Your legs power you through your most active habits: walking, running, swimming, lifting and so many others. So it should come as little surprise that the legs have the biggest muscles in the body: gluteus maximus (the buttock muscles), quadriceps (thigh muscles) and hamstrings (back thigh muscles).
With all the activity, you may be tempted to think your legs are getting enough of a workout through everyday life. But it's important to dedicate a day or two in your weekly workout regimen to focus on your lower body. So here's your ultimate guide to leg day.
First, What Is Leg Day?
You may have seen your gym-addict friend posting about #legday on Instagram, but what does that actually entail? At the most basic level, it's exactly what it sounds like — the day of the week you devote to working your leg muscles.
Though many beginners (and athletes of all fitness levels) benefit most from full-body workouts, many intermediate and advanced lifters opt to separate their workouts by muscle group so they can work those muscles to fatigue more easily and see results more quickly.
Now that you're up to speed, here are the leg-day habits you should never skip:
1. Schedule Leg-Day Workouts Strategically
If you're taking this body-part-split approach, you should try to devote equal time every week to each of your major muscle groups. You should also allow them sufficient time to recover after each workout. To accomplish this, it's a good idea to develop a schedule that you stick to each week.
"When targeting muscles, I like to begin my week with a leg day and finish it with a leg day," says personal trainer De Bolton. "I like to split my leg days up with upper-body days in between." So a typical week may look like this:
- Monday: leg day
- Tuesday: upper-body workout
- Wednesday: conditioning or rest day
- Thursday: upper-body workout
- Friday: leg day
- Saturday: conditioning and cardio
- Sunday: rest day
If you plan on doing two leg-day workouts per week, it would be effective to split up your training even further: one day for glutes and hamstrings and another day for quads. That way you can have intense and heavy training for each day and get a full recovery before the next leg workout.
Another (more beginner-friendly) way to split up your training with just one leg day may look like this:
- Monday: leg day
- Tuesday: cardio
- Wednesday: upper-body workout
- Thursday: cardio
- Friday: full-body workout
- Saturday: rest day
- Sunday: rest day
"But make sure if you are lifting heavy that you don't hit the same muscle group day after day," Bolton says. "You can cause muscle fatigue or overtrain, which will cause other setbacks that will not help you reach your goal."
2. Push Yourself on Leg Day
When it comes to leg day, lots of people take the "go big or go home" approach (hence all those post-leg-day memes). And while you need to be smart about how much you challenge yourself, doing an easy leg-day workout isn't doing yourself any favors.
"As your work out week after week, it's important to up the intensity on your strength-training sessions as your body adapts to the resistance so that you'll continue to build muscle in your legs," says Bolton.
If you don't challenge your body, you won't change, regardless how often you hit each muscle. You can do this either by increasing reps or sets, the speed of reps or the weight that you use to do the exercise.
3. Include the Best Leg Exercises
"With my personal-training clients as well as my athletes, I usually have them train the legs to some degree every day," says personal trainer Travis Barrett. "I have them do variations of Olympic lifts, squats (bilateral and unilateral) and deadlifts (bilateral and unilateral) every training day."
Some of the best exercises to include in these types of workouts include:
1. Vertical Jump
These jumps address speed and your ability to produce force with no external load and to do so quickly. These are typically used as our initial power exercise following a dynamic warmup.
HOW TO DO IT: Squat down halfway with your feet flat, and then jump as high as possible, landing on flat feet with the knees slightly bent to absorb some of the impact from each jump.
2. Hang Clean High Pull
This movement is a power exercise (in particular, speed and strength) that addresses your ability to produce large amounts of force in a very short amount of time.
HOW TO DO IT: Start with a loaded (unloaded if you've never done this move before) barbell in front of you, and then lift it up to hip height with back flat and knees slightly bent. Bend your knees and reach your hips back in order to load the hamstrings. Straighten up explosively as you use the force of the movement to raise the bar up the body to chest level. Elbows will be higher than wrists. Bend knees slightly to absorb the impact of the barbell on the way down.
3. Front Squat
This is a basic strength exercise that focuses on general leg strength. It also works your core, as it forces you to stay more upright as compared to a back squat.
HOW TO DO IT: Grab a barbell or set of dumbbells and hold across the cest. The bar should rest across the front deltoids with the triceps parallel to the floor. Keep your hands and wrists relaxed. Hinge your hips back into a squat, pause for one count, and then stand back up.
4. Glute Bridge
Addressing weak glutes helps alleviate pressure on your lower back. Typically, people with lower-back pain have a weak posterior chain (a group of muscles on the back of the body from the glutes to the calves), which ultimately results in an anterior tilted pelvis (your hip bones tilt forward) which leads to poor posture.
HOW TO DO IT: Lie on your back with your knees bent and pointing up to the ceiling. (Optional: Load the barbell across the front of the hips.) Lift your hips slowly until your body is in a straight line from shoulders to knees. Squeeze your glutes at the top, and then lower back down slowly and with control.
5. Body-Weight Lunge
This exercises stretches the hip flexors and addresses single-leg strength, which helps ensure that one side isn't stronger than the other.
HOW TO DO IT: Start standing, and then step out a few feet with the lead foot flat. Bend both knees to 90-degree angles. Maintain even pressure between the ball of the rear foot and the the middle of the front foot. Step back to the starting position.
"To get the most out of your leg day, you should make a point of including squats and deadlifts in your workout. You don't necessarily need to include both of them in the same workout, as long as you're doing each of them regularly," says Lindsey Mathews, head trainer for IdealFit.com. "These lifts work so many important muscles that you really sell yourself short when you don't do them."
4. Switch Up the Style of Leg-Day Workouts
There are various ways to cause hypertrophy (increasing muscle size) — such as supersets (grouping two exercises together sequentially with little to no rest in between) and triple sets (three exercises executed sequentially with little no rest in between sets) because you can get a lot done in little time.
Circuits are also a great way to challenge yourself. You can either do a continual circuit where you're moving from one exercise to the next without rest until the end or use supersets or triple sets, in which you group two or three exercises together with little rest in between exercise and a break between sets.
Not sure what to do for your next leg-day workout? Try this workout by Travis Barrett:
- Vertical jumps: five sets of three reps
- Hang clean high pull: three sets of three reps at 60-percent of your 1-rep max*
- Front squat: three sets of five reps at 75-percent of your 1-rep max
- Glute bridge: three sets of 20
- Body-weight lunge: three sets of 10 reps on each side
*One-rep max refers to the maximum amount of weight you can lift once.
Benefits of Leg-Day Workouts
So why should you go through all of this? Besides the general benefits of weightlifting — more lean muscle mass, decreased body fat and stronger bones — some of the largest muscle groups in your body are in your legs, which is why it's important to never skip leg day, says Mathews.
"When you train these large muscles, it promotes the release of hormones that help build lean muscle mass," she says. "This helps maximize your results for all the other muscle groups."
But the muscles involved are not only legs — glutes, quads and hamstrings as mentioned above, plus the muscles in your calves — but other muscles groups as well. For example, during back squats, your glutes and hamstrings are worked, but also your upper-back muscles because you need to support a barbell.
"Having a strong lower body also helps with most other physical activities, such as running, biking and sports, and it can also help you to be less prone to injury," says Matthews.