10 Best Leg Exercises, According To Experts

Medically Reviewed

Dr. Neel Raval is a board-certified sports medicine physician with Providence Health Services in Los Angeles.
Neel Raval, M.D. Sports Medicine / Orthopedics
Commissions we earn from partner links on this page do not affect our opinions or evaluations. Our editorial content is based on thorough research and guidance from the Forbes Health Advisory Board.

Incorporating leg exercises into a comprehensive fitness routine is crucial to staying active, strong and independent. Leg exercises can help prevent injuries and improve overall health by maintaining mobility and working some of the largest muscles of the body. Strong legs are vital for weight-bearing and resistance exercises, which support bone, heart and overall health as you age.

With so many leg exercises to choose from, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Read on to learn about some of the best leg exercises you can do at any age, according to fitness experts.

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Major Muscles of the Leg

The legs contain some of the largest muscles of the body and are typically described in two sections: the upper leg (above the knee) and the lower leg (below the knee). The main muscles of the upper leg include the hip flexors (including the psoas muscle), the quadriceps and the hamstrings, which line the femur (or thigh bone), and the main muscles of the lower leg include the gastrocnemius, tibialis anterior and soleus, which are responsible for moving the ankle and foot.

Located at the front of the upper leg, the quadriceps (or quad) is the most voluminous muscle in the body. It actually consists of four separate muscles: the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius. The quad is the only muscle in the body that extends, or straightens, the knees and the rectus femoris of the quad flexes, or bends, the hips. The quads are used during many daily activities including walking, standing, traversing stairs and getting up and down from a chair or toilet. The quads are also very important during sports that involve running, jumping or kicking.

The hamstrings are located opposite the quads on the underside of the thigh and consist of three muscles: the semimembranosus, semitendinosus and biceps femoris. The main function of the hamstrings is to flex the knee and assist in extending the hip. Together, the hamstrings and quadriceps help control leg movements and stabilize the body from the lower extremities to the pelvis. Both of these muscle groups need to be strong to maintain muscle balance, prevent injury and optimize leg performance.

The main (and largest) muscles of the lower leg include the gastrocnemius and soleus, which make up the bulk of the calf. While not as big as the quad or hamstrings, the gastroc and soleus are important in daily life. For example, they connect to the foot and ankle, which enhances stability and balance, and they work to keep you upright and moving. They connect and form the achilles tendon and serve a crucial role in generating power and stability for all lower extremity movements and activities.

Benefits of Leg Exercises

There are many benefits to maintaining strong leg muscles. “Leg exercises can help to prevent injuries by strengthening the muscles in the legs, resulting in more stable joints and better overall balance,” explains Daniel Giordano, a doctor of physical therapy and chief medical officer of Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy in New York. “Strong legs can enhance athletic performance and are essential for sports and physical activities.”

According to Dr. Giordano, the five main benefits of performing leg exercises include:

  • Increased muscular strength and endurance in the leg muscles
  • Improved balance and stability, especially as you age
  • Reduced risk of injuries
  • More stable lower body joints
  • Improved athletic performance

How Often Should You Perform Leg Exercises?

Leg exercises should be performed regularly, but rest is also important. “You should exercise your legs at least two to three times a week, with at least one day of rest in between sessions,” says Dr. Giordano. “The rest day allows your muscles time to recover and repair, which is important for muscle growth and strength,” he adds. The National Strength and Conditioning Association advises that rest and recovery are vital components of any strength training routine because training without rest could result in chronic fatigue, a decrease in performance and potential injury.

Risks of Leg Exercises

As with any type of exercise, leg exercises may pose some risks. In fact, according to a 2016 National Health Statistics Report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 42% of all sports-related injuries occur in the lower extremities[1]. While leg exercises, when performed properly, aren’t usually the cause of these injuries, performing exercises or activities that exceed your fitness level or without a foundation of strength and fitness can lead to injury.

The best ways to avoid injury while performing leg exercises include making sure you’re only performing exercises and using weights that are appropriate for your fitness level, warming up properly and remaining mindful of your position and form. If you’re new to leg exercises, it can be helpful to seek guidance regarding proper form from a fitness professional, such as a personal trainer or physical therapist.

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Proper Mechanics of Leg Exercises

When it comes to leg exercises, proper body mechanics can make all the difference, enhancing results while also helping prevent injuries, according to Dr. Giordano, who recommends keeping the following guidelines in mind as you begin a leg strengthening program:

  • Start with bodyweight exercises, which use your own body weight as resistance.
  • Once you have a solid foundation of strength, you can progress to exercises that use external resistance, such as dumbbells, kettlebells or barbells.
  • Proper form is essential when it comes to avoiding injury and achieving results. For example, it’s important to engage your core while performing leg exercises.
  • Gradually increase the amount of weight you use or reps you perform to prevent injury and challenge your muscles.

The 10 Best Leg Exercises

Below are 10 exercises to help you strengthen your legs safely and effectively, according to Dr. Giordano. Keep in mind that each exercise can be modified by a fitness professional to be either more challenging or easier, as needed.

If you have any medical conditions or physical limitations, consult with your health care provider or physical therapist before embarking on a new exercise routine. It’s also important to trust your body. If something hurts or doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. A professional who knows you and your unique medical history can help you modify exercises appropriately.

1. Squats

Squats strengthen the quads, hamstrings, glutes and lower back, improve overall leg and core strength, and help with balance and stability.

How to do it: 

  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Keep your chest up, back straight and core engaged. The low back should remain straight throughout the entire exercise. Place your hands on your hips or extend your arms out straight in front of you. (If you’re performing weighted squats, hold two dumbbells by your sides.)
  • Bend your knees, lowering your hips toward the floor as if you’re about to sit in a chair. Keep your weight in your heels.
  • Lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor (or you reach your full range of motion), and then push up to the starting position.
  • Perform two to three sets of 10 reps.

2. Lunges

Lunges strengthen the quads, hamstrings, glutes and calf muscles in addition to improving balance, stability and core strength.

How to do it:

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips. (If you’re performing weighted lunges, hold two dumbbells by your sides.)
  • Take a large step forward with your right foot.
  • Bend both knees, lowering your left knee toward the floor as far as your range of motion allows (but not touching the knee to the floor). Aim to form right angles with both knees, keeping your right knee tracking behind the right toes.
  • Keep your chest up, back straight and core engaged.
  • Using your right leg, push up to the starting position.
  • Repeat with the left leg.
  • Perform two to three sets of 10 reps on each side.

3. Deadlifts

Deadlifts work the glutes, hamstrings, lower back and core. They can improve overall leg and core strength, as well as enhance balance and stability. This example uses a barbell, but you can also hold a broomstick to focus on form before adding the appropriate resistance for your fitness level.

How to do it:

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and toes pointing forward. The barbell should be on the floor in front of you close to your toes.
  • Bend your knees, hinge at your hips, engage your core and grasp the barbell with an overhand grip, keeping your arms and back straight throughout the entire exercise.
  • Stand up straight using the muscles along the backs of your legs, lifting the barbell off the ground. Keep your arms straight so the barbell hangs at your hips at the top of the movement.
  • Keep your chest up, back straight and core engaged.
  • Lower the barbell back to the ground slowly by bending the knees and hinging at the hips.
  • Perform two to three sets of 10 reps.

4. Step-Ups

Step-ups work the quads, glutes and hamstrings. They can also improve balance, stability and overall leg strength and mimic important activities of daily living, such as navigating stairs.

How to do it:

  • Stand facing a workout bench or aerobic step.
  • Place your right foot on the bench, keeping your left foot on the ground.
  • Push through your right foot to lift your body up onto the step.
  • Keep your chest up, back straight and core engaged.
  • Step down to the floor with your left foot, followed by your right foot, and switch sides.
  • Perform two to three sets of 10 reps on each side.

5. Box Jumps

Box jumps are plyometric exercises (movements that exert maximum muscular force in short intervals of time) that work the quads, glutes and calf muscles. They can improve explosive leg power, meaning the ability to produce maximum effort, high velocity movements that allow you to jump, leap and sprint, as well as enhance cardiovascular fitness. Jumping exercises should only be performed if you already have a solid foundation of leg strength and completed a dynamic warmup, such as heel raises, step ups, lunges or hops in place first.

How to do it:

  • Stand in front of a sturdy box or platform that’s appropriate for your current fitness level. The height of the box should be challenging, but not so high that it compromises your form. Try starting small, with a 6-inch step, and increase the height of the step as you feel comfortable. It should feel like a stretch to get up on the box, but doable.
  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your arms by your sides.
  • Dip into a high squat position. Swing your arms backward, and then jump up and land on top of the box with both feet. Absorb the impact by bending your knees slightly, keeping your weight balanced over your midfoot and maintaining an upright posture.
  • Step down to the floor. Alternatively, if you feel confident, you can jump down, landing softly on your feet. Remain facing the box at all times.
  • Perform two to three sets of 10 reps.

6. Bulgarian Split Squats

Bulgarian split squats work the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings. They can improve balance, stability and single-leg strength.

How to do it:

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart with a workout bench or aerobic step behind you. (If you’re performing weighted squats, hold two dumbbells by your sides.)
  • Carefully reach your right leg back toward the bench, resting the top of your foot on top of the bench so that you’re balancing on your left leg.
  • Bend both knees, lowering your right knee toward the floor as far as your range of motion allows (but not touching the knee to the floor). Aim to form a right angle with the left knee, keeping your knee tracking behind the toes.
  • Keep your chest up, back straight and core engaged.
  • Push off your left foot to stand, keeping the top of your right foot balanced on the bench. Complete all reps on this side before returning to the starting position and switching sides.
  • Perform two to three sets of 10 reps on each side.

7. Calf Raises

Calf raises strengthen the calf muscles. They can improve ankle stability as well as overall leg strength.

How to do it:

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your hands on your hips. (If you’re performing weighted calf raises, hold two dumbbells by your sides.)
  • Rise on to the balls of your feet, activating the calf muscles for a couple of seconds.
  • Lower your heels to the floor slowly.
  • Perform two to three sets of 10 reps.

8. Glute Bridges

Bridges strengthen the glutes and lower back, as well as improve core stability and help maintain balance and stability.

How to do it:

  • Lie on your back with your knees bent and hip-width apart with your feet flat on the floor. Place your arms at your sides with your palms facing down on the floor.
  • Engage your glutes to lift your hips off the ground until your body forms a straight line from your shoulders to your knees (or as close to this alignment as your range of motion allows).
  • Hold for a couple of seconds before lowering your hips to the starting position.
  • Perform two to three sets of 10 reps.

9. Single-Leg Squats

An advanced exercise, single-leg squats work the quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings. They improve balance, stability and single-leg strength.

How to do it:

  • Balance on your right foot as you extend your left leg in front of you. (Keep your left leg straight or slightly bend the knee depending on your range of motion.)  Hold your arms out in front of you for balance.
  • Bend your right knee, hinge at your hips and lower your body into a squat while keeping your balance and maintaining a straight back and engaged core.
  • Push through your heel to return to the starting position. Complete all reps on one foot before switching sides.
  • Perform two to three sets of 10 reps on each side.

10. Leg Sled Pushes

“This is my favorite leg exercise because it works the entire lower body,” says Dr. Girodano. It strengthens the core, quads, glutes, hamstrings and calf muscles. It can improve overall strength, cardiovascular fitness and help with balance and stability. Most of the exercises listed are vertical movements, where the body goes up and down using the hip and leg muscles. The sled push requires horizontal translation (sliding across the ground) of a heavy object, so it works the muscles in a different way. The sled adds resistance on a new plane of movement, and requires you to use your leg muscles differently than you would in a squat or bridge. Because not everyone has a sled handy, you can try pushing any heavy object that can slide easily along the floor.

How to do it:

  • Attach a weight sled to a weightlifting harness or belt that fits comfortably around your waist.
  • Stand behind the sled with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Bend your knees, hinge at your hips and lower your body into a squat position, keeping your back straight.
  • Grasp the sled’s handles and push it forward, keeping your legs engaged and your arms straight.
  • Continue pushing the sled until you reach your desired distance or time. Walk back to the starting position.
  • Perform six to eight reps, depending on the distance.

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How to Learn More About Leg Exercises

The best way to learn more about leg exercises—including which ones suit your unique needs and fitness level—is to consult with a specialist, such as a physical therapist or experienced personal trainer, says Dr. Giordano. A trained fitness specialist can help you design a lower extremity strengthening plan that encompasses all of the muscles of the legs and teaches you how to load and progress your workouts over time. Progressive strengthening is the most effective way to build muscle.

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