Leg day is quite important in the fitness world. Skipping it means that you miss out on working out your quads, thighs, hamstrings, and calves. So it should go without saying that there is pressure to always show up for leg day, no matter how challenging it may be for you. Nonetheless, just showing up is not enough to reap the rewards. You may visit the gym for leg day after leg day and do the exercises yet not get any help whatsoever.
To get well-shaped and defined legs, you need to specifically only do the best leg exercises. These will help in building your quads, ripping your thighs and toning your leg fat. The problem is that there are several debates regarding what these exercises exactly are. On top of this, leg exercises tend to vary from one fitness instructor to another.
To help you get defined legs, we will evaluate some of the expert-approved best leg exercises. These workouts are designed to help you get the leg mass and the defined legs that make you stand out from a crowd.
Contrary to what you may think, working out your legs is vital. It helps with improving your athletic performance, balance and flexibility. It also helps in supporting your movement, enabling you to perform various daily activities (1).
Hold on, do not jump straight into any leg workout program you find online. You will have to do the following before you start a leg circuit/ regime:
Beginners mostly have to seek advice from a fitness coach about the best leg regime depending on their goals. Do not rely on the little you know but instead get professional advice from an expert.
After getting the go-ahead and knowing your practical circuit, proceed to now stretch before performing the exercises. This will help in loosening your muscles and increasing your range of motion. Consequently, you are less likely to get leg injuries like strains and sprains. Some stretches runners can do before the best leg exercises for runners include:
The Side Lunge
Follow these steps to stretch by doing the side lunge:
- Stand straight with your feet hip-width apart.
- Your feet and knees should be pointing forward. Slowly take a step to the left and bend the left knee. Your right hip will move towards your left.
- Hold for a couple of seconds and then stand again. Do as many reps or the recommended reps on your left side before doing the same on your right side.
The Supine Hamstring Stretch
The second practical stretching exercises for runners involves you doing the following:
- Lie flat on the floor with your knees bent. Your back must be straight.
- Slowly begin to lift your left leg until it creates a 90-degree angle with the ground.
- Place your arms on your left thigh and start pulling the leg toward your head. This can be challenging, especially if you have never done this before. If this is the case, use a towel and loop it around this leg to pull it.
- Hold this position for half a minute and repeat the same on the other leg.
- Repeat this stretch at least four times.
If you are an athlete, try the following stretching exercises before proceeding to your leg workouts:
The Forward Lunge
Here are the steps of completing a proper forward lunge:
- Stand upright with your arms on your waist.
- Take a big step forward using either your leg or right leg. Bend your knees such that they are at least inclined about 90 degrees.
- Hold this position for half a minute before standing.
- Repeat until you complete the reps and change to the other leg. You can do this three times.
The Side Seat Straddle
Here is how you should stretch using this exercise:
- Take a seat with your legs extended out to the sides. Your toes must be pointing up.
- Place your hands on your left chin and try to lean the chin toward your knee. Lean as far as you can. Your back must be straight during this process.
- Hold this posture for at least ten seconds before changing sides.
- Repeat this stretch three times.
The Best Bodyweight Leg Exercises
After stretching, you can now start your leg circuit. If you want to do bodyweight leg exercises, then here are a few you can consider:
The leg press is considered one of the masters of the leg exercises. It is an effective workout that both men and women can try. The exercise targets various parts of your lower body. These include your quads, calves, glutes, and hamstrings (1).
Leg Press Technique
Here is a detailed step-by-step guide on how to do leg presses:
- Start by adjusting the machine so that your legs are comfortable. After these adjustments, sit on the device and let your back and head rest on the padded machine part.
- Place both your feet on the footplate at least shoulder-width apart. Let them bend at least 90 degrees. Anything more than this will result in undue pressure and stress on your knees.
- With your feet in position, now focus on your hands. Let them grip the handles of the machine.
- Slowly begin to straighten your knees. This will mean pushing the weight on the machine. This will be challenging, so go slow and steady. At no point should you arch your back or cave your knees inward. This may result in back and knee problems, respectively.
- Once your knees are straight, slowly bring them back to the initial position. Repeat this until you complete your set and/or reps.
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The second weight leg exercise you can try to build leg mass is the hamstring curl. It is useful in preventing tight hamstrings and the tightness of other leg muscles. So, if you want to strengthen your hamstrings, then this is the exercise you ought to try.
Hamstring Curl Technique
Follow these steps to do the lying hamstring curl:
- Lie on your stomach on the weight bench with your face facing the ground.
- Place the pad slightly above your ankles.
- Now slowly start bending your knees and pulling your feet toward your butt. The furthest you can stretch your feet will depend on how far you can go without moving your spine. So, once you feel a movement in either your spine or pelvis, do not go beyond that. You will feel a burn in your thighs.
- Slowly return your feet to the starting position and repeat until you complete your reps.
NOTE: If you have never done this exercise before, then chances are you could make various mistakes. The worst of these mistakes may result in long-term injuries. Therefore, take heed of the following to avoid making these errors:
- Only use the handgrip when you need support.
- Highly engage your leg muscles and let them do the majority of the work.
- Never arch your back or neck.
One of the best leg exercises for men that involves weights is the Romanian deadlift (RDL). It helps in strengthening your spine, glutes, adductors, hamstrings and posterior chain. Before you try this lift, speak to your doctor and gym instructor. Its high intensity may result in various injuries.
Romanian Deadlift Technique
Below are the steps you should abide by to do this traditional lift correctly:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Your knees should be slightly bent. Take a grip on the bar at your hip level. The best thing about an earlier consultation with an instructor is pre-determination of your appropriate weights. Therefore, the weight attached to your bar will be comfortable and not strenuous.
- After gripping the bar, draw your shoulders back and slowly start lifting it. Your spine must be straight to avoid back injuries.
- Hold this position for a while before you slowly start lowering the bar down. When lowering it, push your hips backwards.
- Repeat this until you are done with your reps.
Barbell Hip Thrust
Barbell Hip Thrust Technique
- Sit on a mat with your back against something such as the edge of the gym bench. It would be best if you pressed your feet on the floor. Place your barbell across your waist since you will need it for this workout. If you are leaning against a gym bench, your shoulder blades must be above the bench’s pad.
- Use your core and start pushing through your heels to lift your hips. It will be extra challenging because of the barbell across your waist. As you lift your hips, keep your chin tucked to avoid excessive back arches.
- When you lift your hips as high as you can, squeeze your glutes. Hold for some seconds while squeezing before slowly lowering your butt. It would be best if you rested with your butt a few inches off the floor (2).
- Repeat this and perform eight to ten reps for one set. Do three sets and rest between them for one minute.
One of the best leg exercises for women is the step up. It helps in increasing leg strength and toning your butt. For this exercise, you will need an elevated platform and some dumbbells.
How To Do Step Ups?
Here is the guideline on how to do a step up correctly:
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and face toward the platform. Grasp the dumbbells on each of your hands.
- Using your right leg, take a step on the elevated platform. You must use the left leg to help you raise your body on the platform or gym bench.
- As you bring your left foot on the platform where your right foot is, remember to keep your back straight.
- Once your both feet are firmly planted on the platform, pause in this stance for some seconds. Proceed to step backwards from the platform one foot at a time.
- You will return to the initial standing position. Repeat several times with the same leg before shifting legs.
The Best Leg Exercises To Do At Home
You do not have to build leg mass at the gym. Here are some great leg exercises you can try from the comfort of your home:
Squats are other masters of the lower body exercises. They strengthen various muscles, which explains why they are effective lower body exercises. A squat targets your quads, buttocks, front and back thighs and hamstrings (3).
The squat variations you can do range depending on your preference and body goals. Beginners are advised to start with the basic squat before they start incorporating weights or other variations. Here is a procedure of how you should do the basic squat:
- Stand with your feet apart. You should exceed your shoulder-width. Your toes must be pointing forward.
- Place your arms on your waistline and slowly begin to bend your knees. As you descend, remember to keep your back straight. Similarly, avoid having your knees roll either inward or outward. Bend as low as you can.
- Your legs should form a 90-degree angle at your knees. You will experience a burn in your thighs, butt and legs. Hold this stance for some seconds before returning to the initial standing position. Repeat.
If you are not squatting correctly, you are highly likely to experience knee pains. It is because you exert too much pressure on your knees instead of your glutes and thigh muscles (3).
You can avoid knee pain by learning how to and implementing a correct squat. If you already have knee pain, then treat it using the R.I.C.E method. This involves:
R (REST): resting your knee and avoiding exerting too much weight on it. You can achieve this by regulating your movement.
I (ICE): You must treat your knee pain with some ice treatment. Wrap an ice pack with your towel and press it on your knee for at least twenty minutes. After this window, let it rest for a few minutes before pressing it again with the ice pack.
C (COMPRESSION): After the ice treatment, you are required to wrap your knee with a bandage or an elastic wrap. This will help in reducing or preventing any swelling.
E (ELEVATION): You need to raise or elevate your leg whenever you do not move it around. It must be higher than your heart.
If this method does not relieve your pain, then seek medical advice immediately. A doctor may suggest getting painkillers such as ibuprofen or other pain management measures. At no point should you self-medicate and decide what is best for your condition (5).
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The other leg exercise you can do from home is the calf raise. As the name suggests, they work the calf muscles located in the back of your legs. These exercises are very effective in preventing tight calves.
Tight calves will make it either difficult or uncomfortable to walk. If severe, tight calves may be accompanied by sudden sharp pains, bruising and swelling. Therefore, you need to do some calf raises to help prevent all these.
Here is how you can do a good calf raise at home:
- Stand upright and spread your feet slightly apart. Your back must be straight and abdominal muscles tight.
- Slowly start to rise onto your toes. Stay in this position for some seconds before slowly returning to the starting position. You will feel a burn in your calf muscles, but push through it.
- Repeat until you complete a set. Your instructor will determine how many reps and sets you do.
- If you want to make this exercise more challenging, hold dumbbells of equal weight in each of your hands.
You can also do aerobic exercises to work out and tone your legs. These types of exercise refer to workouts that increase both your breathing and heart rates. These exercises range from running, swimming, walking, dancing to biking.
The type of aerobic exercise you choose depends on factors such as your age, physical ability, fitness level, and preference. For example, you may decide on walking if you have threatening injuries.
Similarly, you may prefer swimming to running if that is your hobby. No matter what exercise you choose, these exercises are prone to be effective in burning total body fat.
If you are struggling with leg or overall total body fat, consider trying an aerobic exercise. However, you must note that you cannot shed fat from just one part of your body.
Therefore, when you start running, swimming, or aerobic exercise, expect to shed fat evenly throughout your body. One specific aerobic exercise you can try at home as a leg exercise is pedaling.
Pedaling For Toned Legs
You may refer to pedaling as biking or vice versa. It is a great leg exercise as it works your calves, hamstrings and quads. All you need for this exercise is a bicycle or stationary bike. You can choose an outdoor bicycle if you prefer doing your work out outside.
However, if you prefer working out from home, purchase the stationary bike. If you want to increase the intensity of this workout program, use toe clips. They add resistance by allowing you to pull the pedal up and push it back down (4).
If not, you can adjust the resistance on your stationary bike to make it more challenging (4). Only go for these extreme measures after consultation with a fitness professional.
The Bottom Line
If you want to have healthy and well-toned legs, you have to combine the best leg exercises into your workout. Some workouts are better suited for women and others for men. Some of the best leg exercises for men include the Romanian Deadlift, leg presses and barbell hip thrusts.
The best leg exercises for women range from squats, step-ups, calf raises to the hip thrusts. Remember to seek professional guidance before starting your leg workout regime. Similarly, remember to stretch before you begin these exercises. This will help prevent you from sustaining various injuries.
The views in this article are meant for educational purposes only. Seek professional assistance before you start any workout program.
- Analysis of muscle activation during different leg press exercises at submaximum effort levels (2008, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- COMPARISON OF BILATERAL AND UNILATERAL SQUAT EXERCISES ON BARBELL KINEMATICS AND MUSCLE ACTIVATION (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- How to squat? Effects of various stance widths, foot placement angles and level of experience on knee, hip and trunk motion and loading (2018, ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Potential health-related benefits of resistance training (2001, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health (2012, pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)