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Leg exercises

Leg exercises
Leg exercises are often ignored, skipped or half-heartedly worked by many trainers, especially if you do a lot of cardio that requires your legs. However the leg muscle are often under developed and lack size with those that don’t like to attack them with weights. The type of split workout routines that I suggest doing helps counter act this by allowing you to dedicate an entire workout to your lower body.

Introduction to your leg muscles

Leg anatomyYour legs are made up of quite a number of separate muscles, however some are grouped together as follows: The commonly known muscles to the front are your quadriceps (made up of four muscles, Rectus femoris, Vastus lateralis, medialis and the intermedius which sits under the femoris) and are the strongest leg muscles and help straighten the legs. The most commonly known muscles to the rear of your legs are the hamstrings (made up of three muscles, biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus) and help bend your legs at the knee joint.

Let’s not forget that there are several stabiliser muscles, hip muscles (including the abductor muscles) and your gluteus muscles (glutes) that are also activated during many leg exercises and they are all very important to the stability and movement of your legs and torso.

My leg exercise list:


Type: Compound
Function: Works the entire leg, including the hips, glutes, quads, hamstrings. If you do barbell squats you will also activate your core, back, calf, shoulder and arm muscles.
Form: Standing in front of a barbell in a rack or on squats stands, walk forward and duck under placing the barbell on your upper back muscles/traps/rear shoulders. Have your hands with an overhand grip on the bar, where its position is most comfortable and does not hurt your shoulder joint. Using your leg muscles lift the barbell off its stands/support and step back away from them to give yourself room to squat. Take a slightly wider than shoulder width apart stance with toes pointed slightly outwards. While breathing in, slowly squat down until your upper legs are parallel to the floor, then while breathing out, stand up pushing with your leg muscles and return to the start position. (please read tips). Repeat for required reps and sets.
Tips: Place the barbell a few inches down from your neck, not on it, it should ideally be resting on your traps. For maximum stimulation squat down until your upper legs are at least parallel to the floor (see key notes). Keep your back straight and in the neutral position as much as possible, with possibly a slight curve when in the lower position for balance. When squatting down allow your knees to slightly spread apart in the same plain as your toes are pointing. On the way up, do not lean forward and allow your bum to come up in the air, you should be pressing your legs into the ground, while trying to make the barbell travel in a straight line up and then pushing your hips forward at the end. Don’t let your knees extend beyond your toes. Do not bounce when transitioning from going down to coming back up. Control the weight down and come to a short rest/stop before coming back up. If you find it uncomfortable to have a bar on your traps, then you can use a barbell pad or similar. Keep your heels on the ground throughout the exercise and keep your head looking forward. For really heavy weight I recommend squatting in a power rack for safety.
Key notes: The squat is known as the king of exercises for a reason, done properly it can produce great gains in size due to working so many muscles which gets the body producing growth hormones. The sheer energy used by all these muscles can also help burn many calories for those looking for weight lose. Although the benefits are great if you can go to at least parallel with the squat, if you suffer from knee issues be careful with going too low and work your range of motion up gradually with or without weights or either try one of the variations below. Be very careful with this and take your time to get use to the exercise.
Variations: There are numerous alternatives to the regular back squat. You can use a wider stance with toes pointed slightly out (sumo squat). Do hack squats with a barbell held behind the legs by gripping a bar palms facing away from you. Do a front squat, where you hold a light barbell in front of your body across your upper chest/delts. Do a split squat with either a barbell or dumbbells, by placing one foot stepped forward in a lunge position, then lower down until the front upper leg is parallel to the floor and then raise back up by pushing up with both legs. You can also do squats with a pair of dumbbells held by your side  with the advantage that you can bring the dumbbells forward a little when you squat down and counter balance yourself, allowing you to sit back a little more at the bottom of the exercise (see images below). If you don’t have weights you can do single leg squats such as the pistol squat or use a loading pin/dip belt/weight vest to add weight for squatting without a barbell or dumbbells.

Click on images below, the last one is a GIF animation:

Regular barbell squat front view

Barbell squats Barbell squats Barbell squats gif

Regular barbell squat side view

Barbell squats Barbell squats Barbell squats gif

Dumbbell squat side view

Dumbbell squats Dumbbell squats Dumbbell squats gif

Leg Press

Type: Compound
Function: Works most of the muscles of the legs, especially the quadriceps, with some activation of the glutes and calves.
Form: Seated in a leg press machine (read the instructions on the machine) and with no weights loaded, set the position of the leg press plate slightly short of your legs being fully extended. With the appropriate weights loaded, place your feet in your desired position (see tips). Release the safety bar and slowly lower the weight until your upper and lower legs are at around 90 degrees. Press with your legs and down through your heels back to the start position. Repeat for required reps and sets.
Tips: Do not press with your toes. Keep tension in your leg muscles and do not lock out the legs at the top (can be dangerous with over extending the knees). You can try various foot positions and angles to vary or feel the stress on different parts of your legs (don’t put them too high or low on the foot plate though). Keep your legs pressing in a straight line, no matter what angle you place your feet (i.e. don’t allow your knees to bow in or out during the exercise). Keep your hands on the safety bar.
Key notes: This exercise is ideal for those with lower back issues or who find it too uncomfortable to place weights on their back doing the barbell squats.
Variations: Can be done as a single leg press also.

Click on images below, the last one is a GIF animation:

Leg press Leg press Leg press gif

Leg Curls

Type: Isolation
Function: Works mainly the hamstrings, with minor assistance from your calf muscles due to their attachment which aids knee flexion. When lying down on a bench there will also be some hip involvement from having to keep your torso and upper leg straight.
Form: Laying face down on a leg curl machine or bench with a leg extension attachment, place both your lower calf muscles/ankles under the pads. Take a deep breath and contract your hamstrings lifting the pads up towards your bum. Slowly lower to the start position. Repeat for required reps and sets.
Tips: Try to concentrate on using both legs to move the weight, as there can easily be a tendency to move the weight with your stronger leg. Keep your hips down and don’t raise your bum up in the air. Keep your toes pointing straight in their natural position.
Variations: Some machines will allow you to do this exercise standing with a single leg curl setup, while others have a seated machine variation.

Click on images below, the last one is a GIF animation:

Leg curls Leg curls Leg curls gif


Type: Compound
Function: Works the quads, glutes, hamstrings with some assistance/stabilising from the hips, abs and calves.
Form: Standing up straight with both legs slightly apart from each other and holding a pair of dumbbells, step forward with one leg, with that legs upper thigh going parallel to the floor and the rear legs knee just off the ground. Push back and off the ground with your front leg to the start position and repeat with the other leg. Repeat for required reps and sets.
Tips: The front leg when in the fully lunged position should be approximately at 90 degrees. Make sure your front legs knee is over your ankles and not beyond your toes. Keep your upper body straight throughout the exercises.
Key notes: The stepping forward part of this exercise can stimulate the hamstrings quite a bit, as the hamstrings have to work in cushioning and slowing down the downward motion of the lunge. Therefore if you are new to this exercise, work your way up with your rep count over a period of time, as the new stress can leave you feeling DOMS in your hamstrings and inner thigh for quite some time.
Variations: This exercise can be done with alternate lunges (alternating between each leg) or by doing a set with a single leg before moving onto the other leg. Other variants include placing the rear foot up on a bench/seat behind you and doing single leg lunges with or without holding dumbbells in each hand. If you want to do a kind of endurance style lunge then lunge walks can be a very worthwhile exercise. Another is a reverse lunge, where you step back instead of forward. Can also be done with a barbell on your back or with no weights at all.

Click on images below, the last one is a GIF animation:

Lunges Lunges Lunges gif


Type: Compound
Function: The regular deadlift works your glutes, hips, quads, hamstrings, calves (in fact the whole leg), as well as your abs/core, your lower back, traps and forearms if not using a strap/hook. With some additional assistance from your upper back muscles, rear delts and biceps.
Form: Standing in front of a barbell on the floor, take a shoulder width grip of the bar with feet placed slightly narrower than shoulder width apart. In the semi-squatted position (legs bent, not straight), take a deep breath and then using your legs, stand up and lift the bar off the floor as you breathe out, locking your hips and legs. Slowly reverse this movement back to the start position as your breath in. Repeat for required reps and sets.
Tips: You can either take an overhand grip or one overhand and one under hand grip of the bar. If grip strength is an issue then a pair of lifting hooks or straps can be used to help keep hold of the bar. Keep your back straight and don’t arch it. Keep the bar close to your shins and thighs, push your hips forward as you straighten your legs and keep your chin up and push your chest out. Keep arms straight and shoulders down. If going really heavy a lifting belt can be used to help keep your core tight and give your lower back support. Also, when standing up, do not come up with your bum, drive up with your legs pushing down into the ground and with your hips going forward.
Key notes: Second and maybe even equal to the squat, deadlifts are considered one of the best muscle and strength building exercises you can do. Be careful with this exercise if you have any lower back issues, make sure you maintain a neutral back position throughout the exercise.
Variations: Can also be done using a pair of dumbbells, either held in front of you or to your sides. There are many other variations of the deadlift, but I find the others not as good as the regular deadlift or they place too much stress on the body for no real benefit.

Click on images below, the last one is a GIF animation:

Deadlift Deadlift Deadlift Deadlift gif

My final thoughts on leg exercises

Like most muscles on the human body, the shape of your legs will be governed by your muscle insertion locations and the alignment of your bones. Though many will tell you that you can change the stimulus to specific areas of the leg a small degree by altering the angle/position of your feet, in reality there will be very little difference if at all. Therefore it  is always best to stay in your legs natural plane of movement to ensure safe knee loads and to avoid injury.