Bodybuilding Exercises - Legs

Bodybuilding Exercises - Legs

While many amateur bodybuilders focus on bench press or bicep curls, the most dedicated (and strongest) trainers know that leg training is the key to overall strength, size and aesthetics as a bodybuilder. The legs comprise the largest muscle group in the body but are probably the least trained group overall. With such large muscle groups as glutes, hams and quads, the legs require a varied form of attack - sometimes in the higher rep ranges, other times with heavy weights in the low rep range. Due to the size of the muscle group, bodybuilders will often split the legs into three separate groups: quads, hams & glutes, and calves; training them separately.


The quadriceps femoris (or quads for short) is the name given to the four muscles at the front of the thigh. This muscle group is made up of the vastus lateralis (on the outside of the thigh), the vastus medialis (on the inside of the thigh), the vastus intermedius (located deep in the middle between the medialis and the lateralis), and the rectus femoris (located in the middle at the front of the thigh. The quads are responsible for extending the knee joint, as well as flexing the hip.


The hamstrings is the name given to the group of muscles opposing the quads, at the back of the thigh. They are made up of the semitendinosus, the semimembranosus and the biceps femoris. The hamstrings are involved in both knee and hip movement and counter the quads in their functions in walking, running and jumping.


The glutes are made up of the three muscle groups of the rear, upper thigh, and are one of the broadest, largest muscle groups in the body. The glutes are made up of the gluteus maximus (which is the largest of the glute muscles), the gluteus medius and the gluteus minimus. The glutes are also responsible for a number of functions, including posture control and rotation of the legs.


The calves are made up of a number of muscles in the lower half of the leg, but are mainly made up of the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The calf muscles attach to the knee and ankle joints, and are primarily responsible for rotating and stabilising the feet.

The Best Bodybuilding Exercises for Legs


Variations: Front squat, Zercher squat, Bulgarian squat, single-legged squat

Squats work the quads, glutes, hams, calves and pretty much every other muscle group in the body. They are widely regarded as the king of bodybuilding exercises due to the immense number of muscle fibres they incorporate.

The regular back squat is performed by holding a loaded barbell on the traps or rear delts and sitting back and down to parallel or below, and then back up to a standing position. Since each muscle group in the legs has a different function within the squat movement, it is extremely important to perform a full range of motion so that muscle imbalances are not created.

Coaches differ in their opinions of rep ranges and volumes for squats, although it will depend on your training goals as to which method you choose. If you are training for maximal strength, keeping the reps at 5 or below, for 3-7 sets is the way to go. For muscle growth, anywhere from 3-5 sets of 8-15 reps is generally regarded as a good amount of volume to spur new muscle growth. As with most leg exercises, you can err on the side of more volume as the legs are the strongest and most adaptive muscle group.


Variations: stiff-legged deadlift, single-legged deadlift, sumo deadlift

If the squat is the most important exercise for muscle growth, strength and power, then the deadlift is a close second. Like squats, deadlifts incorporate a huge number of muscle fibres and motor units into the movement, and recovery times are often lengthy due to the overall load on the system, as well as the lower back muscles.

The deadlift movement is quite basic, although it takes a long time to master. The regular deadlift consists of lifting a loaded barbell from the ground to a standing position, with arms and legs locked out. Performing the movement incorrectly, by rounding the lower back is the most common cause of injury associated with the deadlift, and for this reason it often gets unfairly categorised as a ‘dangerous' movement. By keeping the lower back flexed and the barbell close to the shins in the starting position, much of the force applied to the bar comes from the quads and the glutes, which makes the deadlift an excellent leg builder. The stiff-legged deadlift puts more focus on the hamstrings and glutes, and is often used to build strength and counter imbalances in these muscle groups.

The deadlift should not be performed more than once every 5-6 days, and is better suited to a medium-low volume for strength and size. Anywhere from 1-5 reps per set for 3-5 sets is enough volume at heavy weights to gain strength, and generally 5-10 reps for 3-5 sets with a moderate weight will be enough for trainers focussing on muscle gains.

Leg Press

The leg press is another compound leg movement incorporating a large number of muscle fibres into the exercise. Since the range of motion for a leg press is much shorter than the squat, a trainer can use much heavier weights on the leg press.

The most common form of leg press machine is the plate-loaded machine at a 45 degree angle. Once again, it is important to utilise the full range of motion with this exercise (although the range is short), and this means bending the knees until the thighs are at a 90 degree angle to the ground.

The leg press is very versatile, and can be used as a primary, low rep and heavy weight exercise to begin a workout, or even as a high rep final exercise to completely exhaust the muscle group. For this reason, anywhere from 2-5 sets of 5-30 repetitions is common.

Calf Raise

Variations: seated calf raise, donkey calf raise

The calf raise isolates the calf muscles and adds resistance through a full range of motion. This exercise is most often performed on a standing, pin selection machine, where the weight is loaded onto the shoulders and the trainee stands on the edge of a step. By changing the position of the feet, the lifter can change the focus of the resistance, for example to the inner or outer portion of the calf.

The standing calf raise is a great machine in that it allows a full extension and full contraction of the calf muscles, whereas the calf is normally subject to only contractions (think walking). By dipping right down onto the heels, and then up on the toes during a standing calf raise, the maximum benefit is obtained.

The calf muscles are some of the most endurance-trained muscles in the human body, due to the work they are used to doing on a daily basis. For this reason, calves need to be trained with higher reps and with more weight than they are used to. Some lifters train for as many as 50 reps for each set of calf raises.

Sample Leg Workout

Strength Size
Back Squat: 5 x 3-5 Back Squat: 3 x 6-10
Deadlift: 3 x 3 Deadlift: 3 x 6-8
Leg Press: 3 x 8 Leg Press: 3 x 12-15
Standing Calf Raise: 5 x 15

Don't skip your leg workouts, and make sure to incorporate these four exercises (or their variations) for great leg development!

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