Have you ever been to the gym and seen a person with a great upper body and chicken legs? Quite often, many people (especially men) focus more on upper body and neglect building leg strength. Think of building your body like building a house.
If you put on the roof before you establish the foundation, the building is going to topple over. Building quality leg strength is essential in building a balanced body. While there are many programs and variations;
These top 5 leg strength exercises should help you build that solid foundation
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First, we are going to briefly go over the body parts we will be training and how they function for leg strength:
– Hips: Flexes, extends and rotates. A lot, if not most, leg strength is generated from the hips.
– Quadriceps: The quadriceps consists of four muscles initiating the knee to extend and hip to flex.
– Hamstrings: The four muscles that initiate the knee to flex, medially and laterally rotate, and extend the hip.
– Calf and tibialis: The posterior muscles flex the foot down and away (plantar flexion). While the anterior muscles flex the foot towards and in (dorsi flexion).1
*the following exercise program is designed for apparently healthy individuals. Those with joint, cardiovascular, or other chronic conditions should first consult with a medical professional.
Also check out these Leg exercises without weights
If there is a better exercise to develop lower body and leg strength; I have yet to find it. Research suggests that the squat is the most effective weight training exercise for not only leg strength and power, but overall strength.3 There are many variations to the squat, but I am referring to the back squat where the bar is resting on your back, slightly below level with your shoulders.
Be careful not to rest the bar on your neck. Not only will you create too much pressure on your neck, you will also throw off your balance.
Initiate the movement by pushing your hips backwards from a standing position while lowering yourself to where the quads are about a 90 degree angle (or slightly lower) to the floor. Your core should be engaged, chest up and back straight on the eccentric (resisting) and concentric (contraction) phase.
When you reach the bottom of the movement, engage your glutes to begin the ascent while driving your heels through the floor. You should feel this throughout your legs with emphasis on the quads and glutes.
This is a multi-joint movement that can be a little complicated, so it’s best to have someone who has sufficient training show you how to do it properly. As far as foot position, some people say to keep your feet closer, some say to spread them out.
I would recommend spacing them to where it feels natural. This will take some tinkering. A 6 foot, 230lb weightlifter, will have a different stance than a 5 foot, 100lb gymnast, something to keep in mind.
Straight leg deadlift
Hamstrings are an overlooked muscle group when building leg strength, mostly because people only train what they see. The straight leg dead lift is not an exercise that I would recommend going heavy with right away. Right away is the key term here. To develop leg strength, you have to force your muscles to adapt to higher workloads. However, learn how to do this first and progress accordingly.
Standing in deadlift position; with legs straight (not locked), lower the bar while bending at the waist until the bar comes to the top of the feet. As with all compound movements, engage your core and don’t round your shoulders. On the ascent, squeeze your glutes and engage your hamstrings to pull yourself up.
If you are feeling this anywhere besides your posterior leg muscles and back. You’re doing it wrong. This exercise will develop excellent leg strength in the hamstrings.
Single leg squat
Often while performing a movement that requires both limbs, one can compensate with the stronger of the two. The single leg squat does not allow for that, as an imbalance in leg strength can be very easily detected. There are a few variations of this but we are going to focus on this one.
While lifting one leg straight ahead to form a 45-90 degree angle (or as flexibility allows), balance on opposite leg and squat down as far as possible while keeping leg elevated off of floor.
Engage your core muscles, keep your back straight and supporting knee pointed same direction as supporting foot. Raise body back up to original position by engaging your quads, hamstrings and glutes, until knee and hip of supporting leg is straight.
If you are having trouble balancing, it is perfectly fine to hold on to a bar or machine. Be very careful to have your legs do the work and not pull yourself up.
Hip raise (or hip bridge)
People often forget to train their hips, figuring the leg workout will take care of that. Not so fast! As stated earlier; the hips generate the majority of the power, so let’s make our leg strength better by strengthening the hips.
While seated on the floor; bend your legs so your feet are flat on the floor and your upper back against a bench or stability ball. Squeeze your glutes and extend your hips until a straight line is formed from your knees to your shoulders.
To make this more challenging; hold a plate or place a band across your hips for added tension.
Calf raise from a squat
The calves play a very important role is running, jumping, and balance, the very foundation of leg strength.
It is the same movement as the back squat with one variation; at the top of the movement, you drive the balls of your feet into the floor and flex your calves so you are nearly on your toes. This exercise keeps constant tension and works all the muscles below the knee.
This is a great exercise for those who are lagging in the calf department, and for those who are looking to add a few inches to their vertical. Don’t position your feet more than shoulder width, as you will emphasis the medial head of the calf and not all muscles.
Building quality leg strength is detrimental in both performance and functional training. While there are countless exercises that a person can do, these are the 5 best leg strength exercises that I have used over the years for myself and for clients. As far as sets and reps, I would recommend 70-80% of your one rep max for 4 sets of 8. If you are a beginner, cut this down to 3 sets.
If you find that you can do 8 without a problem, increase the weight by %5. Alternate between heavy and light during the course of your session. If you do heavy squats correctly, you’re not going to have much left in the tank to go heavy the rest of the session, so mix it up. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to slow down on the lowering (eccentric) phase of the workout.
If you can get that weight up in 1 second, take at least 3 to lower it. This routine builds the foundation of leg strength. Once that foundation has been layed, it can last for a lifetime.
Combine these with a Muscle building diet plan for maximum definition and strength.
– J. Hanson, F. Netter. Netters Atlas of Human Anatomy. Sixth edition. Philadelphia : Saunders/Elsevier, 2010.
– N. Tillin, M. Pain, and J. Folland.. Explosive force production during isometric squats correlates with athletic performance in rugby union players. Journal of Sports Sciences. Vol (31) Issue 1, 2013