The 6 Best Leg Exercises You’re Not Doing
When it comes to workouts, the options are endless; classes, boot camps, and transformation programs are all abound, each promising the best results. It’s often hard to pinpoint which exercises offer the best return, as everyone seems to have a different opinion. However, in matters of science, opinions are rivalled by research and, with recent studies considered, carefully selecting the most effective exercises can help optimize your training.
When planning a leg workout, everyone knows squats are king, or are they? Well, yes, they definitely are, but research shows that the back squat may not be the best choice, or at least not the only choice, when it comes to optimal muscle activation and development. Research indicates that the front squat yields the same level of activation as the back squat as well as significantly decreased compressive forces and overall stress on the knee1. This would make the front squat a much better choice if you are recovering from a knee injury, as well as a great alternative to help avoid future injuries.
Verdict: Swap back squats for front squats. Try 3-4 working sets in the 8-15 range, following a few light warm ups sets of 20 reps.
For well-developed legs, squats alone can do wonders, but often some additional work is needed for optimal development. So what’s the best choice for bringing out those hamstrings? In a recent study assessing popular hamstring exercises, the Romanian deadlift and glute-ham raise reigned supreme over the leg curl and good morning exercises, producing significantly greater muscle activity at 85% of one rep max for each lift2.
Verdict: If your hamstrings are lacking, ditch the curl machine in favor of RDLs and glute-ham raises. 3-4 sets of each in the 6-8 rep range would be ideal.
Both squats and glute-ham raises activate the glutes, but what really develops this large muscle group? Single leg training is more than just a fad when it comes to the glutes and some recent research says it might be the optimal way to build your butt. In fact, it was found that both the gluteus maximus (35% vs 14 %) and gluteus medius (42% vs 9%) were more activated during a single leg squat variation than during traditional double leg squats3. In the same study, the glutes showed even greater activation when the subjects used a swiss ball between their back and a wall while performing their single leg squats.
Verdict: Saggy butt syndrome? Add 3 sets per leg of 6-8 reps of single leg squats to your workout routine to help tighten up your assets!
Calves…you knew it was coming! Not for the faint of heart, training your calves can burn, cramp, and damn near make you cry, and all too often for little return. The muscles that make up the calf, the soleus and gastrocnemius, both function in a similar way. However, they need to be trained differently for optimal calf development.
The gastrocnemius is best trained standing with a straight knee while the soleus should be trained with a bent leg. This is because its origin is above the knee on the femur, while the origin of the soleus is below the knee on the tibia and fibula. So, to ensure well-rounded training, a straight and bent leg calf raise variation should be a part of your leg program. The calf muscles are considered to be primarily slow twitch fibers, with the soleus coming in at 70% and Gastroc about 50%4. However these numbers can vary amongst individuals. The general recommendation is to focus on slow, higher rep sets for best results. Adding in some heavier calf work can be of benefit as well, especially for those involved in explosive sports.
Verdict: If you are fitness and bodybuilding oriented, train your calves with 6-8 sets split between a bent and straight leg calf raise in the 12-20 rep range. If development has been slow, you can train the calves 2-3 times per week. If you’re in a sport that requires sprinting and explosive power, some heavier, lower rep training along with some plyometrics should help keep your calves from being the weakest link.
Try the program below for three weeks, performing the calf exercises an extra 1-2 times per week. If your quad development is lacking, try to rise one third of the way up from each squat, return to full depth, then continue your rep as per normal.
|Exercise||Sets||Reps||Rest||Tempo||% of 1RM|
|Front squats||4||8-12||90 seconds||3110||70-80|
|Standing or donkey calf raise||3||12-20||90 seconds||3220||65-70|
|Single leg squat||3/leg||6-8||90 seconds||2110||80-85|
|Glute ham raise||3||6-8||0||1130||80-85|
|Seated calf raise||3||12-20||90 seconds||3220||65-70|
Feel free to swap the RDLs and single leg squats if you find the ladder too difficult to do in the middle of the workout.
1) Gullet et al. (2009) A biomechanical comparison of back and front squats in healthy trained individuals. Journal of strength and conditioning research. Jan; 23(1): 284-92.
2) McAllister et al. (2013) Muscle activation during various hamstring exercises. Journal of strength and conditioning research. Epub ahead of print.
3) Barton et al. (2014) Gluteal muscle activation during the isometric phase of squatting exercise with and without a swiss ball. Physical therapy in sport. Feb; 15(1): 39-46.
4) Edgerton et al. (1975) Muscle fiber type populations of human leg muscles. The histochemical journal. May; 7(3): 259-66.