under control. Keep your back straight throughout.