Whether you are a beginner or an advanced athlete, you can create a massively effective leg workout with just four exercises. In this article I will share with you some of my best leg exercises for mass, bodyweight and weighted.
I believe that in the contrary to the upper body, you really need some weight training for your lower body to grow effectively. You will however also reap large benefits from some bodyweight exercises so why not mix both and obtain the best of both worlds?
As with most of my training related articles, the major focus here will be on multi joint compound exercises for maximal growth and strength gains.
These should always be your priority as they recruit several muscles in unison and will heavily stimulate your central nervous system. This is why you always want to do them when you are your strongest; at the beginning of the workout.
Before going on to the exercises, you may enjoy watching this video; It features a variety of studies on the matter of the most effective quad building exercises. It’s very well explained and mentions some of the exercises we will be seeing in this article.
Important: Before getting into these exercises, remember to always warm up properly and sufficiently for maximum performance, and to avoid unnecessary injuries. You can find an efficient warm up routine here.
Squats are and have forever been a staple of lower body training. Like the deadlift, it’s an essential compound movement that you should be doing. It will help you pack a lot of muscle onto those legs, and develop your strength at the same time.
I have chosen the front squat over the back squat for a few principle reasons:
- Better quad recruitment
- Lighter weight than back squat means less spine compression; reduced chances for back pain
- Forced thoracic extension; amazing for posture improvement
- Develops core and middle/upper back strength
Back squats are however also very effective and allow you to pack on more weight than you would in a front squat. It’s up to you to see which one suits you best depending on your goals and capacity.
Another great compound exercise, weighted lunges are along with the squat, my personal favorite quad builders. Perform them with a barbell, a pair of dumbbells, or if you are on a tight budget, you can also use a sandbag. It targets the quadriceps and the glutes rather to an extended degree, but also hits the hamstrings, calves and core. You are guaranteed to be breathing hard at the end of a 10 rep barbell lunge set. On top of this, lunges also add a stabilization factor which will prove to be a bit of an added challenge for balance and coordination than bilateral exercises like the squat.
Here are a few lunge variations you should try:
- Walking lunge
- Reverse lunge
- Split squat with front foot elevated
- Bulgarian split squat
If during your movement your knees or feet cave in slightly, or you experience a forward lean, stop, and lower the weight/difficulty. These are things you want to watch out for and eliminate for clean, injury free movement.
Another functional, unilateral, multi-joint movement that has a high carryover to many activities of daily living and sport are step ups. They are an effective quad builder and have been scientifically proven to recruit and develop the lateral head to a greater degree than the squat. Once again, the balance required to do these is believed to call more muscles into action, thus furthering you results.
Here are a few variations of this exercise that you may want to try:
- Bodyweight step up
- Dumbbell step up
- Barbell “back squat” step up
- Barbell “front squat” step up
For this exercise, try to use the leg that is not doing any work as little as possible when coming off the ground. To do this, you can point your toes upwards, and only touch the floor with your heel.
This bodyweight hamstring exercise will destroy you hamstrings in a good way, every single workout. Starting with eccentrics ( just the negative portion of the movement ) is a better alternative when you are just starting out with this exercise, as it is quite hard. The aim of the movement is to eventually be able to perform it with your hips fully extended. At first, you can start with slightly flexed hips to make it easier.
Here are different ways to increase difficulty:
- Gradually work on increasing hip extension
- Place hands by head
- Extend arms fully
As well as building strength and muscle mass, this exercise is great to protect your hamstrings from injury.
Best leg exercises for mass – the workout
Now that we have gone over the different exercises you can perform to develop your legs, how would these look when integrated into one complete workout routine ?
Exercise 1: Front squat or lunges – 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps
Exercise 2: Step ups – 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps
Exercise 3: Nordic curls – 3 sets of 6 to 10 reps
Exercise 4: Single leg calve raises – 6 sets of 10 to 15 reps
I like to do the single leg calve raises as follows:
Perform 10 to 15 reps on one leg, on an elevated platform for extra range of motion. The eccentric portion should be slow and controlled, then explosive on the concentric part, with a 1 second squeeze at the top. When at the bottom portion of the movement, feel your calve muscle stretch, and pause slightly to eliminate the stretch reflex of the powerful Achilles’s tendon. Eliminating the stretch reflex is important in all movements, it will make the movement slightly harder, and the burn more intense but you will build true strength.
Feel free to add these to your current routine, change thing around as you need, but you will find that this in itself is already a very complete routine, which will make your legs shake after every workout. Remember to eat in a caloric surplus, warm up properly, and use progressive overload to optimize your results. Perform this routine preferably twice a week for optimal progress.