Leg Exercises for Strength and Conditioning

Strong legs, powerful hip flexors and butt muscles are the target of professional athletes and men and women who want to perform well and look good. Here are the 10 best compound and isolation exercises for legs and butt.

Barbell Squat

Squats, in any form, are the classic leg development exercises. Barbell squats utilize barbells held at the chest in front or on the traps behind the neck. Variations in leg stance and depth of squat are possible for different muscle emphasis.

Start with a light weight with back squats and build up, eventually squatting butt to ankles if it suits you. With varying emphasis, squats hit upper and lower leg muscles, including quads, hamstrings, butt, and calves.

  1. Set a barbell on a squat rack to be the same height as your upper chest.
  2. Stand under the bar, bending your knees, so the bar rests high on the back of your shoulders, across your traps.
  3. Grip the bar overhand with your hands wider than your shoulders.
  4. Straighten your legs to lift the barbell from the rack, and take one step back with both feet, standing with your legs shoulder-width apart or in a comfortable stance.
  5. Hinge your hips backward, bending your knees and pushing them out in the direction of your toes. Do not allow your knees to cave in.
  6. Continue lowering until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor or until your calves touch your glutes if you have the mobility without your lower back rounding (butt wink).
  7. Hold for a count of one.
  8. Push through your feet and straighten your hips and knees until standing.
  9. Adjust your stance and grip before continuing to the next repetition.

Dumbbell Squat

This is a squat variation suitable for those who don't tolerate a barbell on their shoulders. A possible limitation is the availability of dumbbells heavy enough to challenge you. Hold the dumbbells hanging at the side or on the top of the shoulders.

  1. Stand with dumbbells at your sides, your palms facing each other, and your feet about shoulder-width.
  2. Squat down until your thighs are at least parallel to the floor, maintaining a straight back, chest up.
  3. Pause for one second before pushing up through your feet to rise back up to starting position and repeat.

Dumbbell Lunge

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

With a step forward, the dumbbell lunge has a different emphasis to the dumbbell squat, placing extra emphasis on butt muscles (gluteus). Hold a dumbbell at each side and lunge forward with each leg alternately.

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand, and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Keep your shoulders back, your back straight and your core braced.
  3. Take a big step forward with your left leg so that when you bend your left knee it will be at a 90-degree angle.
  4. Bend both knees, lowering until your right knee is almost touching the ground. Hold for a count, then press through your front foot.
  5. Straight your legs and raise your body back to standing.

Deadlift

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The classic deadlift involves lifting a barbell from the floor with knees bent and back straight. The deadlift is one of the best compound exercises available, working with various muscle groups, including upper and lower leg muscles, butt muscles, neck, arm, back, abdominals, and forearms. Include the deadlift and variations in your basic and advanced strength and conditioning programs.

  1. Place a barbell on the floor and stand facing the barbell with your legs close to the bar, feet about shoulder-width.
  2. Squat down with your back straight to grip the bar with an overhand grip at shoulder width.
  3. Keep your arms fully extended as if they are hooks, and stand up with the barbell by pushing your feet into the ground as if you are pushing the ground away from you. Keep the bar close to your shins.
  4. Raise your hips and shoulders at the same time (don't allow your hips to shoot up first).
  5. Stand straight, lock out your hips and contract your glutes. Rotate your shoulders back.
  6. Reverse the motion, keeping the bar close to your body.

Leg Press

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Performed on the leg press machine, the leg press requires you to push a platform away from your body under load. Although criticized by some as being potentially dangerous for the lower back, done correctly with good form, the leg press can be a helpful exercise.

Keep the lower back pressed against the support and ensure it does not lift from the deck as you push. Don't utilize super-heavy weights in this exercise; stick to 10-12 RMs.

  1. Sit on a leg press machine and place your legs on the platform at shoulder width in front of you.
  2. Disengage the safety bars and press through your heels to raise the platform until your legs are fully extended.
  3. Lower the platform with control as deeply as you can with your mobility.
  4. Push through your feet and engage your quadriceps while returning to the starting position.
  5. Engage the safety pins when you are finished with your reps.

Barbell Hack Squat

The barbell hack squat is another functional squat variation, especially if you do not or cannot tolerate upper-body weights. It is not utilized much in the modern era but can be very useful. It's a little like a combination squat and deadlift.

Place a barbell behind the heels on the floor. Squat down with a straight back and grasp the barbell. Stand and lift the barbell from behind. It's not as difficult as it sounds. The hamstrings and butt get a good workout with this one.

  1. Positon a loaded barbell behind you. Stand on weight plates or wedges placed under your heels and mid-foot. Brace your core.
  2. Slowly squat down and grasp the barbell behind you. Make sure you are keeping your core braced and back straight.
  3. Stand up holding the barbell, pressing through your heels to drive up. You will feel this in your quads the most.
  4. Slowly reverse by driving your hips back. Repeat.

Bridge

Bridge
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Bridges are great strengtheners for the hamstrings and butt. While facing up from the floor and with forearms flat on the floor, bend them back and push up so that your butt and legs are lifted from the floor. Hold this position for 30 seconds. Repeat.

  1. Lie on the floor with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor.
  2. Place your hands flat on the floor beside you for stability, palms down.
  3. Lift your glutes off the floor by raising your hips and pushing through your feet.
  4. Raise until your back, hips, and thighs are straight. Contract your glutes for a count.
  5. Return to the floor by lowering your hips.

Leg Extension

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

The leg extension exercise utilizes the leg extension machine. This is another exercise that attracts critique for being potentially unsafe. However, joint injury and extreme loads are avoided in the absence of an existing knee. The leg extension exercise can be helpful, especially in rehabilitation when quadricep muscles require strengthening.

  1. Sit on a leg extension machine with your legs under the pad and your feet pointing forward. The pad should rest on your shins just above your ankles.
  2. Hold the hand bars and press your back to the padded seat behind you.
  3. Use your quadriceps to fully extend your legs and contract your quads. Hold for a count.
  4. Return slowly and with control. Repeat.

Leg Curl

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Another exercise on a gym machine, the leg curl hits the hamstrings. You can use a bench machine to curl both legs simultaneously or a standing machine that challenges each leg alternately.

  1. Lie face down on a leg curl machine and position your heels under the foot pad. Ensure your legs are fully extended with the pads resting on the back of your ankles. Grasp the handles or the pad if there are no handles.
  2. Curl your legs back in an arcing motion using your hamstrings. Move slowly with control and do not jerk or use momentum. Contract and hold at the top.
  3. Slowly reverse the motion. Repeat.

Seated or Standing Calf Raise

You can use a calf-raise gym machine or do standing heel raises to emphasize calf muscle activity. Either way, these exercises hit the calf muscles — the gastrocnemius and the soleus.

The seated exercise, with knees flexed, hits the soleus muscles, and standing, with legs straight, knees locked, activates the gastrocnemius. Here's how to do a standing calf raise using a barbell.

  1. Place two weight plates on the ground next to each other, or use a low exercise step. Place a loaded barbell across your shoulders, resting on your traps, standing on the weight plates positioned under your heels.
  2. Raise yourself by extending your feet, and feeling the contraction in your calves.
  3. Lower slowly and repeat.

A Word From Verywell

Building strength and muscle in your legs and glutes will improve your athletic performance no matter what sport or activity you engage in. You will also increase your functional ability and improve aging outcomes. Be sure you know how to perform each exercise correctly and use an appropriate weight for your abilities. Seek help from a personal trainer if you are unsure.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Clark DR, Lambert MI, Hunter AM. Muscle activation in the loaded free barbell squat: a brief review. J Strength Cond Res. 2012;26(4):1169-1178. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31822d533d

  2. Neto WK, Soares EG, Vieira TL et al. Gluteus Maximus Activation during Common Strength and Hypertrophy Exercises: A Systematic Review. J Sports Sci Med. 2020;19(1):195–203.

  3. Mausehund L, Skard AE, Krosshaug T. Muscle Activation in Unilateral Barbell Exercises: Implications for Strength Training and Rehabilitation. J Strength Cond Res. 2019;33 Suppl 1:S85-S94. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000002617

  4. National Strength and Conditioning Association. Vigotsky A, Tumminello N. Are the Seated Leg Extension, Leg Curl, and Adduction Machine Exercises Non-Functional or Risky? Personal Training Quarterly. June 2017;4(4): Colorado Springs, Colo.: National Strength and Conditioning Association 2020 https://www.nsca.com/education/articles/ptq/are-the-seated-leg-extension-leg-curl-and-adduction-machine-exercises-non-functional-or-risky

By Paul Rogers
Paul Rogers is a personal trainer with experience in a wide range of sports, including track, triathlon, marathon, hockey, tennis, and baseball.