15 Best Leg Exercises for Men and Women

15 Best Leg Exercises for Men and Women

So, you want to build bigger legs. Your unique reasons need not apply – we’ve got you covered.

This ranking presents 15 of the highest rated leg exercises ranging from compound movements to explosive single-joint isolations if you’re looking to really focus and hone on a certain group.

One of the key differences between compound and isolation movements is the targeted muscle. Isolation exercises are great for warming up with or finishing your workouts due to their innate simplicity and lack of diverse recruitment. On the contrary, compounds recruit a large variety of different muscles to target, are usually more complex, and tend to drive a lot more mass home.

Switching up your exercises and including frequent variation between compound and isolative movements is important for inducing constant muscle confusion. Muscle confusion essentially prevents your body from hitting a plateau from using the same leg exercise over and over again. Your body naturally adapts to its environment, and the same is especially true for weightlifting.

So, regardless of whether you’re a newbie, getting back after a break, or are just refreshing the mind, this list can help. In addition to about the exercises, we’ve summarized easy to follow step-by-step instructions to help you perform these 15 leg exercises safely and effectively.

1. Incline Leg Press

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push, Isolation | Gear: Leg Press | Target: Upper Legs

One of the best machine-based movements to help build legs is the classic Press. This leg exercise is a workhorse when it comes to engaging your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. It has a short range of motion, so they need to work harder to complete it. Translation? Pure leg gains.

Incline Leg Press Exercise Instructions
45-Degree Incline Leg Press: 3 Sets of 8-12 Reps

Incline Leg Press Machine Direction

Begin by loading the sled with a moderately comfortable amount of weight. Next, sit into the chair with your back and head straight. Position your legs against the plate at shoulder width. This will be your starting position.

Inhale and release the safety mechanism. Resist the plate down until your legs are bent about 45 degrees and then hold this position for a moment, squeezing your legs. Exhale and push the plate forward until your legs are almost fully extended (not hyper) back to your original position.

Repeat this movement as many times as desired and safely finish by re-engaging the bars.

Pro Tips: Your torso, head and legs should form a perfect 90 degree angle at the start. Although common sense, remember to double check the machine’s safety bars are locked before exiting.

2. Body-weight Sumo Squats

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Squat, Compound | Gear: No gear | Target: Glutes, inner thighs

Like the body-weight squat, the sumo squat mainly targets your glutes and upper thighs. How this leg exercise differs is the placement of the feet, and thus the strain is changed to provide a harder, deeper squatting movement. It also has a wide range of variations to boot, so go crazy!

Body-Weight Sumo Squat Leg Exercise Instructions
Body-weight Sumo Squats: 3 Sets of 8-12 Reps

Body-weight Sumo Squat Directions

Stand in a wide stance with your toes pointing out from your sides. This will be your starting position. Inhale and bend your knees forward to lower your hips until they’re parallel with the floor. Pause for a second and hold this position before exhaling and returning back up.

Pro Tips: Keep a straight back and really make sure to lower your hips deeply. You can also try adding a second squeeze at the end of each rep when your legs are straight for good measure.

3. Dumbbell Lunge

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Lunge, Compound | Gear: Dumbbells | Target: Thigh, glutes (butt), sole

In the off chance you’ve already performed a lunge before, this is the exact same leg exercise except you hold dumbbells in addition to your body-weight. If you haven’t that’s fine too, we’ll give you a crash course on everything you need to know to successfully perform it.

Dumbbell Lunge Instructions
Dumbbell Lunge: 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps

Dumbbell Lunge Directions

Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand up straight with your chest out and feet at shoulder width apart. This is your starting position. Begin the exercise by taking one full step forward with your left leg. While keeping your torso straight to keep balance, inhale and slowly lean your chest forward. Your right leg should bend forward from the lean along with your left leg.

Once your right leg is bent and your left thigh is parallel to the floor, exhale and drive your body up through the heel of your left foot. Bring your right leg back to shoulder-width as you do this. Repeat the movement except use your right leg instead of your left and vice versa.

Pro Tips: To prevent potential injury, don’t let your knees hyper-extend beyond your toes.

4. Barbell Sumo Squats

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Lunge, Compound | Gear: Barbell | Target: Legs, butt

Also known as the wide-stance squat, this leg exercise targets a number of leg muscles and assistive groups- so be prepared. While narrow stance squats are better at replicating real-life everyday movements, wide-stance sumo squats are essentially a more apt, hardcore version.

Barbell Sumo Squats Instructions
Barbell Sumo Squats: 3 Sets of 6-8 Reps

Barbell Sumo Squat Directions

Facing a power rack, set a barbell to shoulder height and add a moderately comfortable amount of weight. Slightly arch your back and bend your knees to lower your body and step forward under the bar until it’s resting along the rear side of your shoulders and traps.

With your chest out and shoulders back, grasp the bar with your arms to form a “V”. The palms of your hands should face out and your knuckles pointing up. Your feet should be at shoulder-width. Carefully drive yourself up as you straighten your legs. Take one full step backwards.

This is your starting position. With a controlled arch in your back, inhale and slowly lower your body into a wide squatting position. As you descend, your butt will push back and knees slightly bend forward. At the bottom, your hips should be parallel to or just below your knees.

Pause and hold this position for a second, squeezing your legs as you do. Exhale and reverse the movement to return to your original starting position. Repeat movement for desired reps.

Pro Tips: Maintain proper form at all times by using a weight set you can handle and keeping your body symmetrical. Lower yourself deeply, but don’t hyper-extend far past your knees.

5. Barbell Dead lift

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Hinge, Compound | Gear: Barbell | Target: Hams, glutes, quads, soles

On par with squats and the bench press, dead-lifts are unarguably among the most popular exercises to exist ever. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, though, due to its excellent range of motion and target muscle groups. Each dead-lift session will reward you with some soreness.

Barbell Dead Lift Instructions
Barbell Dead lift: 3 Sets of 8-10 Reps

Barbell Dead lift Directions

Place a barbell on the floor or the lowest height position on a power rack. Standing straight, spread your feet hip-width apart and center them under the bar. Bend forward at the hip until your shins touch the bar and grasp it at shoulder-width. Your chest should be out and palms pronated with your knuckles pointed down to the floor. This will be your starting position.

With your head up and barbell in hand, exhale and engage both your legs and lower back to steadily raise the bar up to your waist. You should push through your heels. Once the bar’s past your knees, bring your hips forward and retract your shoulder blades to get it up to your waist.

When you reach the top (bar resting by your waist at arm’s length), pause and hold this position for a second to squeeze your legs. Inhale and slowly reverse the movement (bending legs, hips) to return the barbell back to your starting position. Repeat for your desired amount of reps.

Pro Tips: Keep the barbell very close to your body at all times during the exercise. Maintain a slow and steady pace without uncontrolled movement. Your body will naturally avert to the direction you’re looking, so keep your eyes forward (not down, up, or to the side) for good form.

6. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Squat, Compound | Gear: Dumbbells, flat bench | Target: legs

Contrary to its name, the Bulgarian split squat’s true origin is unknown. However, it’s fame can be largely accredited to the Bulgarian Olympic weightlifting coach Angel Spassov who’d begun raving about it after he’d visited the U.S. from beyond the Iron Curtain back in the 1980s.

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat Exercise Instructions
Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat: 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat Directions

Grasp two dumbbells and hold them at arm’s length by your sides. The palms of your hands should be neutral (facing each other). Next, find an open flat-bench and position yourself in a split-stance. Facing away, place your right leg behind you on the bench to form a backward “L”.

Your body should lean forward slightly for a neutral spine. This is your starting position. Inhale and slowly lower your left knee (flexing your upper leg) until your right knee just reaches the ground forming a close “V” shape between your calf muscle and back leg.

Pause at the top for a second and squeeze your upper leg. Exhale and reverse the movement, driving your body up to the starting position with your left leg. Now switch legs and repeat.

Pro Tips: Your form heavily determines which muscles are targeted the most. A narrow split-stance will target your quads, while a wider stance hits your glutes and hamstrings the best.

7. Barbell Side (Lateral) Lunge

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Lunge, Compound | Gear: Barbell | Target: Glutes, hams, quads etc

Also known as the barbell side split squat, this leg exercise targets a range of various leg muscles. Some of these groups include majors like adductors, calves, glutes, quads, and hams. If you haven’t trained one of these in a bit, expect a seriously unparalleled level of DOMS.

Barbell Side (Lateral) Lunge Exercise Instructions
Barbell Side Lunge: 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps

Barbell Side Lunge Directions

Place a barbell into a power rack at shoulder height. Add a low amount of weight or don’t add any at all and just use the bar (a popular choice for most people). Next, position your body so that it’s resting on and over your traps. Then, using a supinated grip, grasp the bar with both hands past shoulder-width and stand up straight to de-rack. Steadily move to an open area.

Before you begin, ensure your feet are spread far apart with your right foot angled out laterally from your side. This is your starting position. With your back straight, inhale and slowly lunge your body in the direction of your right leg. Your left non-leading leg should bend at the knee.

Continue this movement until you feel tension. Your thigh should stay above the knee. Exhale and repeat this as desired before reversing it and then repeating with the other leg. If you prefer, you can alternate between each leg per rep. However, most people focus on one side at a time.

Pro Tips: Remember to return to your starting position in the exact same way you came down except reversed. Instead of bending the hip and knee of your lead leg, you’ll be extending it to drive your body back up. You should only feel moderate tension in your muscle.

8. Barbell Kneeling Squat

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Squat, Compound | Gear: Barbell, Power rack | Target: Legs

The barbell kneeling squat is a great alternative to the standing squat because there’s simply less moving parts. Translation: less room for injury without compromising on targeted muscles. It’s basically the best of both worlds and is a great leg exercise for people who struggle with squats.

Barbell Kneeling Squat Exercise Instructions
Barbell Kneeling Squat: 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps

Barbell Kneeling Squat Directions

Kneeling down in a power rack, place the barbell to shoulder height. Move under it and grasp the bar so that your hands facing forward, bending slightly to the left. With your chest out, head forward and back straight, unrack the bar onto your traps. This will be your starting position.

Once your form is ready and a moderately comfortable amount of weight’s been added, inhale and slowly sit your butt down until it reaches your calves. Pause at this position and tense your muscles for a second. Exhale and start rising back up to your initial starting position.

Pro Tips: Because it’s just a one-hinge movement, the only real factors you need to pay attention to is your form. Don’t lift too heavy, stay controlled, and keep your chest out.

9. Seated Calf Raise

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push, Isolation | Gear: Calf Machine | Target: Calves

One leg machine you’re most likely to see others on in your gym is the seated calf raise. Similar to the standing calf raise, it’s a different variation of the leg exercise that’s used to isolate the many muscles that make up your calves. Moreover, different angles target differently- so experiment!

Seated Calf Raise Leg Exercise Instructions
Seated Calf Raise: 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps

Seated Calf Raise Directions

Sit into the machine and place the ends of your feet on the platform in front of you while your heels naturally hang off the edge. You will push the machine using the balls of your feet. Adjust the height setting of the pad above your thigh if necessary until it’s secure against your leg.

With your back arched and head forward, grasp the handles above the thigh rest with your hands (palms facing each other) to prevent it from slipping forward. When ready, push up slightly to disengage the safety bar. Slowly lower your heels and resist the weight down until your calves are fully stretched. This is your starting position.

Inhale and flex your calves as high as you can, driving up through the balls of your feet. Pause and hold this position for a second to squeeze your calves. Exhale and slowly reverse the movement back to the original starting position again and repeat. Pull safety bar when done.

Pro Tips: How difficult this exercise is (the amount of tension you feel) is largely dependent on heel placement. The more your heel hangs off the harder (and more effective) your workout will be. Whereas if you need an easier time, the opposite is true and you’ll bring your heel up.

10. Lying Leg Curl

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Curl, Isolation | Gear: Lever bench | Target: Calves, hamstrings

The lying curl leg exercise is one of the most popular movements performed in the gym. It targets a wide range of muscles, most notably on the rear side of your leg.

Lying Curls Machine Leg Exercise Instructions
Lying Leg Curls: 3 Sets of 8-12 Reps

Lying Leg Curl Directions

Start by setting the machine lever’s height to a comfortable position. Next, lie into the grips with your chest out, face down and ankles resting under the lever. Your legs should be fully extended and toes looking straight toward the floor. This is your starting position.

Exhale and curl your legs up and back toward your upper leg as far as you can without moving it off the pad. When you’re on the verge of moving your upper leg, pause and hold that position for a second before inhaling and slowly resisting the lever back down to your starting position.

Pro Tips: Put more emphasis on your quads by utilizing an angled leg curl lever instead of a flat machine. Remember to add a moderately comfortable amount of weight. Too much weight considerably increases your chance of injury from both your legs as well as your lower back.

11. Standing Kettle-bell Swing

Difficulty: Intermediate | Force: Swing, Compound | Gear: Kettlebell | Target: Full Body

One of our most favorite leg exercises (although it’s a lot more than that!) is the legendary kettle bell swing. It works by recruiting many different muscles like your glutes, quads, and soles to name a few all in one explosive movement.

Standing Kettle-Bell Swing Leg Exercise Instructions
Standing Kettle bell swing: 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps

Standing Kettle Bell Swing Directions

Bend your knees and hold a kettlebell between your legs using both hands (overhand grip) and stand at shoulder-width. Your knees should be slightly bent forward, lower back arched, feet rooted into the ground (toes out), and upper legs at a 45-degree angle relative to your knees.

This will be your starting position. Be ready for the next movement. Exhale and bend your hips back until the kettlebell’s between your knees and behind your legs. Now engage your glutes (rear) to move your hips and swing the weight up and out to shoulder height at arm’s length.

Inhale and reverse this movement to return to the starting position, resisting on the way down.

Pro Tips: Don’t use an excessively heavy kettlebell and resist its momentum on the way down to prevent a heavy weight from flailing around and hitting your body. As you drive your hips forward, straighten your back on the way up and vice versa on the way back down.

12. Straight-leg Cable Pull-through

Difficulty: Intermediate | Force: Pull, Compound | Gear: Cable Stack | Target: Glutes, legs

The straight-leg cable pull-through is among the best leg exercises for isolating multitude leg and butt shaping muscles including your glutes, hamstrings, as well as some lower back. It’s often done as an introduction into deadlifting, although it’s also excellent for just building legs.

Straight-leg Cable Pull-Through: 3 Sets of 8-12 Reps

Straight-leg Cable Pull-Through Directions

Adjust a pulley machine to the lowest height and set your desired amount of weight. You can choose to attach and use either a rope or d-handle grip. Facing away, bend down to grasp the handle and bring it up to your waist through your legs. Holding it, walk forward a few feet.

Ensure your feet are slightly past shoulder width with your toes pointing out. This will be your starting position. Inhale and use your hips to slowly arch your back in front of you 90 degrees while looking forward. Stop when your hands reach the center in-between both kneecaps.

Exhale and engage your hips to slowly drive your torso back up to the starting position, taking the pulley with you. Your arms should be extended and knees slightly bent. Inhale and reverse the movement to return back to the original starting position.

Pro Tips: Maintaining good form is critical for this exercise to work properly. Remember to keep it simple: start low-work high and take the movement slow.

13. Dumbbell Step-Ups

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push, Compound | Gear: Dumbbells | Target: Quads, hams, glutes

This classic leg exercise is performed using a flat elevated surface, like a bench. In addition to its main targets shown above, it also recruits assistors including your glutes, hip flexors, and calves muscles. Performing is a pretty straight-forward (explained below) and quite effective.

Dumbbell Step-Up Leg Exercise Instructions
Dumbbell Step-Ups: 3 Sets of 8-12 Reps

Dumbbell Step-Up Directions

Stand up straight with a slight bend in your knees facing the side of a flat bench or stable box. Grasp a pair of dumbbells and hold them at arm’s length by your sides. This is your starting position. Begin the exercise by exhaling and raise your right leg onto the chosen platform.

Now, use the heel of your right foot to push your body up and thus your bring your left leg onto the bench or box. Pause for a moment at the top and, inhaling, step back down onto the floor with your left leg. Now bring your right leg down. Switch legs and repeat movement for 1 rep.

Pro Tips: The only movement on this exercise will stem from your legs and hip flexors. Remember to always keep your head forward, back straight and not to overdo the weights.

14. Forward Leaning Dumbbell Lunge

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push, Compound | Gear: Dumbbells | Target: Glutes, quads, adductors

In practice, this leg exercise is very similar to a regular body-weight lunge with the exception of 2 weighted dumbbells. Because of this variation, a slightly different form is required and thus different muscles are targeted at varying degrees relative to the traditional body weight lunge.

Forward Leaning Dumbbell Lunge Leg Exercise Instructions
Forward Leaning Dumbbell Lunges: 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps

Forward Leaning Dumbbell Lunge Directions

Looking forward in an open space, grasp two dumbbells and stand up straight with your legs at shoulder width. Your arms should neutrally hang straight down throughout the movement.

This will be your starting position. Inhale and lunge forward with your right leg until your left knee’s almost touching the floor Lean your chest forward about 20 degrees as you do this. When your non-leading leg is in the shape of an “L”, exhale and lift yourself into a standing position. Repeat this movement leading with your left leg instead to complete 1 full repetition.

Pro Tips: Remember to your leading leg’s thigh angled up above the knee and don’t overextend your back when you lunge forward. It should be straight when standing.

15. Standing Calf Raise Lever Machine

Difficulty: Easy | Force: Push, Isolation | Gear: Standing Calf Lever | Target: Med/Lat gastro

Like #9, the standing calf raise is a resistance-based leg exercise and one of many available variations used to develop stronger calves. What’s great about this exercise is that it focuses on the lateral head of your calf. It’s responsible for that upside down shaped heart look.

Standing Calf Raise Lever Leg Exercise Machine Instructions
Standing Calf Raise Lever Machine: 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps

Standing Calf Raise Lever Machine Directions

Start by positioning the padded lever to a height that’s comfortable to press on your shoulders and then set the weight. Back straight, slightly bend your knees and stand on the platform with the balls of your feet. Your heels and mid-foot should be freely hanging off of the platform.

This is your starting position. Exhale and drive the lever up by pushing through the balls of your feet and extending your ankles as high as possible. Once you feel a peak level of tension in your calves, pause for a second and squeeze your calves. Inhale and return to the starting position.

Pro Tips: The only body parts that should move during this exercise (up and down) are your ankles and calves. Remember to keep your back and knees stationary. You can also decrease the difficulty of the movement by having more foot on the platform and increase it with less.