If leg day just doesn't excite you the way chest n' arms does, don't worry. You're not alone...
Not long ago, I absolutely hated leg day.
So what did I do? I neglected my legs...
There was actually a time--this is actually true--where I could bench more than I could squat!
I don't care who you are, whether you're a newbie or a pro, you should NEVER be able to lift more weight with your chest and arms than you can lift with your legs.
That's a HUGE red flag that you're seriously neglecting your leg training.
And that's exactly how I took it, once I realized how bad the situation really was.
I did a complete overhaul of my training routine, placing extreme emphasis on training my legs.
And guess what? It worked!
Within about a year of treating leg day like it was chest day, my legs made incredible gains in both strength and size.
I can now honestly say that my legs are right about where they should be. I can:
- Bench about 325 max
- Squat about 425 max
- Deadlift 494 max
I wouldn't mind a little more hamstring development, so I'll continue to do my deadlifts and squats, but all my lifts are more or less within the normal, proportionate range as far as strength is concerned.
If you're not taking leg day as seriously as you should, don't worry. You've come to the right place!
In this article, we'll go over everything you need to know about effective leg day training, including:
- guiding principles
- complete workouts
So, if you're ready to level up your leg day training to the max, read on...
Why Are Leg Workouts Such A Big Deal?
You may be reading this article thinking something along the lines of:
"What's the big deal? I don't lift legs often and I look great!"
And that be true...for now.
But trust me when I say, it won't be long before this disregard for the muscle group that serves as the foundation for your entire physique will come back to bite you.
Let's talk about why it's so important that you train your legs just as intensely and passionately as you train your chest, back, or arms.
First off, your legs make up about half of the muscle mass of your body. Whether you're training for whole-body strength or just for the purposes of having an aesthetically pleasing physique, skipping leg day will only hold you back.
Your legs serve as the foundation upon which the rest of your physique is built. Ignoring it means building an unstable foundation.
Not only have my legs become a lot stronger and more muscular since I started taking leg day seriously, i have also seen improvements in:
- all my other lifts
- my upper body physique
- general stability
Not to mention, the back pain which plagued me for much of my early 20s completely disappeared. Turns out I just had an under-developed posterior chain which was forcing me to slouch and place unnecessary strain on my lower back.
The bottom line is that you may not even realize all the ways in which training your legs will help you out, but if you're not lifting legs regularly, you definitely WILL benefit from doing so.
3 Principles To Guide Your Leg Workouts
We're all different, so what works for you might not work for me and vice versa.
That said, there are some underlying common principles that should guide our workouts.
Focus On Heavy, Compound Exercises
Whether your goal is get stronger, shredded, more muscular, or whatever--heavy, compound movements should serve as the foundation of your leg day routine.
Compound exercises are exercises which utilize multiple muscle groups.
These exercises--particularly squats and deadlifts--are absolutely essential when it comes to building stronger, more powerful legs.
Since you need to consistently add weight to your lifts over time to get stronger and build muscle--a principle known as progressive overload--I recommend performing these exercises at about 85% of your 1RM, for 4-6 reps per set.
Once you can lift a given weight for 6 reps, you increase the weight so you can only do it for 4. You then work with that weight until you can get it for 6, then add more weight.
This allows for sufficient overload, forcing you to challenge yourself and get stronger over time.
The stronger you get, the more muscle you'll build.
Use Free-Weights Mostly, Not Machines
Many of us start off lifting legs with guided machines or the smith machine simply because it's easier. But that's precisely why you SHOULDN'T rely on machine or assisted workout.
While using the smith machine for squats or banging out a few sets of quad extensions may feel like it's giving you a nice pump, free weights are better for a couple reasons.
Free weight training also works lots of little muscles that you wouldn't ordinarily think to train. These muscles play an important role in strength, stability, and flexibility.
Free weight training, on the other hand, is actually associated with improvements in (chronic) pain.
After decades of research, we can conclude with absolute certainty that, while some machines may be useful some of the time, it's better to stick with free weights over all.
Hit All The Major Muscle Groups
We've established that you need to lift heavy, focusing on progressive overload, using mostly compound exercises with free weights.
Doing those things will ensure that you get stronger and build muscle over time, but the selection of exercises you choose to do will have a profound impact on your physique.
You need to choose a series of exercises which collectively target all of the major muscles in the leg.
The Absolute Best Leg Exercises
We all have our favorite exercises, but at the end of the day, there are some that have clear advantages in terms of increasing strength, gaining muscle, and burning fat.
In other words, these are the exercises you simply cannot build an incredible pair of legs without.
If there was only one leg exercise...Squats!
Squats offer the most total leg muscle activation out of any
The Romanian, or stiff-legged, deadlift is simply a variation of a normal deadlift where you're legs are straighter and nearly all of the work is done by the hamstrings and glutes.
I wouldn't say leg pressing is as essential as squats or deadlifts because the truth is any muscle you're working with a leg press is also worked when you squat and/or deadlift.
The reason leg pressing is such an effective exercise for building quad strength is because it easily allows for extreme overload without risking injury.
You can easily leg press far more weight than you could ever squat.
Additional Leg Exercises That Are Worth Doing
It's entirely possible to get an awesome leg workout just using the three exercises we discussed above.
In fact, if you were to do heavy squats, heavy deadlifts, and heavy leg pressing all in the same day, you probably wouldn't be able to stand up afterwards.
That said, you're probably not going to do those exercises all in the same day, so it's worth having some additional exercises in your leg day arsenal that target key areas of the leg.
Next to squats and deadlifts, lunges are probably the best free-weight leg building exercise you can do.
You can either perform them in a walking motion (walking lunges) or standing in the same place, alternating between feet.
Hack Squat (Sled Machine)
Your typical hacksquat machine allows you to go a lot lower than you might choose to go with traditional squats.
they're really great.
Bulgarian Split Squat
Bulgarian Split Squats are particularly effective for targeting the hamstring while placing minimal tension on the spine.
Research suggests split squats are equally effective as traditional back squats for building leg strength.
If you want to build hamstrings, you should do hamstring curls.
Hamstring curls are not a replacement for more important hamstring exercises like romanian deadlifts, but they're a great complimentary exercise for building out your hamstrings.
Hip thrusts are one of the best exercises for directly working the glutes.
Once you get used to the movement, you can load more weight on.
Building calves isn't easy--and the look and size of your calves may be determined in large part by your genetics--but make no mistake...
You need to train your calves directly if you want them to respond. That means doing calf raises.
Some people say you shouldn't train your calves directly and should instead just rely on heavy deadlifting and squatting to build them. Well, I disagree.
While there's no replacing the importance of heavy squats and deadlifts in calve development, they probably won't build the calves of your dreams alone.
At least, not in my experience.
My calves have responded to continuous, heavy lifting.
Creating The Ultimate Leg Workout
The Bottom Line On Leg Workouts
Leg day can be just as exciting as any other day. It just depends on how you approach it.
Once you've been lifting legs for a while and you start to see gains, it'll become just as inherently addicting as lifting chest, back, or arms.
As long as you:
- Keep it heavy
- Emphasize Compound Exercises With Free Weights
- Select The Right Exercises
Those quad, hamstring, and calf gains will start coming.
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Matt Theis is the Co-Founder and CEO of Momentum Nutrition. Among other things, he is chiefly responsible for product formulation and has spent years researching, testing, and developing supplements.