Best leg workouts for building strength

Discover the best leg workouts and transform your next workout at home or in the gym

Man doing a sumo squat with a kettlebell
(Image credit: Getty Images)

With the best leg workouts, your fitness journey will progress as you want it to, with the opportunity to push yourself to your full potential. Often a challenging day in the gym, leg workouts encapsulate the gluteus maximus, quadriceps, and hamstrings, which are some of the biggest muscles in the body. 

With this information in mind, it’ll be no surprise to learn that by picking up the best leg workouts, you’ll find your overall strength improves, with anything from walking uphill to long stints of cardio, like with the best exercise bike, feeling easier and easier. 

There’s the obvious benefit of more sculpted legs too, as well as the help of stronger muscles to protect against potential injury. But which exercises can do the most for you on leg day?

Any workout should challenge the various leg muscles equally, which is why this round-up includes moves such as squats, lunges, and calf raises, which are staples for any leg day. So, the next time you’re at home or in the gym, try the best leg workouts for that extra burn, and to grow your muscles.

Squat jump

(Image credit: Megan Holmes/Unsplash)

The best leg workouts: a simple (but killer) six-move routine

1. Squats

A man demonstrates how to do squats, one of the best leg workouts

(Image credit: Future)

10-12 reps with light weights, 20-30 bodyweight reps 

There are few other leg exercises that target all of the major muscle groups in the legs quite like a squat, and its scope for progressive overload (adding weights over time) is huge. Introducing a barbell, dumbbells, kettlebell or anything heavy later down the line is the perfect way to gradually increase lower body strength (see our pick of the best kettlebells and the best adjustable dumbbells if you don't have any home weights already).

Stand with feet hip-width apart (you can take a narrower or wider stance if more comfortable), keep your back straight, shoulders pinned back and chest high. Now, slowly lower your butt towards the ground by hinging at the knee, as if you were about to sit on a chair. Ensure the knees don’t creep over the tips of your toes, pause when the thighs are parallel with the floor below and then drive through the heels, keeping the chest high and squeezing the glutes to return to an upright position.

Practice this move without weights and then add a barbell across your upper back, dumbbells held at shoulder height or a kettlebell gripped at your chest when confident with form. Don’t let your knees flare outwards and protect the back by keeping it flat, using the powerful glutes to drive your upper body back to a fully standing position and brace abs to stabilize.

 Note: The above guidance says 10-12 reps with weights, but barbell squats allow you to add much more weight than you would ordinarily be able to lift, so you may choose to use fewer reps than normal. The barbell squat is one of the most basic compound weight lifting movements out there, and learning how to perform it correctly will see you right throughout your fitness journey. Our guide to how to do a barbell squat can help.
 

2. Bulgarian split squats

Woman demonstrating a Bulgarian split squat

(Image credit: Future)

10-12 reps each leg x 3-4 sets

A powerful leg exercise that focusses on the quads (your thigh muscles), the Bulgarian split squat can be performed while holding dumbbells, a resistance band or just your bodyweight, making it great for all levels.

Stand in front of a bench or raised surface (it needs to be around knee-to-waist height) and place the toes of your trailing leg onto it. Gain balance by focusing on a point dead ahead, keeping the chest high and shoulders back. Now hinge at the knee of your leading leg and lower until your thigh is parallel with the ground below.

Ensure the ankle of your leading leg is the thing making micro adjustments for balance and support, your leading knee shouldn’t sway or wander forwards over your toes. Pause when the thigh is parallel to the floor before bracing your abs and driving through your heel to an upright position. Repeat this for the designated reps and swap legs. 

You can progressively make this move harder by holding a set of dumbbells in each hand, making sure not to round the back or shoulders during the lowering portion. Similarly, a resistance band looped under the foot and held in each hand makes for a great tool to encourage the quads to work even harder.

3. Calf raises

Woman demonstrating standing calf raises

(Image credit: Future)

12-15 reps each leg x 3-4 sets

This exercise hones in on just one part of the legs but is great for creating that coveted, heart-shaped look to the back of the calves. Again, it can be made harder by introducing weights.

Find a raised surface, such as a curb or a step, and shuffle yourself backwards until the heels hand off the edge. Keeping a straight back and chest high, slowly lower the heels over the edge until the almost touch the floor, pause at the bottom and drive back up, contracting the calves as you do so.

Beginners can find this exercise really burns after a few reps, so listen to your body and take it easy. On the other hand, if it feels too easy to hit 12-15 reps, grab a set of dumbbells or a resistance band to make things tougher.

4. Lunges

A woman demonstrates how to do lunges, one of the best leg workouts

(Image credit: Future)

12-15 reps each leg x 3-4 sets

Another move that gets the lower body firing on all cylinders, the lunge can be performed with or without weights, in an enclosed space or switched up to a walking lunge if you have plenty of room. 

Stand tall with hands held in front of you for balance (or grip dumbbells for a trickier variant), now take a large step backwards with your trailing leg, hinge at the knee and lower the body until your leading thigh is parallel with the ground. Ensure the trailing knee doesn’t actually touch the ground before driving through the heel of the leading leg and snapping the trailing foot back to a fully standing position. Swap legs and repeat.

To add an extra element of athleticism, try this lunge on various planes for each leg. Step forwards for a rep, sideways (a lateral lunge) for another and backwards (reverse lunge) for a final rep before swapping legs and repeating several times. This helps incorporate multiple muscles.

5. Romanian deadlift

Woman demonstrating how to do a Romanian deadlift

(Image credit: Future)

12-15 reps x 3-4 sets

This move requires a barbell and some weights (you can supplement in dumbbells, too). Place a weighted barbell on the floor and tuck your toes underneath it, so laces can be seen poking out of the other side. Stand with feet-width apart, hinge at the hips and thrust your butt backwards. Grab the bar with a strong, overhand grip, keep the back flat and contract the shoulder blades. Now drive through your heels, squeezing the glutes until the body is upright. 

From here, it is a case of lowering the bar down your thighs, keeping it close to your shins, without bending your back. For most, you will feel tension on the hamstrings (the big muscles at the back of your legs) just before the bar touches the ground. Pause at the stage where you feel tension, contract the glutes and hamstrings and drive back up through the heels, keeping the back flat, until you are upright again. Repeat.

For more tips and tricks, take a look at our article on how to deadlift properly with barbells.

6. Prisoner walk

12 reps x 3-4 sets

This finishing move is a great way to end a workout and doesn’t require any equipment. Find a mat or a soft surface that won’t damage the knees. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and cross hands in front of chest so you are touching the shoulders. Slowly sit hips back and down into a half squat position and pause here for half a second. Now, lower the right knee down to the ground, followed by left so you are kneeling. Finally, bring right foot forward, followed by left, and return to half-squat position.

The core strength required to get into the half squat position from kneeling has the added benefit of working the abs, so ensure you keep these braced throughout. 

Why you should never skip leg day

It's not just about having a nicer bum and legs over the summer: leg workouts are important for our general health and fitness. Research published by the University of Rhode Island (opens in new tab) found that squat workouts raise beneficial hormones in the body, such as testosterone and growth hormone. 

Growth hormone will naturally help the body gain muscle, while testosterone production in both sexes can help with everything from libido to heart health. 

Squats, lunges and other leg exercises with free weights constitute what's called compound lifts, which means the body is working several different muscle groups. A barbell squat, for example, works your glutes, calves and hamstrings, of course, but it also works your core and lower back, because you have to stabilise yourself to remain upright. You might just be intending to work out your legs, but by doing these moves you're involving lots of different muscle groups, making it a really efficient way to exercise. 

This has the added effect of kick-starting your metabolism, helping you to lose weight. Research (opens in new tab) found the body's oxygen consumption increased dramatically when doing multi-joint exercises compared to single-joint exercises like leg extensions or bicep curls. Adding this workout to your exercise programme will make you fitter overall and help you lose weight faster.

How to perform the best leg workout

The muscles in the legs are among the largest, most powerful and most frequently used in the human body – so long as you aren't stuck behind a desk all day. That's why they react extremely well to regular exercise. Even those fresh to working out can often see positive results in just a couple of weeks. 

That said, the legs can often be the biggest culprits for Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (or DOMS to those in gym circles), which can see certain areas become sore to touch or generally feeling fatigued. With that in mind, it’s well worth kick-starting any new leg regime slowly, going easy on the weights and very gradually building up to greater repetitions and increased loads over time. But if you do find yourself in pain, head on over to our DOMS recovery guide.

Ensure you stay hydrated throughout, get plenty of rest after exercise and introduce additional protein to the diet via healthy sources, such as lean meats, pulses, fish and nuts. The body will crave protein to help it repair and grow the muscles worked, so ensure you are eating the fuel to allow it to do so. A quick and easy way to do this is via a protein shake - for tasty options, take a look at our pick of the best protein powders for weight loss and the best protein powders for women.

An automotive and technology writer by trade, Leon keeps in shape by lifting heavy objects inside and riding various machinery outside. Leon is an Editor who has written for Wired Uk, The Sun, Stuff Magazine, and Fit&Well's sister title, T3. Now though, Leon is working for The Gear Loop covering just about everything from hiking to kayaking.