The legs, aka lower limbs, are responsible for supporting the body – meaning they bear its weight – and all forms of locomotive activity which include walking, running, etc. If you’re keen on sculpting your physic, leaving the legs out is a mistake you mustn’t make. You must build legs as much as you build arms.
According to the American National Institute on Aging, many lower-body strength exercises will improve your balance. However, in the same article, stretches are also recommended for improved flexibility. Other advantages of building your legs include symmetrical or uniform physique and increased kick power.
Below are 6 workouts you should indulge yourself in on your leg day(s). Especially if you’re new to building legs.
Note: These are intended to be executed in high-intensity since building legs requires more force and will-power. Hence, weight mass will mostly fall on the heavy side — 70 – 80% of one-rep maximum.
For some of the exercises, reps decline as you proceed through sets. If you can’t complete the reps in any set, even the last one, choose a lighter weight or reduce the reps to suit your strength. Alternatively, you can make the rep number your goal and aim to dust it over the next few training days – or weeks.
Table of Contents
- 1. Smith-Machine Squat
- 2. Standing Calf-Raise
- 3. Leg Extension
- 4. Barbell Squat
- 5. Leg Press
- 6. Lying Dumbbell Curl
- As You Exercise…
- Mind You,
- Take-Home Message
1. Smith-Machine Squat
I doubt if there’s anyone who will build legs without entertaining one or more types of squat workouts. Squats are remarkably useful if you want to build legs mass and strength. With the smith machine, you can target different muscles; quads, hams, and glutes. The key to those is simply your footing on the machine.
To squat with a Smith Machine
- Stand in a smith machine with a shoulder-width stance and the bar across your traps.
- Looking straight ahead and your chest high, bend at the knees and push out your hips like you’re sitting back in a chair till your hips are horizontal to your knees (some folks would go a bit lower)
- Hold the squat for a second then grind your heels and push back up to the starting position in the same manner you came. That’s one rep.
The journal of strength and conditioning research recommends standing about 18 inches away from the smith-bar to transfer most of the force to your hams and glutes.
3 sets, 15-12-12 reps.
2. Standing Calf-Raise
Calf-raises are responsible for building calves (obviously). The calves are the posterior portions of the lower legs and take pressure when you run or throw a kick. Stronger calves will help you to run harder (and better) with lesser issues on your legs. If you’re thinking about marathons and ultra-marathons, you should think about calf-raise. Wait, did I mention thicker lower-leg muscles.
To execute the standing calf-raise
- Stand beneath the calf-raise machine’s shoulder pads. Your feet balls should be on the edge of the footrest while your heels should touch the ground, stretching your calves. If you do not have this machine, use a platform just about 2 to 2.5 inches tall or a wood plank of the same height.
- Keeping your legs straight, rise as high as you can to stand on your toes, contracting the calves’ muscles.
- Hold for a second at the top, then lower your heels back to the floor and that’s a rep.
Note: Building calf muscles is tricky. Aim for moderate- to high-intensity training (50 to 80% one-rep maximum weight) of 2 to 3 sets. Rest for about 60 seconds between each set. Absolute beginners should train with bodyweight for the first few times before adding weights.
3. Leg Extension
Leg extensions (or knee extension) build legs by working the quads and could be a recipe for injury if not done right. Also, you’ll need a leg extension machine.
To execute the leg extension exercise
- Adjust the backrest so your back is fully supported, your knees are just at the edge of the bench, and the rollers rest on your ankles.
- Grabbing the handles at the sides of the bench for balance and engaging your quads, lift the rollers smoothly until your legs are fully extended.
- Hold for a second, then lower your legs back to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Be mindful not to let the footpad touchdown between repetitions for maximum benefits. Because a heavy load may negatively impact your knees, don’t go too high on weight. 50% to 70% of one-rep maximum with high reps is recommended.
Stop just short (2 to 3 reps) of muscle failure with a max of 3 sets. Absolute beginners may start with lighter weights and work their way forward. If you feel pain in your knees, stop.
4. Barbell Squat
Did you think I won’t add the barbell squat? Why the heck would I do that? If you want to build legs, you can’t run from the barbell squat. Yes, it’s almost the same as the smith machine squat but there’s a little difference. You don’t need a machine. Besides, working out with free weights tend to engage the important stabilizing muscles better.
To squat with a barbell
- Stand in a shoulder-width stance under the bar.
- Keep your shoulders back to make a sitting space for the weight along your upper back as you unrack the barbell.
- Look straight ahead and keep your chest high.
- Bend at your knees and keep your hips out (like sitting into a chair) till they’re parallel to the floor.
- Hold for a second and grind your heels into the ground to return to the starting point. That’s one rep.
It works the quads the most but the hamstring and glutes are not left out. Feel free to alternate between barbell squats and smith-machine squats on leg days. It’s also an excellent home workout. No barbell? Try overhead dumbbell squat.
5. Leg Press
A leg day without the leg press is like a chest day without the bench press. Simply incomplete. Though some people might disagree with me on that because it’s not a free weight. However, the leg press is good for beginners and very effective in building bulky quads, hamstrings and glutes.
To execute the leg press
- Place your feet on the pad shoulder-width apart.
- Fully extend your legs (without locking your knees) before releasing the weight handles.
- Keeping your back fully against the seat, bend your legs at the knees and bring your thighs to your chest but keep a little distance between them.
- Hold for a second, then push back at the force. Remember, don’t lock your knees.
You can perform leg presses at moderate- to high-intensity (50% to 80% of one-rep maximum). For the former, stop just short of muscle failure but for the latter, 5 to 10 reps is okay.
To work the glutes, your footing should go higher on the pad. To work the quads, your footing should go lower towards the bottom of the pad.
6. Lying Dumbbell Curl
Lying dumbbell leg curls will build legs by emphasizing fatigue on the hamstrings. If you’re exercising at home, you’ll most likely need a partner.
To execute the lying dumbbell leg curl
- Place a dumbbell at one foot of your bench so you can clasp it with both feet. Better still, a spotter can help you fix the dumbbell in place when you lie down.
- Lie face down on the bench with your knees just over the age and hold the other foot (of the bench) for support.
- Slowly lift the dumbbell (clasped) between both feet till your lower legs are upright.
- Hold for a count of 1 and slowly lower the dumbbell till your legs are almost – almost – parallel. Avoid locking your knees.
Alternatively, you can use the machine curl for this exercise. Go for high-intensity training with 2 to 3 sets of 5 to 10 reps.
As You Exercise…
Consider different variations of basic workouts. Examples include
It’s the same squat you’re familiar with. Only this one is with a dumbbell. To build legs with this exercise, keep a dumbbell each in both hands and hold them by your sides. Go down on a squat. Repeat for reps.
Based on the normal walking lunges, the barbell adds to the force exerted on your lower body to help build legs faster. With a barbell across your neck and traps, do walking lunges. Complete reps for one leg before training the other.
One-leg Dumbbell Squat
Based on the traditional squat as well, one-leg dumbbell squats can build legs efficiently. Place a bench next to a stationary pole. Hold a barbell in your right hand and stand on the bench with the left leg while the right leg floats in the air. Hold the pole for support and squat on the left leg. Finish the reps before switching.
If you’ve never trained legs before or are totally new to resistance training, start with bodyweight the first week or two. Then move on to low-intensity training with multiple reps but don’t train to muscle failure. Gradually increase the weight as you push through the following weeks till you can work with heavier weights. By this time, you’d have learnt good form.
Poor feeding and malnutrition will do more harm than good. If you want the desired results, you must give the required resources. Don’t forget the need for protein intake. Always aim to have a good dose of protein within 30 minutes after workouts.
Also, sleep is important. And so are your rest days.