Trust me, I get it – leg day sucks.
I hate to admit this, but there was a time where I officially stopped doing leg exercises altogether because I hated them so much.
And yes, I know that’s not kosher.
But to my defense, I figured I was fine because I was riding my Peloton 2x a week and I counted that as all the leg strengthening I needed.
Well, I’m happy to say that I’ve seen the error of my ways and am now incorporating leg strengthening exercises into my weekly routine again.
But my leg routine looks a lot different now than it used to.
These days, I’m getting by with only 3 leg strengthening exercises and my legs still feel stronger than they have in years.
So, if you’re looking to simplify your leg day or start a new leg strengthening program to begin with, keep reading and I’ll share which exercises will give you the most bang for your buck.
The Only 3 Exercises You Need To Strengthen Your Legs
I’ve been home gyming for a lot of years now and working out from home certainly has its advantages, but it also means I don’t have access to a lot of the equipment you’d find in a commercial gym.
Exercises machines I used to use regularly, like leg extensions, leg press, and hamstring curls, are no longer doable for me and for awhile, I made do with body weight exercises alone.
Plus I used to do P90X regularly and their leg workout is legit.
But over time, I got bored with P90X and tired of bodyweight exercises, so I eventually kinda stopped doing legs.
I should probably also mention that I never particularly liked leg exercises in the first place, so the fact that I tried at all for some time is saying something.
Anyway, I’ve been riding my Peloton regularly and that does help maintain some leg strength, but we all know it can’t maintain the type of strength good ol’ fashioned weight training can.
Well, luckily I now find myself in a situation where I have access to a rack (and functional trainer) and it’s opened up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to my strength training.
(We moved to a new home and purchased Force USA’s X15 Pro Multi Trainer, which I’m in love with).
It feels great to use a barbell again and I’m certainly ready for a break from my dumbbell set.
So, the exercises listed below are intended for a barbell, but you could always modify to use dumbbells too.
#1 Back Squats
Yeah, this tried and true classic has always been one of the best leg exercises you can do- I’d even go as far as saying it’s one of the best overall strength training moves period.
It just works so many muscles at the same time.
And we’re talking some of the largest, most powerful muscles in your body here.
As leg muscles go, squats hit pretty much everything from the waist down. They target the glutes and quads especially, but your hamstrings get involved too.
Your hip abductors and adductors will likely have to turn on too to help stabilize your hips as you perform this move.
Not to mention your core and lumbar extensors.
And, since these are all large muscle groups, this means performing squats is a great way to get your heart rate up and burn some serious calories too.
When doing squats, remember to keep those feet wide (at least shoulder width) and stick that butt back like you’re sitting in a chair.
This should help keep your back flat to avoid any unwanted back injuries.
Oh, you can always modify how far down you squat too – don’t feel like you have to do a deep squat or it doesn’t count.
Listen to your body and do what’s safe and comfortable.
Personally, I never squat beyond 90° (and if I’m being honest, I usually stop a bit short of that).
Oh, rotating your feet outward a little can also help if you have pinchy hips.
#2 Romanian Deadlift
I have a love/hate relationship with this exercise.
I hate doing them because they always make my hamstrings really sore, but I love how effective they are.
Also known as “straight leg deadlifts”, the Romanian deadlift is a great way to target your hamstrings and glutes, but it also strongly involves your core.
And since this move really hits your hamstrings, it’s a great one to pair with back squats (which really target your glutes and quads).
Anyway, this variation is similar to the classic deadlift, but you have to be careful because keeping your legs straight can make it easier to tweak your back.
Which reminds me, you always want to have a little bit of bend in your knees while doing this exercise – never keep your knees locked straight.
The above video does a great job of illustrating how you want to push your hips back (hinge) and feel the stretch in your hamstrings as you reach toward the ground.
As always, you want to keep your back as flat as possible and try to keep your core encaged as you brace throughout the move.
If you’re new to Romanian deadlifts, I highly encourage you to start light and focus on form until it feels comfortable – then gradually start adding weight.
And trust me, you won’t need much weight on this move.
Also, don’t feel like you have to go all the way to the ground with this exercise (which might be hard to do anyway if you have really tight hamstrings like I do).
The video shows this exercise with dumbbells, but it also works great with a barbell.
I seriously hate lunges more than probably any strength training exercise out there (I wasn’t kidding when I said I don’t like leg day).
But they’re right up there with squats as one of the best leg strengthening moves you can do.
I think my hatred for lunges really blossomed while I was doing P90X because their leg workout includes a boatload of lunges – forward lunges, side lunges, back lunges… pretty much any variation you can think of.
Tedious or not, lunges certainly work.
Like squats, they get pretty much every muscle in your leg working at the same time.
But unlike squats, lunges tend to get your hip abductors/adductors more involved, especially if you try the side variation.
Which honestly, is why I hate these exercises so much – that soreness you get in your adductors is a real pain (luckily, once you get stronger, it’ll get a lot better).
There are a lot of different ways to do squats and you can pick and choose as you like to keep your workouts interesting.
Lunge variations include: front lunges, side lunges, back lunges, walking lunges, lunging while holding dumbbells, lunging with a barbell on your back, lunging with a foot elevated, and so on.
When doing lunges, be mindful of your lunging knee and try to make sure that knee doesn’t lean past your foot (this will help reduce unwanted pressure through your knees).
You can get a great workout doing lunges without added resistance, but if you want to build some serious strength, trying adding dumbbells or a barbell into the mix.
When it comes to fitness and getting stronger, I feel like we have a tendency to make things more complicated than they have to.
But as the above leg strengthening exercises illustrate, things don’t have to be complicated.
The above moves are all classics for a reason – they work.
Personally, these are the only leg strengthening exercises I’m doing at the moment and I feel myself getting stronger every week.
When it comes to reps and sets, here’s what my leg workout is looking like these days:
- Back squat- warmup with bar then 4 sets (6-10 reps each set, going up a little in weight as tolerated for each set)
- Romanian deadlift – warmup with bar than 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Lunges – 2-3 sets of 10 each leg
And if I’m strapped for time or just not feeling it, I sometimes skip the lunges.
But when I do lunges, I’m looking at 10 sets for my legs and I can comfortably do all of this in 30 minutes or less – not bad.
I’m not a serious weightlifter or anything, but I’m in decent shape and this is plenty to keep my legs feeling good.
So, if you’re looking for a well-rounded leg routine that won’t take all day, give the 3 exercise above a chance and I think you’ll be pleased with the results.