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Leg Exercises

By Matteo Longobardi

Leg Muscle Anatomy

There are four main muscle groups in the thighs. The quadriceps on the front of the thigh, the biceps femoris on the back of the thigh, the leg adductors on the inner side of the thigh, the leg abductors on the outer side of the thigh. There are several other smaller muscles as well, but they will be completely developed if you focus on working the four main thigh muscle groups.



leg picture - leg anatomy - thigh picture

The quadriceps muscle has four lobes, and it primarily is used to straighten the leg from a bent position. This muscle is often called the "quads". A secondary function of the quads is thigh adduction and rotation of the thigh within the hip socket.

The bicep femoris (also know as the hamstrings or leg biceps) consists of two lobes, and it primarily is used to bend the leg from a straight position.

The adductor and abductor muscles of the thighs help to pull your leg either toward the centre line of your body (adduction) or away from the centre line of the body (abduction).

The gluteus (also know as the "glutes") form your buttocks. This large muscle is primarily used to extend the leg into a straight line with the torso and to rotate leg at the hip.

Upper Leg / Thigh Exercises

It is essential that when you do any exercise that you perform the movements correctly, if you don't you will receive less then optimum benefit from the exercise. It is very difficult to unlearn bad exercise habits, so it is best to learn the right exercise technique from the very start.

For each leg workout pick 3-4 of these exercises and do 4-5 sets (including warm up sets) for each exercise. You can vary the exercises you do for each leg workout.

Squats

This is the single best leg exercise that you can do. Squats work the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and hips. It also works the upper and lower back, and abdominals as secondary muscles.

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Use a rack such as a squat or power rack to hold the barbell. Place your shoulder width apart under the bar. Grasp the bar wider then shoulder width, duck your head under the bar and position it on your trapezius muscles behind your neck. Lift the bar from the rack and take a couple of steps back. Position your feet wider then shoulder width apart with your toes pointed forwards or just slightly out to the sides. Look forward.

Bend your legs and squat down with the bar across your upper back. Your knees should be directly over your toes as you do the movement. Squat down until your upper thighs are parallel with the floor or slightly lower. Arch your back and straighten out your legs until you are standing upright. Repeat.

Box Squats

This is a variation of the squat. This exercise is harder then regular squats, but it will help teach you to squat with perfect form. It places less stress on the knee joint and more stress on the hamstrings, hips, and glutes.

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At the bottom of the lift, sit back on the box and pause for a second before coming up. When learning how to do this exercise start with a higher box (an adjustable aerobics step works well). As you get used to the exercise lower the box height so your thighs are parallel to the floor when sitting on the box.

Leg Press

This movement works the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. The leg press allows you to work your legs hard without putting extra stress on your back.

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Sit in the leg press machine with your back on the angled seat and your feet on the footplate about shoulder width apart with your toes pointed forward or just slightly out to the sides. Straighten your legs and release the bars at the sides of the machine. There is usually a handle on each side for you to hold on to and stabilize yourself.

Bend your legs and slowly lower the weight until your knees are at a 90-degree angle. Straighten your legs and lift the weight back up to the starting position. Repeat.

Hack Squats

This movement works the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

Position yourself on the machine with your feet just wider the shoulder width apart with your toes pointed just slightly out to the sides. Straighten your legs and release the bars at the sides of the machine. Bend your knees and squat down until your knees are just less then a 90-degree angle. Straighten your legs and lift the weight back up to the starting position. Repeat.

Note - many people find that hack squats place a lot of stress on the knee joints. If you find that this exercise bothers your knees you should perform regular squats and box squast instead.

Lunges

This movement is great for working the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. This exercise also works many smaller stabilizer muscles because it requires a lot of balance.

Step out about a couple feet with one leg, keep your toes pointed forward and your front foot flat on the floor. Bend your front leg until your knee is at a 90-degree angle, your back should also bend until it is at a 90-degree angle. Push up and return to the starting position. Repeat for the desired number of reps, then do the same with the other leg out front.

You can also do lunges with your back leg on a bench, this will give you a better range of motion.

To add weight to this exercise you can place a barbell across your upper back (like in the squat) or you can hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides.

Leg Extensions

This movement isolates the quadriceps. This exercise is good for developing muscle detail between the individual segments of your quadriceps muscles.

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Sit on the leg extension machine (adjust the seat according to your body). Hook your feet beneath the roller pads and grasp the handles at the sides of the machine for support.

Straighten your legs and lift the weight up. Pause at the top for a second or two to enhance the peak contraction in the quads. Lower the weight slowly to the starting position. Repeat.

Lying Leg Curls

This movement isolates the hamstrings. This exercise is good for developing muscle detail in the backs of your legs.

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Lie face down on the padded bench with your knees just over the edge of the bench. Hook your feet beneath the roller pads and grasp the handles at the sides of the machine for support.

Curl your legs and lift the weight up. Pause at the top for a second or two to enhance the peak contraction in the hamstrings. Lower the weight slowly to the starting position. Repeat.

Stiff Leg Deadlifts

This variation of the deadlift works the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back. It also works the forearms because you have to grip the barbell.

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Stand in front a barbell with your feet placed shoulder width apart. Bend your legs and grasp the barbell with your hands just wider then shoulder width. Using your back and legs stand up with the barbell at arms length in front of you.

Keep a slight bend in your knees and bend over as if you were going to touch your toes. Keep your head up and your back flat as you bend down. Straighten up to the starting position. Repeat.

Tip - if you would like to get a better stretch in the hamstrings from this exercise. Perform the stiff leg deadlift with your feet on an aerobics step or wooden box. This way you will be able to lower the barbell down further.