Best Leg Workout Exercises – Can You Get Bigger Legs With The Right Exercises?

Here we are back in the gym on another leg day and we wonder why we dread the idea of training the lower body instead of looking forward to the thrill of working out! 

Well, worry not my friend, you are not alone in thinking this way! There are a few best leg workout exercises that are highly effective in getting you closer to your dream of building bigger legs with more muscle mass. Everyone wants legs that are strong enough to balance their upper body. The ones who aim at training their legs for bulk and mass would benefit greatly from the knowledge of training them for maximum development and definition.

If you think that leg training is the hardest, then knowing the right techniques and the best leg exercises can make your workouts wonderfully effective again. 

Just like I have written before about the best workout exercises for the chest and back, this post will also highlight the whole process of building your best legs ever. Do remember that these training strategies only work if you apply them to your workouts consistently for the long-term. Let’s begin!

The Muscle Anatomy of the Legs

The reason why understanding the anatomy of the muscles we want to develop for muscle growth is important because knowing about the complete structure of the muscle helps us to determine the exercises we can use to directly train them.

For developing bigger and stronger legs, the exercises we program into our workouts should be the ones effectively targeting the three largest muscle groups of the leg which are:

  • Quadriceps or Quads: These are the show muscles at the front of your legs that are also the strongest and leanest of all muscles in the body and get the most attention as they are larger and more visible. As the name suggests (quad), these are the four muscles that make the front of your legs which are: Vastus Lateralis (also called Vastus Externus), Vastus Medialis, Vastus Intermedius, and Rectus Femoris.
  • Gluteus Maximus (Glutes) and Hamstrings: The hamstrings are three muscles at the back of the thigh that affect hip and knee movement. These three muscles are the Semimembranous muscle, the Semitendinosus muscle, and the Biceps Femoris muscle. Hamstring muscles sit right under the gluteus maximus or the hip muscles so training the hamstrings also trains the hip muscles indirectly which is great for having stronger hips to support your lower back muscles and intense training.
  • Calf: The Soleus and the Gastrocnemius are the two major muscles that serve together as the calf of the leg. The Gastrocnemius is one of the large muscles in the front of your legs while the Soleus muscle extends from the back of the knee to the heel that lies underneath the Gastrocnemius. 
Leg Muscle Anatomy
Leg Muscles Anatomy (Primary Muscle Groups Marked in Red)

Getting to know the different muscles of the leg, we can now direct our attention to the exercises that will train these muscles directly and gives the most benefit for your hard work, energy, and time invested doing them.

The Best Leg Building Primary Exercises For Maximum Growth

A great physique is built on the foundation of the right training plan with progressive overload as the main driver of your workouts and in combination with an accurate nutrition strategy. 

Keeping this in mind, the exercises that are selected here for building a great pair of massive legs are based on the number of muscle groups activated from a single movement, also called compound exercises. The other kind is Isolation or single-joint exercises that are best performed towards the end of leg workouts so these exercises should never be the focus or starting point of any workout, not just the legs. 

Master Tip: To get bigger muscles, you must first be strong enough to deadlift, squat and bench press your body weight (equal to or higher). Once you build that strength through consistent progressive overload, every muscle in your whole body will get bigger and stronger.

The leg exercises mentioned below are categorized as either primary or accessory exercises.

Primary exercises are the exercises that you perform immediately after your warmup. These significant lifts should be chosen only from the compound exercises like squats, bench press, deadlift, or shoulder press as these exercises are the ones that train and builds the most muscles and produces the most whole-body strength. This is the reason that these exercises are primarily responsible for building your muscle and strength so they are best performed at the start of your workouts when you have the most energy.

That was all the explanation right there! We’re now ready to show you all the best leg building exercises for maximum growth. 

The most effective ‘primary’ leg building barbell exercises are the following:

1. Barbell Squat (Front and Back):

The squat is the single best most important leg and hip exercise you can do and the squat should form the foundation of your leg workouts. A big move exercise with big benefits! Before doing this exercise weighted, you must learn to do it correctly with proper form. Check out this simple, short video demonstration of learning how to squat from Mark Rippetoe, author of Starting Strength.

Barbell Back Squat

2. Barbell Romanian Deadlift (RDL):

This exercise is primarily used for strengthening the hamstring muscles. And, is also one of the single best exercises for developing your glutes. Barbell RDL is a compound exercise that activates your muscles throughout the body while also working on your mid to lower back muscles, core, and forearms.

Barbell Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
Barbell Romanian Deadlift (RDL)

3. Conventional Barbell Deadlift:

The deadlift is one of the best and remarkably effective muscle growth and strength-building exercises. You can include this big compound lift on either your leg day or back day depending on your goals. The main muscles worked in the deadlift are the back, hamstrings, and glutes while secondarily working just about every muscle in the body. Since this is a technical lift and learning the right form to perform this lift correctly is crucial, here’s an easy step by step video on learning to deadlift.

Conventional Barbell Deadlift

4. Barbell Hip Thrust:

This exercise can be easily done with heavier weights and is performed elevated on a workout bench to primarily strengthen your glutes with the hamstring as assisting muscles. Having a pair of developed hip muscles is absolutely essential for a strong lower body. Having achieved that you will never have any lower back pain and your other compound lifts will drastically improve which is one of the reasons to include this compound lift in your leg training.

Barbell Hip Thrust

The Other Best Legs Building Accessory Exercises

Accessory exercises, on the other hand, are all isolation or single-joint movements that are done towards the end of your workouts as a finisher to your training day. These exercises help in mostly preventing and correcting any muscle imbalances or weakness and to further support the muscle-building stimulus from your training. This ultimately makes you stronger and skilled at your primary exercises while allowing you to hit certain muscle groups in different ways.

The most effective ‘accessory’ leg building dumbbell exercises are the following:

1. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat:

For hypertrophy, there is no better dumbbell exercise for legs than the Bulgarian Split Squat. This single-leg strength-building isolation exercise is most beneficial for building the quads, hamstrings, and glutes using just a pair of dumbbells in each hand. Remember, balance is crucial while doing this exercise with one foot elevated on the bench. So, do master the proper form first with lighter dumbbells or just your body weight and gradually moving on to heavier weights for progressive overload.

 Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat
Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat (Photo by Matthew Sichkaruk on Unsplash)

2. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge:

With this knee-friendly version of the classic lunge exercise, it is possible to load the quads in a big way when you sit back and upright. A good balance is crucial while doing this exercise so make sure that you first get your balance right by doing a few sets of bodyweight reverse lunges before moving on to the weighted version. You don’t need to step back straight in every rep so you can step back maintaining a good balance to load this exercise for the purpose of building strength and muscle in your lower body.

Dumbbell Reverse Lunge
Dumbbell Reverse Lunge (Photo by Sergio Pedemonte on Unsplash)

3. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift:

This exercise is to be performed in the same way as you do with a barbell. With dumbbells, your focus should be to keep your lower back high as you hinge at your hips for a better contraction of the hamstring and glute muscles. This exercise is great for increasing muscle mass at the back of your legs and for improved athletic performance which makes it a staple of every leg training plan.

The most effective ‘accessory’ leg building machine exercises are the following:

1. Leg Extension:

Performed in a seated position on a Leg Extension machine, this exercise primarily builds your quad muscles. A great addition towards the end of your leg workouts to further overload your front-leg muscles by performing higher reps for metabolic stress.

2. Leg Curl or Hamstring Curl (Lying or Seated):

As the name suggests, this isolation exercise primarily works on the hamstring muscles when done in either lying or a seated position. A great finisher exercise to strengthen the back of your leg muscles. Remember not to arch your lower back, keeping it in a neutral position, and moving slowly without any jerking movements while doing lying hamstring curls to avoid injury and maximally engage the leg muscles.

Lying Leg Curl or Lying Hamstrings Curl Exercise
Lying Leg Curl Exercise

3. Hack Squats:

An equally effective leg builder like the squat and deadlift, the hack squats place the weight directly on your shoulders with the machine stabilizing your back. This results in more focused hypertrophy on the front-leg/quad muscles and ultimately more muscle mass.

Hack Squats

Don’t Ignore the Calf Muscles!

The perfect leg workout is incomplete without training the calf muscles!

If you are like the majority of people, no matter what exercises you have done for your calf muscles, you just couldn’t have them grow. With the two calf exercises below, this won’t be a problem anymore. Increasing the training frequency of calf muscles from once a week to twice or thrice a week is another effective strategy for seeing noticeable calf gains as these small muscle groups have a tendency to recover faster from intense workouts. Now, referring back to the leg anatomy, there are just two muscle groups of the calf, namely Gastroc and Soleus that can be targeted by specific exercises. 

The Gastroc is effectively targeted with an exercise where the knee is kept straight. The best calf exercise that utilizes this straight-knee position is the Standing Barbell Calf Raise or Leg Press Calf Raise. These exercises stretch and target the calf muscles to add size and strength so they’re best done weighted with a slow and controlled movement pattern adding slight pauses at the top and bottom positions for maximum muscle activation and growth.

Alternatively, the Soleus can be effectively targeted by performing your calf exercise with a bent knee. So, the best calf exercise that utilizes this bent-knee position is Seated Calf Raise. This exercise is best performed on a machine for moderate to high reps for building stronger and muscular calves at the back of your lower leg with the same movement pattern as the Standing Calf Raise. 

Seated Calf Raise

The Perfect Workout Routine for Training All Leg Muscles

Best Leg Workout Exercises

The perfect leg workout must consist of all exercises that train the muscles of the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. Your main goal while doing these exercises should be to use the heaviest weight you can lift with proper form and progressive overload as the main driver of each and every workout.

A hard set is a muscle and strength building set done with heavy weights taken closer to technical failure (not complete failure) for the given rep range of a particular exercise. Hard sets are most beneficial for building bigger and stronger muscles and it is important to first master your exercise form before doing a hard set. The actual leg workout below consists of hard sets for all the exercises and will hit every single muscle in your legs.

Including single-leg training is not optional but a requirement of a complete leg training plan. One of the key benefits of single-leg exercises is that they not only train you to be strong individually on each leg but they also reveal any strength imbalances between your legs. When you find a strength imbalance in one of your legs, just doing a few extra legs for that leg will help fix the imbalance in a few weeks. It’s better if you know these strength imbalances early to prevent any lower-body injuries in the long term so we have included one single-leg exercise in this perfect leg workout.

The first group of exercises will start with compound or multi-joint movements as they are the hardest to perform and are best done when you are fresh and with the most energy at the beginning of your workouts. Following the compound exercises, there will be isolation or single-joint movements that have been included in this workout to stimulate the small muscle groups in the legs that often get neglected, best done at the end of the workout.

If for any reason you are unable to do an exercise in this leg workout below, simply choose an alternative exercise from the best leg exercises mentioned above to take its place. 

The Step by Step Perfect Leg Workout

Warm-Up:

1 sets of 10 reps of Barbell Back Squat with 50% weight of your starting hard set weight (rest 1 minute in between sets).
1 set of 4 reps with about 70% of your hard set weight and rest for a minute.

1. Barbell Back Squat 
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
3-4 minutes rest in between sets

2. Barbell Romanian Deadlift
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
3-4 minutes rest in between sets

3. Barbell Hip Thrust (Optional)
3 sets of 4 to 6 reps
3-4 minutes rest in between sets

4. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat or Dumbbell Reverse Lunge (Single-Leg Exercise)
3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
2-3 minutes rest in between sets

5. Leg Extension (Finisher)
2 sets of 8 to 10 reps
1-2 minutes rest in between sets

6. Lying Leg Curl (Finisher)
2 sets of 8 to 10 reps
1-2 minutes rest in between sets

7. Standing Barbell Calf Raise
3 sets of 8 to 10 reps
2-3 minutes rest in between sets

8. Seated Calf Raise
3 sets of 10 to 15 reps
2-3 minutes rest in between sets

Final Words

Being the proud owner of a pair of bigger, stronger, and muscular legs is a marvelous achievement for every aspiring bodybuilder!

Whether you find yourself starting on this fitness journey or whether you are already an experienced fitness enthusiast, with this knowledge of the best leg exercises and leg training plan finally grasped, you are now a step closer to your goals.

Yes, it is possible to get bigger legs with the right exercises. You’ve only got to follow through and do the work consistently thinking long term. You must know that you will reap the benefits of the hard work and sweat you spent each time in the gym and become satisfied with the delayed gratification of progress.

How long will it take to see noticeable muscle growth from this leg workout?

According to my decade long experience, the truth is that it’s not realistic to expect instant results after doing a workout or maybe for even a week or two. The timeline to see results is entirely dependent on how hard you’re pushing yourself and whether or not you’re consistent in your workouts and nutrition.

For any muscle to grow, progressive overload and a good enough nutrition plan is the key. The weight lifted and the effort exerted in each workout needs to be slightly more than the last time. Following this well-planned approach consistently for about 12 to 16 weeks, your muscles will grow and that’s guaranteed. Taking pictures before starting a new workout program and after following it for about 3 months is the best way for you to judge the way your body is changing or not changing. Make adjustments accordingly and look for any small mistakes you might be making for better adapting to your goals.

I hope and wish that the information I shared here will be helpful to you in progressing in your fitness journey. Please leave your experiences and comments below to share your thoughts on this leg workout program. Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “Best Leg Workout Exercises – Can You Get Bigger Legs With The Right Exercises?”

  1. Hi, Such a great article, very informative and well laid out. Great workouts mentioned here as well. I noticed that you have said that the calves are important, I have found that squatting overall has been mostly responsible for growing my calves over time and I normally add calves to my routine once a week, is this enough? jump squats and squats are also part of my cardio routine 3 times a week and I still feel like my calves get a killer workout.

    Reply
    • Hi Jean and thanks for your question.

      You’re right in saying that doing weighted squats will help develop the calf muscles along with building your quads and hamstrings. But generally, calves are one area that is the weak point for the majority of the fitness enthusiasts who can benefit from doing targeted calf exercises towards the end of their leg workouts to help them grow bigger and more proportionate. Smaller muscles like calves and abs can survive daily beatings and recover much quicker than the larger upper body muscles. It sounds like you have good genetics as you find yourself satisfied with your calf size from your current training plan so keep it up.

      For your other question, it’s enough to train your calves once a week with just the two exercises I mentioned in the article if your calf size is already good. If you’re looking to further grow your calves, then I suggest adding 3 sets of both calf exercises at the end of your workouts three times a week with heavier weights focusing on progressive overload.

      Jump squats and bodyweight squats are low-impact exercises that are great to include in your cardio routine or as a warmup just before doing your weighted leg exercises and they contribute little towards calf growth.

      I hope this helps!

      Reply

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