Leg day is certainly not the favorite topic of most trainees. If they had to choose, many gym-goers would prefer to discuss more exciting subjects, such as how to blast the chest or pump the biceps to bursting.
But, regardless of how you feel about leg training, you have to do it, unless you want to be one of those muscular people with sticks for legs.
Plus, aside from the visual appeal, training your legs is vital for your overall strength and athleticism. The lower body is home to some of the largest and strongest muscles in the body, so developing them will elevate your physical abilities significantly.
With that in mind, let’s review eight of the best leg exercises for muscle growth and brute strength.
1. Barbell Back Squats
Barbell squats, often deemed the king of all exercises, are among the best activities for lower body development. Back squats strengthen your quadriceps, glutes, and entire upper body when done correctly. Your hamstrings also play a role during the squat, but to a much smaller degree than most people imagine.
The barbell position will play a role in which muscles you emphasize. High-bar back squats are more quadricep-dominant, whereas using a low-bar position allows for greater hip extension and develops the posterior chain: hamstrings, glutes, and lower back.
2. Barbell Front Squats
Barbell front squats are similar to back squats in many ways. Both exercises have similar ranges of motion, train many of the same muscles, and require the same equipment.
The primary difference between back and front squats is bar placement, which dictates the torso angle during the exercise. When having the barbell in a front rack position, you’re forced to maintain a more upright torso, which offers two unique benefits.
First, your back and midsection have to work extra hard to keep you in position. Second, you’re less able to rely on hip extension to complete each repetition. Instead, your quadriceps have to support the entire load and works extra hard.
3. Hip Thrusts
Heavily popularized by Bret Contreras, hip thrusts are touted as one of the best exercises you can do for hamstring, glute, and lower back development. The idea behind hip thrusts is to support your upper back on a bench, place a barbell over the crease of your hips, and use your posterior muscles to lift the weight repeatedly.
Hip thrusts are beneficial because the movement is relatively easy to learn, the overload potential is excellent, and you’re able to focus on the biggest and most powerful muscle in the body: the gluteus maximus.
The exercise is also good because the range of motion it offers is long, and there isn’t much that can go wrong.
4. Romanian Deadlift
Romanian deadlifts are one of the best exercises for hamstring development. Like regular deadlifts, the objective is to load your posterior chain muscles by hinging at the hips. But, unlike regular deadlifts, you have to maintain a steady knee angle with Romanian deadlifts from start to finish. As you bend forward, you stretch your hamstrings, which work with your glutes and back to bring you back to the top position.
The great thing about Romanian deadlifts is that you can perform the exercise in numerous ways: with dumbbells, a barbell, kettlebells, while supporting yourself on one foot, and more.
You can do more repetitions with a lighter weight or load a heavy barbell and do 4 to 6 reps per set, focusing on strength development.
5. Hack Squats
Hack squats are a simple and practical accessory exercise that overloads your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes with more weight.
Like barbell squats, the overloading potential is excellent, and you can gradually increase the load as you strengthen your lower body. But, unlike barbell squats, you don’t have to worry about remaining balanced and can instead focus on training your legs effectively.
Doing hack squats is excellent because the machine allows you to squat deeply and activate the correct muscles better. Plus, you can use a lot of weight, making hack squats great for your strength and athleticism.
6. Bulgarian Split Squats
Bulgarian split squats are a challenging unilateral exercise that allows you to focus on one side at a time. The objective is to bring one leg back and elevate the foot on a gym bench, chair, or similar. Your front foot should extend forward to support your weight. Once in position, squat by bending your front leg.
The movement is beneficial because it prevents side-to-side muscle imbalances from occurring and emphasizes your glutes much better than most leg exercises. As you descend, you stretch your glutes well, and the muscle group produces force to bring you back to the top position. Bulgarian split squats also strengthen your quadriceps, hamstrings, and midsection musculature.
7. Standing Machine Calf Raises
No lower body is complete without a set of developed calves, which is why we have the standing machine calf raise on our list. The movement is beneficial for two reasons:
1. You can maintain consistent tension on your calves, overload the muscles with a lot of weight, and force them to grow effectively.
2. Performing calf raises from a standing position allows you to train the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles equally well, leading to more balanced calf development.
8. Leg Press
Like hack squats, the leg press is a valuable assistance exercise that allows you to overload your leg muscles with a lot of weight without worrying about stability. The objective is to sit inside the leg press machine, place your feet on the footplate, and use your legs to press the weight away from yourself. Doing so strengthens your quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes.
The leg press is a viable alternative to the squat, especially for people who can’t squat safely or without experiencing pain. While not as ‘functional,’ the leg press offers many benefits and makes for an excellent assistance or main quadriceps exercise.
You can also adjust foot position to emphasize different portions of your lower body. For example, a more narrow stance emphasizes your quadriceps, whereas having your feet wide activates your glutes and adductors better.
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