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April 22, 2022
The barbell is the best strength and muscle building tool in the gym and has been since it was invented back in the 1860s. Whatever your fitness performance or aesthetic goal is, the barbell will help you get there, especially when it comes to building up your legs.
In this article, we are looking at the best barbell leg exercises. These exercises are old school and effective. They will help you build strength, increase bone density, and pack on muscle mass in your thighs and glutes.
But before we jump into the exercises, let's quickly discuss the reason why barbells are superior to other implements when it comes to leg training, as well as some important training variables you need to consider for your programming.
The advantage of barbell exercises really comes down to one main point - heavier loads. They are made for big compound lifts with heavy weights (relative to your strength level), which means two things - more strength and more mass.
Whether your goal is performance, strength, fat loss, or muscle mass, the barbell will get you there the fastest. More strength = more muscle building potential, and vice versa, and maintaining muscle mass and doing heavy lifts = higher calorie burn and thus easier fat loss.
All that said, the barbell is more of an advanced training tool. Beginners can use it, but they should go light to learn proper movement mechanics before adding load. From there, use progressive overload, incrementally going heavier over time.
While the barbell back squat and conventional deadlift are the most superior exercises, they shouldn't be the only leg exercises you do. For the best possible development of your legs, it's important to consider the following training variables:
It's important that you consider these training variables when doing your programming, as it will ensure you are building muscle and strength in a well-rounded manner. You don't need to do so many exercises in one workout session, but over the course of your training life, you need variety.
The exercises below have taken the above into account.
Without further ado, here are the 10 best barbell leg exercises to add to your lifting selection.
The barbell back squat is arguably the king of all the leg exercises. You can load this exercise up heavily because of the stability that the upper and lower back provide. It's important that you play around with rep ranges with back squats too. Low reps with heavy weight is good, but lighter rep squats can cause the body to produce growth hormones to help increase your size and strength too (study). This is a great exercise to include in any leg workout, including this legs and shoulder routine.
Muscles emphasized: Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings
How to do the Barbell Back Squat:
Best rep ranges: 4-8, 8-12, and 12-20
Related: High Bar vs Low Bar Back Squat
If barbell back squats are the king of the leg exercises, the front squats are the queen. While you’ll use less load because the front rack position provides less stability than the back position, it has a few advantages being this trains the quads and anterior core to a greater degree. Plus, it puts less load on your spine if your lower back is an issue. This is due to the vertical torso position making the front squat easier on the low back because there is less of a compressive force on the spine.
Muscles emphasized: Quads
How to do the Barbell Front Squat:
Best rep range: 4-12
Related: 3 Types of Front Squat Grips
Split squats reduce muscle imbalance between sides, focus on your quads and glutes, and lead to better muscle development between sides. Do they suck? Yes, but they are good for you. If you were to choose one exercise to improve your barbell squat and deadlift split squat would be it. The barbell split squat allows you to load this movement heavier to improve your leg drive for squats and deadlifts.
Muscle emphasized: Quads, Glutes
How to do the Barbell Split Squat:
Best rep range: 8-12
Reverse lunges are probably the easiest of all the lunge variations because stepping back makes it a hip-dominant exercise, and this puts less stress on your knees than other lunge variations. A great reverse lunge variation is the front racked reverse lunges. You set up as you would for a front squat and then perform a reverse lunge. This will help decrease muscle imbalances, increase injury resilience, and builds anterior core strength.
Muscles Emphasized: Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Core
How to Do the Front Racked Barbell Reverse Lunge:
Best rep range: 8-12
The hip thrust is a great hinge exercise to isolate the glutes hard and heavy. There are many variations of the hip thrust, but the barbell version allows you to load it the heaviest. Hip thrusts train the glutes differently from deadlifts and squats because you lift in the horizontal and not vertical plane. With that, it focuses on glute contraction. With the hip thrust position, you are contracting your glutes against gravity, which is not the case with vertical hinge movements. Vertical hinges emphasize stretching tension (eccentric contraction) for the glutes though. Because of this, hip thrust focuses solely on strengthening the glutes through concentric contraction and improving hip extension strength.
Muscles emphasized: Glutes, Hamstrings
How to do the Barbell Hip Thrust:
Note: The wider your foot positioning, the more glute activation.
Best rep range: 6-15
Related: Hip Thrust Exercise Guide
Barbell good mornings train your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings as a unit. This is a pure hinge movement with a barbell on your back so be sure you can hinge and have the shoulder mobility to keep the barbell in position on your back. Barbell good morning needs to be mastered with lighter loads before adding load and range of motion. When performed correctly this strengthens and builds your posterior chain, and will help bulletproof your lower back from injury.
Muscles emphasized: Low Back, Hamstrings, Glutes
How to do the Barbell Good Morning:
Best rep range: 8-15
Related: Good Morning Exercise Guide
RDLs differ from the conventional deadlift because it starts in the standing position rather than from the floor, and you will never bring the barbell to a dead stop on the floor. With that, the movement is hip hinge focused, where as deadlifts involve greater knee flexion/extension.
The RDL engages more of the glutes and hamstrings due to constant tension from an eccentric contraction at the hips. Yes, you’ll use less weight than the standard deadlift, but you will add serious mass to your glutes and hamstrings due to the increased time under tension. Plus, RDLs will improve lockout strength for your conventional deadlifts.
Muscles emphasized: Hamstring, Glutes
How to do the Romanian Deadlift:
Best rep range: 6-12
Related: Romanian Deadlift Exercise Guide
You might be thinking, isn't this a back exercise? Well, yes, but it can be made into a leg focused exercise by simply making the set up lower. Essentially, you want to have it set up near shin level or as low as possible and perform as you would a deadlift. By decreasing the ROM slightly, you can increase the load. This is a great way to add some new stimulus to your muscles.
Muscles emphasized: Glutes, Hamstrings, Quads, Back
How to do the Rack Pull:
Best rep range: 3-8
Related: Rack Pull Exercise Guide
You probably noticed the conventional deadlift is not on this list. It’s not a knock against it by any means. The deadlift is one of the big three power lifts and you will build tremendous strength by performing it. However, it's really more of a total body exercise with emphasis on the entire posterior chain, and here we are looking at the legs specifically. With the sumo deadlift, your torso will remain more upright, placing the emphasis on your legs and glutes. Plus, you’re still training the deadlift hard and heavy. For those reasons, when looking at the sumo deadlift vs. conventional deadlift, the sumo variation wins when it comes to leg training (but don't stop doing conventional deadlifts!).
Muscles emphasized: Glutes, Hamstrings, Quads/Adductors, Back
How to do the Sumo Deadlift:
Best rep range: 3-6
Related: Sumo Deadlift Exercise Guide
Strong and muscular calves play a role in your ability to squat and deadlift heavier, as well as with all movements that require plantar flexion, which is a lot. This means calves exercises are important. And it's very important in sports. So, it pays to train them hard and heavy and barbell standing calf raise is a great exercise to do this, especially when you don’t have access to a standing calf raise machine.
Muscles emphasized: Calves
How to do the Barbell Standing Calf Raise:
Best rep range: 10-25
The warmup is always important because you need to get your muscles and joints ready for the work ahead. There are many ways to warm up, but a short and sweet method is using ramp-up sets. Ramp-up sets help grease the groove and helps you determine your working weight for the day. Plus, the extra volume ramp-up sets provide are helpful for fat loss and muscle-building goals.
Use ramp up sets for the main lifts in your workouts, after that your muscles will be warm and you won't need to use such an extensive ramp up.
Here’s an example using barbell back squats:
These are general recommendations, and they’ll differ according to your goals and what works for you.
Barbell exercises that train the most muscle and require the most energy should always come first in training. For example, barbell back squats. When you’re fresh you’re more likely to lift with good form and use more weight. When performing barbell exercises back-to-back use your best judgment on what comes first.
Also, try to avoid putting two exercises together that put too much shear and compressive load on the spine.
Barbell Sets & Reps for Strength:
Muscle and strength are built in a variety of set and rep ranges. But when your focus is absolute strength working with a load of 85% and above of your 1RM, keeping the total reps performed between 3-6 reps is best . This can be broken up into various set and rep schemes like 3 sets of 3 reps, five sets of 5 reps 4 sets of 3 reps, or 5 sets of 2 reps.
Barbell Sets & Reps for Muscle:
The focus when it comes to building muscle with a barbell is volume and increasing time under tension. Like with strength, muscle is built with a variety of set and rep schemes. As a general rule training with loads of between 50-85% 1RM keeping the total reps between 25-60 works well. Less reps = heavier load and more sets. More reps = lighter load and fewer sets. A few examples here are 4 sets of 8-12 reps, 3 sets of 15 reps, and 5 sets of 6 reps. All of these will work to build pure size and you should switch things up over time.
If you have questions about barbell leg exercises and workouts, leave a comment below!
|Exercise:||Sets:||Reps:||Rest Between Sets:|
|Back Squat||5||3-6||2-3 mins|
|Front Rack Reverse Lunge||3||8-10||1-2 mins|
|Hip Thrusts||3||8-10||1-2 mins|
|Calf Raise||4||15-25||60 seconds|
More Leg Training Resources:
More Barbell Exercise Resources:
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