It’s always tempting to skip leg day, mostly because no-one enjoys the DOMS that tends to follow, but no weight training plan is complete without at least one leg-focused workout a week. So to ensure you’re never struggling for ideas of exercises to do on leg day, we spoke to Andy Page, strength and conditioning coach at the new Pure Sports Medicine Chancery Lane clinic.
Here are Page’s top leg exercises for beginner, intermediate and advanced gym-goers, and a few of our favourites too.
Beginner Leg Exercises
“Any lower-body programme should be built on the ability to squat,” says Page, “and the goblet squat is the ideal way to perfect the movement before moving on to its more complex cousins.
“Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell close to your chest, push your hips back and squat down slowly until your thighs are parallel to the ground. From this position, drive up to standing, leading with your chest. Working in front of a mirror will help to keep your knees in line with your feet and torso upright.”
“The step-up is an ideal introduction to the world of single-leg exercises.” says Page. “Set the step at a height that means the thigh on your leading leg doesn’t go beyond parallel to the floor.
“Holding dumbbells at your side, plant your foot on the step securely and drive up powerfully, focusing on contracting the glute muscles on the same side as your leading leg. Bring the opposite knee up and stand on the step to complete the movement.”
“The glutes are often overlooked but they’re a key muscle group,” says Page. “Strong glutes will make everything from running and squatting easier, as well as helping to keep you injury-free. One of the most common causes of lower-back pain is poor glute activity.
“The bridge is a great way to work on your glutes. Lying on your back with knees bent and feet flat on the floor, squeeze your glutes and push your heels into the floor to lift your hips into a bridge. You should finish with your hips straight and abdominals tight.”
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing out slightly. Keeping your back straight, bend your knees and sit back until your thighs are parallel with the floor (or as close as you can get). Then explode straight up, pushing through your heels, into a jump. Land softly and go straight into the next rep. Aim to do either three sets of ten reps or three sets of 30 seconds.
Intermediate Leg Exercises
Hex bar deadlift
“Deadlifting is a great way to build strength in the posterior chain – your hamstrings, glutes and back – and lifting with the hex bar makes it far more accessible,” says Page.
“Standing inside the hex bar, hold both handles securely and lower your hips so they are as close to the height of your hands as possible. Slowly take the tension on the bar and then stand up, pushing through your glutes, to lift the bar. Keep your chest high with your head facing forward during the whole movement. When performed properly, the hex bar deadlift is a particularly good option for anyone with a sore back from years of orthodox deadlifting.”
Walking lunge with dumbbells
“The ability to lunge with good form has great carryover benefits to many other sporting movements as well as strengthening your hamstrings, quads, glutes and hips,” says Page. “With a dumbbell in each hand, lunge forwards and bend your front knee until your back knee is just above the ground, then drive back up. Bring the back leg through to initiate the next lunge and walk forwards to continue the movement. Focus on keeping your torso upright.”
“This move incorporates balance, proprioception (your sense of where your body parts are positioned) and glute control as well as hamstring training,” says Page, “making it a great way to make the most of your training time.
“Holding a kettlebell or dumbbell in your left hand, lift your left leg straight behind you and lean forwards over your right leg by pushing your hips backwards, feeling the stretch down your right hamstring. Practise facing the mirror to keep your head up and your back straight, and make sure you are moving in straight lines and not rotating over your standing leg.”
Single-leg glute bridge
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Extend one leg, keeping your thigh in the same position. Push through your heel and raise your hips until your knees, hips and shoulders are in line. This also hits your core muscles hard because they need to work overtime to keep your balance.
Work one leg at a time, aiming for three sets of ten reps on each leg. If you want to add to the challenge, rest a weight on your lower abdomen and pelvis.
While some leg exercises increase your strength, this plyometric exercise will improve your power and can be a real pulse-raiser too. Find your gym’s plyo box – pick a height that you’re sure you can land comfortably on – and stand facing it square on. Looking at the box, pick a spot that you want to land on, squat down to half depth to help generate power then explode up, swinging your arms forwards as you do to ensure that your jump takes you onto the box. Land softly, bending your knees to absorb the shock, then stand. For your knees’ sake, step down from the box rather than jumping.
Advanced Leg Exercises
“If you can master the king of lower-body exercises, you’ll see the effect on your lower-body and core strength, shoulder stability, and mobility from your shoulders to your ankles,” says Page. “Holding a bar over the crown of your head, with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart, squat down as low as possible and use your glutes to drive back up to the starting position. Start with light loads until you master the technique – and prepare for a challenge!”
“This move both challenges single-leg stability and hits the posterior chain really hard,” says Page. “The position should resemble a lunge and targets similar muscle groups – the difference is that it recruits more muscle fibres.
“Face away from the rig with one of your feet in the handle of a TRX (or any suspension trainer), keeping your head up. Squat down on your standing leg. Ensure you are pushing back with the suspended leg and keeping your torso upright during the movement to minimise strain on the knee and maximise glute activation.
“At first, no weight will be needed and only light weights should be added as you progress.”
“The slower of the two Olympic lifts, the clean is a fantastic way to build power and explosiveness,” says Page, ”and the hang clean is a great version of the move to start with because it doesn’t require substantial mobility to perfect.
“Starting with the bar held at mid-thigh height, lower yourself into a powerful jumping position. Then forcibly extend your ankles, knees and hips to drive the bar up towards your shoulders. Drop under the bar, pivoting your arms around to catch it across the front of your shoulders. You should definitely ask one of the trainers in the gym for some tips before attempting this for the first time.”