The 10 Best Leg Exercises for Muscle & Strength

Your legs house some of the largest and most powerful muscle groups in your body.

Your leg muscles are involved in almost every athletic feat and are constantly used in activities like walking, running, and lifting.

In this article, we’ll review ten of the best leg exercises you can do, whether you’re looking to maximize leg muscle growth, improve your sports performance, or just want to be ready for whatever adventures knock on your door.

Let’s get into it!

Leg Muscle Anatomy

You have many muscle groups in your lower body, and it is beyond the scope of this article to give an in-depth presentation of all of them.

Leg workout muscles

The largest muscle groups of the lower body are, in order of weight percent to total lower body muscle mass:1

  1. Quadriceps: 21.2%
  2. Glutes: 20.8%
  3. Adductors: 14.4%
  4. Calves: 11.0%
  5. Hamstrings: 9.6%

In the list of leg exercises below, we’ll cover some of the best exercises for working these muscle groups effectively.

Every exercise will work different leg muscles, and we will wrap up by giving examples of how you can combine them into an effective leg workout.

1. Squat

First out is the barbell back squat – the king and queen of leg exercises. If you only were to do one leg exercise, the squat would be a great choice.

It is proven effective for growing your quads, glutes, and adductors.2 As for athletics, increased squat strength increases both vertical jump height and sprinting speed.3 4

The barbell squat has been a staple in both sports and bodybuilding for decades, and while it takes some practice to master, it can be well worth it for your leg muscle growth.

Muscles Worked in the Squat

Muscles worked in the squat

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Squat with Proper Form

  1. Place the bar on your upper back. Inhale and brace your core slightly, and unrack the bar.
  2. Take two steps back, and adjust your foot position.
  3. Squat as deep as possible with good technique.
  4. With control, stop and reverse the movement, extending your hips and legs again.
  5. Exhale on the way up or exchange air in the top position.
  6. Inhale and repeat for reps.

2. Leg Press

If you find the squat difficult to master, the leg press offers an alternative. Being a machine exercise, the technique is fairly easy to learn, and you don’t have to worry about balancing or stabilizing your body.

In a comparison of the leg press vs squat for muscle growth, we find that they work similar muscle groups. The main differences are that the leg press doesn’t work your lower back and core muscles the way that the squat does since you don’t have to stabilize the barbell, and that, depending on your foot position, the leg press can work your hamstrings slightly more.

A benefit of the leg press for muscle growth is that, because of the stability of the machine, you can generally train closer to failure and exhaust your muscles more than you can with free weights.

In terms of strength gain, one study compared leg press training with squat training and found that the group training squats increased their strength in the squat and the leg press, but the leg press group only increased their strength in the leg press.5

This hints that the lower body strength you gain from squatting might carry over to more circumstances than the strength you gain in a stable machine.

Muscles Worked in Leg Press

Muscles worked in leg press

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Leg Press

  1. Adjust the machine so that you only need to extend your legs slightly to be able to release the weights. Adjust the safety pins so that they catch the weight if you are unable to lift it.
  2. Place your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform.
  3. Inhale and lower the weight by bending your legs.
  4. Lower the weight as deep as possible without rounding your back and while keeping your glutes on the seat.
  5. Press the weight back up again as you exhale.

3. Hack Squat

The hack squat is another excellent leg exercise, that is something of a blend between the barbell squat and leg press. It has an upright position and a movement path that is more similar to the squat, but it has the stability of a machine.

Because of the stability, core muscle activation is lower in the hack squat.6 But again: since you don’t have to focus on balance or technique to the same extent, you can train closer to failure in the hack squat.

Muscles Worked in Hack Squats

Muscles worked in hack squat machine

Primary muscles worked:

How to Do Hack Squats with Proper Form

  1. Adjust the machine to the correct height and place your shoulders against the shoulder pads.
  2. Put your feet on the plate, slightly in front of the base of the sled and about shoulder width apart.
  3. Extend your legs and disengage the sled’s locks.
  4. Inhale, brace your core lightly, and squat down as deep as you can with good form.
  5. Reverse the movement with control, and extend your legs again until you’re back in the starting position. Exhale on the way up.

4. Bulgarian Split Squat

The squat exercise on this list is the exercise everyone loves to hate: the Bulgarian split squat.

The Bulgarian split squat is a unilateral (single-leg) squat variation, which means that stabilizing muscles in your hip (like the gluteus medius) and core (like the obliques) are worked more than in bilateral (two-legged) exercises.

When training one leg at a time, you also get the opportunity to identify and even out side-to-side differences in muscle and strength.

The Bulgarian split squat is a great exercise for the largest muscles of your thighs and glutes; the only problem is that you will have to do twice as many sets.

Lastly, the Bulgarian split squat is a great leg exercise to do at home, since it is fairly heavy even with your body weight alone, and gets heavier fast even with a light pair of dumbbells.

Muscles Worked in Bulgarian Split Squats

Primary muscles worked:

How to Do Bulgarian Split Squats

  1. 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.
  2. Place one foot on the bench behind you.
  3. Inhale, look forward, and squat down with control until right before the knee of the back leg touches the floor.
  4. Reverse the movement and extend your front leg again, while exhaling.
  5. Inhale at the top and repeat for reps.

5. Romanian Deadlift

Let’s turn our attention to the rear. The Romanian deadlift is a classic mass-builder for the posterior chain: the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.

Couple this exercise with a squatting type movement like the ones we just looked at, and you’re well on your way to a great hypertrophy leg workout.

The key to the Romanian deadlift is to start with light weights to get the form right, and focus on muscle contact in your glutes and the back of your thighs.

Muscles Worked in Romanian Deadlifts

Muscles worked in romanian deadlift

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Romanian Deadlifts

  1. Get into the starting position by deadlifting a barbell off the floor or by unracking it from a squat rack.
  2. Inhale, brace your core slightly, and lean forward by hinging in your hips. Keep your knees almost completely extended.
  3. 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.
  4. Reverse the movement and return to the starting position. Exhale on the way up.
  5. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

6. Stiff-Legged Deadlift

The stiff-legged deadlift is another great barbell back exercise that is similar to the Romanian deadlift. The main difference is that you start and stop with the barbell on the floor between each rep.

They work similar muscles, so it’s more a matter of which exercise you prefer.

Muscles Worked in the Stiff-Leg Deadlift

Muscles worked by stiff-legged deadlifts exercise

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Stiff-Leg Deadlifts

  1. Step up close to the bar, so that it is about over the middle of your foot. Keep your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Inhale, lean forward with only a fslight bend in your knees, and grip the bar.
  3. Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar.
  4. Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you have reached a standing position.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control, still keeping your legs straight.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

7. Leg Extension

Let’s move on to the isolation exercises! The leg extension is a great isolation exercise for your quadriceps, and one of the few exercises that work all four of your quad muscles, including your rectus femoris.

Your rectus femoris is the only quadriceps muscle that crosses over two joints: your knee and hip joint. That means it isn’t worked effectively in exercises where you simultaneously extend your knee and hip. In the leg extension, however, your hip is still while your knee extends, making it an effective exercise for your entire quadriceps.7 8 9

Muscles Worked in Leg Extensions

Muscles worked in leg extensions

Primary muscles worked:

How to Do Leg Extensions

  1. Adjust the machine so that you are correctly positioned. Your knee joint should be in line with the machine’s joint.
  2. Extend your knees with control, until they are completely straight.
  3. Slowly lower the weight again.

8. Seated Leg Curl

Let’s move on to isolation exercises for the back of your thigh.

The seated leg curl is one of the best hamstring exercises you can do, and it complements the previous hip extension exercises beatifully.

Studies have shown that the seated leg curl is great for hamstring muscle activity and growth. One reason for its effectiveness is that the seated leg curl is performed with a flexed (bent) hip, which puts the hamstrings at a long muscle length. And, training at long muscle lengths seems to be effective for muscle growth.10 11

While exercises like the Romanian deadlift and stiff-legged deadlift mainly work the upper portions of our hamstrings, the leg curl also works the lower hamstring regions.12 Combining both types of exercises in your leg workouts is probably a good idea for optimal hamstring training.

Muscles Worked in Seated Leg Curls

Muscles worked by seated leg curl

Primary muscles worked:

How to Do Seated Leg Curls

  1. Adjust the machine so that you are correctly positioned. Your knees should be in line with the machine’s joint.
  2. Push the weight down by bending your knees as far as possible.
  3. Slowly let the weight back again.

9. Lying Leg Curl

The lying leg curl is similar to the seated leg curl, but with the difference that your hip is more extended (straightened) in the lying curl.

This shortens the hamstrings muscle length somewhat, and a recent study found the lying leg curl to be less effective than the seated leg curl for hamstring muscle hypertrophy.11

If you don’t like or have access to the seated leg curl, however, the lying leg curl is still a great hamstring exercise, and it might even be beneficial to include both in your strength training program.

Muscles Worked in Lying Leg Curls

Muscles worked in lying leg curls

Primary muscles worked:

How to Do Lying Leg Curls

  1. Adjust the machine so that you are correctly positioned. Your knees should be in line with the machine’s joint.
  2. Lift the weight by bending your knees as far as possible.
  3. Slowly lower the weight again.

10. Standing Calf Raise

Finally, an isolation exercise for your calves.

The standing calf raise is one of the best calf exercises you can do, working both your soleus and gastrocnemius at the same time, thanks to the straight leg position.

Try to get a deep stretch in the bottom position, and train them hard; the calf muscles are notoriously hard to grow.13 14

Muscles Worked in Standing Calf Raises

Muscles worked in Standing Calf Raises

Primary muscles worked:

How to Do Standing Calf Raises

  1. 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.
  2. Lower yourself down by bending your ankles in a controlled movement.
  3. Push yourself up by extending your ankles.

How Many Leg Exercises Should You Do?

How many leg exercises you should do depends on how much time you want to invest, and how important it is to get optimal leg muscle development compared to “just” good leg development.

Let’s look at three different fitness goals, each one more ambitious, with the first one being a minimalist approach with a lot of bang for your buck, the next one being the middle-ground, and the last one aiming for optimal leg development.

The Minimalist Approach

Because you have so many different leg muscles that work in different movements, it is hard, or impossible, to work all muscles with just a single exercise.

Still, if you were only to pick a single leg exercise, a squatting-type exercise like the squat, leg press, Bulgarian split squat, or hack squat is a great choice.

Perform whichever of these you pick with a long range of motion, and you will get great development of your quads, glutes, and adductors. Not optimal growth, but train it hard and progressively, and you can still build a good pair of legs this way.

The Slightly-Less Minimalist Approach

If you want to improve upon the minimalist approach, add an exercise dedicated to your posterior chain, and your hamstrings in particular.

Examples are the Romanian deadlift, stiff-leg deadlift, or a leg curl.

Also, consider adding a calf exercise.

Optimal Leg Growth Approach

Want to take your leg training all the way? Add a leg extension for your rectus femoris and a calf exercise. Also, make sure to perform two exercises for your hamstrings: one hip extension (like the Romanian deadlift) and one leg curl (like the seated leg curl).

To summarize, include atleast one leg exercise from each category:

  1. Squat exercise. Examples: squat, leg press, hack squat, Bulgarian split squat.
  2. Hip extension exercise. Examples: Romanian deadlift, stiff-leg deadlift.
  3. Leg curl exercise: Examples: seated leg curl, lying leg curl.
  4. Leg extension exercise. The leg extension.
  5. Calf exercise. Examples: standing calf raise, seated calf raise.

Including one of each type of leg exercise above into your leg workouts ensures that you cover every muscle in every major leg muscle group.

You can do all five types of exercises in one epic leg day workout, but you don’t have to: it works equally well to spread the leg exercises out over the training week in different half- or full-body workouts.

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do of Each Leg Exercise?

Depending on if muscle hypertrophy or strength gains is your number one priority, you should adjust the weights you use and how many reps you do per set accordingly.

While there is considerable overlap between the two, here is how each goal is generally best achieved:

  • Strength is best gained from heavy weights and a low rep range, around 1–6 reps per set.
  • Muscle growth is best attained from medium weights and a moderate-to-high rep range, around 6–15 reps per set or up to 20 reps per set.

Typically, free-weight compound exercises like the squat lend themselves better to heavy weight and low reps, while isolation exercises like the leg curl or leg extension are better suited to a medium-to-high rep range.

The number of sets you do of each exercise has a dose-response relationship on your muscle growth and strength gain, where more sets lead to greater gains up to at least ten sets per muscle per week for beginners.15

It is likely that experienced lifters and bodybuilders benefit from even higher training volumes, perhaps up to 15 to 20 sets per muscle per week.

Because the exercises overlap in terms of which muscles they work, training volume can be tricky to calculate for your lower body muscles.

For instance, the squat works both your glutes and quads, and the Romanian deadlift works both your glutes and hamstrings. In our leg workouts and training programs, we account for this, of course.

The Best Leg Workouts for Muscle & Strength Gains

Don’t want to design your own leg workouts?

Then follow one of ours!

Here are some of our most popular leg workouts and training programs for muscle hypertrophy and/or lower body strength gains.

They are all available in our free workout log app, although some workouts require a premium subscription.

Leg Workouts:

Leg Hypertrophy Training Program:

  • Thicc. 5x/week. An intermediate-level training program for building great legs and glutes. Six weeks of training with three lower body workouts per week for maximum gains plus two upper body maintenance sessions.
  • Bodybuilding Ballet. 4–6x/week. This is the program if you want tree-trunk quads, bulging biceps, and a massive back. This is an advanced bodybuilding program, and one of the most popular programs in our app.

Squat Strength Programs:

  • Beginner Squat Program. 2x/week. A super simple yet effective beginner squat program that will give you quick gains and a great start to your squat career.
  • Intermediate Squat Program. 2x/week. A squat program for the intermediate lifter who has left the beginner phase behind but is not yet ready for advanced squat training. The purpose of this program is to increase your squat strength and build bigger leg muscles.
  • Russian Squat Routine. 3x/week. A hard but effective training program aimed at increasing your strength in the squat (or any other lift you choose to use it for) in six weeks. Enter your 1RM into the calculator, and we’ll generate the program for you.
  • Advanced Squat Program. 2x/week. A squat program for the advanced lifter, who needs to do a lot of training in order to progress. Nine weeks long and ends in a short peaking phase and a max attempt.

To download our app StrengthLog and follow these workouts and training programs, use the buttons below.

Download StrengthLog Workout Log on App Store
Download StrengthLog Workout Log on Google Play Store

I hope you learned something from this list of the best leg exercises, and wish you good luck with your leg training!


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  3. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Dec;26(12):3243-61. Influence of squatting depth on jumping performance.
  4. Sports Med. 2014 Dec;44(12):1693-702. Increases in lower-body strength transfer positively to sprint performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis.
  5. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2018 Mar;58(3):263-270. Strength, body composition, and functional outcomes in the squat versus leg press exercises.
  6. J Strength Cond Res. 2019 Jul;33 Suppl 1:S60-S69. Trunk Muscle Activation in the Back and Hack Squat at the Same Relative Loads.
  7. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016 May;116(5):1031-41. Unique activation of the quadriceps femoris during single- and multi-joint exercises.
  8. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Nov;28(11):3085-92. Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength.
  9. Am J Physiol. 1995 Sep;269(3 Pt 2):R536-43. Resistance exercise-induced fluid shifts: change in active muscle size and plasma volume.
  10. Hamstring activation during lower body resistance training exercises. Int J Sports Physiol Perform. 2009 Mar;4(1):84-96.
  11. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 53(4):p 825-837, April 2021.  Greater Hamstrings Muscle Hypertrophy but Similar Damage Protection after Training at Long versus Short Muscle Lengths.
  12. Regional differences in muscle activation during hamstrings exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jan;29(1):159-64.
  13. Acta Physiol Scand. 2004 Oct;182(2):189-96. Human soleus muscle protein synthesis following resistance exercise.
  14. Phys Ther. 1988 Feb;68(2):208-13. Effects of heavy-resistance triceps surae muscle training on strength and muscularity of men and women.
  15. 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.
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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and international-level lifters. Daniel regularly shares tips about strength training on Instagram, and you can follow him here.