Leg exercises promise to give you strong glutes, quads and more - these are *officially* the best moves you can do

Save this for later and never feel unprepared for the gym again.

A woman doing a series of leg exercises
(Image credit: Getty Images)

If you're starting a new gym routine or mixing things up a little with your workouts, leg exercises might be your first port of call. Why? Well, they're one of the most common, not to mention the most effective, too.

A leg exercise is any workout move that involves (yep, you guessed it) your legs - from bodyweight exercises like skater jumps or squats, to weight training moves like deadlifts and hip thrusts, there are quite literally hundreds of moves to choose from.

Jade Skillen, HYROX UK master trainer, agrees, adding that they're designed to strengthen your leg muscles and target one or a mix of your quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes. "Leg exercises can be static, meaning you don't jump (think a squat) or include a plyometric aspect, like box jumps," she continues.

So, where to start? And why a leg workout over, say shoulder exercises? Well, according to Aimee Cringle, one of the UK and Europe’s leading CrossFit athletes and winner of the 2022 CrossFit Open, because your lower body is home to the largest muscles in your body. "This means you have the potential to build the most strength there," she explains. 

Think about it - you use your lower body day-to-day way more than your upper body through walking alone. "Leg workouts are an important aspect of a balanced, whole-body fitness routine that builds strength, speed, and stability," continues Skillen. "Lower-body muscles create a strong, stable foundation and you utilise lower-body strength to do all types of movements, including upper-body movements such as throwing, batting, or reaching overhead."

Keen to build a solid foundation yourself, boosting both your lower body strength as well as all-important stability? Then you're in the right place. Don't miss our guides to dumbbell exercises and kettlebell exercises, while you're here, or if you're keen to do a workout from home, do scroll our guides to ab exercises and resistance band exercises, too. 

Leg exercises: 12 best to try tonight, according to two fitness professionals

1. Front squat

"The front squat is a great variation of the original foundational lift," explains Cringle. Why? Well, it forces you to brace your midline and maintain the correct form while also working your shoulders and lats, she shares. "It translates to so many other movements as well as providing strength and endurance key for so many sports."

How to: Bring your arms underneath the bar in the squat rack and bring your hands just outside of your shoulders with your elbows parallel to the ground. Stand the bar up from the rack whilst bracing your midline for stability and step the bar back. Perform a squat, making sure your hips pass below parallel, inhaling before you lower yourself down and exhaling once you're close to the top.

How long: Aim for 5 sets of 5 reps at around 80% of your 1 rep max (aka the heaviest weight you can lift). Aim to improve this week on week if you're keen to improve your fitness. 

2. Deadlift

You'll have heard of the deadlift - a compound movement that's great for building hamstring and glute strength. Deadlifts not only allow you to lift heavy but will also make you feel incredibly strong - winner, winner.

How to: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and place your hands on the bar just outside of your shins with it close to your legs. Keep a nice straight back and engage your core to maintain this position. Start with your knees slightly bent but be careful not to have the legs too straight (like a Romanian deadlift which has a very soft bend in the knees). Stand the bar up with your hips and the bar rising at the same time until you're fully extended then control it back down.

How long: Aim for 5 sets of 5 reps at 80% of your one rep max (eg if 10kg is the heaviest you can deadlift, aim for 5 sets of 8kg).

3. Split stance Romanian deadlift

Next up: a split stance RDL. As Cringle explains, this is one of the best leg exercises for building single-leg strength.

How to: Place your working leg forward and back leg either behind you or off of the floor. Push your bum back whilst lowering down your chest. If performing a single leg, your back leg should create a straight line with your back. Keep a neutral spine and return to standing. Add a weight if this is easy for you in the opposite hand to leg that’s working.

How long: Focus on quality reps and focus on performing the movement correctly, she advises. Using your bodyweight, aim for around 3 x 8 reps on each leg.

4. Bulgarian split squat

Cringle is a fan of split squats - what she calls a "very challenging version of a single leg squat which also works the hip flexors." It's great at improving balance, boosting stability, and establishing your posterior chain, too.

How to: Rest the top of one foot on the top of a bench or box behind you and the other foot out in front of you so when you lower yourself down your knees aren’t aggressively over your toes but still track in line with them and return to standing. The platform should be high enough that your knee doesn’t touch the floor when your hips pass just below parallel.

How long: As with the split stance RDL, focus on bodyweight first for around 3 sets of 8 reps. Once you're comfortable with that, she advises trying to progress by adding weight.

5. Box jump

You'll all have heard of box jumps, a move which combines explosivity and power for a cardio-leg workout. "It translates to a variety of movements such as Olympic lifting and many sports like athletics," explains Cringle. 

How to: Initiate the movement by pushing your hips back and bending your knees and your arms behind your body. Push off the ground with your feet and jumps so your hips fully extend and land with both feet on the box with your knees slightly bent and not in a squat.

How long: Aim for 3 to 5 explosive reps at a time, increasing the height of the box if possible.

6. Lunge

Next: the lunge, another common compound move and one that's best for building coordination, stability, and strength, shares Cringle. "There are a multitude of variations including forward, backwards and walking – all of which can be performed in a variety of ways: with dumbbells in a farmers, front rack and overhead hold, or barbells," she explains.

How to: Start the movement standing and bring one leg out in front of you so when your foot touches the ground your knees don’t come over your toes, pushing back off the forward leg to standing. To increase difficulty, add dumbbells either by your side, on your shoulders, or for a real challenge one or two overhead!

How long: Start without weights and aim for 3 to 4 sets of 8 to 12 reps per leg.

7. Walking lunges

Got your static lunge nailed? Next up: walking lunges. Skillen likes these as she reckons the most transferable leg exercise to day-to-day life as they are most similar to walking and running.

How to: Start standing and bring one leg forward so when your foot hits the floor your leg is roughly at a right angle and your back knee touches the ground. As you stand up, bring your back leg through so it becomes the forward leg.

How long: Aim for 10 to 20 reps at bodyweight.

8. Sled push

Skillen loves a sled movement - although does admit it's one of the harder leg movements out there. "That said, you can go heavy on it, plus it's great for working your quads and calves," she shares.

How to: Place either hand on the poles of the sled in a position where your knees are bent, your bum and back are in line with your hands so you have a nice neutral spine. Drive with your legs, taking one step at a time, whilst keeping your arms fully locked out and lats engaged.

How long: Begin with 10 to 20m intervals taking around 1 minute 30 seconds to 2 minutes rest in between each set. Build from there.

9. Wallballs

This is another Crossfit-style movement, shares the trainer, and is a great leg exercise for explosive strength.

How to: Hold a medicine ball in front of your face and squat down. As your hips extend when you stand up, throw the ball to the target. As you catch the ball, go into the next rep.

How long: Being with 10 to 15 reps and build. 

10. Squats

Next comes the squat - a great foundational strength exercise which has many a variation. "I really like back squats as they enable you to lift the most weight," Skillen explains.

How to: Start with the bar on the rack and bring your head underneath the barbell in the middle place each hand a little bit outside from either shoulder and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Brace your core as you stand the bar away from the rack. Perform a squat, remembering to brace again before you go down into the rep by taking a deep breath in. Make sure you hit the depth below parallel with your hips and stand up by driving your feet into the ground.

How long: Aim for 5 sets of 15 to 20 reps at bodyweight. Build from here.

11. Box step ups

Last but by no means least comes box steps ups - on their own, a great exercise for general leg and glute strength as well as growing stabilisation. "They're also fantastic positional work to translate over into a sled push strength by adding weight via a dumbbell, kettlebell or barbell," explains Skillen.

How to: Place one foot on the box and drive up off of that leg and bring the other foot onto the box when it reaches the platform. Lower the first leg back down before the second. Either alternate reps or perform the same amount of reps each side, doing all on one leg before switching.

How long: Aim for 5 sets of 15 to 20 reps at bodyweight. Build from here.

What leg exercise is most effective?

As above, both Cringle and Skillen reckon the twelve in this round up are the most effective you can be doing - think compound moves like deadlifts, squats, and lunges, or include a plyometric element, like box jumps.

Most will require you to be in a gym and have access to weights, that said, many can be done from home, too. 

Want a seriously spicy workout? Aim for any combination of six of the above moves and aim for three to five sets. Enjoy. 

Ally Head
Health, Sustainability and Relationships Editor

Ally Head is Marie Claire UK's Health, Sustainability, and Relationships Editor, eight-time marathoner, and Boston Qualifying runner. Day-to-day, she works across site strategy, features, and e-commerce, reporting on the latest health updates, writing the must-read health and wellness content, and rounding up the genuinely sustainable and squat-proof gym leggings worth *adding to basket*. She regularly hosts panels and presents for things like the MC Sustainability Awards, has an Optimum Nutrition qualification, and saw nine million total impressions on the January 2023 Wellness Issue she oversaw, with health page views up 98% year on year, too. Follow Ally on Instagram for more or get in touch.