David is an army-trained biomedical scientific officer, writer, and lifelong health and fitness enthusiast.
Many people neglect their legs because they’d rather focus on their pecs, delts, arms and abs. But if you really want to build an impressive, well-balanced physique, you must train your legs hard and heavy on a regular basis. So in this article, I’ll outline the very best exercises you can do to build bigger, stronger legs.
The legs are divided into three main parts. These are the quadriceps, which are located at the front of the thigh and consist of four separate muscles—the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius and rectus femoris; the hamstrings, which are located at the back of the thigh and consist of the biceps femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus; and the calves, which consist of the large two-headed gastrocnemius muscle and the much smaller soleus muscle, which lies underneath the gastrocnemius.
The main function of the quadriceps is to extend the knee. The hamstrings flex the knee and extend the hips, and the calves elevate the heels. So if you want to build up your legs in the fastest, most effective way possible, here’s what you need to do.
The best exercises for developing the quadriceps are as follows:
This is the very best lower body exercise there is, and if you want to build big, muscular legs, you have to squat. It’s very important to squat properly, though, if you want to get the best results and avoid injury. So take a deep breath and go down until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor, keeping your spine in a neutral position. Then drive down with your heels as you stand back up, exhaling as you reach the top.
If you are a beginner, squats are the only leg exercise you really need to do, as they will develop the entire thigh (quads and hamstrings) as well as the glutes, spinal erectors, obliques, abs and calves to some extent. But when you’ve been training for a while, you’ll need to include some additional exercises to ensure proper all-round development.
These put more direct emphasis onto the quadriceps, and they also take a lot of the strain off the lower back. So if you have lower back problems, you may need to do front squats instead of regular back squats. They are a little awkward to perform when you first start doing them, but they get easier over time.
45 Degree Leg Press
This is another basic compound exercise that allows you to place a high level of tension onto your quads, with additional involvement from your hamstrings, glutes and calves. Use a medium foot spacing to put more emphasis onto the quads (a wider spacing puts more emphasis onto the glutes and hamstrings).
Bulgarian Split Squat
Single leg work is important, as it helps prevent muscle imbalances and allows you to develop better coordination. And the Bulgarian (rear foot elevated) split squat is one of the best single leg exercises there is. Whilst holding a dumbbell in each hand, place one foot up on a bench behind you and squat down on the other leg until the top of your thigh is at least parallel to the floor. Then stand back up again.
Two other excellent single-leg exercises you could do instead of split squats are lunges and step-ups.
All compound quadriceps exercises work the hamstrings as well to a certain extent, but some direct hamstring work is still required if you want to maximize their development.
Ideally, you should do two types of movement for the hamstrings—a compound hip extension movement (where the hamstrings work in conjunction with the glutes and spinal erectors) and an isolation knee flexion movement.
This is probably the best hip extension movement. Keep your knees slightly bent, and your lower back arched, as you lower the weight down until your torso is parallel to the floor. Then focus on lifting with the hamstrings as you rise back up again.
Two other good hip extension movements are hip thrusts and glute-ham raises.
This is your knee flexion movement, and it can be done either lying, seated or standing, but my personal favorite is lying.
Calves can be a difficult muscle to develop for a lot of people, as their size is strongly influenced by genetic factors. However, even if you are not blessed genetically in this area, you can still develop good calves if you persevere with them and train them in the right way. The best exercises for building the calves are:
Standing Calf Raise
This can be done on either the calf machine or the Smith machine, depending on which you have available. Always do this exercise (and any other calf exercise) through a full range of motion, lowering yourself as far as you can and raising yourself as high as you can. Do the movement under strict control by lowering yourself steadily and then exploding upwards. Then pause briefly at the top before lowering again.
A tip that you may find useful is to focus on raising yourself up onto your big toe, rather than the entire ball of your foot. By doing this, you will generate maximum tension in the gastrocnemius muscle, rather than allowing the stress to shift to the soleus.
Leg Press Calf Raise
This is another excellent calf exercise, and it has the advantage of removing the spinal loading that you get when doing standing calf raises.
Seated Calf Raise
Here you are working the calves with your legs in a bent position, which primarily targets the soleus muscle rather than the gastrocnemius, which is the main muscle targeted when the legs are straight.
The technique is the same as for the other movements, except that you should raise up onto the entire ball of your foot, rather than your big toe.
Sets, Reps and Frequency
For the quadriceps, choose two of the exercises listed above and do 2–4 sets of each (after your warm-ups) for anything between five and 15 reps. I’d recommend doing 5–8 reps for your main lift and 10–15 reps for your accessory lift. So, for example, you might do squats for three sets of 5–8 and Bulgarian split squats for two sets of 10–15.
For the hamstrings, do Romanian deadlifts (or another hip extension movement) for two sets of 8–10 reps and leg curls for three sets of 10–12 reps.
And for your calves, choose two of the exercises listed above and do 3–5 sets of each. Use a rep range of 6–10 reps for your straight leg calf raises, and 10–15 reps for your bent leg (seated) calf raises if you do them (though these are not essential).
Train your quads and hamstrings every three to five days, just as you would any other body part. Calves can also be trained at this frequency, but if you find your calf development is starting to lag behind, you can train them more often—up to three or even four times per week.
And that’s about all you need to know in order to build bigger legs. As always, focus on progressive overload (increasing the weight you are using for the same number of reps over time), and ensure you eat properly and get sufficient rest and sleep, and you will get the results you are looking for.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.