A leg day workout is an effective way to improve strength and muscle size in all the major muscles in your lower body.
As the name states, it focuses primarily on your leg muscles – the quads, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, and calves.
In this article, we’ll take a look at a leg workout that is effective for gaining muscle mass and increasing your strength. We’ll cover the best leg exercises, sets and reps, and other important factors for your gains.
Table of Contents
What is a Leg Day Workout?
As the name states, a leg day is a workout where you focus on leg exercises and the muscles involved in them. This typically means compound leg exercises like the squat, leg press, and Romanian deadlift, but also isolation exercises for your leg muscles, like leg extensions and leg curls.
Sometimes, a push, pull, and leg workout is strung together in the same workout routine, like in our bodybuilding push pull legs split.
Muscles Worked in a Leg Workout
Your major leg muscles and the muscle groups worked on a leg day are:
These are the muscles used when you squat, run, jump, and flex or extend your knees and hips.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these muscle groups and how to train them.
Your quads, or quadriceps, are the large muscles on the front of your thigh, and they are the largest muscle groups in your body.
The quad muscle has four separate heads (hence the name); three originate from your thigh bone and one from your pelvis. They combine into one tendon that passes over your kneecap and inserts in your tibia, the bone on the front of your lower leg.
The names of these four muscles are:
- Vastus lateralis
- Vastus medialis
- Vastus intermedius
- Rectus femoris
Your quads may be your largest muscle groups, but your glutes hold the largest single muscle: your gluteus maximus. Along with your other two glute muscles, the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus, this is another of your largest and most powerful muscle groups.
Your gluteal muscles are fan-shaped with a wide origin on your pelvis, and insert on the back and outside of your femurs.
Their primary function is to extend your hip, but they also externally rotate and abduct your legs. The glutes are worked well in exercises like the squat, Romanian deadlift, and Bulgarian split squat.
Your hamstrings are located on the back of your thighs and consist of three muscles:
- Biceps femoris
All three muscles originate from your sitting bone, on the back and bottom end of your pelvis. An exception is biceps femoris which has two heads:
- The long head originates from the sitting bone.
- The short head originates from the back of your femur (thigh bone).
All three muscles (including both heads of the biceps femoris) then cross over your knee joint and insert in your lower leg.
Since the hamstring muscles cross over both the hip and knee joint, they can act upon both joints with:
- Hip extension. Extending your hip, like in the Romanian deadlift or the good morning.
- Knee flexion. Flex (bend) your knee, like in a leg curl.
Your adductors are muscle groups made up of seven different muscles, located on the inside and backside of your thighs. The largest of these seven is your adductor magnus, which is one of the largest single muscles in your thighs, rivaled only by the vastus lateralis.
The adductors originate from your pelvis and insert into the inside and backside of your femur.
Your calf muscles consist of two major muscles:
- Gastrocnemius is the outer, two-headed muscle. It originates from the lower end of your femur (thigh bone).
- Soleus is the inner, one-headed muscle originating from the top of your tibia and fibula.
Both muscles come together into the Achilles tendon, which inserts on your heel bone.
Now, it’s time to get into the actual workout.
The Leg Day Workout Routine
Here is the outline of the leg day routine.
Leg Day Workout
- Squat: 3 sets x 6 reps
- Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets x 8 reps
- Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets x 10 reps
- Seated Leg Curl: 3 sets x 12 reps
- Leg Extension: 2 sets x 12 reps
- Standing Calf Raise: 3 sets x 15 reps
This workout is available for free in our workout log app, where you can see demonstrations of and track your reps and weights for each exercise.
Let’s go over each exercise and what muscles they work, and also alternatives for every exercise if you can’t or don’t want to do exactly the ones we’ve selected for you.
The squat is a classic barbell lift and one of the best leg exercises you can do.
It is proven effective for building your quads, glutes, and adductors, and as such, is a great exercise to include in your leg day workouts.1
The squat can be tricky to learn for some, but if you begin with light loads until you get the hang of it, you’ll have the king of leg exercises in your toolbox.
How to Squat with Proper Form
- Place the bar on your upper back. Inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
- Take two steps back and adjust your foot position.
- Squat as deep as possible with good technique.
- With control, stop and reverse the movement, extending your hips and legs again.
- Exhale on the way up or exchange air in the top position.
- Inhale and repeat for reps.
2. Romanian Deadlift
This is one of the best barbell hamstring exercises you can do and a classic for building a thicker, stronger backside. It is, therefore, an excellent foundation for any leg day workout.
The key to this exercise, as it is with many exercises, is to prioritize form and muscle contact over weight, and to get a deep stretch in the bottom of the movement.
How to Do Romanian Deadlifts
- Get into the starting position by deadlifting a barbell off the floor, or by unracking it from a barbell rack.
- Inhale, brace your core slightly, and lean forward by hinging in your hips. Keep your knees almost completely extended.
- Lean forward as far as possible without rounding your back. You don’t have to touch the barbell to the floor, although it is OK if you do.
- Reverse the movement and return to the starting position. Exhale on the way up.
- Take another breath, and repeat for reps.
3. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is another great exercise for leg day workouts. It is one of the best glute exercises in or out of the gym, but also works your quads and adductors.
Use a workout bench or box to place your rear foot on. You can use a barbell, dumbbells, or kettlebells for weights.
If balance is an issue early on, don’t worry: you’ll gain proficiency soon. Do the first few workouts without weights so you can use your hands for balance, and you’ll soon be more stable.
How to Do Bulgarian Split Squats
- Stand with your back turned against a bench, which should be at about knee height. Stand about one long step in front of the bench.
- Place one foot on the bench behind you.
- Inhale, look forward, and squat down with control until right before the knee of the back leg touches the floor.
- Reverse the movement and extend your front leg again, while exhaling.
- Inhale at the top and repeat for reps.
4. Seated Leg Curl
Another study found that the hamstrings grew 55% more from training seated leg curls than lying leg curls: a 14% vs. 9% increase in muscle thickness over 12 weeks of training.8
How to Do Seated Leg Curls
- Adjust the machine so that you are correctly positioned. Your knees should be in line with the machine’s joint.
- Push the weight down by bending your knees as far as possible.
- Slowly let the weight back again.
5. Leg Extension
The leg extension is an isolation exercise for your quadriceps, and one of few exercises to effectively work your rectus femoris (one of the four quad muscle heads).
Because the rectus femoris crosses over both the hip and knee joint, it cannot aid in knee extension when you are simultaneously flexing your hip as you do in squats. In the leg extension, on the other hand, you keep your hip fixed, enabling all four heads of the quads to work hard.9
Additionally, this is a great way to pump out the last bit from your quad muscles before wrapping up your leg workout.
How to Do Leg Extensions
- Adjust the machine so that you are correctly positioned. Your knees should be in line with the machine’s joint.
- Extend your knees with control, until they are completely straight.
- Slowly lower the weight again.
6. Standing Calf Raise
While the calves are notoriously hard to grow, the standing calf raise is one of the best exercises to do it.
Standing calf raises simultaneously train the inner (soleus) and outer (gastrocnemius) calf muscles.
A variant of the exercise is seated calf raises, in which the gastrocnemius is shortened and, therefore, somewhat disengaged, thus isolating the work to the soleus.
How to Do Standing Calf Raises
- Place your toes and the ball of your feet on the foot support. Place the shoulder pads against your shoulders and stand upright in the starting position.
- Lower yourself down by bending your ankles in a controlled movement.
- Push yourself up by extending your ankles.
Sets, Reps, and Rest Periods
That was the exercise selection. Now let’s go over some of the finer details like sets, reps, and rest.
The Number of Reps
As outlined in the leg day workout routine earlier, you’ll be doing between 6–15 reps per set in all exercises; a little on the lower end in the heavy compound exercises and on the higher end in the lighter isolation exercises.
This rep range is a sweet spot where you will both build muscle and increase your strength, where the low reps with heavy weights lean slightly more towards strength, and the higher reps with medium weights lean slightly more towards hypertrophy. The whole rep range will develop some of both, though.
Note that this is only a guideline; you are free to change up the number of reps, and nothing bad happens if you do more or fewer than the prescribed rep numbers. Just work hard and try to do more reps or the same amount of reps but with a heavier weight over time in order to progress your training. More on this later!
The Number of Sets
You’ll be doing two to three sets per exercise for a total of eight primary work sets for your quads, nine primary work sets for your glutes and adductors, six primary work sets for your hamstrings, and three primary work sets for your calves.
Research shows that how many sets you do per muscle group is strongly related to how much muscle and strength you gain.
Beginners and previously untrained persons generally see the best growth when they perform ten or more sets per muscle group per week.10
This means that doing this push workout routine once per week is not bad; you’ll probably gain nicely from that. But you could probably grow a little faster if you repeated this workout a little sooner.
You don’t have to stick to seven-day cycles. Instead, you could repeat it every four to five days or whenever you feel recovered enough.
As a rule of thumb, resting for two to three minutes between sets is a good balance between getting enough recovery and still being time-efficient with your training.
The idea is that you should rest long enough to be able to perform the next set with:
- proper form
- at the desired weight
- for the desired number of reps.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, research has shown that you gain more muscle and strength with longer rest periods (three minutes or longer) than short rest periods (one minute or less), at least if you stick to a predetermined number of sets, like in this workout.11 12
This is because longer rest periods allow us to perform more reps in the subsequent sets. More reps mean more training being done and more stimulus for the muscles to grow. To compensate for shorter rest periods, you’d need to increase the number of sets you do.
If you are in a hurry, or just restless, I recommend you to at least try to get two minutes of rest in between sets. That will allow you to recover around 95% of your power, and perform way better than if you only rested for one minute.13
Progressive Overload: The Secret Sauce
The first time you try this leg workout, you should try to find weights that let you perform the prescribed number of sets and reps with good form in each exercise.
Then, in the next workout, you should try to lift more than the last time.
This is the key to growing bigger and stronger muscles.
Your muscles are very adaptive, and what was once a challenging workout soon becomes a walk in the park. And when your muscles aren’t sufficiently challenged, they will cease to adapt.
Meaning: no more growth.
To keep the gain train on track, you must progressively increase the stress and stimulus you expose your muscles to. This is known in strength training as progressive overload, and it is typically done in one of two ways:
- Do more reps with the same weight as last time.
- Do the same number of reps as last time, but with more weight.
Often, people alternate a bit between these two. They might strive to increase the number of reps for a few workouts before they increase the weight, and then focus on increasing the reps for few workouts again.
The beginner can usually do a bit bigger jumps, but when you’re past the beginner stage, I recommend you try to do one more rep or add 2.5 kg (5 lb) per set and exercise.
If you did three sets of six reps at 60 kg (~130 lb) in the squat last workout, you could try to do three sets of six reps at 62.5 kg (~135 lb) in the next workout.
If you can only get three sets of five reps at 62.5 kg, you could stick with that weight for the next few training sessions and try to get all sets up to six reps before you increase the load again.
How to Track Your Push Workouts
A key to being systematic in your progression is to track your workouts.
This push workout is available 100% free in our workout log app. Download it with the buttons below, go to the Programs & Workouts tab, and search for “Leg Workout”.
Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:
How to Make the Most Out of Your Leg Days
We’re almost done. Let’s take a quick look at some things that can help boost your results even further.
Eat Properly for Muscle Growth
The training triggers growth, but your food provides the means. If you don’t eat enough, your body won’t have the building blocks to add muscle size.
If you’re unsure what to eat, check out our guide on eating for muscle growth. It will cover all the most important things you need to know.
Protein is one of the key nutrients for muscle growth, and getting enough protein is a simple way to get better training results. Use our protein calculator to calculate your daily need.
If you are looking to lose fat but want to build or at least maintain your muscle mass while you’re at it, you should definitely check out our guide on how to lose fat and keep your muscle.
In addition to eating well, sleep is also essential for your training results. Most adults require between seven to nine hours of quality sleep per night.
Doing one workout is good, but it is not enough.
Getting good training results is all about stringing workouts together without letting too much time pass between them.
Hold yourself to a schedule, or a routine, in which you repeat this workout regularly.
If you do it once per week, twice per week, or something in between is not the important thing.
The important thing is that you show up, and that you do so regularly. Everybody misses sometimes, just don’t miss two times in a row.
Track and Progress Your Workouts
Finally, I’ll repeat what I said about progressive overload. It is the missing key in most people’s workout routines, and without it, they spin their wheels for years without making any progress.
Dedicate yourself to writing down your weights and reps, and fight hard to increase them in your next workout.
Our app StrengthLog was built with this important concept in mind and is designed to help you succeed.
As mentioned, you can find this leg day workout available for free in the app. You just need to start the workout, add the weights you are using in your first workout, and then try to beat them the next time.
Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:
Thank you for reading, buddy, and good luck with your training!
- Push Day Workout
- Pull Day Workout
- Advanced Push Pull Legs Split
- Upper / Lower Split
- 5 Day Workout Split
- Eur J Appl Physiol. 2019 Jun 22. doi: 10.1007/s00421-019-04181-y. Epub 2019 Jun 22. Effects of squat training with different depths on lower limb muscle volumes.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Nov;23(8):2241-9. Effects of a back squat training program on leg power, jump, and sprint performances in junior soccer players.
- Sports Med. 2014 Dec;44(12):1693-702. Increases in lower-body strength transfer positively to sprint performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis.
- J Exerc Sci Fit. 2018 Dec; 16(3): 87–93. An electromyographic and kinetic comparison of conventional and Romanian deadlifts.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Oct;33(10):2595-2601. Comparison Between Back Squat, Romanian Deadlift, and Barbell Hip Thrust for Leg and Hip Muscle Activities During Hip Extension.
- PLoS One. 2020 Feb 27;15(2):e0229507. Electromyographic activity in deadlift exercise and its variants. A systematic review.
- Hamstring activation during lower body resistance training exercises. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2009 Mar;4(1):84-96.
- Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020 Oct 1. Greater Hamstrings Muscle Hypertrophy but Similar Damage Protection after Training at Long versus Short Muscle Lengths.
- J Sports Sci. 2021 Oct;39(20):2298-2304. The role of exercise selection in regional Muscle Hypertrophy: A randomized controlled trial.
- J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
- J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1805-12. Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men.
- Sports Med. 2009;39(9):765-77. Rest interval between sets in strength training.
- Pflügers Archiv volume 367, pages137–142(1976). The time course of phosphorylcreatine resynthesis during recovery of the quadriceps muscle in man.