There have been countless exercises for the legs introduced within the last 50 years. While some of these have proven to be very effective, the vast majority of them could be replaced with only a few better and more efficient movements.
There are three main muscle groups in the legs. The quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. All of them require different training stimulus in order to maximize their growth potential. Below are the best leg exercises a trainee could do; starting with the King of them all, the back squat.
Often touted as being one of the greatest exercises a person can do, no matter your goal, back squats can provide the stimulus your quadriceps and hamstrings require.
There are two main ways to perform the back squat, high-bar and low-bar.
A high-bar back squat has you place the bar on top of the traps and keep an upright torso throughout the movement. This is the style of squatting that is commonly seen when watching Olympic lifters train. This style of squatting allows you to squat very deep, putting the quadriceps into a deep stretch at the bottom.
This weighted stretch is one of the main factors that influence the growth of a muscle. Also, by staying more upright, the quads will be loaded to a greater degree as the posterior chain will not become as involved when compared to a low-bar squat. This style of squatting is great for bodybuilders looking to optimize quad hypertrophy as well as athletes training for performance in their sport.
The low-bar back squat can be loaded extremely heavy and is commonly used by powerlifters. The bar is placed lower on the back, usually sitting on a shelf created by the rear delts. By lowering the bar position, the torso angle of the lifter will change and allow for more posterior chain involvement. This contribution from strong muscle groups such as the back, hamstrings, and glutes are what allow lifters to move the most amount of weight. This variation can still be used to build large legs, but it can be harder to hit proper depth depending on the lifters mobility.
Back squats can be trained in a variety of rep ranges that can all lead to gains in both strength and size. Heavy back squats in the 3-6 rep range are good for powerlifters or bodybuilders looking to build the most amount of strength possible.
Squats in the 6-12 rep range are amazing at building a combination of size and strength. This rep range is commonly used by bodybuilders seeking mass and offseason powerlifters looking to grow while still building some strength.
Finally, high rep back squats done for 15-20 reps can be great for bodybuilders looking to spur new growth or even for building mental toughness. A heavy set of 20 squats is a true test of one's will!
Back squatting should be a staple in every routine and have attained the reputation they have for good reason. It is not important what variation you choose, just that you get in the squat rack and grow your legs!
Similar to the back squat, front squats are known to produce leg mass.
In a front squat, the bar is held on top of the front delts either with arms crossed over the bar or, in the catch position of a clean. This forces the lifter to stay completely upright or else they risk losing the bar.
In turn, front squats hammer the quads as the hamstrings and back have very minimal involvement. Front squats can also allow many lifters to squat down lower than in a back squat, creating more tension and range of motion that can stimulate new growth.
A nice benefit of the front squat is that it indirectly targets the upper back and can help grow the traps. On top of this, it hammers the core due to the high degree of stability required.
Front squats are great to use as a second squat variation on a day when back squats are not done. Because of the bar position, reps over 12 become limited by back strength, this is not wanted when training the legs. To avoid this, reps from 5-8 work great in addition to using slightly more sets to equal out the volume.
The leg press has gotten a lot of hate from the powerlifting community recently but it has been proven time and time again to be a useful machine for putting on slabs of leg mass.
The Leg press allows the quads to be loaded to a higher degree than squats because other, weaker, muscle groups are not limiting them. This is great as it can also save the lower back from squats after a heavy deadlifting session.
While it is possible to go heavy, the leg press is a great substitute to higher rep squats. In an article published by Dr. Mike Israetel, founder of Renaissance Periodization, he recommends using sets of up to 20 on machines for the quads because of the favorable way they respond to metabolite (high rep/pump) training.
A lesser known way to use the leg press that I discovered from bodybuilder and coach Dante Trudel are sumo leg presses.
The feet are placed on the sled so that only the heels are touching at the top corners (Note-The feet may be on the leg press if the sled is very large, just focus on driving through the heels). They are then done like a normal leg press, going as low as comfortably and safely possible. Because of the foot position, these target the hamstrings and are a great way to change up a routine or spur new growth. It is best to keep the reps higher (12-20) and focus on going slow and getting a good contraction and pump.
Like leg the leg press, leg extensions have a bad reputation for being useless and dangerous.
While they may bother the knee of some, they are a great way to isolate the quads! Leg extensions are perfect to use as a finisher for higher reps. They generate a massive pump and can be safely taken to failure and beyond with techniques like drop-sets and partials.
It is important to not rely on small movements like leg extensions though as the majority of growth will come from getting stronger at big, compound lifts.
The Romanian Deadlift is a staple exercise for bodybuilders and strength athletes alike. It is similar to a normal deadlift but, trains the hamstrings to a much higher degree.
The bar is lowered as the hips are driven back until the hamstrings are fully stretched. It is then lifted by flexing the hamstrings and glutes. This is great for hamstring hypertrophy as it stretches them and trains the hip extension movement pattern that the hamstrings are responsible for.
It also allows for large amounts of weight to be used because of the hamstrings loading potential. The ability to progressively overload the exercise makes it great for building mass. These can be done heavy or for higher reps as the hamstring ( and legs in general) are a relatively even mix of fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers.
The leg curl is another amazing hamstring movement because it trains a part of the hamstring not hit during Romains Deadlifts.
The Bicep Femoris(Hamstring) has two heads that each serve separate functions. One function already discussed is hip extension. This is covered by the Romanian deadlifts mentioned above.
But, the hamstrings, especially the short head, are responsible for knee flexion (Ace Fitness). This is why the hamstring curl is a vital part of any balanced exercise routine. It will help to maximize hamstring hypertrophy by ensuring total development. These are great to do with reps anywhere from 6-20 and can be made harder through the use of partials at the end that provides a great pump.
Look around any gym and you will see neglected calves everywhere. All to common the excuse of bad genetics is used to explain why a lifters calves are so underdeveloped.
This is why big calves can separate you from the average gym crowd. Calves are tough to train because they are constantly being used while walking. This means some special techniques must be employed to ensure optimal development.
First, it is important to note the calves are actually two different muscle groups, the gastrocnemius, and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is trained during standing movements while the soleus is trained during seated movements. This is why it is important to not just rely on one exercise or else, both muscles will not be properly stimulated.
For any calf raise movement, it is important to go slow and get a full stretch at the bottom. This will make sure the tendons are not just bouncing the weight and the calves are getting fully worked. These can be done in the 8-20 rep range and will benefit from slow negatives with long pauses (up to 10 seconds) at the bottom of every rep. This is something I learned from Dante Trudel (mentioned above) that has helped grow even the most stubborn of calves.
The legs require an immense amount of hard work to achieve great results. That is why they are often neglected but also looked upon as a sign of true lifter. By following the advice above, you will slowly be able to grow a massive set of wheels that will allow you to stand out from all those around you!
Ben - Strength Athlete - https://www.thelifterslibrary.com/