Leg exercises are an overall category of weight lifting that includes exercises for the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. For the most part, they are divided into 2 main groups: quad dominant movements and hamstring (or posterior chain) dominant movements.
Why? Because most of the best leg exercises tend to hit just about everything all at once, with one specific area (quads or hamstrings/posterior chain) getting more or less emphasis than the rest.
Common examples of some of the best quad dominant leg exercises include:
- Back Squat
- Front Squat
- Leg Press
- Split Squat
- Leg Extensions
Common examples of some of the best hamstring/posterior chain dominant leg exercises include:
- Romanian Deadlift
- Stiff Legged Deadlift
- Glute-Ham Raises
- Pull Through
- Leg Curls
- Good Mornings
Related article: The Essential 8: Multi-joint Exercises & Training Splits That Will Get You Ripped
Figuring out which are the most ideal for your specific workout routine and incorporating them all properly isn’t quite as simple and easy as just randomly picking your favourites and doing them all on “leg day.”
There’s a lot more to the exercise selection and implementation process, and my articles about different types of weight lifting exercises, how to figure out which are truly the best exercises for your body and goal, my favourite workout plans, and my guide to workout routines will help you figure it all out.
Either way, no matter which you end up using in your workout routine, proper form MUST always be used. This is not only to avoid injury, but to ensure you are actually going through the full range of motion and the right muscles are doing most (if not all) of the work.
To help you understand the basics of proper form, here is a brief description of how some of the best (and most popular) leg exercises should be performed…
Related article: Build Monster Legs & Glutes With This Workout!
There is no quad dominant exercise that gets more attention than squats. Often referred to as the “king” of exercises for ANY body part, it’s usually one of the top 3 exercise choices on most people’s list (usually along with deadlifts and the bench press).
It’s also an exercise that people often screw up despite how straight forward it seems. Here’s the basics of how it should be done…
- In a squat rack, take a barbell off of the rack by placing it squarely on your traps and shoulders (not the neck) and grip the bar comfortably with your hands a little wider than your shoulders. Your elbows should be pointing down, not back.
- Carefully take a step or 2 back from the rack and get in a comfortable upright stance with your feet shoulder width apart or slightly wider. Your toes should be pointed slightly outward. They should NEVER be pointed inward.
- Focus your vision on something straight ahead and slightly above you. Do not tilt your head backwards, downwards or to the sides as this will disrupt your balance.
- Keeping your heels planted firmly on the floor, your chest out and your upper back tight and straight at all times, move your butt back and downward as though you were sitting in a chair behind you.
- When your thighs reach parallel to the floor, return to the starting position by extending your knees and hips and pushing through your heels.
In most cases, your knees should rarely extend out further than your toes. When pushing back up, always push through the heels, not the toes. The movement is up and down. There should be no sideways movement of any kind during the squat. Keep your lower back in a tight arch, your upper back straight and chest up at all times. Your entire body should be pretty tight throughout the entire rep.
Be sure to set up the safety bars in the squat rack at a height that will allow you to go down as low as you need to, but still high enough to catch the bar if you got stuck. If you’re not quite ready for barbell squats, they can also be done using dumbbells.
I also want to mention that while squats are one of the best leg exercises there are, some people don’t like them or feel comfortable doing them for whatever reason. Instead, they prefer the leg press. The problem is, some people claim the leg press is a useless exercise in comparison. I discuss just how true this is (or isn’t) in my article about the Leg Press Machine.
Related article: How Much Can You Lift – How To Calculate Your One-Rep Max (1RM)?
The Romanian deadlift is an exercise that is constantly (and incorrectly) used interchangeably with stiff legged deadlifts. They are extremely close, but there are some subtle differences.
When compared with a conventional deadlift, the Romanian version almost completely removes all of the emphasis placed on the quads and upper back and instead places most of it on the posterior chain (mostly hamstrings and glutes). Here is how it should be done…
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart.
- Pick up a barbell (off the floor or out of a rack) and hold it with your hands about shoulder width apart using an overhand grip.
- With your chest out, lower back in a tight arch, upper back straight and tight, arms tight, head straight and a SLIGHT bend in the knees, lower the bar towards your feet by bending over at the hips, NOT the waist. Think of it like you are trying to make your butt touch the wall behind you.
- Once your upper body is either parallel to the floor or you feel a comfortable stretch in the hamstrings, lift the barbell back up and return to the standing position by extending your hips (NOT your waist).
The version described above uses a double overhand grip, but these can also be done with a mixed grip (one hand over, one hand under). A mixed grip will usually be stronger for most people.
Your lower back will always be used to some degree during Romanian deadlifts (and really ANY type of deadlift), but you shouldn’t actually be using your lower back to lift the weight. If you are, it means you are bending/extending at the waist instead of the hips.
To help prevent this, be sure to keep your upper back straight at all times and lower back arched tightly. Do NOT round your back. Keep your shoulders pulled back and your chest out. Start the movement by sticking your butt out instead of just bending.
How far down you go greatly depends on flexibility. Most people (myself included) don’t go any lower than parallel to the floor. Going lower than that will usually cause the lower back to round unless your flexibility is fantastic.