Firstly, to develop bigger and stronger legs and whole-body strength. You must be doing the barbell squat. Most importantly the barbell back squat. Although you can get stronger with other squat variations such as front squats. In this article, you’re going to learn about the very best exercises to strengthen your legs.
Most importantly, as long as you get stronger at a squat variation you will become considerably stronger and bigger.
Your Legs Have A Considerable Capacity For Strength
Your legs make up A considerable proportion of your body. And you’ll most likely get stronger at exercises like the squat and deadlift much faster In comparison to exercises such as the military press and bench press.
By focusing on getting stronger legs this will carry over to your upper body. This is why compound exercises are so great. They all compliment each other.
For Instance, if you bench press properly you’ll use leg drive to lift heavier weights. Having stronger legs helps with this.
And getting a strong squat is going to carry over to your deadlift and many other movements where you use your legs. The squat also trains the spinal erectors in your back.
The Musculature Of The Legs
There are many muscles in the legs but you don’t actually need to know that much, to train your legs effectively.
The main muscles are:
The Glutes (the biggest muscle in the body)
The Hamstrings ( Biceps femoris long head/ short head, semitendinosus, Semimembranosus)
The Quadriceps (Rectis femoris, Vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius)
The Calves ( Gatrocnemius, soleus)
These muscles above make up the bulk of your leg muscles.
Look to the the graphic below to get a better understanding of where they are in your body.
Why The Squat Is Such A Good Exercise For Your Legs
Firstly the squat is a normal human movement. We’ve been squatting since the start of human inception. It’s a natural and functional movement. If you train the barbell back squat you will be targeting many different muscle groups all at once.
You’ll specifically be targeting your quads, hamstrings, glutes, spinal erectors/ erector spinae and your abs. Your abs brace hard to keep your lower back & torso in an upright position on the downward/ upward motion of the squat.
This exercise (just like many other compound exercises) strengthens your joints, ligaments and tendons and makes you less susceptible to injury.
Shortly put. You will become a much stronger individual if you consistently train and get better at the squat.
Most importantly the squat trains all the muscles in your legs..
Different Squat Variations -Exercises To Strengthen Your Legs
There are numerous squat variations such as the low bar squat, the high bar ( also named the Olympic squat) You also have dumbbell Bulgarian split squats and machine hack squats.
But first we’ll start with the barbell back squat
The Barbell Back Squat – Just Put The Bar Where It Feels The Most Comfortable
There are specific positions for where the bar should be placed for a high bar and low bar squat. But the fact is, it’s not that black and white. There will most likely be a place between a high bar position and low bar position that feels the most comfortable for you. So just put the bar on your back and make sure you hit proper depth (depending on your mobility).
Regarding the squat form you should:
- Put your feet at about shoulder width under the bar in a squat rack. (make sure the bar is at about chest level) Squeeze your glutes together this should bring your feet outwards into a favourable position.
2. Grab the bar with either your thumbs around the bar or a thumbless grip. And make sure your grip is as narrow as possible (this will help you stay tight)
3. Un rack the bar and take 2 steps back.
4. Take a deep breath into your diaphragm. Fill it to about 80% of its capacity. Hold this breath for the lift. Squat down below parallel (so that the top of your thighs are below parallel or at the very least parallel to the ground)
5. Explode back up.
If you want a step by step video of a great way to perform this exercise. Watch the video below.
The Front Squat – Exercises To Strengthen Your Legs
The front squat is an extremely effective exercise. But in comparison to the back squat the front squat targets your quads considerably more. And your hamstrings considerably less.
With the front squat, you’re not going to be able to lift as much weight as the back squat. It just doesn’t use as much musculature compared to the back squat and it uses considerably less hip drive.
For the exercise form watch the video below.
The California Grip ( I wouldn’t Recommend This When Training Your Legs)
If you have a hard time holding the bar with an Olympic grip like in the video above then the California option can be a good option. But there’s one downside with this grip. The bar isn’t very stable on your deltoids.
So if you are going to use a California grip then I’d suggest only using it when handling lighter weights. You don’t want to be doing it with weights that are close to your 1 rep max. Because if you do then there’s a high chance the weight will fall off your shoulders and this could lead to an injury. Or the knurling from the bar could give you a graze (trust me I’ve been there).
Safety Bar Squats – Exercises To Strengthen Your Legs
Safety bar squats are a great exercise. Especially for beginners to learn the squat. This is because:
You don’t need to have good shoulder mobility ( something that you do need when barbell squatting)
It keeps you in an upright position so there is very little strain on your back. (for example, in the back squat your lower back is used to a great degree. This isn’t a bad thing, but if you have lower back problems a safety bar squat will put less stress on your lower back.)
They’re very easy to learn. For the most part, you just need to get your feet position right when setting up. And then just stay tight and squat down and up. You don’t need to worry about where the bar is placed on your back, or keeping a narrow grip.
If you’ve previously had shoulder injuries and can’t get a barbell on your back then the safety bar will help you still be able to squat heavy while recovering from this.
The only bad thing about the safety bar squat is that they’re considerably rare. Barbells are much more common. So it makes sense to focus your attention on barbells first and foremost.
The form for the safety bar squat is below.
The Hack Squat Machine – Exercises To Strengthen Your Legs
Although this machine isn’t as effective as the barbell squat. It can be a great option is you struggle with putting the barbell on you back. This is because the handles are out in front of you. Similar to the safety bar squat.
The form is below.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Again if you have lower back pain (or a previous injury ) then Bulgarian split squats can be of great value to you. This is because the weight isn’t resting (and putting stress on) Your back. You’ll most likely be performing this movement with dumbbells that are placed at your sides.
And because Bulgarian split squats are completed unilaterally (one leg at a time) you won’t be able to use as much weight yet still successfully overload your quads, glutes and hamstrings compared to squatting with a barbell bilaterally (using both legs at the same time).
Form is below.
The Leg Press – Exercises To Strengthen Your Legs
Although this exercise gets a lot of hate. And is best known for guys doing quarter reps with a tone of weight on. Watch the video below (4:10) to see what I mean.
The leg press can be a useful exercise in your repertoire. If you’ve had previous back injuries and you can’t squat the leg press is an easy alternative.
Another good reason to use the leg press apart from previous injuries is if you haven’t got the strength to squat below parallel already with your own bodyweight. If that’s the case then you can do sets of leg press’s until you develop the required strength for squats.
The leg press can also just be a good exercise to add after your barbell squatting. This exercise works your:
Depending on where you place your feet you can target your legs differently. For instance if you leg press with your feet high on the platfrom you’ll be targeting your hamstrings to a greater extent.
If you put your feet towards the lower part of the platform you’ll put more emphasis on your quads.
And if you use a medium stance midway up the platform you’ll target your hamstrings and quads.
For the form video of this exercise. Click below.
Romanian deadlifts are also known as rdl’s and are an extremely effective exercise for your legs and specifically your hamstrings and glutes. They also carry over to your squatting and deadlifting because they greatly target your back muscles. Your spinal erectors need to stay rigid and tight ( thus training them) to handle the weight.
This exercise first came about from a super-strong Romanian weightlifter named Nicu Vlad.
One thing that a lot of people get wrong with this exercise, is that they lower the bar all the way down to the floor. You don’t want to do this. You want to lower the bar to a couple of inches below your knees and maintain tension in your hamstring and glutes if you bring the bar low you transfer the weight onto your quads. Thus defeating the purpose of the exercise.
For the Romanian deadlift form click below.
So now that we’ve spoken about the big compound exercises. That is to say, exercises that will give you the biggest bang for your buck. Now we’re going to move on to Isolation exercises like leg curls.
In case you don’t know what isolation exercises are, they target a single muscle whereas compound exercises like the squat target many muscles.
Leg curls target your hamstrings, and you can do quite a few different variations of them such as the Dumbell and the machine leg curl.
Although the Machine Leg curl is going to be the one that gets mentioned in this article.
Isolation exercises are generally speaking a lot less technical then compound movements. And a lot less effective because you can’t lift as much weight and you target only one muscle group instead of many.
There are two types of machine leg curls that you can choose from.
The Lying Leg Curl
And The Seated Leg Curl
For me the Lying Leg Curl just feels much better.
The form for the Lying Leg Curl is below ( Also called the prone leg curl because your torso faces towards the floor).
And the seated leg curl
Furthermore, isolation exercises aren’t as effective as compound exercises. Although this doesn’t mean they’re bad exercises. They’re just not as effective. But if you’re going to include leg extensions and leg curls into your leg training then make sure to put them after the heavy lifting.
Leg Extensions train your quadriceps.
For the Leg Extension form look below.
Calves can be extremely stubborn for a lot of people. This is because calves are primarily used for endurance activities like walking and running and for a lot of people they have many more slow-twitch muscle fibers (the muscle fibers that are mainly used for walking and jogging). Which have a limited potential for growth compared to fast-twitch muscle fibers (the muscle fibers for lifting weights).
Calf Raises Are Your Best Choice For Bigger Calves
Moreover, calf raises are the only exercise that actually isolates your calves.
The Standing Calf Raise
Although if you’re new to doing calf raises, you can just do them with your bodyweight. And once you can easily do these for reps you can either do them single-legged or weighted. Thus making the exercise harder and inducing progressive overload.
Moreover, most big gyms normally have a standing calf raise machine that enables you to do weighted calf raises.
Seated Calf Raises
A lot of gyms also have a seated calf raise machine like the one below that can be extremely useful.
But as calf raises are an isolation exercise they’re not going to give you the biggest bang for your buck for overall leg development.
Above all, If you focus on the big compound exercises at the top of this page you’d do just fine to build bigger stronger legs.
Conclusion On The Best Exercises To Strengthen Legs
- To sum up, Firstly you must perform some sort of squat. Or at least leg press. So that you can target and progressively overload your legs. Just doing isolation exercises won’t cut it.
- Secondly, If you have had back injuries in the past. Choose a squat variation that you find most comfortable. Bulgarian split squats can be a great alternative.
- Lastly, add isolation exercises like leg curls, leg extensions and calf raises so that you can adequately train all the muscles in your legs.
So hopefully now you know about the very best exercises to strengthen your legs. If you have any other questions or just want to let me know what you think send me an email at email@example.com
Although If you’d like a leg workout based on this information click below.