Best Leg Exercises to Turn Your Twigs Into Trunks
Friends don’t let friends skip leg day.
If you are the kind of gym goer who slaves away on cardio machines or only pumps iron for a rock hard chest and big biceps, you are missing out on an essential part of developing your overall fitness: leg exercises.
I will admit, leg day gets somewhat of a bad rap in the world of strength training. The most effective lower body workouts are often erroneously labelled as “only for girls who want a big butt”. And, leg exercises like squats and deadlifts can actually be quite challenging and technical to perform, so some folks avoid them simply out of laziness.
No matter what reason has you taking a pass on leg day, if you have noticed that your body building sessions are making you look more and more like an upside down triangle (all upper body gains, and very little legs muscles), then you aren’t just compromising your aesthetics.
Leg exercises have far more health and stability benefits for your body that go beyond appearance.
Interested in incorporating more leg exercises into your gym routine, but are at a loss as to where to start? I’ve got your back on this one. In today’s article, I am going to provide a complete breakdown of my favorite leg exercises to help you build those legs from twigs to trunks.
But first, let’s review the question likely on everyone’s mind...what even is the benefit of leg exercises?
Why you Should Never Skip Leg Day
So, your more built muscles are in your upper body? You train your back, biceps, and chest to failure when you go to the gym? You feel strong and look strong, but by neglecting to do leg exercises you may be doing more harm than good to your fitness progress and goals than you realize.
Here is a breakdown of the advantages of developing a solid leg day routine as part of your weekly workout regimen:
Improve your Core Stability
Are you doing hundreds and hundreds of crunches to build your core, but are noticing little results? It could be because you are skipping leg day.
What a lot of folks don’t know is that big compound leg exercises like squats, deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and glute bridges are actually some of the most effective movements you can perform to build bulletproof abs.
These leg exercises demand you to not only engage your whole body to perform them properly, but they also depend on your core strength to be executed correctly. For example: it is impossible to do a safe deadlift, squat, or kettlebell swing with a disengaged core.
All these leg exercises demand you to keep your core stable throughout the movement, thus giving you a really intense (and effective!) core workout without you even realizing it.
Burn More Calories
Leg exercises demand you to get up and move. They get the blood circulating throughout your body and increase your heart rate, especially the workouts that are full body movements and are done without the support of machines.
In turn, leg exercises help you burn more calories a lot more efficiently than most isolated upper body exercises do. If you are looking to lose weight and burn calories, choose squats and lunges over bicep and tricep curls to really see results.
Think about it! The more muscles you build, the more calories you burn. Research shows us that people who have a more muscular build burn more calories even when they are resting at a steady heart rate. Adding more leg exercises to your daily workout routine therefore helps your overall fitness and weight loss by increasing your body’s muscle composition.
Reduce Your Risk of Injury
The basics of weight training to build muscle tells us this: if you train the same muscle groups day in and day out, and especially if you are training these muscles to failure, it is not a matter of if you will injure yourself, but when.
To reduce your risk of pulling a muscle (or worse) from overtraining the same muscle groups, adding more leg exercises to your gym routine can be a great way to introduce more variety into your training.
By having, for example, a leg day, arm day, back day, cardio day, and rest day(s) throughout your usual weekly workout routine, you can greatly reduce the chance that you are going to injure a muscle from overuse. Plus, by giving each muscle group more time to rest and rebuild itself before you train it again, you will actually begin to see more rewarding results from your workouts.
Build Functional Fitness
I can’t tell you how often I use my triceps throughout the day, but you better bet my quads and glutes are in constant use. Think about it: walking, sitting down and standing up, bending over, getting in and out of your car, going up and down stairs, all of these everyday movements demand daily work from your leg muscles.
Let’s talk about the concept of functional fitness for a moment. Functional fitness is when you train for the physical demands of everyday life, whether it is tasks you need to perform at your job or around the home.
Functional fitness prevents you from injuring yourself when you need to rearrange some furniture around the house, and enables you to walk up the stairs at work without running out of breath. And, a key part of functional fitness is leg exercises.
You use your legs everyday: why not train and strengthen them to be better prepared for the situations you face in your day to day life?
Set Ego Aside
When we get down to the core of why people avoid leg exercises, a lot of it comes down to not wanting to work on the basics.
More advanced leg exercises, such as deadlifts and squats, demand a certain level of stability and mobility that some folks still need to work on. In comparison, a lot of these same gym goers find bench press and arm workouts really easy, so they just stick to that because they know that they are good at these workouts and they make them feel strong.
But, the reality of an effective workout regime is forcing yourself to strengthen your areas of weakness. Sometimes that means starting at the basics with leg exercises: stretching to be able to sit in a deep squat, strengthening your core to perform deadlifts properly, doing bodyweight box squats before you have the strength and posture to progress to the barbell.
While these movements might not put you into beast mode with the same adrenaline rush as a two plate bench press, they are essential to your overall health and fitness and should not be neglected because they initially present as a challenge.
The Best Leg Exercises to Tone Your Legs
Keep reading for my comprehensive guide to the most effective exercises to tone your legs and build strength and stability.
I have divided these leg workouts into three sections: building the basics for beginners to leg workouts, serious strength gains for gym goers to take their leg exercises to the next level, and full body leg workouts for athletes who want to improve their cardio endurance through a variety of leg exercises.
Building the Basics
Stability Ball Bridges
Targeted muscle groups: Glutes, hamstrings, and core
How to perform: For these simple but effective leg workouts, you will need to get yourself a large stability ball. While lying on your back with your arms against your sides, place only your heels on the top of the stability ball.
While lifting your butt off the ground, use your hamstrings and glutes to roll the stability ball towards and away from your body.
Focus on keeping your glute muscles and core muscles tight and engaged. You should feel this exercise in your hamstrings and abs.
Use stability ball bridges to build stability and strength in your lower body before advancing to more technical leg workouts.
Recommended: Rogue PowerMax Stability Balls
Targeted muscle groups: glutes and core.
Performance guide: glute bridges are excellent leg workouts to activate your glute muscles before performing heavier or more complex leg exercises.
You can perform a glute bridge simply as a bodyweight exercise or with a band looped around your quads to make this workout more challenging.
Begin a glute bridge by lying on your back and bringing your feet up so that your knees are bent in front of you. Keep your feet slightly wider than hip width apart. In one fluid motion, push your weight into the ground with your feet, lift your hips, and squeeze your glutes. Maintain contact between the floor and your upper back at all times. Lower your body back down to the ground to complete one glute bridge rep.
To perform the glute bridge correctly, you want to make sure your lower back stays straight and neutral. The movement should be driven from your glute muscles and your knees should stay the same distance apart throughout the exercise.
Serious Strength Gains
Targeted muscle groups: quads, glutes, hamstrings, hip flexors
Get started: the split squat is an effective exercise that you can use to address any strength imbalances you might have between your two legs.
These leg workouts can be performed as bodyweight exercises or with a dumbbell or barbell to up the difficulty.
A split squat starts by raising one foot and resting it behind you on either a bench or chair. Rest the laces of your shoe on the chair to challenge your balance and stability even more. With or without additional weight, bend your front leg slightly, as if you are doing a lunge. Straighten the front leg to complete a single rep of a split squat.
If this version of the split squat is too challenging, remove the chair or bench and just perform this movement with one foot behind the other in a lunge position. You can add weight for resistance to this variation as well.
Recommended: Rogue Fold Up Utility Bench
Targeted muscle groups: quads
Get started: The leg press is a workout machine well known for its killer quad building capabilities.
While all gyms have slightly different instructions for how to use their particular leg press machine, here is the gist of it: load the machine with the appropriate working weight for your strength level.
Start light, and make sure the weight is equal on both sides. Then, sit in the leg machine. Release the safety bars that hold the weight. Bend your legs to take on the weight of the leg press, and then straighten your legs to push the weight back up. Be safe, ne certain. Be mindful not to lock your knees during the process.
Targeted muscle groups: hamstrings
Get started: The leg curl machine is a great tool to help fitness enthusiasts who want to strengthen their hamstrings. Target this essential muscle group, and see results.
You’ll want to first set the weight of the leg curl to a comfortable working resistance. Then, lay down on your stomach and place your legs under the leg bar.
Bend your knees to pull the leg curl bar up with your hamstrings. Let's go! One rep down.
If you find this movement difficult or uncomfortable to perform, adjust the leg bar in relation to your height for a better fit.
Recommended: Titan Fitness Lying Prone Leg Curl and Extension Machine
Full Body Leg Workouts
Targeted muscle groups: hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors, core, lats
Get started: Similar to a conventional deadlift, the sumo deadlift takes the pressure off of your lower back and demands more strength from your hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors to get the barbell up.
To set up for a sumo deadlift, stand behind your loaded barbell with your legs apart.
You want to take a wide but comfortable stance, with your feel pointing slightly outward.
Holding the bar with an overhand grip, sit back into your hips, and pull the slack out of the bar. Initiate your pull by maneuvering your hips towards the bar. Be careful not to lift the barbell with your back, quads, or biceps. It hurts. Ouch.
Keep your upper body solid and strong, and focus on the power coming from your glutes and hamstrings as you stand upright to complete one rep. Finally, carefully lower the bar back to the ground.
Recommended: Rogue Ohio Deadlift Bar & Rogue Bumper Plates
Targeted muscle groups: glutes, hamstrings, core, lats
Get started: When you perform a kettlebell swing, you want to envision your body is a pendulum; your hips move back and forth to swing the kettlebell in front of you, while the rest of your body remains still and stable.
For a correct kettlebell swing set up, stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart.
Rest the kettlebell on the ground about a foot and a half in front of you. Reach forward for the kettlebell, send your hips back as you do so. If you have trouble reaching the weight, widen your stance.
Once you are in a strong, stable set up position, tilt the kettlebell towards you to initiate the swing. Guide the weight back between your legs, then stand up tall, giving your glutes a good squeeze at the top and allowing the kettlebell to rise in front of your shoulders. Then, to keep this swinging motion going, push your hips back again, guide the kettlebell between your legs, stand up tall again, and repeat.
During the kettlebell swing, it is important for your own safety to use a weight that you can be in complete control over during this swinging motion. Remember to lead the motion with your hips and glutes. Your knees never need to bend and your arms don’t do anything other than guide the weight.
Recommended: Bowflex SelectTech 840 Kettlebell
Jumping Calf Raise
Targeted muscle groups: calves
Get started: Jumping calf raises elevate the intensity of a traditional calf raise by adding a more dynamic movement into the mix.
These leg workouts can be trained as a body weight movement.
Additionally, you can add a barbell or dumbbells as you becomes more advanced.
Begin with a single rep. Bend your knees, jump up vertically. Focus on pointing your toes downward in the jump to really activate and engage your calves. When you land from your jump, your goal is to land on the balls of your feet, bending your knees to accommodate your frame returning to the ground. A clean landing is always something to be proud of.
The Bottom Line
Exercises to tone your legs can be challenging, not to mention the serious DOMS that you might experience after leg day if you’ve been putting these workouts off for a while now.
However, you can’t deny the powerful strength and health benefits that come from adding more leg workouts into your daily gym routine.
My final advice to any person looking to improve their overall fitness: pick a handful of leg exercises that best suit your personal goals, and perform them for 3 sets of 10 reps once or twice a week to start.
Trust me, you’ll be noticing gains in no time.