When it comes to working out, the upper body gets all the attention.
We love talking about how much we can bench, how much we can curl, and spend tons of time focusing on building our “beach muscles” – often to the detriment of our lower body and our legs.
Luckily, though, this kind of approach to overall health and fitness is turning around quite a bit.
Folks are waking up to the importance of building stronger legs, the value of having a well-developed lower half, and are spending a lot more time dialing in their leg training with the help of guides like this one.
By the time you finish this detailed breakdown you’ll have a much better idea of how to build stronger legs, more powerful legs, and how to specifically train your lower body without headache and without hassle.
Best of all, it’s not going to take all that long for you to start seeing some real results, either. Our legs really take to training, even if it can take a little bit of time for us to physically see differences in the way our legs look.
Let’s get right into it, shall we?
Training our legs regularly allows us to hit four major muscle groups – our glutes, our quadriceps, our hamstrings, and our calves – to improve our strength, to improve our athletic capability, and to generate more power and endurance.
One of the biggest reasons it’s important to train our legs on a regular basis is because of just how many different muscle groups (and how many muscle fibers) we are able to target when we work on our lower body.
Each of those four major muscle groups have numerous individual muscles that make them up, all of them pulling in the same direction. Activating all that muscle fiber and making it stronger and more powerful as a transformative impact on our health and wellness.
Research shows that activating all the muscle fiber in our lower body helps to trigger some of the most important hormonal releases in the body, too.
We are talking about flooding your body with testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) that you produce naturally while working to fight back against stress with time to cortisol releases as well.
Training your legs also works to align your body more effectively, working out and evening muscular imbalances but also improving your overall strength, mobility, and flexibility levels as well. This is particularly important as we get older!
Combine all of that with the ability to better engage your core (responsible for so many positive improvements in our lives), to strengthen our bones and our muscles, to alleviate back pain, and to simply build bigger, thicker legs and it’s a bit of a no-brainer to work on your lower body – especially if you are training your upper half already.
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It’s obviously important to make sure that your body is getting all the rest it needs to recover from grueling workouts, particularly when you are hammering so many muscles and so much muscle fiber with intense leg training sessions.
At the same time, it’s equally as important to be sure that you aren’t allowing too many rest days to go between leg training sessions.
That’s a quick road to hitting the pause button on your gains or even reverting your progress to the point where it starts to feel like you are sort of running in place.
As a general rule of thumb, try to make sure that you are working out your legs and your lower body at least twice a week.
Give three or four days between each leg day session so that you can really reset your body. A little bit of light work (maybe some casual cardio) in between these grueling training sessions won’t hurt, either – just to make fool around with any heavy lifting would like specific exercises again.
Stretching during your down time and rest days between sessions, though, can be hugely advantageous.
You’ll be able to limber up your body, improve your overall flexibility, and get your circulation going in your lower half. That’s a big piece of the puzzle to making sure that all the lactic acid that builds up after working out (the acid that makes our muscles feel so sore for a couple of days after a good training session) is flushed from our legs completely.
Stick to a schedule like this and you’ll be good to go!
If your major goal during leg day is to build up strength there are a couple of exercises that you are going to want to focus on more than others, particularly exercises that have you really laser in on your quadriceps.
Our quads are made up of four independent muscles, muscles that run along our outer thigh (vastus lateralis), our inner thigh (vastus medialis), and muscles that run between those two (rectus femoris) as well as the “underneath” quad (vastus intermedius).
Each of these muscles work together to handle the bulk of the heavy lifting when we are lifting heavy. Develop them properly and your legs will become stronger and stronger faster than you would have thought possible.
Here are a couple of quad focused exercises to help you hit the ground running.
Wall squats, especially heavy wall squats, restrict your range of motion quite a bit by forcing you to put your head and back against a wall before you go through the squatting movement.
This sort of lock you into place, forces you to slow down your momentum, and really puts a lot of extra stress and pressure on your quads – the whole point of the exercise.
Start later than you think when you start with wall squats, though. These are all lot harder to pull off with strict form than most people think initially, though you can usually ramp up the amount of weight you’re working with pretty quickly, too.
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Hack squats are going to activate your quads as well as your glutes, your hamstrings, and your calves and are a fan favorite of athletes that are looking to develop more power and more strength in their lower body.
Requiring you to use a machine to pull off successfully, you’re also going to have your range of motion limited a little bit when you go through this exercise – but again that puts a lot of extra pressure on your quads (and that’s not a bad thing).
Just make sure that your foot placement is good to go (your feet should stay shoulder width apart) and that you’re working with weight you can manage while you are getting the form down. Add too much weight to early and you’ll have a tough time getting the kind of depth you need to really knock out quality hack squats.
Calf jumps are maybe not as common to see and fitness centers as the first two exercises we highlighted above, but can work as “finishing” moves at the end of your leg training day when strength is the ultimate goal to really fry your legs and recruit extra muscle fiber.
The idea here is to stand up straight with your feet relatively close together (just a little bit narrower than shoulder width apart) with dumbbells in both hands.
Jump up and down using just your toes to elevate you – bending your knees slightly at the same time – while flexing your quads and trying to activate them as much as possible on the upward movement.
It’ll take a little bit of time to get down the tempo for this exercise, but with a little bit of effort you’ll be knocking them out in no time at all – and building stronger quads at the same time.
Dead lifting is (obviously) one of the most important compound when looking to build more strength, the kind of lift that is going to absolutely blast every major muscle group in your lower body as well as all of the stabilizing muscles, too.
The tricky thing with deadlifts, though, is that they look so deceptively easy on the surface – and that has ended up getting a lot of people injured because they don’t laser focus on their form as much as they should.
Stand up straight with your feet sitting shoulder width apart before you go down and pick up the barbell. Keep the barbell around your hips to begin the movement, allowing your shoulders and your knees to bear the brunt of the force at first before you start to lower things down into the squatting position.
Keep the bar close to your body the whole time before you rotate back up to the starting position, rinsing and repeating for as many reps as you can manage.
Try to go slow, try to focus on your form, and stick to heavyweight and a couple of reps during each set. Five or six reps with maybe 15 to 20 seconds of downtime between sets will have you building monster quads that are super strong in record time.
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If you already have a pretty decent baseline level of strength that you are working with, and instead want to generate a lot of extra power (especially valuable if you are an athlete) there are different kinds of exercises you’re going to want to go after.
You’re not only going to want to activate different kinds of muscle groups (especially your calves and your hamstrings) when developing more power, but you’re looking to create a link between these major muscle groups that allow force to ripple through your lower body, into your core, and out however you are delivering your power.
Use these exercises to improve your golf swing, to hit baseballs farther, too have more explosive capabilities during mixed martial arts, or just to have better overall athletic capabilities!
Box jumping (at least on the surface) is another of those leg exercises that looks like it is almost too simple to be effective at all, at least until you start to work it into your routine and find out first and just how tough it can be.
Start off with a relatively short box (maybe a foot high) that you can jump up onto and off of during your initial training sessions.
Stand near the box with your feet shoulder width apart, jump as hard and as fast as you can to the top of the surface, and then as soon as you land on the box jump back off.
Rinse and repeat, focusing on form but trying to go as quickly and as explosively as you can with very little downtime between repetitions and sets.
Once you start to get the swing of things with a box that’s just about a foot tall start ramping things up with taller and taller boxes. Six months of box jump training will change your life and your explosiveness!
Just make sure to keep your form really dialed in. As soon as you get sloppy and start bouncing all over the place you’ll not only increase your risk of injury, but you’ll handicap your progress at the same time.
Jump squats are also really solid for developing explosive power and can be done without you having to introduce any weights into the mix (at least at first, anyway).
Starting with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart you rock back into a traditional squat movement. At the bottom, though, instead of slowly returning yourself to the starting position you explode forward – activating your legs as much as possible along the way – while you jump as high into the air as possible.
Hit the ground, reset back to the starting position, and then run through the process over and over (and over) again for as many reps and as many sets as you can manage.
It’s important to remember to reset back into that starting position before you begin each individual repetition, though.
There’s always going to be a lot of temptation to want to sort of allow momentum to carry you down into your squat before you explode forward. That’s a good way to risk throwing your form all over the place (inviting injury).
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A hugely popular exercise (especially with Olympic level athletes), power cleans can have you delivering explosive power in no time at all. Great for building mass and strength, there’s a reason why this is such a staple in the fitness programs of elite athletes and bodybuilders all over the world.
Keeping a strong stance (your feet at shoulder width so that you can evenly distribute the weight you’re working with throughout your soles) is a major piece of the puzzle with the power clean. You also want to be sure that your toes are turned slightly outward, creating that rock solid foundation to work from.
As you go through the first pole you need to make sure that your hips are staying low and aren’t accelerating faster than your shoulders are. The idea here is to sort of trick your mind into pushing the floor away from you as you drive yourself upwards.
Keep your arms locked into place, keep your knuckles turned down towards the floor, and stick your elbows like glue to the outside of your thighs as you go through this initial movement.
The real violence in the power clean starts to kick off when you bring your hips forward, though.
Get a little bit of contact with the bar, transferring the power from your hips into the bar, and then move your elbows up as high as you are able to so that you can start the “catching” process.
This should be a short, quick, incredibly powerful movement that transfers momentum up and away from the body while you continue to maintain overall control.
Finish things off with a sort of modified front squat as the bar gets above your hips so that you can catch things effectively. You want to be catching the weight on this part of the clean with your legs (and not your back or your wrists), another reason to start with lighter weights until you get the routine down and really master your form.
Just make sure that the transition between the popping of the bar with your hips and the actual catch itself is as quick and as clean as possible. You want to keep the bar close to your body during this transition, getting into the “rack” position ASAP so that you can finish the rep and restart the process all over again.
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As we get older we start to lose some of our stability and some of our mobility, as well as quite a bit of our overall flexibility – especially in our legs.
That has a huge impact on our quality of life, shriveling our posture, making it more painful to get up and move around, and generally just tanking the way we look and feel.
Luckily, there are a handful of exercises perfect for not only maintaining our stability and our mobility in our lower half but also increasing and improving those qualities, too.
You’ll be able to fight off Father Time a little longer than you would have otherwise when you implement these leg training sessions!
Back squats (traditional squats that most people are used to), especially when you are working with lighter weights than when you are strength training, are fantastic for increasing stability, mobility, and sort of training your leg muscles to work in concert with one another.
Some people like to start their back squat training with nothing but the bar, just sort of getting the feel for how squats are supposed to unfold.
If you were training squats to increase strength and power you’d want to load up, drop as slowly and as deliberately as possible before exploding through the upward movement, rinsing and repeating with a quick reset at the top.
When training back squats to improve stability and mobility, though, you don’t have to be quite as violent.
Keep things slow, keep things steady, and keep things under control with perfect form and you’ll be good to go.
Lunges (with or without extra weights) will help to improve your overall stability and mobility in your lower half, too.
The trick with lunges, though, is to make sure that you are stepping forward enough to get your knees to bend at a 90° angle (both of them at the same time) without you touching the floor. This is going to take a little bit of practice to dial in, but as soon as you hit it right and find your stride you’ll be a lunge superstar in record time.
Again, though, keep things controlled, keep things deliberate, and move through your lunges with a slower pace than you probably would feel comfortable with at first. Pausing during the actual lunge itself activates even more muscle fiber, especially if you flex your legs during the lunge work.
Split squats are a bit of a hybrid between lunges and squats and offer the benefits of both of those movements.
Great for balance, helping you to get your muscle fibers to sort of work in concert with one another, training split squats on mobility days (especially towards the end of your workout session) can really accelerate your progress quite a bit.
To pull these off, put one of your feet on a bench behind you (at about knee height or so) and then go through into the forward lunge position. Pick up a weight – maybe a kettle bell or a plate – and then push yourself forward until your upper thigh is about parallel with the ground, your front knee is nearly 90°, and your back knee is just about to touch the floor.
Rinse and repeat the process for as many reps and as many sets as you can handle before tackling your other leg!
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Trying to find the right schedule for leg training can be a bit of a challenge (especially for newbies) if only because you are going to be putting so much stress on your body, your central nervous system, and even your mind with each grueling leg session.
On top of that, when your legs are sore and flooded with lactic acid – like they will be after a good, hard training session – you’re definitely going to be feeling it. You’ll be stiff, you’ll be sore, and you’ll be cramped up.
As a general rule of thumb, most folks can get away with doing one really intense leg training session a week, taking three or four days off for rest, and then knocking out a moderately intense leg training session after that.
The squat (and all of its variations) is undeniably the king of the ring when it comes to leg workouts.
If you’re able to, you’re going to want to spend as much time as you can squatting. The benefits – not just to your legs but to your core and the rest of your body, even – are just off the charts.
At the same time, it’s not as though the leg press is a bad alternative. It’s just a little different.
Some people find the leg press to be “easier” to manage than squats, but a lot of that has to do with the fact that they are stabilized inside of a machine and aren’t necessarily forcing themselves to go through the full range of motion.
Whatever works best for you!
The Smith machine is a wonderful piece of fitness equipment when used properly, but the trouble is a lot of people just don’t use it the way it’s intended – and that causes a whole host of problems, particularly when knocking out leg workouts.
People feel almost invincible the moment they step into a Smith machine. They start throwing around heavy weights, they start forgetting about the importance and value of form, and some abandon the idea of bringing on a spotter when they are really getting after it.
Nothing invites injury more than this kind of behavior.
On top of that, some researchers feel that the barbell squat is far superior to squatting in the Smith machine (because of the muscle fibers that are recruited when going through the full range of motion and stabilizing the movement yourself versus using the machine) – but that’s a debate for another day!
If dumbbells allow you to get in a better leg workout than you’re able to with a barbell than by all means shift gears and use that kind of equipment to help you out.
Obviously, at a certain point you’re going to need to start stacking more weight than you can probably squeeze into dumbbells (especially if you are looking to train for strength and power). But there’s no reason that you can’t build a rock solid foundation for your legs with nothing but a set of dumbbells – or even bodyweight squats and exercises, for that matter!
So there you have it, our breakdown of not just why it’s so important to make leg day a big piece of your fitness program but also a quick outline of some of the most effective exercises you’ll want to implement to get the best results ASAP.
Leg day might not become your favorite overnight. It may never become your favorite, for that matter.
But with real focus, real dedication, and a commitment to knocking out some of the exercises we highlighted above to build a bigger, stronger, more stable lower body you’ll see just how much of an impact this kind of training can have on your health, your wellness, and your overall fitness capabilities.
Give yourself plenty of rest between leg day sessions, but don’t be shy about really getting after it when you are tackling leg day, though.
Focused intensity will help you to really activate these big muscle groups and that’s going to pay off big dividends going forward for sure!