Leg day is regarded to be the toughest training session of your program, and for good reason. The lower body consists of some of the biggest muscle groups, which means they can handle a lot of weight. Growing your legs is going to take hard work, consistency, and comprehensive exercise selection to work every group of muscles in the lower body.
To help guide your training, it’s important to understand the anatomy and biomechanics of the legs. From there, you will be able to select the best exercises to target these muscle groups to the best of their ability. Here we outline five of the best exercises you should be including in your leg day lineups.
Anatomy of the Legs
The quadriceps, or quad muscle, is the large muscle on the front of the legs, and is the main muscle of the anterior chain. It is made up of four different muscles.
The quads are responsible for flexion at the knee, in other words, raising your lower leg up like a leg extension. It also connects into the hip, so it also plays a role in hip extension-like movements. It’s one of the few muscles in the body that crosses two joints. Based on this factor, the best exercises to target the quads will be those which create knee extension, hip extension, or a combination of both.
Two other main muscle groups of the lower body are the hamstrings and glutes. These two muscles are the main posterior chain muscles. The hamstrings have three separate muscles. The glutes are also comprised of multiple muscle groups, and are actually the largest muscle within the human body. Just like the quads, the hamstrings and glutes are extremely powerful and play a key role in all lower body activities such as walking, running, jumping, and squatting.
These muscles work together to create hip extension, which is bending at the hip joint like in a Romanian deadlift (RDL) or stiff leg deadlift. The hamstrings are also responsible for knee flexion, such as performing a hamstring curl where the heel of your foot moves towards your glutes.
The hamstrings and glutes are also heavily involved in the squat, as they’re responsible for steadily lowering your body on the eccentric phase and driving your hips back up and forward to the top of the movement.
The Fantastic Five
Now that you’ve got a basic understanding of the three main muscle groups in the lower body, we can break down the five best exercises to target them. While this is by no means an exhaustive list, these should comprise the bulk of your workouts throughout the year.
There’s no better exercise to start with than the squat. The squat is well-known as the ultimate lower body exercise because it targets both the anterior and posterior chain and all three of the main muscle groups.
Not only do squats hit all three muscle groups, they allow for a large amount of load or weight to be used. This can tax the central nervous system and type 1 muscle fibers. Squats can be fully comprehensive as a lighter load of weight in a higher rep range will recruit the type 2 muscle fibers.
Squats can be versatile in their ability to target the different muscles with small adjustments to your technique. When performing this exercise, you can shift your focus to the quads by bending the knees more and keeping your torso upright. You can also elevate the heels slightly on a 10LB plate to further overload the quads. In contrast, if you want to hit the hamstrings and glutes more, simply focus on sitting back as much as possible with less focus on the knee bend or knee flexion. Additionally, taking a slightly wider stance can help you recruit these two muscle groups.
The deadlift is another staple exercise, allowing you to lift heavy loads and hit all the muscles in the lower body.
Just like the squat, the deadlift is also very ‘functional’ as the hip extension is a movement mimicked in day to day life. For athletes, or those participating in sport, the squat or deadlift is also key as it has been shown to improve factors such as acceleration, sprint speed, jump height, power, and they may reduce the risk of injury.
The deadlift will primarily work the posterior chain, though it does depend on the set-up and the amount of knee bend you employ. You can also experiment with your deadlift technique; taking sumo stance, for example, will hit more of the posterior chain, while a conventional deadlift will hit the quads slightly more, as greater knee bend is often needed.
While many people dismiss the leg press in favor for the squat, it can be a great exercise when performed correctly.
The leg press is great as it has a very similar movement pattern to the squat; however, it tends to start with your hips in a flexed position, which allows for more emphasis on the posterior chain muscles.
Another big benefit of the leg press is that you are in a fixed position and can focus on intensity and constant tension, without issues such as balance, like with squats. Furthermore, it’s more secure and safe, making it perfect for higher rep sets, going to failure, or dropsets.
RDL / Stiff-Legged Deadlift
The RDL, or stiff-legged deadlift, is probably one of the best glute and hamstring exercises you can include in your training plan. It allows you to overload these muscle groups and hit them in their stretched position which can cause large amounts of muscle damage, and therefore growth.
When performing this exercise, you want a very slight bend in the knee joint, around 10%. You should also focus on lowering down slowly and pausing when your hamstrings are fully stretched. Most people make the mistake of going as low as possible which causes a loss in tension on the working muscles and shifts it into the lower back.
Initiate the movement by pushing the hips and butt back, raising about 80% to the top of the movement. This will keep the muscles under tension throughout the entire set.
The glute bridge is another must-do exercise for the hamstrings and glutes. Like the deadlift, it’s very functional and sports specific. It can also improve your general biomechanics and, over time, can reduce issues such as lower back pain.
There are multiple variations of the glute bridge, from bodyweight, to single leg, to barbell. Of course, the barbell glute bridge where you anchor your shoulders on a bench, is the most common and best variation to provide sufficient overload and stimulus.
You can play around with different foot positions to see what suits you best based on where you feel the work in your muscles. You should place specific emphasis on the top part of the movement, squeezing and holding for 1-2 seconds, then lowering down about 70% of the way - there is no need to lower all the way to the floor. Again, by stopping the range of motion just short of completion will keep the tension in the muscle for longer.
Now with a basic understanding of the three main muscle groups of the legs, their biomechanical functions, and five of the most effective muscle-building exercises, you’re ready to add some muscle to your legs. Combined, these exercises can give you an effective and comprehensive workout. These five exercises can be very taxing, so you may want to divide your leg training into two difference sessions and add in isolation movements such as the split squat, leg curl and leg extensions to round out the workouts.
Give them a try this week and remember to take your Pre-Kaged to help get through another killer leg workout!