You know you should do it.
You should hit the gym and get that leg workout in, but the temptation to skip it is always there.
I get it, training legs is both the most difficult and most rewarding training session you can do. Do it right and you’ll develop strong, powerful legs over time, but you’ll struggle to climb the stairs to leave the gym in the meantime.
I think it’s this juxtaposition between getting in a good training session but feeling thoroughly fatigued and as if your legs are suddenly made of jelly that leave some people loving leg workouts and others more likely to skip them.
However, skipping leg day is never something you want to do, unless of course, you want to end up looking like an upside down triangle…if that’s the look you’re going for, then close this tab and have at it.
If, however, you want to build lean, strong and muscular legs that not only look great but perform well, then you’ll want to continue reading as in this post we’re going to cover everything you need to know about doing just that. We’ll look at;
Your legs are a collection of muscles that all work together to bring about movement and stability in the lower body. When it comes to building strength and size there are 4 main muscles you want to focus on.
The quad is a large muscle group that makes up the front of the thigh and is made up of 4 muscles;
The quads are involved in the movement of the knee and at the hip. Well-developed quads are the muscle most people imagine when they think of a muscular and athletic leg.
The hamstrings are the big muscle found at the back of the leg directly opposite the quadriceps and are made up of 3 muscles;
The hamstrings are also involved in the movement of the knee and hip.
The glutes, more commonly known as the buttock or butt, are a combination of 3 muscles;
The glutes facilitate movement in a variety of ranges of motion at the hip joint.
Fun fact: the glute is that it’s not only the biggest muscle in the legs but it’s the biggest muscle in the whole body.
The calves are the muscles found at the back of the bottom of the legs, above the ankles and are made up of 2 muscles;
They are involved in stabilisation of the ankle and movement of the foot in everyday activities like walking.
Each muscle we’ve just looked at plays a different role in the movement and function of the legs as a whole, it’s important we look at this to understand why certain exercises are better or worse for training different muscles.
There are tonnes of exercises you could choose but only a core group of them are really worth your time and effort. The exercises listed below are the ones that will bring you the best returns on your investment. These are the only exercises you need to truly build outstanding legs.
Squats are the go-to exercise for most people when training their legs, and for good reason too. The squat is a compound movement that works the whole of the legs, the core and a lot of the rest of the body too. Whilst there are various different types of squat, the two you need to know about are the barbell back squat and the front squat.
Barbell Back Squats
The barbell back squat is a compound movement performed with the barbell resting across the top of the back and is one of the best leg building exercises as it allows you to use heavy weights and trains almost the entire body in one move.
Front squats are also a compound movement with the main difference between this and the back squat being the amount of emphasis the movement places on the quadriceps.
The front squat although technically move difficult places less stress on the knees and lower back that the traditional squat which means it may be more suitable for people struggling with back squat.
Related: 16 Tips to Increase Your Back Squat
Lunges are a fantastic leg exercise and are a perfect substitute if you can’t or don’t want to squat for any reason. They have the added benefit of being a unilateral exercise which means you’re working one leg at a time instead of both together.
This has benefits for strength and muscle imbalances as well as improve your balance and coordination.
Lunges can be performed in a few different ways:
Like the lunge, the step up is a unilateral exercise which means you work one leg at a time instead of both together like the squat. This means these exercises are not only good muscle builders in their own right but also great for fixing muscle or strength imbalances.
Related: 5 Ways To Correct A Muscle Imbalance
The leg press is an open-chain exercise performed using an exercise machine. For this reason, it’s often thought of as a machine squat with the difference being, you’re in a seated position when performing the exercise.
What this means is that, unlike the squat where your feet are fixed in place and your body moves, with the leg press your body is fixed in a seated position and your legs move.
Closed chain exercises are generally thought to be better as they force you to engage more muscles in a stabilising role when performing the exercise. However, the leg press is not to be sniffed at, it too can build you a great set of legs.
The Romanian deadlift primarily works the hamstrings, glutes and lower back not the quads. For this reason, it’s often included in leg works to help prevent imbalances forming between the front and back of the legs.
Hip thrusts are probably the best possible exercise you can do to build strong, powerful glutes. One of the videos below as include a discussion about the difference between hip thrusts and glute bridges for those of you wondering.
The calf raise can be performed in a standing or seated position and is easily the best way to isolate and grow your stubborn calves.
Research shows (1) that high-intensity resistance training (moderate reps, heavy load) is superior for building both muscle and strength than moderate-intensity resistance training (high reps, moderate load). Researchers identified two reasons for this:
Research (2) also shows that progressive overload and the increase in muscle tension is the main driver for quality muscle growth. Not only this but using moderate rep intensity (4 – 11 reps) and high load whilst specifically applying progressive overload is even better.
This means to get stronger and build muscle you need to continually challenge yourself, you must strive to do a little better each and every time you work out. The best way to do this is to apply progressive overload. Applying progressive overload simply means doing more. It could be doing one more rep, one more set, add weight to the bar or resting for less time.
My preferred method of progressive overload is to increase the weight lifted within a rep range. For example, if you’re doing squats and aiming for 3 sets of 8 – 10 reps and you hit 10 on each set then the next time you’ll increase the weight.
The increase in weight will probably bring you down to the 3 sets of 8 reps, but that’s ok, build your way back up to 3 sets of 10 with the new weight before increasing it again. Continue like this to make consistent strength and muscle gains over time.
5 Day Split – Leg Day
Squats – 3 x 8
Lunges – 3 x 10
Romanian deadlifts – 3 x 10
Hip thrusts – 2 x 12
Calf raises – 2 x 12-15
Push, Pull, Legs – Leg Day
Squats – 3 x 6
Romanian deadlifts – 3 x 8
Hip thrusts – 3 x 10
Calf raises – 3 x 12-15
A, B Split – Shoulders & Legs
Squats – 3 x 6
Shoulder Press – 3 x 8
Romanian Deadlifts or Hip Thrusts – 3 x 10
Lateral Raises – 3 x 10 – 15
Reverse Flyes or Face Pulls – 3 x 10 – 15
Calf Raises – 3 x 10 – 15
To build muscle you need to be eating in a calorie surplus and to build muscle with the minimal possible fat gain you need to balance eating too much and not eating enough.
I recommend a calorie surplus of 10 – 15% as a good starting point with the aim being to gain 0.5 – 1 lb of weight per week.
I know this may not sound like much but think 2 – 4 lbs of solid muscle a month adds up to 6 – 12 lbs every 3 months and this can make an outstanding difference to your physique.
Trying to gain muscle any faster than this and you will gain more fat in the process, which will ruin your look.
The key to successful weight gain is to put on as much muscle as possible whilst keeping fat gain to a minimum.
The quickest way to calculate this is to take your body weight in lbs and multiply it by 16.
This will give you a good starting point. You can then adjust as you go based on your rate of weight gain and how much exercise you are performing. As for macros my preferred set up is:
If you really want to make sure you’re getting the most out of your workouts then there are few common training mistakes you need to be aware of.
#1: Not Using A Full Range of Motion
Just doing these exercises with no thought for form or progress is pointless, you need to fully understand how to perform each move with proper technique to effectively apply progressive overload. Using good form has several benefits that you can’t afford to miss out on:
Always take the time to thoroughly learn the movement with an unweighted bar or a little weight before lifting heavy. This will not only allow you to learn the movement pattern faster, but it will also decrease your risk of injury and allow you to lift more weight.
#2: Using The Smith Machine
There are a number of reasons for this:
The bottom line is; avoid the smith machine where possible for better strength, muscle development and a decreased risk of injury.
#3: Not Prioritising Rest & Recovery
Too many people underestimate the importance of rest and recovery, mistakenly thinking that more time in the gym = more progress. When the reality is that a lot of your progress happens when you rest and allow your body to complete several important processes;
Allowing your body to do this means it will begin to adapt to the stresses of exercise which in turn means you will get bigger and stronger. The best way to help your body complete these actions is to stay hydrated, get adequate sleep and eat appropriately for your goal.
Neglecting to give your body the time it needs to adapt and repair itself after training will result in a noticeable deterioration in your energy levels, performance and results.