LEGS CAN BE one of the most stubborn body parts for men to see a drastic change in.
If you’re just starting off in a muscle-building regimen—hoping to bulk your chicken legs, pull off some stylish short shorts, or get muscle definition like Cristiano Ronaldo’s—improving your leg musculature all begins with the basics.
In terms of training, a beginner should focus on a few fundamentals. You’ll want exercises that train each leg individually (aka “unilaterally”), which ensures equal muscle development. (Imbalances can throw off the quality of your bigger, more complicated lifts down the road.) You’ll also want to train side-to-side (aka “laterally”), which helps build smaller stabilizer muscles crucial for injury prevention. Most importantly, you’ll want resistance training moves that’ll hit the major muscles in your posterior chain—like your glutes and your hamstrings—because they produce the most force in your body.
“With any beginner program, less is more,” says Liz Lowe, C.S.C.S., the head program designer at Scorch Fitness, a high-intensity interval training gym in Sarasota, Florida.
We asked Lowe to put together 10 of the most effective legs exercises for beginners. These will train your legs from all sides—so when you’re putting together your own #legday workout, pick no more than five of these exercises.
For a torching routine that incorporates some of these legs-building moves, check out Lowe’s ultimate legs workout for beginners. The routine will help you hone balance, strength, power, and greater muscle mass in your legs. “It should be done no more than twice a week for recovery purposes,” Lowe advises.
If you find your muscles are getting accustomed to the load or intensity, try mixing in any of the best bodyweight legs exercises for men. And when you feel confident in your strength gains and lifting abilities, try these 10 exercises that’ll work your legs to exhaustion, or try out this 15-minute workout for stronger, more muscular legs.
1. Swiss Ball Wall Squat
How to do it: Wedge a physio/Swiss ball between your lower back and the wall. Lean back so your weight is pressing against the ball. “Transition your weight into your heels (you should be able to wiggle your toes) and squat down until your legs are parallel to the ground,” Lowe says. “Keep your shoulders back and chest up as you do.” Push through your heels and stand up the same way you came down, she adds.
Why it works: “This exercise teaches you correct squat form without risking the chance of injury [from squatting heavy],” Lowe explains. Make sure you keep your weight in your heels. This will protect your knees while squatting and ensure the right muscles are firing.
Prescription: 3 sets of 15 reps with 45-60 seconds of rest in between sets
2. Split Squat (Lunge)
How to do it: Place one foot about three feet in front of the other with your toes facing the same direction. “Pull your shoulders back and keep your chest up as you lower your back knee until it’s one inch above the ground,” Lowe says. Push through your front heel and straighten your back leg to come back up to the start position. Repeat all reps on one leg, then repeat on the other. Make sure you don’t lean forward too far—think about maintaining a “proud chest” as you rise up.
Why it works: “This exercise trains your legs to work independently without fully challenging your balance since both feet remain grounded,” Lowe explains. If it’s too easy, hold dumbbells or kettlebells.
Prescription: 2 sets of 8 reps (each leg) with 60 seconds of rest between sets.
3. Glutes Bridge
How to do it: Lie down on the ground with your knees bent and feet flat. “Dig into your heels, lift your hips, and squeeze your glutes as you come up into a bridge position,” Lowe instructs. Hold at the top for one to two seconds, then lower down and repeat. Keep your hips level throughout.
Why it works: “This exercise strengthens two of the posterior chain’s main muscles directly: your glutes and hamstrings,” Lowe says. Strong glutes and hamstrings are critical to avoiding injury as you progress in your training. If it’s too easy, place your feet on a ledge or bench, or hold a weight on your hips.
Prescription: 3 sets of 15 reps with 45 seconds of rest between sets.
How to do it: Find a box, ledge, or step that’s about 6–12 inches tall. “Place one foot on the step and rise up, keeping your shoulders back and chest up,” Lowe says. Step down and repeat with the other leg.
Why it works: “This exercise strengthens all the muscles in your legs and challenges balance as well,” Lowe says. “An added perk: You indirectly work your core by keeping your torso upright when you step up.” For a greater challenge, hold dumbbells or make the movement explosive by driving your trail leg up as you pump your arms (imagine you’re sprinting or doing high-knees).
Prescription: 2 sets of 6 reps (each leg) with 60 seconds of rest between sets.
5. Bulgarian Split Squat
How to do it: Stand in front of a flat bench, facing away from the bench. Rest the top of one foot on the bench, then transition all your weight onto the other leg. This is your “working leg.” Slowly lower yourself down until your working leg’s thigh is parallel to the floor. Push all your weight through your heel and stand. Repeat all reps on one side, then repeat on the other.
Why it works: The deceptively difficult Bulgarian split squat is used a lot in physical therapy as a way to strengthen the medial quad muscle and the muscles around the knee, Lowe says. Unilateral leg work ensures your muscle growth and strength is balanced between both legs. If it’s too easy, hold dumbbells to increase your load.
Prescription: 2 sets of 10 reps (each leg) with 30 seconds of rest between sets.
6. Swiss Ball Hamstring Curl
How to do it: Lie on the ground with your feet up on a Swiss ball and legs extended straight. “Dig your heels into the ball and lift your hips as you bend your knees, pulling the ball toward your hips,” Lowe says. “Slowly push the ball back out with your heels and lower your hips three-quarters of the way down.”
Why it works: This is one of the best exercises to light up your hamstrings. You’ll feel an intense burn almost immediately. “The hamstrings are often neglected in training, but it’s one of the most important muscles to train for injury prevention,” Lowe says. Plus, you’ll quickly add size to your legs by hitting your hamstrings.
Prescription: 3 sets of 10 reps with 45 seconds of rest between sets.
7. Dumbbell Deadlift
How to do it: Hold two dumbbells, positioning your hands so your palms face your body (aka “prone grip.”) Hinge at your hips and put a slight bend in your knees as you lower the weights down, just in front of your legs. Put your weight in your heels, keep your shoulders back, and lift your chest up a bit. Pause briefly at the bottom, then engage your hamstrings and glutes to pull your body back to standing. Push your hips forward and squeeze your glutes at the top of the movement. Repeat, keeping your back flat the whole time.
Why it works: “The deadlift is one of the best lower-body strengtheners, but using a barbell when you’re first learning heightens your risk of injury,” Lowe says. Dumbbells will let you perfect your form while still training your glutes and hamstrings (aka your “posterior chain”). Increase the weight as you get stronger, then progress to using a barbell.
Prescription: 2 sets of 6 reps with 60 seconds of rest between sets.
8. Banded Lateral Walk
How to do it: Grab a light or medium resistance band. Step in the band and position it mid-way up your shins. Squat down and take a wide step out to create resistance on the band. Step your other foot in 4-6 inches, so there’s tension on the band. Repeat this lateral shuffle for all reps in one direction, then pause and complete in the other.
Why it works: “Most people forget to train their lateral stabilizers, which is critical to getting stronger in your other lifts and avoiding injury,” Lowe says.
9. Calf Raises
How to do it: Use a machine, stand on a step, or just stand on the ground. With feet slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart, rise up onto your toes, then slowly lower yourself back down, Lowe says.
Why it works: “This basic exercise strengthens the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles that make up your calf, and puts a positive stress on the Achilles tendon,” Lowe explains. Training your Achilles is key, because the Achilles tendon is crucial to long-term success in any workout program and is most likely to be injured when starting a new program, she adds.
Prescription: 3 sets of 20 reps with 30 seconds of rest between sets.
10. Walking Lunges
How to do it: Place one foot about three feet in front of the other, with toes facing the same direction. Drop your back knee down until it’s an inch from the ground—don’t let it touch the ground—then drive through your front heel to step your feet together. Step out with your other leg, dropping the back knee down, then driving up and stepping together again. Keep alternating.
Why it works: “This is one of the most common legs exercises beause it strengthens each leg individually, challenges your balance, and works all the muscles in your lower body,” Lowe says.
Prescription: 2 sets of 6 reps (each leg) with 60 seconds of rest between sets.