How to Train Your Leg Muscles: Exercises & Workout

How do you train your leg muscles effectively? What exercises are the best for building your legs, and what does a good leg workout look like?

Your legs hold some of the largest and strongest muscles in your body. They provide your base of support and your means of transportation, and are as such paramount in all sports and activities where you stand on two feet.

In terms of muscle symmetry, your leg muscles round out your physique by giving you an athletic X-shape. Even if you prioritize upper body training, your legs are the pedestal on which you display it. Few things look worse than a muscular upper-body with tiny legs.

In this article, you will learn how to train your legs effectively. From leg muscle anatomy to classic exercises that increase muscle mass and power in all your major leg muscles. And then we’ll put together it all into one effective leg workout.

Since the legs contain many muscles, this article will try to keep a broad perspective. If you’d like to go into more detail about one of the leg muscle groups, please check out the guides below:

Your Major Leg Muscles

Your legs make up about half of your body and are home to some of your largest muscles. This article will focus on your largest leg muscles and muscle groups, and provide an overview of how to train them.

These muscles groups are:

  • Quadriceps. Your body’s largest muscle group, located on the front of your thigh. Consists of four muscles: vastus lateralis, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, and rectus femoris. Its primary function is to extend your knee.
  • Hamstrings. A muscle group on the back of your thigh, that consists of three muscles: semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris. All three muscles run over two joints (the hip and the knee), with one exception: the shorter of biceps femoris’ two heads only run over the knee joint. The hamstrings’ primary functions are to extend the hip and flex the knee.
  • Adductors. This muscle group is located mostly on the inside of your thigh, and consists of several muscles: adductor magnus, -brevis, -longus, and -minimis, and pectineus, gracilis and obturator externus. While many of these muscles are small, adductor magnus is the largest single muscle in the thigh. Their primary functions are to adduct the hip (=bring your thighs together), and in the case of adductor magnus also extend the hip.
  • Glutes. Your glutes are the muscles on the back and side of your hip that make up your buttocks. They consist of gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus. They are powerful hip extensors but also hip abductors (=spread your thighs apart).
  • Calves. The largest muscle group on the back of your lower leg is called triceps surae, and it consists of gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastrocnemius is the outer, two-headed muscle, and the soleus is located underneath it.
Quadriceps leg muscle anatomy
Quadriceps, the body’s largest muscle group, is located on the front of your thigh. It’s primary function is to extend your knee.
Leg adductor muscles
The adductor muscles are located on the inside of your thigh. Their primary functions are to adduct (=bring your thighs together) and extend the hip.
Back of leg muscles anatomy
On the back of your thigh are your glutes and your hamstrings. Both are hip extensors, but the hamstrings are also knee flexors.

Leg Exercises: The Best Exercises for Building Your Legs

In this section, we’ll take a look at six leg exercises that complement each other in terms of what leg muscles they target.

By putting them all together, as we’ll do in the next section, you can create a great leg workout.

1. The Squat

squat leg exercise

The lord of the leg exercises! If you only got to pick one leg exercise to train for optimal strength and muscle growth, the squat would be a great choice. The squat trains your quads, glutes, and adductors – all at the same time.

The squat can require some practice to learn, and you benefit from experimenting with bar and foot position, as well as shoes with or without a raised heel. When you finally get the technique down pat, however, you have one of the most effective leg exercises in your toolbox.

Remember that deep squats build your quad and glute muscles more than half squats, even if it means using far less weight.1 2

You can read a lot more about squat training in our massive guide: How to Squat: Technique, Training, and Gaining.

Looking to increase your squat strength? Check out our training program Squat Samba, in our app StrengthLog.

Possible substitutes:

2. Romanian Deadlift

Romanian deadlift exercise

In contrast to the squat, the Romanian deadlift a pure hip extension exercise. It primarily works your hamstrings, glutes, and adductors, but it also strengthens your lower back.

Many people can get a great mind-muscle connection to their glutes and hamstrings in the Romanian deadlift, and I recommend that you prioritize muscle contact over weight in this exercise.

Use lifting straps if necessary. The point is to train your glutes and legs, not your grip.

Possible substitutes:

3. Bulgarian Split Squat

Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is another great leg exercise, that will train your quadriceps, glutes, and adductors excellently. However, in contrast to the squat (which trains similar muscles), the Bulgarian split squat is a unilateral (single-sided) exercise.

The single side work means that 1) you will have the opportunity to identify and even out any potential side-to-side imbalances, and 2) you will train the muscles that stabilize your pelvis and leg when standing on one knee, such as your gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. Besides, many movements (both everyday and athletic) are performed on one leg, and this exercise will train you for it.

Possible substitutes:

4. Leg Extension

Leg extension exercise

The leg extension is another exercise that targets your quadriceps, the largest muscle group of your body. In contrast to the squat and the Bulgarian split squat, however, the leg extension will work all four muscles of the quadriceps.

See, while the squat and Bulgarian split squat are great quad exercises, they do not train the rectus femoris muscle very well. The rectus femoris is the only quad muscle that passes over two joints (the hip and the knee), and thus it isn’t very active in squat-like exercises where you extend your hip and knee simultaneously. 3 4 5 6

In the leg extension, however, your hip is fixed while your knee extends, meaning that the rectus femoris can join in on the work and get a good training effect. One study saw a 19% increase in rectus femoris muscle thickness after 12 weeks of leg extension training.7

What’s more, the leg extension is a great quad exercise in its own right, allowing you to give your quads your complete focus.

Possible substitutes:

5. Seated Leg Curl

Seated leg curl

The seated leg curl is an isolation exercise for your hamstrings. By working your hamstrings in knee flexion, it complements the Romanian deadlift in which the hamstrings only perform hip extension.

A recent study found that the hamstrings grew 55% more from training seated leg curls compared to lying leg curls – 14% vs. 9% increase in muscle thickness over 12 weeks of training.8 This difference in muscle growth can probably be explained by the fact that seated leg curls work your hamstrings at a longer muscle length (since your hip is flexed more) than the lying leg curl.

However, don’t disregard how the two exercises feel for your own body. If one feels much better than the other, go with that. If you don’t really care which variant you do, I recommend you go with seated leg curls.

Possible substitutes:

6. Standing Calf Raise

Standing Calf Raise

Finally, an exercise targeting the calves! The standing calf raise is a great calf exercise, that targets both your gastrocnemius and soleus. Since the gastrocnemius runs over the knee joint, if you flex your knee, like in the seated calf raise, your gastrocnemius would be at a short muscle length and unable to get a good training effect.

Possible substitutes:

Leg Workout for Muscle Growth and Strength

So what does an effective leg workout look like?

Building on the exercises above, let’s construct an example workout, drawing on several principles:

  • The exercises target all major leg muscles, often at different muscle lengths or positions, which means a majority of their different muscle fibers will be targeted.
  • The load and rep range covers a wide spectrum, ranging from low-ish reps with heavy weights, all the way up to high reps with light weights.

This workout is aimed at both strength and muscle growth, and you will be able to get good results of both with it.

Let’s have a look at the workout, and then go through why it looks like it does.

StrengthLog’s Leg Workout

  1. Squat: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets x 10 reps
  3. Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets x 12 reps/side
  4. Leg Extension: 3 sets x 15 reps
  5. Seated Leg Curl: 3 sets x 15 reps
  6. Standing Calf Raise: 3 sets x 20 reps

This leg workout is available for free in the StrengthLog workout app.

This leg workout begins with three working sets of squats. These heavy sets will serve as the strength-foundation of your leg training, and your primary aim for these sets will be progressive overload. That is a fancy way of saying: ”try to lift more weight for the same number of reps.”

If you hit three sets of five reps, you increase the weight for the next workout and stick with that until you can once again make 3 x 5.

You will not be able to increase the weight each week, but keep at it, and try to increase by a rep here and there (for example getting 5, 4, 4 instead of 5, 4, 3 last time) until you get all 3 x 5. Use our workout log to keep track of your performance.

After the squats, you’re moving the work from the front to the back of your thigh with the Romanian deadlifts. They will also provide more training for your glute muscles. Use lifting straps if necessary – the purpose of the exercise is to train your legs, not your grip. Strive to increase the weight in this exercise as well, while maintaining great technique and muscle contact.

With some two-legged work done, the next exercise is the Bulgarian split squat. This exercise provides more work for your largest leg muscles (the quadriceps, glutes, and adductors), and at the same time provides you with some single-leg training. Not only will it train the stabilizing muscles of your hip and knee, but you will also get a chance to find and address differences in strength between your right and left leg.

After three multi-joint lifts, let’s move on to some isolation work. With much of your strength and power training taken care of in the previous three exercises, take the opportunity to focus even more on muscle contact in the remaining three exercises.

The leg extension and the seated leg curl isolates your quadriceps and hamstrings, respectively, allowing you to focus exclusively on them. Moreover, these exercises will work the quads and hamstrings slightly differently compared to the previous compound lifts, thus complementing the training effect and providing even better muscle growth.

Last but not least come the standing calf raise, which works your calf muscles. The calves are often stubborn to grow since you are already using them so much in your everyday life, but the standing calf raise is still one of the most effective calf exercises you can do in a gym. Try to beat your past performances by increasing your training weight in this exercise as well, and you’ll have a good shot at growing bigger calves.

How often can you train this same leg workout?

For a workout with this volume and intensity, something like 1–2 times per week is probably enough. Once a week will probably be plenty for many, but if you feel that you have recovered quicker and that you can beat your previous weights, you could repeat it every 4–5 days.

An alternative is to do this workout once a week, but do a lighter second workout in between each workout. In the lighter workout, you can reduce both volume and weights, so that you are refreshed and helping your recovery along the way, rather than adding to the burden.

Wrapping Up

And that’s it! Hopefully, by now you have a good grasp of your leg muscle anatomy, what some effective leg exercises are, and how you can combine them into one awesome leg workout.

Please feel free to download the StrengthLog workout app to train this workout (and many more!) and track your gains. Remember to try and increase the weight you are using in each exercise to ensure your continued muscle growth and strength gains.

Want more?

Check out the links below for more reading:

More muscle group training guides:

References

  1. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Aug;113(8):2133-42. doi: 10.1007/s00421-013-2642-7. Epub 2013 Apr 20. Effect of range of motion in heavy load squatting on muscle and tendon adaptations.
  2. 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.
  3. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2016 May;116(5):1031-41. Unique activation of the quadriceps femoris during single- and multi-joint exercises.
  4. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Nov;28(11):3085-92. Changes in exercises are more effective than in loading schemes to improve muscle strength.
  5. Am J Physiol. 1995 Sep;269(3 Pt 2):R536-43. Resistance exercise-induced fluid shifts: change in active muscle size and plasma volume.
  6. 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.
  7. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2013 Nov;113(11):2691-703. Inhomogeneous architectural changes of the quadriceps femoris induced by resistance training.
  8. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2020 Oct 1. Online ahead of print. Greater Hamstrings Muscle Hypertrophy but Similar Damage Protection after Training at Long versus Short Muscle Lengths.

1 thought on “How to Train Your Leg Muscles: Exercises & Workout”

  1. Thanks for a great article! Sincerely hope that you guys can post similiar articles, covering the entire body.

    However, I wonder what you think about splittting up the workout in two sessions, to get a little bit less volume per session but get the same total volume per week, thus not doing a lighter session per se. Something like:

    Legs A
    Squat: 3 sets x 5 reps
    Romanian Deadlift: 3 sets x 10 reps
    Leg Extension: 3 sets x 15 reps

    Legs B
    Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 sets x 12 reps/side
    Seated Leg Curl: 3 sets x 15 reps
    Standing Calf Raise: 3 sets x 20 reps

    Maybe add some leg extensions on Legs B as well.

    Hope you can give your opinion,

    Kind regards,
    L

    Reply

Leave a Comment