Just like the basics are usually best when it comes to nutrition — whole foods, plenty of plants — the basics are a good place to start when it comes to building lower-body strength. Adding squats, lunges, deadlifts and other compound, functional movements to your full lower-body workouts sets you up for the most fitness gains.
Lower-body strength is essential for functional movements like walking up a flight of stairs and getting up from your chair, not to mention generally any physical activity you can think of, including walking, hiking, running, jumping and cycling. In other words, don't skip leg day.
Try This Full Lower-Body Workout
To really train your entire lower body, you need to work both your anterior and posterior muscles. These are the names given to the front and back sides of your body, according to the National Academy of Sports Medicine. When it comes to your lower body, your anterior chain includes your quads, hip flexors and abs, while your posterior chain covers your glutes, hamstrings, calves and back.
You can combine anterior and posterior exercises for a balanced leg day that hits every muscle group in your lower body. This is often referred to as a "push-pull" routine: Quad-focused exercises involve pushing, while glute- and hamstring-focused exercises involve pulling.
This plan takes the guesswork out of creating the perfect full lower-body workout. For each move, choose weights with which you can do all of the reps without breaking your form. The weights should be challenging, but you shouldn't work your muscles to failure with this workout.
Do: 5 sets of the three moves below with 60 to 90 seconds of rest between sets.
1. Front Squat
- To start, make sure your barbell is securely in place in the barbell rack and that the height is appropriate for you. You shouldn't have to stand on your tip-toes to reach the bar.
- Load your barbell with a weight that you can lift for 5 good reps. Place clips on the barbell to secure the weight, if your gym has clips available.
- Walk up to the barbell and touch your shoulders to the bar. Grip the bar from underneath: Your palms should face upward, your elbows should point forward, and your triceps should be parallel (or almost parallel) to the ground. Stand up tall to lift the barbell from the rack. You're now in the front-rack position.
- Engage your core (squeeze your abs like someone is about to punch you in the stomach) and take a deep breath.
- Hinge at your hips and then your knees to start the descent into the bottom of the squat. Make sure to keep your core tight, chest up, elbows high and feet flat on the floor. Don't let your knees cave in or move forward past your toes.
- Keep descending until your thighs are parallel to the ground (or as close to parallel as you can comfortably go).
- Drive through your heels to return to the standing position. Think about pushing your knees out and driving your elbows toward the sky. Make sure to fully extend your hips at the top — no bent legs!
- Take another breath, brace and start the descent again.
If you don't have a barbell handy, you can also do this exercise holding two heavy dumbbells by your chin, palms facing in.
The deadlift is one of the simplest lower body moves: You just lift the weight off of the floor. Don't confuse simplicity for ease, though — nailing form on the deadlift can take lots of practice.
- Start with the barbell on the floor. Load it with an appropriate amount of weight: You should be able to confidently deadlift this weight 5 times without breaking your form.
- Stand so that the middles of your feet are directly under the bar. Bend down to grip the barbell with both hands. Use a full grip: Your entire palm should wrap around the bar, not just your fingers.
- When you grip the bar, your feet should remain flat on the floor and your spine should be in a neutral position (not overly arched or rounded) with your shoulders back and down. Keep your head in line with your spine; don't look up and excessively curve your neck. The barbell should lightly graze your shins.
- Take a deep breath and engage your core.
- Driving through your heels and utilizing your glutes and hamstrings, pull the weight off of the ground. Pull until you are fully standing, with your hips completely extended. The barbell should remain in contact with your body nearly the entire time.
- Hinge at your hips first until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, then hinge at your knees to lower the barbell back to the starting position.
- Start again from step 3. Make sure you have a good grip and starting position before going in for another rep.
New to deadlifts? Use dumbbells or just your body weight to achieve proper deadlift form before you progress to using a barbell.
3. Single-Leg Hip Thrust
For serious glute strength, add single-leg hip thrusts to your full lower-body workout routine. This move targets your gluteus maximus and medius, as well as your hamstrings.
- Find a box or bench to use — you may want to place a mat or towel over the box to cushion your back.
- Sit on the floor and place your upper back against the box or bench. Bend your knees so that your feet are flat on the floor.
- Lift one foot off the floor so that only your working leg remains in contact with the ground.
- Drive through the heel of your working leg to lift your hips off of the ground. Push until your hips and thighs are parallel to the ground, and squeeze your glutes at the top.
- In a controlled manner, use your working leg to lower yourself back down — but not all the way to the ground. Stop an inch or so before your butt reaches the floor, and then begin a new rep.
- Complete 10 reps on one side. Then, lower yourself completely to the floor, and start over from step 2 on the other leg.
Do: 3 rounds of the following circuit. Rest 15 to 30 seconds between movements and 60 seconds between rounds. Pick weights light enough to complete 20 reps with proper form.
1. Dumbbell Squat
This variation of the squat is less stable than the barbell squat, so make sure you keep your core engaged and spine neutral during your sets.
- Grab two dumbbells. The combined weight should be one that you're comfortable lifting for 20 reps (with good form!).
- Pick up the dumbbells and bend your arms so that the weights rest on your shoulders. (This is the same position as the front-rack position for barbell front squats, except you're using dumbbells.)
- Take a deep breath and engage your core. Make sure your feet are firmly planted.
- Bend your hips and knees to lower yourself into a squat. Descend as far as you can without tipping your torso forward or raising your heels from the floor.
- Drive through your heels to return to the standing position.
- Keep repeating from step 3 until you reach 20 reps.
2. Romanian Deadlift
A variation of the traditional deadlift, Romanian deadlifts further isolate your hamstrings to build strength in your posterior chain.
- Start with a barbell on the floor and add weight. You should be able to lift this weight for 20 reps with good form.
- Just like with the traditional deadlift, bend down to grab the barbell with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Initiate the movement by bending your knees slightly. Keep your chest tall as you hinge at the hips as far as you can (think about pushing your butt backward) until you feel tension in your hamstrings, while simultaneously lowering the barbell. You should only have a very slight bend in your knees: An alternate name for this movement is the straight-leg deadlift.
- Use your hamstrings and glutes to "pull" yourself back to the standing position. You should feel very little in your lower back — the power is coming from your legs and glutes.
- Repeat from step 3 until you reach 20 reps.
Everyone's bottom position in a Romanian deadlift is different: It's where you feel tension in your hamstrings without deviating from a neutral-spine position. This has a lot to do with mobility, so if your hamstrings are very tight, you may not lower the barbell very far. Conversely, someone with flexible hamstrings may lower the bar nearly to the floor.
3. Dumbbell Step-Up
Another unilateral (single-side) move, dumbbell box step-ups train mainly your quads, hip flexors and glutes, but your calves and hamstrings get worked, too.
- Grab two dumbbells that you can hold for 20 reps.
- Place your box somewhere sturdy, where it won't wobble while you perform step-ups.
- Using a full grip, hold your dumbbells in the suitcase position with your arms down by your sides.
- Place one foot firmly on the box. Make sure your entire foot is planted — don't let your heel hang off.
- Use your quads and glute muscles to step up onto the box.
- Carefully lower yourself back down.
- Complete 10 reps on one leg before switching to the opposite leg for the next 10 reps.
Set a goal and pick lower-body exercises that will help you achieve it. If you want to build quad strength and size, for example, focus on moves that work your anterior chain. If you want stronger glutes, you'll need to get very familiar with posterior chain exercises. Perform fewer reps with more rest to improve strength and power and higher reps with less rest to build muscle mass and endurance, according to the American Council on Exercise.