The Weightlifters Guide to Building Bigger, Stronger Legs

man doing quad extensions in the gym

When you're new to fitness it's helpful to know a few key exercises for each muscle group. But this isn't just applicable to the newbies, even a seasoned gym-goer can refer back to these movements on days when you're just not feeling it. So, we've put together a list of lower body exercises that we think everyone can reap the benefits of. 

Primary muscles of the lower body

In the fitness world, it's always good to have a general idea of your anatomy. It's important not only to know what muscles you're working on but where they're located and how they interact with one another. So, let's familiarize you with the lower body's primary muscles. 

Calf Muscles

The calf is a muscle in the posterior lower part of the leg consisting of the gastrocnemius and the soleus. The gastrocnemius is responsible for knee flexion while the soleus controls plantarflexion- the flexion of the ankle towards the ground. The soleus is also responsible for sending blood from the leg to the heart upon contraction. 

TIbialis anterior

The tibialis anterior is in the lower part of the leg as well. It is the antagonist to the gastrocnemius and soleus on the posterior side of the lower leg. The tibialis anterior is responsible for dorsiflexion - the flexion of the ankle towards the shins. In addition, the tibialis anterior is a stabilizing muscle when walking. 

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are located in the posterior upper leg. They are composed of three muscles - the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus - that mobilize the legs and hips. They assist in knee flexion, hip extension and rotation, and pelvic tilting.

 Quadriceps

The quadriceps are located in the anterior upper leg. The rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and vastus intermedius. These muscles work together to straighten the knee and assist in most movements such as walking and standing up. 

Hip and gluteal Muscles

The hip muscles help the ball and socket joint of the hip to perform its duties. They aid in hip flexion, extension, adduction, abduction, and rotation. The gluteal muscles work to move the leg and take it through various ranges of motion. 

These muscles consist of the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus, as well as the tensor fasciae latae, illacus and psoas major, lateral rotators like the piriformis, and the hip adductors. 

Fields of movement in the legs

There are three different planes of motion that the body can move along - the transverse plane, the sagittal plane, and the frontal plane.

The transverse plane divides the body into upper and lower halves at the hips.  Leg raises are a great example of an exercise that moves the legs through the transverse plane. 

The sagittal plane divides the body vertically into right and left halves. Movement in this plane occurs from front to back. Both leg extensions and curls fall into this category.

The frontal plane divides the body into front and back halves. Movement in this plane occurs from left to right. Lateral lunges are an example of leg movement in the frontal plane. 

must-know compound leg exercises

Compound exercises target many muscles within the muscle group or multiple muscle groups at one time. When it comes to compound lower body exercises, squats and lifts are the names of the game. Below we've listed ten must-know compound leg exercises, how they're performed, why they're important, and how to recover from them.

Squat

Muscles Worked: Quadriceps, Glutes, Calves, Hip Adductors, and Hamstrings

How to Perform: Place your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing forward. Tilt your hips back and torso forward in a downward movement as if you were sitting in a chair. Ensure that you're squatting far enough back so that your knees do not extend beyond your toes. When you're ready to come up from the squat, drive through your feet and push yourself back into a normal stance.

Why It's Important: At their core, squats are functional movements. They help balance, strengthen, and stabilize the lower body. This is vital to movements such as sitting down, standing up, and getting up from the floor.

Deadlift

Muscles Worked: Hamstrings, Glutes, Hip Muscle Group, Quadriceps, Calves, Core, Upper and Lower Muscle Groups

How to Perform: Deadlifts are an exercise that requires preparation and attention to detail. Improperly lifting a heavy load could have detrimental consequences on your body. Start by placing the feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes underneath the bar. Squat down and grasp the bar just outside of the knee line with an overhand or over/under grip. Take a deep breath in. As you begin the lift, brace your abdomen and keep the spine neutral. Push through the legs, keeping the hips, shoulders, and legs balanced and aligned. Breathe out in exertion upon lifting and keep the bar close to the shins. At the top of the movement pull the shoulders back while keeping the spine straight. In the same manner, lower the bar to the ground with a neutral spine. Let the weights tap the ground and pull back up for the desired number of repetitions. 

Why It's Important: The deadlift is one of the largest and most complex compound exercises. Meaning that it works a dominant portion of the body in one movement. In addition, proper execution of the deadlift is a foundational necessity in the weightlifting world. 

Barbell Hip Thrusters

Muscles Worked: Glutes, Hamstrings, Abdominal Muscles, and Hip Muscles

How to Perform: The barbell hip thrust is the weight-baring version of a traditional hip thrust. Place the barbell across your hips but not on the hip bones. Then lay back on an elevated surface with your feet planted on the floor shoulder-width apart and your body parallel to the ground. The edge of the elevated surface should sit just below your shoulder blades. Dip your glutes until they're about 3-4 inches from the ground. Squeeze the glutes and drive through your legs, thrusting the hips in a controlled upward motion. 

Why It's Important: Barbell hip thrusters build strength and mass in the glutes. In addition, they encourage endurance in the hamstrings, abdominal muscles, and hip muscles. 

Lunges

Muscles Worked: Quadriceps, Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves, Hip Muscles, Abdominal Muscles and Obliques

How to Perform: Start by standing tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Begin the movement by placing one leg forward as if you were taking a normal step. At this point, there should be a triangle shape between your legs and the ground. Bend the front knee to a 90-degree angle making sure the knee does not pass the toes. Simultaneously dip the other knee to a 90-degree angle an inch or so above the ground. Drive through the legs to return to a normal position, keeping the spine neutral. Then begin alternating legs.

Why It's Important: Similar to squats, lunges are a functional movement. Lunges drastically improve balance, flexibility, and strength in the lower body. This is an especially important exercise for runners.  


Must-Know Isolated leg exercises

Isolated exercises target one muscle at a time with the exception of support muscles needed to perform the exercise. Below we've listed ten must-know isolated leg exercises, how they're performed, why they're important, and how to recover from them. 

Calf Raises

Isolated Muscle: Calves

How to Perform: Stand with your feet about a hip-width apart with toes and knees pointed straight. Extend the ankle until you're standing on your toes. Slowly and with control, return back to a flat-footed position. To advance this exercise you can stand on a ledge or step. To modify it you can support yourself against a wall or chair. 

Why It's Important: The calves are some of the most important muscles functionally because they are critical to actions like walking, climbing steps, and jumping. Calf raises strengthen the gastrocnemius and soleus, stabilizes the ankle, and improves balance.

Prone hamstring Curl

Isolated Muscle: Hamstrings 

How to Perform: The prone hamstring curl is an alternative to using a machine. You'll start by laying flat on the floor. Place a dumbbell between your feet and then cross your arms on the floor in front of you. Slowly move your feet towards your glutes and then slowly return them to the ground. 

Why It's Important: The hamstrings aren't often a muscle targeted by compound exercises. Adding isolated hamstring exercises is important because the hamstrings play a key role in the stabilization of the knees, hips, and torso. 

Dumbbell Leg Extensions

Isolated Muscle: Quadriceps

How to Perform: Prepare for the exercise by sitting in a chair and placing a dumbbell between your ankles. Slowly lift your legs until they are fully extended. Hold this position for a few seconds and then, in a slow and controlled motion, let them back down. 

Why It's Important: Leg extensions help strengthen and improve endurance in the quadriceps. It's a great exercise for those struggling with weak knees and is a foundational exercise for knee rehabilitation. 

cable Glute Kickbacks

Isolated Muscle: Glutes

How to Perform: Cable glute kickbacks are performed with a cable machine. For this exercise, you'll need to attach the cable to your ankle. So, you'll have to move the pulley system to the lowest possible point. You'll need help stabilizing, so hold onto the machine and lean your torso forward until it's nearly parallel to the floor. Squeeze the glutes and in a slow and controlled motion pull your leg back through the sagittal plane. Then return it slowly to the starting position. 

Why It's Important: Cable glute kickbacks build strength and mass in the glutes. By doing these things this exercise also improves overall stability in the body. 

Recovering from leg day

We talk about the importance of rest and recovery a lot here at SelfHimprovement and this is no exception. Leg day should begin and end with some form of recovery technique like myofascial release or stretching. 

Myofascial Release

Myofascial release is the gentle application of pressure to recently worked areas of the body. You can use a foam roller or a ball to relieve referred pain and tension in the muscle. Remember while rolling to hold for 20-30 seconds or until you feel release at points where tension is present.

  • Calf: Start by sitting on the floor with your legs extended straight. Then place the foam roller between the heel and calf muscles. Lift yourself carefully off the ground placing the entirety of your body weight on the foam roller. Place the opposite leg over the leg that's resting on the foam roller for increased pressure. Roll the entire calf from top to bottom multiple times then switch calves. 
  • Glutes: Place your foam roller on the floor. Carefully place your glutes onto the foam roller, leaning pressure to one side. Rest one ankle right above the knee on the opposite leg. Roll the entire glute from top to bottom multiple times then switch glutes. 
  • Hamstrings: Similar to the calf, you'll start by sitting on the floor with your legs extended straight. Then place the foam roller right underneath the glute at the top of the hamstring. Lift yourself carefully off the ground placing the entirety of your body weight on the foam roller. Place the opposite leg over the leg that's resting on the foam roller for increased pressure. Roll the entire hamstring from top to bottom multiple times then switch hamstrings. 
  • Quadriceps: Start by laying face down on the floor. Place the foam roller underneath your leg at the top of your thigh. Bend the opposite leg to an angle with only your foot touching the floor, shifting your weight onto the foam roller. Using your arms, roll the foam roller along your thigh from top to bottom repeatedly then switch thighs. 
  • Hips: Since there are so many components to the hips you can target which muscles you want to hit while foam rolling. 
    • For the IT band you'll start by laying on the floor on your side. Lift the upper half of your body off the floor using your arms and place the foam roller along the upper side of your leg. Roll from the top to the bottom of the IT band without rolling onto the knee. Make sure to switch sides and repeat. 
    • For the hip flexors you'll start by lying facedown on the ground placing your foam roller beneath the hip. Bring the opposing leg to a 90-degree angle where only your feet are touching the floor. Shift slowly back and forth as well as side to side. Then switch sides and repeat.
    • For the hip adductors you'll start by laying facedown on the floor parallel to your foam roller. Support your body with your forearms and rest one leg on the foam roller right above the knee on the inner part of the thigh. Slowly move your body so that the foam roller moves toward the groin. Then switch sides and repeat. 

 

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