Leg day is approached with trepidation by many gym-goers and with good reason. Not only is a leg workout itself one of the toughest you’ll tackle in any given week, but the days afterwards tend to be a struggle as well, as you stagger around in the grip of DOMS.
However, leg exercises are an essential part of any good gym routine. Compound exercises like squats, lunges and deadlifts are the key moves for building the functional strength that’s fit to excel in the gym, when playing sports and in everyday life. They also get the heart pumping and burn boatloads of calories, increasing your cardiovascular fitness as well as your strength.
For your next leg workout try this six-move workout. It focuses on the quads, hamstrings, glutes and core to help you build useful muscle mass in your lower body. The workout is made up of two straight sets followed by two supersets, where you do the exercises back to back with hardly any rest.
The two supersets in this leg workout bring different benefits to the table. In the first you complete a pair of isolation moves, the first hitting your hamstrings and the second your quads. Pairing moves that work opposing muscles like this is called an antagonistic superset and allows you to work with little rest while giving one set of muscles a break, increasing the cardio benefits of the session. The second superset – two compound exercises done with very little rest in between – is all about hitting as many muscles as possible and ramping up your heart rate for a brutal finish to the workout.
Follow the sets, reps and rest instructions below to the letter for a terrific leg workout. Then have yourself a nice sit-down.
How To Do This Leg Workout
This six-move session is made up of two straight sets and two supersets. Do exercise 1, sticking to the sets, reps and rest shown, then do all reps of exercise 2. After resting, do moves 3A and 3B as a superset: so 10 reps of the seated hamstring curl, rest for 30 seconds, 10 reps of the seated leg extension, rest for 60 seconds, then repeat that sequence a total of four times. Take the same superset approach for 4A and 4B to shock your legs into growing bigger and stronger.
The workout below is made up of taxing compound lifts which should be done using challenging weights if you want to get the most out of the session, so taking the time to warm up thoroughly is vital. Not only will this reduce your risk of injury and ensure you start the first working set ready to perform at your best, it might also lessen your post-leg day DOMS. Now there’s an incentive.
Start with some dynamic stretches to get your muscles moving – here’s a great warm-up routine that will get your whole body primed for action. From there you need to do some workout-specific movements, which will target the muscles you’re about to use. The easiest way to do this is to run through a few sets of the exercise you will be doing, using light weights or no weights at all.
For this leg workout, it’s worth devoting some time to light deadlifts as you warm up since that’s the first move you will be doing. You don’t want to go in cold to a proper set of deadlifts. Do several sets, gradually increasing the weight of each warm-up set and reducing the reps, doing mobility work in the rest periods between sets. Build up until the next increase takes you to your working weight – then hit the workout proper.
Sets 5 Reps 8 Rest 60sec
Why It’s the classic big lift for all-over muscle
How Stand tall with the barbell in front of you, then squat down and grasp it with an overhand grip. Keeping your chest up and core braced, press down through your heels to stand up. Push your hips forwards at the top, then lower.
Sets 5 Reps 8 Rest 60sec
Why Work your quads and hamstrings hard and safely
How Sit in the leg press machine positioned correctly according to the instructions. Place your feet lower and closer together to work your quads more, or higher and wider to hit your hamstrings and glutes more directly. Bend your knees to bring them towards your chest, then press back to the start.
This first superset will hit your hamstrings and quads hard. Because these two major muscles will be thoroughly warmed up from the first two straight sets, try to go as heavy as you can while maintaining correct form and completing all the reps. Go slow on the eccentric part of the move, where you return to the start, to work your muscles even harder.
Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 30sec
Why It isolates the backs of your thighs to fatigue more muscle fibres
How Position yourself correctly with your legs straight and the padded bar against your lower leg. Squeeze your hamstrings to bring your heels towards you, then return to the start.
Sets 4 Reps 10 Rest 60sec
Why It isolates your quads so you can go heavy
How Position yourself correctly with your knees bent and the padded bar against your shins. Raise your feet to straighten your legs, then squeeze your quads at the top. Lower back to the start position slowly to increase the tension on the target muscles.
This final superset comprises two high-rep moves to target and fatigue as many muscle fibres as possible so you end the session with your heart rate soaring. If you struggle to hit the rep target, lift lighter or finish each set with bodyweight reps.
4A Dumbbell lunge
Sets 3 Reps 8 each side Rest 30sec
Why This works all your lower leg muscles as well as your abs and lower back
How Stand tall, holding a dumbbell in each hand. With your chest up and core braced, take a big step forwards with your left leg and lunge down until both knees are bent at 90°. Push off your front foot to return to the start, then repeat with your right leg. Alternate your leading leg with each rep.
Sets 3 Reps 15 Rest 60sec
Why It targets your glutes and abs as well as your quads and hams
How Stand tall, holding a dumbbell in each hand. With your chest up and core braced, bend at your hips and knees to squat down as deep as you can without rounding your back. Push down through your heels to stand back up and return to the start position.
Leg Workout FAQs
How often should you train your legs?
“I’ll begin with how often the average person should train their legs if they want to achieve a lean, muscular physique with a low body fat percentage, as part of a balanced, strength training-focused workout programme,” says personal trainer Emily Servante, global trainer education manager at Ultimate Performance.
“Three days a week is the absolute minimum frequency of strength training one should do when seeking results quickly. For people who lead busy, highly stressed lives, this level of frequency creates the right balance between stimulus and recovery.
“For beginners or anyone with less than six to 12 months of training experience, a full-body routine would be the best option. You can do this by alternating between two different workouts, A + B, which both include moves that will train your upper and lower body.
“In this scenario, you alternate workouts A + B, working out three times a week. Effectively, you would be working your legs three times a week as part of a full-body routine. If you’re a beginner, you should start to see significant muscle gains in your legs within four weeks, particularly if you are progressively overloading [gradually increasing the weight or reps] with each workout.”
“Anyone with more training experience can use a body-part split. One of the most effective three-times-a-week routines is to alternate between upper and lower body – especially if you’re male and chasing muscle mass.
“For many of my clients who progress through the first phase of full-body training three times a week, a popular progression is to then use a cross-body split. Workout A would consist of upper-body pushing (chest, shoulders, triceps) and lower-body pulling (glutes, hamstrings).
Workout B would consist of upper-body pulling (back, biceps) and lower-body pushing (quads).
“A third workout of the week could then either concentrate on full-body exercises, or you could add in a specialisation workout – for example if you love training your legs, you can add in a legs and glutes workout. In this scenario, you would effectively be training your legs three times a week.”
If this approach piques your interest, Servante has supplied a cross-body plan, which we added to our selection of push/pull workouts.
“Training four times a week is the sweet spot for many people with normal genetics and recovery capabilities. In that case an upper/lower body split works really well. In this scenario, you would perform upper-body workouts twice a week, and train your lower body twice a week.
“If you want to train four times a week, a good workout split might look something like this:
Monday – upper body
Tuesday – lower body
Thursday – upper body
Friday – lower body
“Everyone has different recovery capabilities, and listening to your body trumps prescriptive rules about how often you should train a particular body part every time. However, at Ultimate Performance, we generally recommend that you don’t train the same body part on consecutive days.”
Workout Tips For Building Bigger Legs
This workout is a great way to bulk up your lower body, but if you’re looking to develop a keener understanding of effective leg training, we’ve pulled together some key pointers for how to build bigger legs. For anyone who’s short on time, here’s the tl:dr version.
- Train fast – explosive movements can build leg muscle more quickly.
- Do unilateral moves – maintain balance in your body by working one side at a time.
- Isolate the muscles – isolation exercises can increase muscle definition.
- Stabilise – don’t neglect stabiliser muscles, because they are key to performing heavy lifts safely and effectively.
- Use resistance bands – banded exercises can help you warm up and increase the difficulty of big lifts.
- Work your glutes – strong glutes are vital for building bigger legs. Add these glute exercises to your routine
- Don’t neglect your calf muscles – use calf raises and other calf exercises to ensure your lower legs aren’t left out.
Leg Workouts For The Gym
Stefanie Moir's leg day workout
Maro Itoje’s leg workout
This workout used by England rugby union star Maro Itoje was shared with us in 2017 has stood the test of time, mixing compound exercises with lesser spotted moves like the front-foot elevated split squat. See Maro Itoje’s leg workout
A booty workout from fitness app SHREDDY
When you want to grow your glutes and nothing but your glorious glutes, try this taster of SHREDDY’s booty-building training plan. See the booty workout
Leg Workouts For Home
Nine-move leg workout at home
There’s something for everyone in this mostly bodyweight session (only one move requires a weight and you can use anything in your house which is heavy enough) – even the impressively fit, since there’s the option to throw a pistol squat into proceedings. Thankfully there’s an easier option for us mortals. See the leg workout at home
The ultimate resistance band glute workout
If you’ve hit the limit of what you can achieve with your own bodyweight, buy yourself a small-looped resistance band and take it for a spin with this four-move workout. Keep tension in the band throughout each 30-second work period for a serious challenge. See the resistance band glute workout
Home workout to improve your back squat
Committed gym-goers can still find a home workout is time well spent. This session will develop your mobility, movement, strength and co-ordination. PT Tom Cherry, who programmed the session for us, says it “will help improve your squatting control”. See the home workout to improve your back squat
Leg Workouts For Runners, Footballers And Tennis Players
Leg strength workout for runners
After your next easy run, go straight into this six-move session made up of single-leg exercises, which makes sure a dominant side isn’t doing the majority of the work. See the leg workout for runners
Leg workout for footballers
Trainer Bradley Simmonds, who has worked with Theo Walcott and John Terry among others, shared two workouts: a strength routine that requires a dumbbell, and a speed session for which you’ll need a large looped resistance band and suspension trainer. See the leg workout for footballers
Leg workout for tennis players
The LTA’s lead strength and conditioning coach shared this scalable session with us. It has six levels of difficulty so anyone can use it to develop their leg strength. See the leg workout for tennis players
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Joe Warner is a highly experienced journalist and editor who began working in fitness media in 2008. He has featured on the cover of Men’s Fitness UK twice and has co-authored Amazon best-sellers including 12-Week Body Plan. He was the editor of Men’s Fitness UK magazine between 2016 and 2019, when that title shared a website with Coach.
- Nick Harris-FrySenior writer