Top Exercises for Stronger Legs
We’ve all either heard or said the phrase “Never skip leg day.” And it’s very true—you want to make sure to train your body evenly. Don’t skip it because you don’t want to be sore when you walk the next day. Don’t skip it because you’re more interested in working on your upper body. And definitely don’t skip it because you’re not sure what exercises to do.
Our legs are the biggest muscle group in the body, and you use them all day long, making it that much more important to make sure you are training your legs just as much as the rest of your body. If you think of your daily routine—walking, standing, getting up and down from sitting to standing—your legs are involved in all of it. Ideally, you will want to train your legs at least two days per week. So, check out some of our favorite leg exercises—both bodyweight and weighted—and build a better leg day.
Top Bodyweight Leg Exercises
Bodyweight exercises are always an excellent addition to any workout program. They don’t require any equipment, so you can do them anywhere.
Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and your hands out front. For a more advanced option, bring your hands behind your head. Next, squat down like you’re sitting down onto a chair. Focus on pushing your hips back and flexing at the knees. Squat down to a comfortable depth. To start, this may be above parallel, eventually working to parallel or below. Then, stand back up to the starting position. If this is easy for you, you can progress by making these jumping squats.
Begin by standing with feet shoulder-width distance. Like the squat, hands can be out in front or, for the more advanced person, behind their head. Then, step to one side, thinking about sitting back with the glutes and keeping your torso upright. You will again want to go to parallel. When you first start, these you may be above parallel, but eventually, work to get lower. Focus on keeping your shins vertical to the ground.
Begin with feet shoulder-width apart, keeping your hands out in front of you. Step to one side, crossing the leg you are stepping with behind you and bending both knees as if you are doing a curtsey. Really focus on keeping your shins vertical to the ground and go to a comfortable depth. Over time, work to go lower.
For the split squat, you will start in a staggered stance, like the top point of a lunge. Your front foot will be flat on the ground, with the back foot up on your toes. Next, lower down to the ground until your back-knee touches, ensuring your front shin stays vertical to the ground. Then stand back up. Rather than alternating, you will perform all reps on one leg before switching to the other leg. Do these slowly so as not to hurt your knee as it touches the ground.
Start with a box height that you are confident with. Then, start with your feet about shoulder-width apart and a comfortable distance from the box. You will want to squat down to about a half squat and use your arms by swinging them back as you jump up onto the box. Land as quietly as possible. The quieter the landing, the softer the impact on your joints. Once you land on the box, stand tall and then step back down. The more advanced person can even jump back down.
Begin this exercise by laying on your back, knees bent to 90 degrees and your feet flat on the ground. Place your arms by your side with your palms to the floor. Then, slowly lift your hips off the ground until they are in line with your knees. Hold at the top for a few seconds and then slowly lower back down to the ground. If that is easy for you, try doing the same thing with a single leg. If you do the single-leg version, you will want to do all the reps on one leg and then switch to the other leg.
Stability Ball Leg Curl
This is one of the more challenging leg exercises. You will start in a similar position as the glute bridge but this time your feet will be up on a stability ball. From there you will go up into a glute bridge and then curl your feet into your body and slowly lower them back out to the starting position.
Top Weighted Leg Exercises
Looking to up the ante? If you have access to weights and certain weight machines, you can add on to your leg exercises.
For the squat, there are a few variations, most of which involve the back squat or the front squat. Both will have a similar movement, with the difference being where you hold the barbell or dumbbells. The front squat variation requires more mobility in the wrists and elbows and more core stability.
With either variation, begin with your feet shoulder-width distance apart. Then, squat down like you are sitting down onto a chair. Focus on pushing your hips back and flexing at the knees. You will want to squat down to a comfortable depth, ideally looking to get to parallel or below. Then stand back up to the starting position.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is sometimes referred to as a rear-foot elevated split squat. With this one, the setup is extremely important. First, choose an object that is a good height for elevating your rear foot. Usually, a bench works well here.
Test out a rep by lining up at the bench, taking about three steps out, and putting your back foot up on the bench. You will then squat down to ensure your front shin is vertical to the ground and your back knee touches the ground. You can adjust this closer or further depending on the person. Just be sure you don’t take too long of a stance.
Once you have found the proper distance, you can add your weights. You can use dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell in a front or back rack. For people first starting out with this exercise, dumbbells or kettlebells are recommended. Perform all the reps on one side before switching to the other side.
For the weighted step-up, use the same set up as the box jump. The difference here is that instead of jumping up you will be stepping up alternating legs each time and then stepping back down. You have lots of options to weight the step up. Typically, you will see a kettlebell or dumbbell either held by the sides of the legs or in a front rack position. If you are performing this exercise with a barbell, it can be done with either a front or a back rack.
For the deadlift, start with your feet about hip-width apart and toes pointed slightly outward. You want to have your feet directly under the bar and grip the bar at about shoulder-width. You can grip the bar with a pronated grip or a mixed grip. Next, bend your knees until the bar about meets your shin. Then, ensure your core is tight, you are using your glutes, and you have a neutral spine. Lift the bar off the ground. You will want to lift the bar high enough that your hips are fully extended at the top when standing up. Then slowly lower the bar back to the floor.
Walking lunges are some of the simplest exercises that you can do for your legs. Start with feet hip-width apart and then take one step forward. Make sure your front shin is vertical to the ground and the back knee about touches the ground. Then step up and through with the back leg. You can add weight in many ways, such as with dumbbells or kettlebells at your side or in the front rack. Or, use a barbell either in a front rack, back rack, or overhead.
This is the only exercise we have listed here that requires a machine to add weight. Start laying face-down on the machine. Focus on keeping your body flat on the bench and hold on to the handles provided to ensure your body stays in place. You will then curl your feet up towards your body and slowly lower back down.
If you are interested in learning more about these exercises, check out our Certified Fitness Trainer course and our Strength and Conditioning Specialist course.