Pretty much everyone who works out wants strong, sculpted legs.
Not only are tight and toned legs aesthetically pleasing, the strength that comes with them acts as the foundation of every movement we perform, even outside of the gym.
In our quest for lean and powerful legs, many of us do countless sets of machine-based exercises like hamstring curls and leg extensions.
But these exercises don’t measure up to the exercises I’m going to show you today, which are referred to as functional training exercises.
Functional training exercises mimic movements you perform in the real world, and also recruit several major muscles groups at once.
That’s the key to achieving strong and sculpted legs, as these movements (especially when performed with heavy weight) have been shown to increase growth hormone, burn fat for up to 48 hours following your workout, build serious muscle, and increase sports performance (1, 2, 3).
Below I’ll show you the top weight training exercises to strengthen legs – which will also sculpt and tone every inch of your lower body.
The 13 Best Exercises to Strengthen Legs
Deadlifts are unparalleled in their ability to improve leg strength, sculpt the glutes and hamstrings, upper thighs, and even strengthen the lower back and core.
As if that weren’t enough, deadlifts also improve posture along with grip and upper body strength.
It’s also a safe and easy exercise, requiring only a barbell weight, dumbbell or kettlebell.
How to Deadlift:
Proper form is crucial while deadlifting. A popular mistake many make, especially when they start to become fatigued, is rounding the lower spine.
It’s important to avoid this and keep the spine in a straight neutral position, otherwise you run the risk of harming your spinal discs.
Also, don’t be afraid to add a decent amount of weight to your deadlifts. Beginners should start with a weight they can lift for roughly 6 to 8 repetitions.
- To begin, start with the bar on the floor, with your feet halfway beneath the bar at hip-width.
- Bend forward and grab the bar, palms facing down, arms about shoulder-width apart just outside the legs.
- Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar.
- Lift your chest, keeping your back straight, and avoid dropping your hips.
- Grasp the bar as you stand up fully, holding the bar against your legs. Avoid shrugging or leaning back at the top.
- Return the weight to the floor by bending your knees and pushing your hips back.
2. Lateral Lunges
Lateral lunges target the calves, glutes, and hamstrings, as well as the inner thighs. Add dumbbells to this exercise for extra burn.
How to Perform Lateral Lunges:
- Begin by standing with feet hip-width apart, dumbbells at your sides.
- Making sure to point your knee in the same direction as your foot, take a large step to the right, keeping the dumbbells at your sides.
- Push back and lower your hips until your thighs are parallel to the floor, keeping your knees behind your toes and your spine straight.
- Return to your starting position using your glutes and hamstrings.
- Repeat, alternating sides, for 6 to 8 reps on each leg.
3. Hip Thrusts
Hip thrusts are one of the best exercises for sculpting the glutes and the backside. They can often be lost in the shadows of squats, deadlifts, and lunges, but are truly an exercise everyone looking to sculpt the back of their legs should perform.
Not only are they superb glute sculptors, they can even improve your deadlifts and squats due to fuller extension in the hips (which maximizes the engagement of the glutes).
How to Perform the Hip Thrust:
- Begin with a low bench and your barbell, placing the bench pad just below you shoulder blades and the barbell across your upper thighs.
- Place your feet directly under your knees and keep your neck neutral.
- Engage your glutes as you thrust your hips upward until your thighs are parallel to the ground, squeezing your glute muscles to make sure they are engaged.
- Return to starting position, aiming for 6 to 8 reps.
Oh, the squat. Considered one of the best exercises to strengthen the legs due to its ability to work the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and even the calves, it’s a foundational leg exercise no one should pass up.
How to Squat:
As with deadlifts, proper form is required to get the most out of your squats. One of the most common mistakes while squatting is extending the knees over the toes, which can cause strain on the knee joints and tendons.
Use a barbell to squat heavy weight, or hold dumbbells at your sides if you don’t have access to one.
- If you’re using a lighter weight on your barbel, it may not be necessary to have a rack to hold it in between sets. However, if you’re doing heavier squats, use a rack to get set up properly before squatting.
- To begin, step under the bar, placing it on your upper back and gripping it tightly.
- Lift the bar from the rack, and with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, bend your knees and lower to the ground, pushing your hips behind you (as if you were sitting in a chair).
- Squat until your hips fall just below your knees, then return to standing.
- Repeat for 6 to 8 reps.
5. Front Squats
Front squats are a challenging variation of the traditional squat in that you are now holding weight in front of your shoulders, rather than behind.
This placement leads to wonderful quadricep and glute development (some even consider it superior for glute sculpting) as it allows for more squat depth. You can use a barbell for this exercise or hold a kettle bell in front of your chest.
How to Perform Front Squats:
- Grip is one of the most important aspects of the front squat. To achieve proper grip, it’s important to keep the elbows high, with your fingertips around the bar, palms facing upward.
- Make sure the bar is close to the base of your neck (this may feel strange at first, but keep it there).
- Once you have your grip, place your feet slightly wider than hip width and squat, keeping your spine straight (avoid rounding forward due to the weight being in front of your body), pushing your hips behind you, and keeping your elbows up.
- Once you’ve descended just below parallel, return to standing.
- Aim for 6 to 8 reps.
6. Forward-Backward Lunges
(Note: Jump to the 0:33 time stamp in the video above for a demo of this exercise)
This challenging variation of the traditional lunge will have your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves feeling a burn like no other.
Be sure to keep your knees behind your toes at all times to avoid straining the knees.
How to Perform the Forward-Backward Lunge:
- Begin by standing tall, holding either a barbell or dumbbells at your sides with a comfortable weight.
- Lunge forward on your right leg, then push back. Instead of coming to standing as your would in a normal lunge, extend the same leg behind you into a backward lunge.
- Repeat this motion for 6 to 8 reps, then switch to the other leg.
7. Sumo Squats
Sumo squats target that tricky inner thigh region, also referred to as the adductor muscles, as well as the glutes.
How to Sumo Squat:
Perform sumo squats either using a barbell or holding dumbbells or kettlebells in each hand between the legs.
- Begin with legs open slightly wider than shoulder width, toes turned out at a 45 degree angle.
- Lower toward the ground, pushing your hips back with knees behind the toes.
- Push to standing, squeezing the glutes as you come up.
- Repeat for 6 to 8 reps.
8. Bulgarian Lunge
The Bulgarian lunge, also referred to as a split squat, is another variation of the traditional lunge in that, rather than alternating legs, tension remains in one leg while performing reps.
The Bulgarian lunge requires a great deal of balance, as one foot is propped on a bench behind you. This is great for strengthening the smaller stabilizer muscles in the core as well as the legs.
Be sure that, as with any lunge, to keep your knees behind your toes (at about a 90-degree angle) at all times to protect the knees.
How to Perform the Bulgarian Dumbbell Lunge:
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, place yourself in a staggered stance (one foot forward) with one foot propped behind you on a bench or box.
- Descend by bending your knee, keeping your spine straight, and lower until your thigh is parallel to the ground.
- Push through the heel to return to the starting position and repeat for 6-8 reps on each leg.
9. Squat with Leg Lift and Diagonal Raise
(Note: Jump to 3:54 in the video above for a demo of this exercise)
This exercise engages both glutes and a number of stabilizer muscles. It also works the upper body and core by challenging your balance.
How to Perform the Squat with Leg Lift and Diagonal Raise:
- Holding a light dumbbell in your right hand in a squat position (legs shoulder width apart).
- Cross the dumbbell over to your left foot at the bottom of the squat. Raise your arm in a lateral position out and up as you rise to standing.
- Once you’re at the top of the movement, raise your left leg at the same time your right arm is extending.
- Repeat for 10 to 15 reps, then switch to the opposite arm and leg.
10. Lunge Step Ups
(Note: Jump to the 5:00 time stamp in the video above for a demo of this exercise)
The lunge-step up combo engages the glutes and upper hamstrings, while also working the stability muscles and getting your heart rate up.
How to Perform Lunge Step Ups:
- Begin standing in front of a box or bench roughly one lunge-distance away.
- Extend your leg, placing your foot on top of the box.
- Sink down into a lunge, then press up into a step-up on top of the box.
- Step down, returning to your starting position and repeat for 10 to 15 reps on each leg.
11. Walking Lunges
Walking dumbbell lunges are perfect for sculpting the entire leg, but also get your heart rate up while engaging your core stabilizer muscles.
How to Perform the Walking Dumbbell Lunge:
Note that holding the dumbbells above your head (or just holding one with both hands) requires a good deal of balance. If this is too much and you find your form is slipping, try holding lighter dumbbells by your sides during the lunges.
- Begin by standing with your spine straight, holding a dumbbell with a challenging weight above your head.
- Extend your right leg in front of you and lower to a lunge, keeping your knee behind the toes and maintaining your balance. Push up to standing and lunge forward on the left leg.
- Repeat, alternating legs for 6 to 8 reps each leg.
12. Leg Push-Offs
(Note: Jump to the 1:32 time stamp in the video above for a demo of this exercise)
Many are familiar with the bridge exercise. The leg push-off goes a step further, using elevation and a single-leg approach to heighten the burn. These are excellent for targeting the glutes and upper hamstrings.
How to Perform Leg Push-Offs:
- Begin lying face-up on the floor with one heel propped on a box or bench.
- Lift the other leg with the sole of the foot pointed toward the ceiling.
- Push your free leg toward the ceiling, while straightening the leg that is propped on the box and thrusting your hips upward.
- Repeat for 10 to 15 reps on each leg.
13. Curtsy Squats
Curtsy squats put the burn in your outer thigh and glutes, while also challenging your balance for full-body muscle recruitment.
How to Curtsy Squat:
- Begin standing tall with your feet hip-width apart.
- Sliding one leg diagonally behind you, lower into a lunge.
- Press to standing and do the same on the opposite leg.
- Repeat for 10 to 15 reps on each leg.
Strengthen Your Legs Fast
The beauty of these exercises to strengthen leg muscles lies not only in their ability to sculpt and strengthen legs in record time, but also in the fact that they don’t require fancy gym equipment.
Regularly incorporating these into your routine will do wonders for building strength. Plus, the fact that they’re functional exercises will whittle away excess fat by revving your heart rate and increasing your metabolic rate.
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