8 of the Hardest Leg Exercises You Can Do at Home

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When you think of lower-body workouts, you might automatically picture the squat rack and leg press machine. But even when you're staying home, you don't have to skip leg day. Doing countless reps of squats and lunges gets boring fast, though.

The sign of a good leg day? Having trouble walking up stairs the next day.
Image Credit: SimonSkafar/E+/GettyImages

How do you keep things interesting and prevent your gains from plateauing? Add a little bit of heat to your otherwise chill leg workouts by giving one of these eight exercises a try. Or really burn out your lower body by doing all of them in a single session.

1. Elevator Squat

This three-step squat variations is like three reps in one, lighting up your legs three times as fast as a standard squat. "If you're doing these properly, your time under tension is insane," says Erik Bartell, CPT, a Nashville-based conditioning coach. "When you're done, your legs will be blowing up."

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart. Hinge your hips back and bend your knees, lowering your butt down as if sitting into a chair.
  2. Lower yourself as deep as possible, then come a quarter of the way up.
  3. Lower yourself again, this time come halfway up.
  4. Lower one more time, then come up completely.

Tip

These can be done as a dumbbell or kettlebell goblet squat or barbell back or front squat.

2. Heels-Elevated Squat

Are mobility issues impeding your leg gains? The heels-elevated squat helps reduce joint stress, putting the emphasis on your leg muscles instead of directly on your knees and ankles. "Elevating your heels puts a ton more stress through the quads," says Jon Erik Kawamoto, CSCS, co-owner of J.K. Conditioning in Newfoundland, Canada.

  1. Place both heels on either a pair of weight plates, a book, slant board (ramp) or other sturdy object that's a few inches tall.
  2. Load up with your chosen weight (dumbbell in each hand, kettlebell at your chest or barbell across the back).
  3. While keeping your back straight and chest up, lower your hips back and down until your glutes dip below your knees.
  4. Drive back up to standing.

Tip

“Try not to lock your knees at the top of each rep,” Kawamoto says. “This constant tension will result in a huge quad burn.”

3. Bulgarian Split Squat

If you're really looking to turn up the heat in your leg routine, incorporating Bulgarian split squats is your answer. This unilateral (single-leg) lower-body move can be done with just your body weight or by adding dumbbells and kettlebells to amp up the intensity.

"It won't take much weight, but sets of 20 on each side will have you calling the fire department to put the burn out in your legs," says Ronnie Lubischer, CSCS, owner of Lubischer's Burn and Blast Training in Long Branch, New Jersey.

  1. Stand facing away from a bench, chair or step, placing one foot on top, sole of your foot up.
  2. Bend your front leg until the knee is at a 90-degree angle and the knee of your back leg nearly touches the floor.
  3. Push through your front foot to return to standing.

4. Hip Thrust With Isometric Hold

This move may not necessarily increase muscle size, but adding an isometric hold to hip thrusts builds endurance and adds intensity to your workout by increasing your time under tension (the amount of time your muscle is under strain).

The result? A healthy burn in your glutes and hamstrings. "This dynamic rep and isometric hold scheme is great for increasing time under tension," Kawamoto says. "This will fire up your glutes and leave you screaming (in a good way)."

  1. Sit with your back resting against a bench, step or chair and your glutes on the floor, feet flat on the ground.
  2. Thrust your hips into the air until your torso and knees form as close to a 90-degree angle as possible.
  3. Perform 10 reps, then hold the final rep for 10 seconds.
  4. Perform 8 reps, holding for 8 seconds on the last one.
  5. Do this all the way down to 2 reps.

Tip

Hold a barbell, dumbbell or other weight across your hips for a greater challenge.

5. Overhead Squat

When it comes to full-body power and stability, very few exercises compare with the overhead squat. Performed correctly, an overhead takes core strength, shoulder mobility, ankle and knee stability and tons of energy.

  1. Hold a barbell, dumbbell, weight plate or other heavy weight in both hands over your head, biceps in lined with your ears and arms extended straight.
  2. Keeping your core braced, lower your body in the same movement as performing a squat to about hips below knees.
  3. From there, drive upward, pushing the barbell up as you go.

6. Jumping Split Squat

Adding the jumping split squat to your routine is a surefire way to intensify any leg workout. Used as part of a superset with power-focused movements like goblet squats or single-leg deadlifts, these burners will have you buzzing quite quickly.

"It'll quickly feel like your legs are going to give out," Bartell says. "You'll definitely have spaghetti legs afterward."

  1. Start in a lunge position, dropping your back knee till it nearly touches the floor and swinging your arms back behind you for momentum.
  2. Jump up as high as you can, bringing your arms up overhead and landing with the same leg in front.
  3. Perform for about 20 seconds, then switch legs.

7. Banded Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Let's not forget working your largest muscle — your glutes. They're responsible for hip and thigh movement, and if they aren't firing correctly, chances are your legs won't be at full capability either. Adding this unilateral butt burner should help.

"If you think about it, we move our legs one at a time: walking, jogging, jumping over a puddle. There aren't many more moves that will activate your glutes better than these," says Richard King, NASM-certified personal trainer at Crunch Fitness in New York City.

  1. Using a small resistance band strapped just above your knee, lie on your back, knees bent, feet near your butt and arms at your sides. Lift one leg into the air.
  2. Pressing through the foot on the ground and your arms, then raise your hips off the ground as high as possible.
  3. Slowly lower to floor.
  4. Do all reps on one leg before switching legs.

8. Low Walking Lunge

Did you really expect to walk away without a mention of arguably the most intimidating leg-day finisher? Of all the lunge variations (walking, reverse, side, jumping, etc.), none is more taxing on your legs than the low walking lunge — whether you do it with weights or just your body weight.

"This lunge variation doesn't allow for much rest between reps, which equals more constant tension," Kawamoto says. "That's a theme with a lot of my leg workouts."

  1. Standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart, step one leg forward.
  2. Plant your foot and drop your hips until your front knee reaches about 90 degrees and your back near nearly touches the floor.
  3. Staying as low as possible in your lunge, bring the other leg to the front, lunging on the opposite side.
  4. Continue walking forward, trying to stay at the same level the whole time.
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