Beginner Leg Training Guide

Beginner Leg Training Guide

Leg Workout Routines: 4 Workouts & Training guide

Man doing weighted squats as part of his leg workout routine

There are those who have a leg workout, then there are those who never skip leg day…

Because they never schedule it.

For a lot of people, leg training can be their nemesis.

After a leg workout your are left with what seems to be crippled legs – you can no longer properly walk, sit on a chair, and you avoid stairs at all costs.

However...

You want to be a real athlete. You want to have an aesthetic body, be strong, and boost your testosterone in the process.

That is why you are here.

And that is why we will get you started on the way to nice looking tree trunk legs.

The muscles of the legs

There are three main muscle groups in the legs:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves

As we'll see below, these muscle groups have multiple muscles that assist with hip movement, knee extension, ankle movement, and more.

Quadriceps

The quadriceps femoris is a large muscle group in front of the thigh that covers the front and sides of the femur.

Its main function is to extend the knee and to perform hip flexion.

A mental cue to use when selecting exercises for this muscle group is the push/pull analogy that’s being used for the upper body.

Every single pushing motion that’s done with your legs and involves knee extension will emphasize the quadriceps.

The four prevailing muscles in the quadriceps are:

  • Rectus femoris
  • Vastus lateralis
  • Vastus intermedius
  • Vastus medialis

There are multiple exercises that engage these four muscles; therefore, there is no one best exercise to develop them.

Having this in mind, we should note that squatting and its variations will offer the most efficiency in training your quads.

If you couple squatting with the leg press and/or the leg extensions machine you will get a pretty good workout for your quadriceps.

Hamstrings

The hamstring is located at the back of the thigh and is involved in knee flexion and hip extension.

We can use the analogy presented above.

If the quadriceps are pushing muscles and all pushing movements will workout those muscles...

The hamstrings are muscles used for pulling and every pulling movement will workout this area.

This is just an oversimplification. There are some seemingly pushing exercises – such as the lunge – that also engage the hamstrings.

There are lots of people who only train the front part of their legs – the mirror muscles.

That is not only visually unattractive, but it can also lead to imbalances...

And imbalances lead to injuries.

Therefore, it's advised to have a couple hamstrings exercises in our legs workout.

The three prevailing muscles in the hamstrings are:

  • Semitendinosus
  • Semimembranosus
  • Biceps femoris (which is split into two fibers: the long head and the short head)

The two main exercises that can be used for this muscle group are the Romanian deadlift and leg curls.

There is one more (bodyweight) exercise that works the hamstrings like no other.

However, your may need a partner when performing it.

That exercise is the Nordic curl, and we'll discuss it below.

Calves

The calf is located in the lower leg at the back, and has the main function of plantar flexion of the foot and flexing the leg at the knee joint.

Lots of people find it difficult to elicit growth in the calves.

Whether you’ll have big calves depends mostly on genetics; how your muscles are inserted into the joint.

However, that’s not an excuse to skip working them out.

A muscle that’s been trained is visible from one that hasn’t been.

So whether you naturally have big calves or not, you should still add a couple calf exercises in your leg workout routine.

The three muscles of the calf are:

  • ​​​​Gastrocnemius
  • Soleus
  • Tibialis anterior (on the front of the lower leg)

Standing calf raises, seated calf raises, and reverse calf raises are the best exercises for training calves.

Jogging for great distances, biking, and uphill walks/runs will have a positive impact on the development of your legs as well.

Best exercises for any leg workout

As with most muscle groups, there are lots of exercises that can be done to workout your legs.

We have only included the ones that we consider to be the very best.

Even though exercise selection is important, remember that the most important factor is consistency.

The best workout routine is the one that you can stick to.

Most exercises we will be presenting – if not all of them – will also target the glutes. You don’t need a special exercise for glutes if you do your squats, lunges and deadlifts.

Quadriceps

In our opinion, these are the best quadriceps exercises:

Barbell back squat

In our opinion the back squat is the best squatting variation.

Even though there are multiple variations, such as the cossack squat or the hack squat, we feel like the back squat is the most efficient.

Along with the deadlift, it is the best compound exercise you can do for your leg training.

It should be noted that doing this exercise wrong will lead to injuries, so let’s have a look over how it should be performed.

Form checklist:

  1. Place your feet shoulder width apart with your toes turned slightly outward.
  2. Keep your chest up and begin lowering by pressing your hips back.
  3. Lower until your hip joint is below your knees.
  4. Push back up to the starting position by pushing through the heels.

Mistakes to avoid:

  1. Do not round your back at any point during the movement. Keep your back straight and chest up.
  2. Do not go on your tippy toes. Keep your entire foot planted on the ground and push through your heels, not your toes.
  3. Do not place the bar on your nape. Place it on your trapezius, around shoulder level.
  4. Do not stop when your hips are parallel to your knees. Go below, or even A to G.

Some people like to squat A to G (ass to grass).

However, you may not have the necessary mobility to do that.

If you are unable to maintain proper form while going A to G, we recommend you to work on your hip and ankle mobility.

For the time being, you can squat until your hip joint is just below the knee.

If you see that your heels are lifting off the ground, then you should fix your ankle flexibility. In the meantime, slightly elevate your heels on a surface, such as a tiny weight plate.

Barbell front squat

This is a variation of the back squat in which the bar is in front of your body.

This variation places greater emphasis on the quads and core.

If you have issues with your knees and/or lower back, this variation should be more suitable for you.

Given the position of the bar, there is less pressure (torque) placed on the knees and lower back.

Form checklist:

  1. Extend your arms and place the bar on the front part of your shoulders.
  2. Grab the bar with your fingers by flexing the elbows (as seen in the video above), or cross the arms in front of you, with the hands touching the bar.
  3. Take a wider stance than in a back squat.
  4. Keeping your elbows high and the chest up, squat between your legs (instead of pushing your hips back, like in a back squat).
  5. Push back upwards and lead back up with your elbows. 

Mistakes to avoid:

  1. Do not hunch over the bar.
  2. Do not let your elbows drop.

One of the inconveniences of the front squat is the need for wrist mobility.

Even though this variation is easier on your knees, it requires wrist mobility that some people may not necessarily have.

If that is your case, extend your arms and create a shelf with your shoulders, then cross your arms over the bar.

Eventually, you will want to build up the wrist mobility for the movement because that is a better position to be in.

Bulgarian split squats

The Bulgarian split squat is another great variation of the barbell squat, especially if you have lower back pain.

The difference is that you will need some balance as opposed to the back squat.

This exercise can be loaded quite heavily and it will not impinge any rehabilitation work you may be doing for your back.

Why?

Because you can add weight using a barbell on your back, or holding dumbbells.

Even if you don’t have back injuries, the variation will be a great addition to your leg workout routine.

Being a unilateral exercise, it is a great way to spot imbalances between the two legs and fix them.

Form checklist:

  1. Keep your front leg flat on the ground and the back leg on a bench or an elevated surface.
  2. Lower in a deep lunge then press back up, driving through your heel.

Mistakes to avoid:

  1. The knee of your front leg should not pass your toes.
  2. The majority of your weight will be placed on the front leg.
  3. Do not lift the heel off the ground; push through your heel not your toes.

We have presented three squat variations above. It should be noted that the squat works out the majority of the muscles in the legs, with different muscles being emphasized depending on the variation.

Remember: squatting is more of a full body movement and comes with a lot of benefits – besides working all the muscles in your legs and core.​​

Barbell or dumbbell lunges

Lunges are another great exercise that target most of the muscles in your legs.

The main muscles worked in lunges are the glutes, hip muscles, quadriceps, and hamstrings. The calves and core work as stabilizer muscles.

Form checklist:

  1. Take a shoulder width stance.
  2. Take a long stride forward, landing on your heel, so that there is a 90 degree angle at the knee in the front leg.
  3. Push back through your heel.

Mistakes to avoid:

  1. Do not hunch the back. Keep a straight upper body at all times.
  2. For dumbbell lunges keep your arms straight at all times.
  3. Assure that the knees don’t go past your toes.

Seated leg press

We only use two machines for the quadriceps – the leg press and the leg extensions machine.

The leg press trains pretty much the same muscles as the back squat.

However, it’s generally accepted that free weights are better than machines so we don’t really recommend swapping the squat for the leg press.

We recommend you to first use heavy weights with more sets (4-5) and less repetitions (3-5) for your squats...

Then use the leg press, doing less sets (2-3) and more reps (10-15) to drain your leg muscles.

Form checklist:

  1. Place your feet on the platform so that there is a 90 degree angle at your knee.
  2. Push through you heels until your knees are almost locked.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position.

Mistakes to avoid:

  1. Do not flex your back. Keep a neutral spine at all times.
  2. Do not have your knee over your toes, as it will lead to unnecessary pressure in your knee cap.
  3. Never fully lock the knees because over time you will damage them.

Leg extensions

The leg extension is yet another great exercise to isolate the muscles in your quadriceps.

With this exercise, the emphasis falls onto the rectus femoris.

Form checklist:

  1. Sit in the machine and have the pad that you’ll be pushing on right above your foot, in front of your ankle.
  2. Holding the handles on the sides, extend your legs.
  3. Bring them down in a controlled manner.

Mistakes to avoid:

  1. Keep a neutral spine at all times.
  2. Do not use maximum output with this exercise.

Use enough weight to feel the muscles working.

However, you don’t want so much weight that you’ll fly across the room if you are not holding onto the handles.

Hamstrings

Now that we’ve discussed our top exercises for (mainly) targeting the quads, it’s time to look over the three exercises that will get the best out of your hamstrings.

Romanian deadlift

The Romanian deadlift (RDL) is by far one of the best exercises for your hamstrings.

The RDL puts less strain on your lumbar so you can load it more as opposed to a conventional deadlift. 

You do this exercise by starting in a deadlifting position, getting to the top, then pushing your hips back while slightly bending the knees.

When doing this you no longer aim to have the weight touch the ground, like in a regular deadlift.

The bar will be around shin height before you go back up to the starting position.

Form checklist:

  1. Have a pronated grip (hands over the bar) and slightly bent knees.
  2. Keeping an arched back and your shoulders pulled backwards, lean over and stick your butt out, supporting most of your weight towards the back of your foot.
  3. Drive your hips forward to stand back up to the starting position.

Mistakes to avoid:

  1. Do not pull the weight with your arms at any given point.
  2. Do not round your back at any point.
  3. Do not flex your knees too much – you want the movement to only focus on your hamstrings.

Leg curls

The leg curl is an awesome exercise for targeting, isolating, and developing the hamstrings.

However, it can be a bad exercise, depending on the machine you’re using.

The machine that has you lying on your stomach to do the exercise can lead, in the long term, to lower back issues.

Whenever your body can't exert enough strength through the hamstrings to lift the weight, your lower back arches to compensate and assist with the movement.

What you should do to avoid this is either be very mindful as to how your body works during the movement, or switch the exercise with the next one on the list.

This compensation is mostly done when doing prone leg curls.

Therefore, the seated leg curl is a far better option if you have access to that machine.

Form checklist:

  1. Have the pad of the lever between your ankles and calves.
  2. Curl the legs as far as possible and hold the position for a moment, without lifting the upper legs off the machine
  3. Control the weight back down.

Mistakes to avoid:

  1. Don't arch the lower back at any point of the workout.
  2. Keep a neutral spine.

Nordic curl

This is one of the most difficult bodyweight hamstring exercises.

Doing this exercise will require some kind of a setup, or a workout buddy.

However, if you can incorporate it into your leg workout routine, we highly recommend you do so.

The Nordic curl is the eccentric portion of the glute ham raise.

To properly set up for this exercise, have yourself fixed at the ankles and keep your body in a straight line from the hips to your chest.

If you are a total beginner you should not jump right into this exercise.

Be advised that there will be a lot of cramping in the first stages of your progress.

If needed, use the padding of your choice to protect your knees.

Form checklist:

  1. Start on your knees, and hook your feet under a surface that can take most of your weight without moving.
  2. Get in as much hip extension as you can, striving to be in an upright position throughout the entire range of motion.
  3. Control as much of the lowering portion as you can.

Mistakes to avoid:

  1. Lowering too fast.
  2. Not maintaining hip extension throughout the entire range of motion.

If you are not a beginner we suggest that you give the Nordic curl a try, and you should start reaping the benefits shortly.

It is, by far, one of the most brutal exercises for your hamstrings and you will quickly see strength and mass gains using it.

Calves

As previously stated, the size of your calves is mostly a matter of genetics.

Even with unfavorable genetics for your calves, you should still have exercises for this muscle group in your leg workout routine.

Everybody can differentiate between muscles that are being worked out and those which are not – regardless of their size.

With time and patience you calves will also increase in size.

Standing calf raises

This is by far the most well known exercise for calves training.

To do this exercise stand on an elevated surface, resting your weight on the ball of your foot.

From here lower your heels towards the ground, then push through the ball of your foot, raise your heels as high as possible, and contract the calves in the top position.

In the video above, the athlete is using a machine. You certainly don't need it. All you need to do this exercise is a slightly elevated surface.

Single leg calf raises

The single leg calf raise is the same exercise as above, only that this time your entire weight is supported by only one of your legs.

Seated calf raises machine

Yet another variation of the calf raise, only that this time you’ll be using a machine instead of your own bodyweight (to which you may add weight).

Leg training structure

Now that we had a look over the most popular, as well as most efficient, leg exercises, it’s time to see how exactly one would go about training their leg muscles.

Frequency

How many leg workouts you have in a week is entirely up to you.

Having said that, we don’t really believe that one workout is enough.

You will get results only training once a week; however, you will not maximize the results.

What we like to do is train in an upper/lower split, where we train the upper body three times a week and the lower body twice a week.

This way, we get enough workouts to get muscle adaptations quicker than we would’ve only training once.

Intensity, volume, and rest

The way we structure our training is taking a more muscle-building approach for the compound movements on day one.

On day two we take a more strength focused approach.

So how does this look?

On Tuesday we do 3 sets of 15 repetitions per exercise, and on Saturday we are doing 5 sets of 3-5 repetitions, with very heavy weight.

How should you structure it?

That depends solely on your goals.

We like the idea of having strong legs, but at the same time we want to build muscle mass in that area too.

We also want to stay injury free. Therefore, we've taken the approach of doing a strength focused workout (more weight, less reps) and a hypertrophy focused workout too (less weight, more reps).

In the following section we will look over our leg workout routines, and two more which are focused on quadriceps and hamstrings & calves.

Leg workout routines

Workout 1 - Hypertrophy specific

For this workout we get the maximum weight we can use to do 3 sets of 10 repetitions...

And do 3 sets of 15 repetitions with it.

We do the 15 reps no matter how much time we spend with the bar on our back. So you can rest, but keep the bar on your back until you complete all 15 repetitions.​​

This helps us push our limits, as well as force our bodies to adapt.

  • Repetitions: 15
  • Sets: 3
  • Rest: 1:30-2 minutes between each set
  • Weight: self-directed (get your max 3 x 10 and do 3 x 15 with it)
  • 3 x 15 Barbell back squats
  • 3 x 15 Romanian deadlifts
  • 3 x 15 Leg press
  • 3 x 15 Single leg calf raises
  • 3 x 15 Seated calf raises machine

We've tried multiple leg workouts throughout our journey, and found this one to be the best for us.

The high number of repetitions helps with hypertrophy, as well as keeping our joints healthy.

As you'll see, the strength specific workout is very similar.

Workout 2 - Strength Specific

For this workout, we use the weight with which we can do 5 repetitions at most.

This applies to all exercises, except the calves.

  • Repetitions: 3-5
  • Sets: 5
  • Rest: 3 minutes between each set
  • Weight: self-directed (max 5 repetitions)
  • 5 x (3-5) Barbell back squats
  • 5 x (3-5) Romanian deadlifts
  • 5 x (3-5) Dumbbell lunges, each leg
  • 3 x 15 Single leg calf raises
  • 3 x 15 Seated calf raises machine

The high number of sets helps us get enough volume (work), even though the number of repetitions are small.

Calves mostly get bigger with multiple repetitions (high volume), rather than more weight (high intensity).

Therefore, we do lots of repetitions and add weight once we can do 3 x 15 in both days.

Workout 3 - Quads

Let's see a quadriceps focused, muscle building leg workout routine.

  • Repetitions: 8-12
  • Sets: 4
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between each set
  • Weight: self-directed
  • 4 x (8-12) Barbell back squat
  • 4 x (8-12) Leg press
  • 4 x (8-12) Lunges, each leg
  • 4 x (8-12) Leg extensions

Workout 4 - Hamstrings & calves

And let's see a hamstrings & calves workout routine.

  • Repetitions: 8-12
  • Sets: 4
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between each set
  • Weight: self-directed
  • 4 x (8-12) Romanian deadlift​​
  • 4 x (5-7) Nordic curls OR 4 x (8-12) Lunges
  • 4 x (8-12) Leg curls
  • 4 x (12-15) Single leg calf raises OR Calf raises (both legs)​​
  • 4 x (12-15) Seated calf raises machine

Conclusion

In this article we have discussed the main muscle groups of the legs, the muscles that comprise each of them, the best exercises to add to your leg workouts, how to train legs, and a few sample leg workout routines.

These should represent all the tools you need to start with your journey for building strong, aesthetic legs.

Remember that training legs even once a week is far better than not doing it at all, and that a real athlete will work every single part of their body.

Having said that, it’s time to put in practice what you’ve learned in this article.

Over to you.

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