The Best Lower Body Strength Exercises

Woman doing deadlifts in a gym
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Buff biceps and strong shoulders may seem like the only thing you need to focus on at the gym. But all your strength exercises shouldn't come back to your upper body. You need to strengthen your lower half, too. Targeting your thighs, hamstrings, glutes, and calves translate to better daily movements, like walking or jumping. 

To train these muscles properly, we break down the best exercises for your lower body. Squats and deadlifts are two top moves to work your legs. Learn how to perform them with good form along with other exercises you should consider next time you head to the gym.

General Form Considerations for Squats

Any exercise where you lower or raise a weight, including your body weight, by flexing at the hips with feet planted on the ground, demands that you implement these form rules for safety and efficacy. (It'll also help to brush up on general weight training safety tips.)

  • Keep your feet flat on the floor and don't raise up onto the toes or lift the heels off the floor. This takes a little practice, so do squats with bodyweight only until you get comfortable with this movement. You may feel like you're falling backward at first, so try it with a low bench behind you for a safety barrier.
  • Set the feet about shoulder-width apart with heels planted solidly on the surface. Toes should point outward just slightly and knees should never track inward or outward as you lift and lower. Instead, make sure the knees track over the toes as you move through the exercise.
  • Keep your back straight. Beginners often find this advice confusing. It doesn't mean you can't bend at the hips, it just means you should not flex the back at the lumbar or thoracic spine. In other words, aim to keep your back flat instead of rounding or arching your spine. One of the best ways to get this right is to make a deliberate movement outward with your butt as you bend the knees. Think about pushing your hips down and back. 

There are several squat variations you can take. 

Different Types of Squats

  • Bodyweight squats. Squatting without weights is the basic exercise movement and a good first step. The rules described above apply. This is a convenient and useful exercise that you can use at a variety of times and locations.
  • Full range-of-motion squat. As far as the ideal range of motion (or how low you should go), aim to get your hip crease below your knee crease. You might have to work up to this, depending on your flexibility and strength. 
  • Quarter squat. You lower to the point where your knees form a 45-degree angle.
  • Half squat or parallel squat. When you lower to the point where the quads are parallel to the floor. This is generally called a half squat although there is some variation in terminology.

Back Barbell Squat

This is the standard barbell squat with the bar on the shoulders, behind the neck. Advanced trainers can choose from a high or low bar position on the shoulders. You need a degree of shoulder flexibility for barbell back squats. If you find the bar positioning challenging for any reason, such as a shoulder injury, choose from the other squat forms below.

Front Barbell Squat

The front squat uses similar form as for the back squat except you hold the barbell at the chest. Some novices find this difficult because of the wrist flexibility required, but that will get better the more you do it.

Dumbbell Shoulder Squat

This variation is quite useful for individuals who can't lift barbells and feel uncomfortable with both the front and back squat position. With this dumbbell squat, hold the weights at the shoulders in a hammer grip, with the heads of the dumbbells resting on the shoulders. 

Stiff-Legged Deadlift (Romanian)

Sometimes called a Romanian deadlift, this is a great exercise for the posterior chain including butt, hamstrings, lower back, and thighs. You'll also feel it in your abs. Here's how to do it.

  1. Lift a barbell from the floor to the thighs.
  2. Lower the bar while keeping the legs relatively stiff. That is, don't bend at the knee as you would in a squat movement.
  3. Remember to keep the back straight.
  4. Lower the barbell—you can also use heavy dumbbells—until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings. If you're stiff in the lower back, bend the knees slightly so that you get some depth in the movement. How low you go will depend on hamstring, hip, and back flexibility in relation to your requirement to keep the back straight. You can touch the floor if you like.
  5. Do sets of eight to 12 repetitions.

Good Mornings

In the Good Morning exercise, you use a barbell on the shoulders, or you could substitute with dumbbells resting across the shoulders as described above. The movement is a flexion of hips with straight legs in a bowing movement from which the name is taken. It's a strong exercise for the hamstrings and posterior chain.

The Leg Press

The standard leg press is a popular exercise but it can place the back in a vulnerable position if you don't keep your back pressed against the pad behind you. In addition, start with a low weight and very slowly work your way up, as too much weight can compromise the spine and cause discomfort in the low back. Otherwise, for general workouts, it's a good leg and butt exercise.

Sled Hack Squat

The sled hack is like the reverse of the machine leg press. In this case, the weight is at your shoulders and you push up with the legs.

Leg Extension Machine

The standard leg extension machine is disliked by some authorities because it forces the knee into a fixed track, which some say can be dangerous. Even allowing for this criticism, it is widely used in knee rehabilitation. Like many of these issues, the danger is likely to lie only at the extremes of weight and repetition. As used in rehab situations, lighter loads and moderate reps will provide a good workout for the quadriceps muscles of the front thighs.

Calf Raise - Machine or Heel Raises

The calf raise works the muscles of the calf—obviously. If you do sufficient running of any type—sprints, long distance or team sports—it's unlikely that you'll get much value from the calf raise exercise because running develops the calves well. Even so, bodybuilders tend to have some use for it and it does target the lower leg more specifically than other leg exercises.

Hamstring Glute-Ham Raises or Nordic Reverse Curls

We've deliberately omitted the standard leg curl exercises for hamstrings. Leg curls are usually done on a machine where you hook your ankle under a bar and lift a weight in a knee flexing movement with heel toward the butt. Leg curls are not in my best lower-body exercise list.

Lower-Body Programs

  • If you're doing a split routine where you do upper and lower body workouts on different days, do no more than six of these exercises in a session and include a squat exercise in that selection.
  • Depending on your fitness, you might do three to five sets of 8 to 12 exercises as a general fitness routine equally targeting upper and lower body.
  • Two sessions a week with two days between workouts should be sufficient to allow recovery.
  • If you incorporate these lower body exercises in a full-body session of upper and lower body for three or four days each week, you may need to reduce the sets to 3 so as not to overdo the training.

Read up on weight training fundamentals if you need more background information on the principles and practices of weight training. Then, get started on tackling your leg day. 

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Article Sources
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