Five best leg exercises to build muscle and strength

I'm convinced a sizeable chunk of gym rats sport long, baggy shorts to hide a secret: their tank-like upper bodies are stacked on a pair of broomsticks.

You know who I'm talking about. The guys whose thighs are as barely thick as their bulging biceps, because they never train legs.

There are a couple of likely explanations for this neglect. First: legs don't look as good in the mirror as chest, arms or abs. Second: the quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes are some of the biggest muscle groups, and targeting them hurts. Third: Maybe no one ever told these guys why training legs is important.

You'll get fitter and stronger

Training legs is functional in the truest sense: it builds up strength you'll use in everyday life. For lifting furniture and moody four-year-olds, for example.

It also builds up your heart, because of all the extra blood that needs to be pumped to your lower extremities. That's why a solid legs workout wipes you out — and burns a ton of calories. If your knees are up for it, try plyometric squats and lunges (fitness jargon for "jumping") for a strength/cardio combo.

You'll look daft if you don't

Google "never skip legs day memes" — enough said.

I recently asked a new member at the gym where I work why he'd signed up. His answer: "My girlfriend sent me here because I don't have a butt." Guess what kind of training turns a pancake butt into a peach? 

The glute bridge is a great move to start your peach: lie flat on your back with your heels close to your butt, and squeeze your glutes to lift your hips as high as you can. Slowly lower until your butt taps the ground. Add weight plates on your thighs as your strength builds.

Play the long game

When you're old, you'll need strong legs to get up and down stairs, or even just up and down off the toilet. It's why I prescribed my sixtysomething mum a program that includes bodyweight squats.

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There's a much-cited study in the journal The Physician and Sportsmedicine that compares the (huge) quads of a 70-year-old triathlete with the (puny) quads of a 70-year-old who'd never done much exercise. (Here are the impressive photos.) The takeaway: use 'em or lose 'em.

There are plenty of gym machines that can help transform you into Quadzilla — especially the leg extension. But you really can't beat the classics: squats, lunges, and deadlifts.

Learn to love legs day

These moves look simple, but they're fiendishly technical — especially if sitting in a chair all day has clogged your biomechanics. If you try them with too much weight and no clue what you're doing, you will pretty quickly need to call your physio.

My advice for leg novices: recruit a personal trainer to show you the form. That's doubly important if you suffer knee or back pain, two common excuses for avoiding legs day — even though this pain is often treated by strengthening legs with modified exercises. 

For dodgy knees, try sumo squats: same as a regular squat, but with a very wide stance and feet angled out at 45 degrees. For a bad back, try goblet squats: grab a kettlebell (not too heavy) and hold it at your chest, fingers pointed to the ceiling. 

For a tight lower back, try Romanian deadlifts: stand with soft knees and a weight (barbell or dumbbells) held in front. Hinge from the hips, pushing them back like you're trying to touch a wall behind you with your butt. Keep your back straight and the weight close to your legs as you lower it just past your knees, and squeeze your butt on the way back up.

Legs workout: Five exercises to build strength

Do three sets of each exercise, with a 60-second break between each set, before moving to the next one.

  1. Barbell squat — 8-10 reps.
  2. Romanian deadlift — 12 reps. 
  3. Dumbbell lunges — 10-12 reps per leg, six sets total.
  4. Glute bridge — 12-15 reps.
  5. Calf raise — 10-12 reps.

According to Sam Downing, the secret to good health and wellbeing is pretty simple: keep it simple. A qualified personal trainer, fitness instructor and nutrition coach, Sam is also editor at 9Honey's health site Coach.

Follow him on Twitter.