January 14, 2022 4 Comments
Ever show up to the gym on leg day and think, "what should I do today?". This post leaves you with the ultimate leg workout that will transform twigs into trunks (if you stay consistent). Go into the gym with a clear plan and purpose of how to build your legs into an unbreakable foundation.
In this post you’re going to learn:
We probably shouldn't have to tell you why training your legs is essential, but just in case, here's a quick refresher:
Long story short, don't skip leg day!
We'll start at the waist and work our way down to cover the major muscles in the legs and their functions so that you better understand how and why to train them.
The hips are at the center of many leg movements as it is one of the most flexible joints of the body that include multiple muscles. These muscles can be described as 4 main groups of muscles, including the adductor group, lateral rotator group, gluteal group, and iliopsoas group.
The general functions of the hip muscles are to provide support, stability, mobility, and strength to both the hip joint and thigh bones. Below you can see a brief description of the muscles found in each group and the overall purpose of the group.
The muscles in the hip provide strength, stability, and mobility to the hip joint and thigh bones. We won't go into depth about all the muscles found in the hip, but below is the general functioning of each group of muscles.
Adductor Group: The muscles in the adductor group are the; adductor brevis, adductor magnus, adductor longus, pectineus and gracilis. The primary function of this group is bringing the legs towards the center of the body; think of any movement where you squeeze your thighs together.
Lateral Rotator Group: The muscles of this group include; externus/internus obturators, superior/inferior Gemelli, piriformis, and the quadratus femoris. The primary function of this group is to rotate the hip joint laterally. They also play a small role in hip extension and adduction.
Gluteal Group: The gluteal group consists of four muscles; gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus and the tensor fasciae latae. The primary function of the gluteus maximus is hip extension, while the other glute muscles support hip rotation and abduction. In addition, the tensor fascia latae works alongside the gluteus minimus and gluteus medius while also playing a big part in stabilizing the hip and knee joint.
Iliopsoas Group: The iliopsoas group consists of the iliacus and psoas major muscles. The primary function here is hip flexion.
Note: We will cover some of the specific muscles down below.
The glutes AKA your butt or backside consists of three muscles; gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus.
Gluteus Maximus: This is the largest muscle in the human body; it's a thick quadrilateral-shaped muscle that begins at the pelvic bone then moves down to your femur (thigh bone). This is the most superficial muscle on your backside and gives shape to your butt. With the right exercises and training methods, you will increase the strength and size of your gluteus maximus.
The gluteus maximus works in concert with the other glute muscles stabilizing the pelvis and helping in hip rotation and abduction. Apart from that, another major function of the gluteus maximus is to help support hip extension in big compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and hip thrusts.
Gluteus Medius: This thick fan-shaped muscle is on the upper outer side of the butt. The gluteus medius starts at the ilium (hipbone) then travels to the femur. Roughly 2/3 of this muscle is covered by the gluteus maximus.
The primary function of the gluteus medius is to act at the primary mover in hip abduction and lateral/medial rotation. Other functions of this muscle include helping the gluteus minimus provide stability and proper alignment of the pelvis during movement or single-leg movements. Think of exercises like lying abductions, clamshells, or lateral step-ups to hit the gluteus medius.
Gluteus Minimus: This muscle is similar in structure to the gluteus medius, but it is the smallest deepest of all the gluteal muscles. It begins at the ilium (hipbone) and ends at the femur.
The main functions of the gluteus minimus are to stabilize the hips and pelvis when moving or standing on one leg, plus also to abduct the thigh. The minor functions are to help support internal and external rotation to the thigh. Some movements to work the gluteus minimus include one leg squats, curtsy lunges, or lateral walks.
Hip flexors are responsible for the legs and hips flexion. The muscles that comprise the hip flexors include; the iliacus, psoas major, rectus femoris, pectineus, and sartorius.
The muscles that make up the hip flexors include:
Iliacus: This small flat thin muscle is found deep in the pelvis, where it attaches the femur to the pelvis. The primary function of this muscle is to rotate and flex the thigh.
Psoas Major: The psoas is the only muscle that connects the spine to the leg from the lower back to the femur. Its principal function is to flex the hip, which brings the leg towards the body, giving us the ability to walk.
Rectus Femoris: This is actually a quadriceps muscle that's found on the front of the upper thigh; it connects the pelvis to the patellar tendon of the knee. This muscle helps support thigh flexion and also helps to flex the pelvis towards the thigh.
Pectineus: Often called the groin muscle, this flat muscle is located at the top of the inner thigh. Its principal function is to adduct the thighs to bring them together while also supporting hip flexion.
Sartorius: This is the longest muscle in the body as it travels from the pelvis to the knee. This muscle acts as a hip and knee flexor.
Some great exercises to target the hip flexors include Bulgarian split squats, kettlebell swings, and lunges.
The hamstrings or hammies are found on the back of the upper thigh from the hips to the back of the knee. The hamstring muscles are comprised of; the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris. Exercises that hit the hamstrings are Russian deadlifts, good mornings, glute-ham raises and hamstring curls.
Biceps Femoris: Consisting of the long and short heads, this large muscle sits on the back of the thigh. The biceps femoris plays a more significant role in hip extension than the other hamstring muscles. It also helps rotate the thigh outward and extend backward while at the knee; it is responsible for flexing and laterally rotating the joint.
Semimembranosus: This broad muscle helps extend the hip and turn the leg inwards, plus it supports flexion and medial rotation of the knee.
Semitendinosus: The other large, long hamstring muscle starts at the sitting bone then travels down to the tibia (shin bone). This muscle helps to medial rotate the thigh, extend the thigh back, bend the knee and rotate it medially.
The quadriceps femoris, quadriceps, or simply quads sit opposite the hamstrings and comprise four muscles; the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. The quads is the strongest muscle in the human body. All quad muscles have different origins but share the same tendon that inserts into the patella. The primary function of the quadriceps is knee extension while also helping to flex the thigh at the hip. A few exercises that target the quads are lunges, front squats and leg extensions.
The muscles of the quadriceps are:
Rectus Femoris: This is the only muscle of the quads that crosses the hip and knee, which is part of the reason why it's also considered a hip flexor muscle. The rectus femoris muscle has two heads; it begins at areas on the ilium then converges a tendon inserted into the patella.
Vastus Lateralis: The vastus lateralis is the largest of the vastus muscles found on the outer thigh and is responsible for creating the outer sweep look that bodybuilders try to achieve. This muscle connects the femur to the knee cap.
Vastus Medialis: The vastus medialis is the teardrop-shaped muscle on the inner thigh. Like the vastus lateralis, it attaches the femur to the kneecap.
Vastus Intermedius: This is the deepest muscle of the thigh and moves from the femur down to the kneecap.
There are two muscles of the calf; the gastrocnemius and soleus. These muscles are found on the back of the lower leg and merge at the base of the leg, connecting to the Achilles heel. Both muscles are vital to our ability to walk, run and jump by lifting the heel, moving us forward. A few exercises that work the calves are standing and seated calf raises.
Gastrocnemius: The gastrocnemius is the larger muscle that creates the diamond shape of the calf due to the two heads of the muscle.
Soleus: This flat muscle lies under the gastrocnemius; besides enabling us to move, it also helps prevent us from falling forward.
Now that we've covered the major muscles of the legs and their function, you'll be able to recognize how the exercises below will target those muscles.
Let's look at some of the best leg exercises to add more muscle and power. You'll see these exercises in our ultimate leg workout below.
Perhaps the king of all exercises, squats are a fantastic exercise for the legs and the whole body. Everyone has seen, heard, or done this exercise at some point. Back squats are one of the main exercises in powerlifting competitions; they are an excellent metric to measure overall strength. This exercise hits all the muscles of the leg and, in particular, the glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Besides working the legs, you'll also engage your core. Performing back squats will lead to more muscular legs, more calories burned, higher jumping ability, and a healthier body overall.
How to do back squats:
The front squat is another killer exercise to hit all the muscles of the legs. The quads are engaged more in front squats when compared to back squats due to the placement of the load at the front of the body. Front squats are an excellent choice for those experiencing low back or shoulder pain. Your torso will be more upright while doing this squat variation to ease some pressure off the lower back. In addition, the core is activated more to keep from leaning too far forward. Besides working the legs and core, front squats also engage the upper back and thoracic spine to resist the load from rounding out the back. You will lift a lighter weight with the front squat, so focus on your form and technique. Last but not least, the front squat offers more variations on the grip position so that you can alter the exercise to your body mechanics.
How to do front squats:
Related: 15 Best Squat Variations
Even though you might look at the hack squat as the same exercise as the back squat or leg press, it's not. The hack squat is a brilliant exercise to focus on working the leg muscles and stabilizing muscles to move the load. The load is still placed at the back of the lifter and will challenge the core muscles, but you should be able to lift heavier weights with the hack squat compared with a back squat. Use the hack squat if you want to hone in only on the larger leg muscles, especially the quads or if you are trying to come back from an injury.
How to do hack squats:
**If your gym doesn't have a Hack squat machine, replace it with the leg press (below) or a barbell hack squat.
The leg press removes the necessity to bear the load on your shoulders while pressing with your leg muscles. With this, you'll be able to load up more weight which can help stimulate new muscle growth. You should use the leg press as an accessory to the squat, not as a replacement. Like the hack squat, you won't have to use smaller stabilizing muscles to control the load, so you can really concentrate on the mind-muscle connection. Another benefit of the leg press is that it allows for several training modalities with relative ease and effectiveness. You can do pyramid or reverse pyramid sets, drops sets quickly and safely. Finally, the leg press is another exercise that can be a good option for those experiencing low back pain if they still want to hit the legs and pack on some size.
How to leg presses:
Numerous studies have shown that the hip thrust is the best exercise to activate and work the gluteus maximus. If you want to build your glutes, this exercise is a must! Bret Contreras often referred to as "The Glute Guy," has demonstrated that the weighted hip thrust activates the glutes more than the back squat. This is because hip thrusts have a narrow range of motion that specifically hits the gluteus maximus plus the quads, core, and hip adductors. Barbell hip thrusts allow you to use heavy loads without putting too much stress on your lower back.
How to barbell hip thrusts:
Related: Hip Thrust Exercise Guide & Tips
This challenging leg exercise is fantastic for the glutes, quads, calves, and hamstrings. By performing this elevated split squat, you reap the benefits of engaging more stabilizer muscles in the legs and the core. In addition, unilateral exercises like the Bulgarian split squat can help to highlight any muscle imbalances you have before they become a real problem. Plus, you can work on driving off one leg at a time; this skill is vital in many sports and daily activities like walking or running.
How to do Bulgarian split squats:
Note: Split squats are a similar exercise and are great if you want to lift heavier loads.
The Romanian deadlift AKA the RDL, is a great exercise to hit the hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, and core. We chose this exercise in the best leg workout because it works the hamstrings more than other hamstring-focused exercises. This study compared the RDL with good mornings, leg curl, and the glute ham-raise. The findings showed that the RDL and the glute-ham raise activated the hamstrings the most. Aside from being an excellent exercise to hit the hamstrings, the RDL can help improve your other big lifts, such as the deadlift and squat.
How to do Romanian deadlifts:
This exercise targets the hamstrings but also works the glutes and muscles of the posterior chain, including the erector spinae and lower back. The glute-ham raise is a good choice for people to target the hamstrings without the added pressure on the lower back. By strengthening the hammies with this one, you can reduce your risk of potential ACL or hamstring injury. Although this is a leg exercise, it can also help to improve your posture by working the spinal erectors. The glute ham-raise will improve other compound exercises such as the deadlift and squat; that's why you'll often see powerlifters incorporate it into their workouts.
How to do glute-ham raises:
Note: If you don't have a glute-ham set up at your gym, you can always perform Nordic hamstring curls.
Lunges are a perfect multi-muscle exercise to strengthen muscles of including your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves. This is a great unilateral exercise that stretches the hip flexors while requiring a good amount of balance, stability, and coordination. We added lunges to the ultimate leg workout as a super functional movement that will help you move better in everyday situations.
How to do lunges:
Note: To make this easier, simply do the same exercise without extra weight.
The single-leg extension is great to isolate the quads and focuses on the mind-muscle connection as you contract the muscle. This isn't the most functional leg workout exercise, but it's excellent to exhaust the quads, stimulating new muscle growth. We don't advise that you go too heavy on this one as it can put added stress on the knee joints. Instead, use this exercise as an accessory to the larger compound lifts. You can try using super slow eccentric phases or dropsets to push yourself with the lighter loads lifted.
How to do single leg extensions:
Note: To round out the muscles of the quads to create a killer outer sweep, angle your toes inwards during the exercise.
The hamstring curl is a good exercise to hit the hamstrings and glutes. Although the RDL and glute-ham raise result in greater muscle activation, the hamstring curl has its merits if done correctly. With this exercise, you can focus specifically on the hamstring and glute contraction as you're lying in a locked-in position. The machine enables changing up training variables by easily doing pyramid/ reverse pyramid or dropsets. The machine also provides constant tension on the muscles, so it's great to work the muscles to exhaustion.
How to do hamstring curls:
We can't forget about the calves to round out the ultimate leg workout. Of course, the calves get plenty of usage from walking around all day, but if you want them to grow, then you should add them to your leg days too.
Many people might mistake the seated, and standing calf raises as one and the same, but there are differences mainly due to the angle of the knees. The standing calf raise will put more emphasis and stress on the gastrocnemius compared with a seated calf raise. So, if you want to develop those diamond-shaped bulges, standing calf raises are a must.
How to do standing calf raises:
Note: This exercise can also be done with a Smith Machine
Like the standing calf raise, this exercise is still working the calf muscle, but the emphasis is on the soleus muscle located underneath the gastrocnemius. With the knees bent at 90 degrees, the focus here is the soleus which can add significant overall size and width to the calf muscle.
How to do seated calf raises:
Before beginning any resistance training workout, you should perform a targeted, dynamic warmup to get the blood flowing to the muscles you'll be using. Activating your muscles will help avoid possible injuries and can improve your overall workout performance.
Air Squats: This bodyweight exercise will get you in the right mindset to take on your leg workout as it mimics the movements you'll be doing. Air squats can help activate your legs and glutes, so you'll be ready to tackle your first leg exercise. Simply do 2-3 sets of 20 reps before moving on to the next bodyweight exercise.
Donkey Kicks: This exercise will have you on your hands and knees while you kick up one of your legs at a time. This exercise activates the glutes and warms up the hips while stretching the hip flexors. Do 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps of each leg.
Lateral Walks: With this exercise, you'll be engaging multiple muscles that help to stabilize the pelvis. Lateral walks can be done with or without bands for added resistance. This is a great exercise to warm up your joints and improve your knee and ankle stability before moving into an intense leg workout. You'll also be working both the hip abductors and adductors by opening and closing the thighs as you move. Get into a partial squat position, then take steps to the side while remaining in that position. Perform 2-3 sets of 10-15 strides in each direction.
Related: Best Glute Activation Exercises
After going over some of the best leg exercises needed to build a stronger lower body, we'll need to program them into a workout plan. Here are a few variables that play a part in creating an efficient and effective hypertrophy and strength program for legs.
The ultimate leg workout is divided into two training sessions to align with the proper training frequency and volume of hitting the muscles twice weekly.
Before each leg workout, you should perform the following warmup and activation:
For squats, be sure to also do some ramp up sets. Don't just jump right into your working weight. So, you'll do 2-3 warm up sets for Front Squats and Back Squats. Set 1 at 50% 1RM, Set 2 at 60% 1RM, Set 3 at 70% 1RM, and then you begin your working sets.
|Front Squats||3 sets||6-8 reps||90-120 sec rest|
|RDLs||3 sets||4-8 reps||90-120 sec rest|
|Bulgarian Squats||3 sets||12-15 reps each side||60-90 sec rest|
|Single Leg Extensions x Hamstring Curls (superset)||3 sets||10 reps each||90 sec rest|
|Seated Calf Raises||4 sets||15-20 reps||60 sec rest|
|Back Squats||3-5 sets||4-6 reps||120+ sec rest|
|Hack Squats||3 sets||8-12 reps||90-120 sec rest|
|Glute Ham Raise||3 sets||8-10 reps||60-90 sec rest|
|DB lunges||3 sets||15-20 reps each side||60-90 sec rest|
|Hip Thrusts||3 sets||8-12 reps||90 sec rest|
|Standing Calf Raises||3 sets||20 reps||60 sec rest|
The ultimate leg workout is based on 2 weekly training sessions, so the best way to incorporate it into your training is as a Push-Pull Legs or an Upper Lower training program. You can use the ultimate leg workout in a 4, 5, or 6 day PPL or Upper Lower; just make sure you hit legs twice a week and have at least 24-48 hours rest between leg sessions.
Here's a look at what your training schedule might look like:
4 Day Upper/Lower Split:
6 Day PPL Workout Split:
You're now equipped with the knowledge, exercises, and ultimate leg workout to build those massive tree trunks. It's your turn to put this information into practice. You'll need to apply consistency and intensity to use this leg workout to achieve your goals. And, don't forget the other piece of the puzzle is to eat healthy while ensuring you get adequate protein and quality sleep to ensure your hard work doesn't go to waste.
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