5 Most Effective Exercises For Building Your Legs

Brad Borland
Written By: Brad Borland
July 14th, 2015
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
27.7K Reads
5 Most Effective Exercises For Building Your Legs
Looking for new ways to build bigger, stronger legs? Check out these 5 proven leg exercises plus a unique twist on each to really maximize muscle growth!

There’s little argument when it comes to the best exercises for building your legs.

But as trends and opinions change, so do training protocols.

I’m talking about not only packing quality beef on to your quadriceps and hamstrings, but also building functional, strong lower appendages apt for real world movement.

Let’s take the 5 most effective exercises for legs and put some new twists on each to make them even more brutal.  If more muscle and strength is on your agenda, read on for a new look at some good ole fashioned favorites.

1. Barbell Squat

You can’t go wrong with the squat. Big, brutal, and all-encompassing, the squat is the undisputed king of all exercises. Not only will it pack on mass and increase strength, but when performed properly it will also facilitate real-world movement by strengthening supportive musculature.

Both the back and front barbell squat versions are mainstays to any lower body program. Using a full range of motion, proper foot and knee alignment, and focusing on keeping your midsection stable, the squat is challenging but well worth the concerted effort.

The Twist: Taking advantage of the specific benefits of the front and back squat, try performing a challenging yet highly effective superset combination. Front squats target more of the quadriceps muscles while the back squat hits mainly hips, glutes, and hamstrings (along with some quad activation).

Perform a set of front squats to somewhat pre-exhaust your quads. Once you’ve reached muscular failure, immediately rack the weight and perform a set of back squats to really bring the hammer down. You will have torched all areas of your thighs. Go for 4 sets of 6 to 12 reps each.

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2. Bulgarian Split Squat

Unilateral (single limb) training isn’t just a trend; it’s become a necessity among athletes and recreational lifters. Bilateral (both limbs) training may create strength imbalances and, subsequently, those imbalances will create problems with joint discomfort and ultimately injury.

Unilateral training can quickly identify weak areas, shore-up those weaknesses, fix current injuries, and prevent future injuries. Any comprehensive leg program should include some form of unilateral exercise and the Bulgarian split squat is the perfect addition.

The Twist: The Bulgarian split squat is challenging to master, but once you’ve perfected your form and become proficient, it will be time to up the ante and add something new to the mix. Linear variable resistance (LVR) is another training variable that has caught on as an effective tool to quickly increase strength.

Let’s combine both of these techniques if you’re up to it. While performing a rear foot elevated Bulgarian split squat with a barbell across your back (be sure it’s very light to start with), fix a band around each end of the bar. Get into position with the center of the band under the foot that is on the floor. Perform reps as normal but very slowly due to the extra stress the band is placing on your leg. Try 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps per leg.

3. Romanian Deadlift

Leg curls are great and all, but nothing can beat the stress on the hamstrings from Romanian deadlifts. Hitting your glutes, hamstrings, and lumbar, the Romanian deadlift is the granddaddy of posterior leg development.

Performed with a barbell, set of dumbbells, or kettlebells, the trick is to hinge at the hips, keep a straight back, and not stretch too far where you start rounding your back.

The Twist: You may get a few funny looks with this one, but another way to hit your hamstrings in a very unique way is to perform RDLs on a traditional hack squat machine.

Stand facing the machine and fix your shoulders under the pads. Leave enough room between the head pad and your face. Lower the weight down with the same technique as the traditional lift – your hips will jut out behind you more, but be sure to hinge only at your hips and keep your back straight. Experiment with a short range of motion and light weight before advancing. 3 sets of 8-12 reps.

4. Lunge

5 Most Effective Exercises for Building your Legs - Lunges

Nothing is more diverse than the lunge when it comes to lower body development. As a unilateral move requiring balance and multi-directional stability, lunges are the quintessential exercise not only to etch in detail but to create functional strength throughout the entire leg. You can try any of the seemingly endless lunge variations like static, reverse, walking, lateral, and elevated.

The Twist: Take advantage of the lunge’s multi-directional flexibility by performing a so-called giant set of different lunges near the end of your workout to help hip stability, strength imbalances, and, ultimately, other lifts like squats over time.

Take a barbell or a pair of dumbbells and start with reverse lunges for a set number of reps. Next, perform lateral lunges to the side for a series of reps and then finish off with a set of forward lunges. Try to achieve the same amount of reps for each direction. Go for 3 sets of 5 to 10 reps in each direction.

5. Glute/Ham Raise

Another hamstring killer is the glute/ham raise that’s normally performed either on the floor with someone holding your feet or on a bench with your feet affixed under a pad.

The key here is to keep a straight line from your knees all the way up to your shoulders. You should only move from the knees. Of course you will start out assisting the movement either by holding an upright bar or by slightly pushing off from the ground.

The Twist: If you want assistance in the form of consistency, there is an effective solution. Put a bench perpendicularly against a lat pull-down machine seat and clip a set of bands to the top cable attachment.

Assume the standard exercise position with your hands overhead and holding the ends of the bands. As you lower your body, the bands will assist you (depending on the strength level of the bands) so you can achieve a full range of motion. In other words, the bands will assist you at the most difficult portion of the exercise.  Shoot for 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps.

Check out Ronnie Coleman and IFBB Pro Cory Mathews demonstrating some of these brutal leg exercises at the Muscle & Strength Gym.

2 Effective Workouts for Building Your Legs

Once you've mastered the exercises, try adding each workout once per week. For example, Workout A on Monday and Workout B on Thursday.

Workout A

Exercise Sets Reps
Barbell Front & Back Squat Superset 3-4 6-12 each
Leg Press 3 12-20
Glute/Ham Raise with Band 3 10-12
Seated or Lying Leg Curl 3-4 6-8

Workout B

Exercise Sets Reps
Bulgarian Split Squat with Band 3 10-12
Barbell Front Squat 3-4 6-8
Romanian Deadlift on Hack Squat machine 3 8-12
3-way Lunge 3 5-10 each direction

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Posted on: Tue, 07/14/2015 - 14:41

What are your favorite leg moves?

Posted on: Tue, 07/14/2015 - 21:21

Great variations! My all time favorite is the back squat, although I really like Bulgarian split squats as well; a few sets of those get my heart rate up like cardio.

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Posted on: Wed, 07/15/2015 - 09:23

Thanks so much!