Leg Exercises for Strength and Conditioning

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

Verywell / Ben Goldstein 

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. Squats hit upper and lower leg muscles including quads, hamstrings, butt, and calves with varying emphasis.

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.

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Dumbbell Lunge

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. It's usually a good idea not to get the knee too far beyond the toes, although various upper leg lengths affect this rule.

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 a host of 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.

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Leg Press

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 useful exercise.

Keep the lower back pressed tight 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.

Barbell Hack Squat

The barbell hack squat is another useful 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.

Verywell / Ben Goldstein


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

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Leg Extension

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

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Leg Curl

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

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

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.

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4 Sources
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  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