Leg Training How To: The Ultimate Beginner Guide

There are those who have leg workouts, 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 and for good reason.

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, if you want to be a real athlete, have an aesthetic body, be strong overall, and boost your testosterone in the process, then training legs is something that you should not avoid. I am sure we’ve all seen people at the gym with nicely worked, jacked, upper bodies, then they have what’s regarded as chicken legs.

Right before we get into how you should get started with leg training and what kind of training structure you should have, we’ll take a quick look over the leg muscles.

Note: You can jump straight to the legs workout routine by using the quick navigation below. However, we recommend that you take the time to read the entire article. In here you will find lots of useful information that will help you program your own routine with time.

Leg muscles

For the sake of keeping this article as beginner-friendly as possible, I will split the leg muscles into three big categories. Having this split in mind, you can even take leg workouts over multiple days, emphasizing one of the categories in each day.

Quads

The quad (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 I like 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 this area of your legs.

The four prevailing muscles in the quadriceps are:

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

There are multiple exercises that work these muscles, so there is no one exercise fits all - especially if you want to highly develop every single area. Having this in mind, we should note that squatting and its variations (such as the hack squat) will offer the most bang for the buck in training 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 has the function of flexing the knee, and it’s also used for hip extension.

We can use the analogy presented above. If the quadriceps is a pushing muscle and all pushing movements will workout that muscle, then the hamstring is a muscle used for pulling and every pulling movement will workout this area.

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

There are lots of people who only train the anterior 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. And you don’t want to get injured. So that’s why we also want to have some hamstrings exercises in our legs workout.

The three prevailing muscles in the hamstrings are:

  • Semitendinosus
  • Semimembranosus
  • Biceps femoris (which is split into two: 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 it’s a bit more difficult as your may need special equipment or a partner. That exercise is the Nordic curl.

Calves

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

A lot of people have issues with this muscle group as it’s really hard to stimulate growth in it. Whether you’ll have big calves depends mostly on genetics, however that’s not an excuse to skip working it 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 go ahead and 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 with which you can train your calves. Generally speaking, exercises such as jogging for great distances, biking, and uphill walks/runs will have a positive impact on the development of your legs.

Best leg exercises

As with most muscle groups, there are lots of exercises that can be done to workout your legs. That’s why I took the freedom of only including the main exercises or the ones that I consider to be the very best.

These are mostly compound, dumbbell, and barbell movements, with some machine exercises to isolate a specific area.

What you should keep in mind is even though exercise selection is important, the most important factor when it comes to training, in general, is consistency. The best workout routine is the one that you can stick to.

Note: Most exercises I 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.

Quads

In my opinion, these are the best quadriceps exercises:

Barbell back squat

There are lots of squat variations that can be trained. However it’s hard to find a better variation than the basic one. 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 potential injuries, so let’s have a look over how it should be performed.

  • Form cues

1. Place your feet shoulder width apart with your toes turned slightly outward

2. Keep your chest up and lower your hips until the hip joint is slightly lower than the knees

3. Push back up to the starting position by putting pressure on the heels

  • Keep in mind

1. Do not let your back round at any point in the movement

2. Keep your entire foot planted on the floor; do not let your heels rise off the floor

3. Do not place the bar on your nape but on your upper trapezius, shoulder level

Some people like to get their squats A to G (ass to grass). Doing so is only recommended if you have the necessary mobility and if you won’t compromise form for reps/weight. With the A to G approach, there is higher chance that the form will break down.

If you don’t have the necessary mobility or you notice your form starting to deteriorate, you will be fine with doing a squat with your hip crease just below the knee.

Barbell front squat

This is a variation of the back squat in which the bar is in front of your body. The difference with this technique is that it places greater emphasis on the muscles - with more quads and core engagement in this variation.

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 cues

1. Keep your elbows up, otherwise you will hunch and the bar’s going to want to roll off

2. Open up your hips, take a wider stance, and squat straight down (instead of down and back as with the back squat)

  • Keep in mind

1. Do not hunch over the bar

2. Drive back up with your elbows

3. Breathe in when you lower your body, breathe out when you push back up

One of the (let’s call them) inconveniences in the front squat is the need for wrist mobility. While it does make the exercise easier on your knees, it requires wrist mobility that some people may not necessarily have. If that is your case, you can 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 as that is a way better position to be in.

Bulgarian split squats

Bulgarian split squats are another great variation of the barbell squat, especially if you have lower back pain. The tradeoff is that you will need a bit more balance as opposed to the basic squat.

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

  • Form cues

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

  • Keep in mind

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 when performing the exercise

3. Do not lift the heel off the ground; push through your heel not your toes

Note: I 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.

You should note, however, that squatting is a full lower body movement and comes with a lot of benefits – besides working all the muscles in your legs.

Barbell or dumbbell lunges

Lunges are another great exercise that target most of the muscles in your legs. Along with the squat, the lunge is one of the most important leg exercises and you should strive to have this exercise in your workout at least once a week.

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

  • Form cues

1. Take a shoulder width stance

2. Step forward so that there is a 90 degree angle at the knee for the front leg

3. Push back with your toes

  • Keep in mind

1. 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 (as it will result in unnecessary strain on the knees)

Seated leg press

Now we’re entering the realm of machines. Personally, I only use two machines for the quadriceps – the leg press and the leg extensions machine. Just like with the squat, the leg press is not an exercise that only trains your quads.

The leg press machine trains pretty much the same muscles as the squat however, there is less strain placed on the knees and spine. 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 that you first use heavy weights with more sets and less repetitions for compound movements. After you’re done, use the machines with high reps to drain your leg muscles.

  • Form cues

1. Place your feet on the platform making sure 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 beginning position

  • Keep in mind

1. 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 as it may lead to injury

Leg extensions

Lastly, there is the leg extension that is yet another great exercise to isolate the muscles in your quadriceps. The most worked muscle with this exercise is the rectus femoris.

  • Form cues

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 and bring them down in a controlled manner

  • Keep in mind

1.Keep a neutral spine at all times

2.Do not use maximum output with this exercise. Use enough weight that it will challenge you. 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 my 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.

Deadlift

No leg workout tutorial would be complete without the deadlift. Although feared by many, due to people constantly getting injured from it, this exercise is one of the two best compound movements for the lower body – along with the squat.

If you take the time to learn the correct technique this exercise will not only be one of the safest in your arsenal, but it will also offer the most benefits.

  • Form cues

1.Start in a stance slightly wider than hip-width with the hands just outside your legs

2.Have the bar directly over your mid-foot

3. Keep your lower back erect and slightly arched

4. Do not drop your hips too much when lowering the weight. The hips should not be level with the knee but higher

  • Keep in mind

1. Do not round your back at any point in the movement. This is what leads to injury. Keep your back straight, even slightly arched

2. Do not lean backward or forward throughout the movement; move the weight in a vertical position – up and down

3. Do not drop the hips below your knees

Romanian deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is by far one of the best exercises for your hamstrings. What’s even better is that it puts way less strain on your lumbar and you can load it more as opposed to a conventional deadlift. 

The difference between a deadlift and a Romanian deadlift is that in this variation you move your butt as far back as possible while lowering the weight. When doing this you no longer aim to have the weight touch the ground; you want the bar around shin height before you go back up in the starting position.

  • Form cues

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 as much as possible, even supporting most of your weight in your heels

3.Drive your hips forward to stand back up to the starting position

  • Keep in mind

1.Do not pull the weight with your hands at any given point

2.Do not round your back at any point

3.Do not flex your knees – you want the movement to only focus on your hamstrings

Leg curls

This is both a good and a bad exercise, depending on your goals and the machine you’re using.

The leg curl is an awesome exercise for targeting, isolating, and developing the hamstrings. That being said, you should note that 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 is no longer able to exert enough strength through the hamstrings to lift the weight, your lower back arches to compensate and assist with the movement.

You can imagine how this may lead to injuries. What you should do to avoid this is either take it slow and be very mindful as to how your body works during the movement, or switch the exercise with the next one on the list.

Note that the issue is only with the machine that has you lying on your stomach. The seated leg curl is a far better option if you have access to that machine.

  • Form cues

1.Have the pad of the lever in the back 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

  • Keep in mind

1.Use the amount of weight needed to perform the exercise correctly, without jerking the movement as you may hurt your lower back and/or hamstrings

2.Keep your torso flat on the bench at all times

Nordic curl

This has to be the the most difficult bodyweight exercise for your hamstrings. 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. Also, be advised that there will be a lot of cramping in the first stages of your progress. Lastly, use the padding of your choice to protect your knees.

  • Form cues

1. Try to control as much of the lowering portion as you can

2.Keep your hips as extended as possible

  • Keep in mind

1.You can increase the demands of this exercise by placing your hands behind your head

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 growth of the calves is quite a lot 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 hold a dumbbell or weight plate in one of your hands, while holding onto something for balance. Stand on an elevated surface, resting your weight on the ball of your foot.

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

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).

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, I 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 I like to do is train in an upper/lower split, where I train my upper body three times a week and my lower body two times a week. This way, I get enough workouts to get muscle adaptations quicker than I would’ve only training once.

Intensity, volume, and rest

As I said I am training my leg muscles two times a week. The way I structure it is taking a more strength-based approach for the compound movements on day one. On day two I take a more hypertrophy focused approach.

So how does this look?

On Tuesday I would have a five set with 4-6 reps structure for the compound movements (squats, lunges, etc) then use the leg press to drain the muscles with four sets of 15 reps.

On Thursday I would scale down the weight so I can do four sets of 8-15 reps of squats and drain the muscles with the leg extensions. As you probably noticed, I am not using the machines to get strong but to squeeze every little ounce of effort that’s left in my muscles.

How should you structure it?

That depends solely on your goals. I like the idea of having strong legs, but at the same time I want to build muscle mass in that area too. I also want to stay injury free. Therefore, I'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 some leg training routines that you can implement in your regime. 

Leg workout routines

Workout 1 - Strength Specific

Workout 2 - Hypertrophy Specific

Workout 3 - Quads

Workout 4 - Hamstrings & calves

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 workout routines.

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