There’s a reason #neverskiplegday is a thing on social media. It’s one of those gym sessions that many people would happily swap for back day, chest day or shoulder day. Why? Because leg day is tough.
Even sitting down to write this page is somewhat daunting. Not from a strenuous perspective, obviously, but because there are so many great leg exercises that should be included in your routine. I could easily name five exercises for your hamstrings (the muscles on the backs of your legs) and five for your quadriceps (the muscles on the front of your legs), rather than limiting myself to five overall.
However, for this workout, I am going to talk you through five exercises that will hit many of the main muscles in your legs. This is, like my other workouts, by no means an exhaustive list; these are simply my favourite exercises and the ones I regularly use on leg day. Because, hey, #neverskiplegday.
1. Leg press
There are some people who are very opposed to the leg press machine. Their reasoning is that people substitute the leg press machine for squats, just with more weight. Those that can’t do, teach: those that can’t squat, leg press. In my opinion, this is rubbish. The leg press is a different exercise. And while I wouldn’t rule out squatting for leg day (they currently feature in my glute workout), I infinitely prefer leg pressing, simply for the variety of stances you can adopt to hit different muscles. It’s also great if, like me, you suffer from knee pain. All in all, it’s a great machine and definitely one to be included on leg day.
In fact, you’d be hard ‘pressed’ to get me off the leg press on leg day. Adopt a basic stance – feet a shoulder width apart and in the middle of the board – for an all over upper leg workout. Place your feet high on the board to work your hamstrings and glutes, low on the board for your quads, wide apart to work your inner thighs and close together to work your outer thighs. Make sure you use the full range of motion, but make sure your hips don’t lift off the seat at the bottom of the movement, which could put undue pressure on your back. Be sure to control your movement and add a brief pause at the bottom to really engage the muscles. All in all, an awesome exercise to start your leg workout with.
2. Leg extension
OK, so a lot of my leg day consists of machines. No, that doesn’t have to be the case – and no you don’t have to use machines to get ‘KILLA’ quads – it’s just a lot easier to load up the weight on machines than it is to hold equally heavy dumbbells and kettle bells. The leg extension machine works the quads and, as with the leg press, you can manipulate which area of the quads you hit by slightly adjusting your position on the pads. Set the machine so the edge of the chair is positioned just behind the backs of your knees and the lower pad is positioned just above your ankles. Make sure you are using the full range of motion and try to maintain control throughout the movement. Pause for a second at the top of the exercise and really concentrate on squeezing your quads before slowly returning to the starting position. I personally love the leg extension machine, particularly for manipulating the inner or outer quads. To target the inner thigh muscle- the vastus medialis oblique (also known as the VMO) or ‘teardrop’ muscle, due to its shape – simple point your toes outwards when performing the move. To target the outer thigh muscle – the vastus lateralis – point your toes inwards. Simple.
One point to note with this exercise is not to overdo it. It’s sometimes hard to judge with machines how heavy you should go – people are more inclined to be cautious with free weights, whereas with machines, it’s easy to go overboard. Using heavy weights on the leg extension can put quite a bit of pressure on your knees, so always start with less than you think you can manage and build up to the heavy weights. Listen to your body and never push through serious pain.
3. Leg curl
If you were to push me, I’d say the lying (or ‘prone’) leg curl machine was my favourite for hamstrings – compared with the standing and sitting varieties – and not simply because I like lying down during my workouts. The lying leg curl machine is fantastic for unilateral eccentric contractions or ‘negatives’, which, in normal speak, is raising the bar with two feet and then lowering it with one leg. Muscles are generally a lot stronger during the eccentric phase* of a movement, so during a lying leg curl, you can lift a much higher weight with two legs and then use only one to lower the weight again.
But let’s get back to basics. Very few gyms seem to have a lying leg curl machine, so the sitting variety is fine as well. Position the back of lower leg on top of the lower pad – just slightly under the calves – and position the lap pad just above the knees. You should start the movement with your legs in a horizontal position, then slowly bring your calves down towards the floor, bending at the knees. Hold for a second before returning to the starting position. Try not to lock your knees at the top of the movement, but instead keep the pressure on the muscle.
4. Calf raise
It wouldn’t be leg day without a good isolation exercise for the calves. Calves are notoriously hard to build; even Arnold Schwarzenegger struggled with his until he made a concerted effort to train them hard. He argued that the same principles should be applied to calves as to any other muscle in your body – if you want to build the muscle you need to progressively overload it with more weight. I have three preferred methods for performing calf raises; unilaterally, using my body weight, on a leg press machine and – the exercise I’m going to concentrate on here – on the Smith Machine.
To start, set the bar on the Smith Machine to around shoulder height and then place a block underneath the bar (to stand on). Start with a lower weight than you think you’ll need (you can always add more later), then stand with the balls of your feet on the edge of the block and slowly raise the bar off the rack so you’re standing on your tiptoes. Gradually lower your heels towards the floor, before rising again towards the top. Try not to touch the floor with your heels, but dip as far down as you can and rise as high as you can in a controlled way. Do NOT bounce – it will do next to nothing for your muscles. The slower and more concentrated the contraction, the better. I always tend to aim for higher reps with my calves – around 15-25 reps at a time. But the main point is to always challenge yourself.
Honestly, I don’t actually deadlift half as much as I should or would like to. Again, there are such a variety of deadlifts to choose from that you could happily pick several and give your hamstrings, glutes and back a good workout. However, it’s one of those exercises where the right equipment is often taken, so I regularly substitute this for a straight-leg, single-leg dumbbell deadlift . But in this post, I’m going to concentrate on the regular deadlift.
There are lots of technique points to consider when performing a deadlift, all of which should be adhered to to prevent injury. As with any exercise, start with low weights and work up. Don’t launch in with 100kgs. To start, make sure your feet are positioned about a hip-width apart with your hands positioned just outside your legs in an overhand grip. Make sure you keep a neutral spine throughout – with your hips in line with your back and head. Hinge at the hips to reach the bar (stick your bottom out behind you) rather than squatting to reach the bar, then, as you raise the bar, keep it close to your legs throughout the movement, from your shins to your thighs to your hips.
Try and keep the motion as controlled as possible. Avoid rounding your shoulders when you pull the weight up, avoid jerking at the start of the rep and avoid bouncing the weight off the floor at the end of a rep (and for the sake of other gym-goers, where possible, please avoid dropping the bar when you’ve finished your set).
Deadlifting really is a great exercise for working your whole posterior chain, however, technique is crucial. So if you’re still unsure, have a browse of YouTube and ask one of the personal trainers in your own gym for some pointers.
Watch: How to deadlift
*An eccentric contraction is the lengthening of a muscle – for example, when you lower a dumbbell during a bicep curl. The opposite of an eccentric contraction is a concentric contraction, when the muscle shortens.
What are your favourite leg exercises? Leave your questions or comments below. Check out my free 12- and 13- week programmes for full body workouts.