Yep, working out your legs is one of the most important exercise practices you can do for your overall health. Why? "A strong lower body is essential to so many everyday functional movements," says personal trainer Kristina Earnest, AFAA, NASM. Think about it: walking up the stairs, picking up an item from the ground, sitting down in a chair. All of these motions require stabilization and strength from your legs. Enter: our list of the best leg exercises out there.
“Your lower body strength simply allows you to live your life,” notes Earnest. That’s why Women’s Health, with the help of expert trainers, rounded up the best leg exercises you can incorporate into your workout routine for an optimal leg day sweat. But first, some important information on lower body essentials.
You need to start thinking of your legs like your “foundation,” Earnest says. This foundation is made up of two halves: front (that is, your anterior chain) and back (your posterior chain). The anterior chain includes your quadriceps, adductors, hip stabilizers, and the front of your calves. Your posterior chain muscles consist of your hamstrings, glutes, back of your calves, abductors, and additional hip stabilizers, Earnest explains.
And yup, the best leg workouts will engage a healthy variety of both your front and back muscles. “Challenging your quads, hamstrings and glutes with movements like squats, deadlifts and lunges help you to boost your athletic performance,” Earnest says, and you also engage a breadth of other muscle groups when you do so.
For example, when you perform squats, you’re not only working your glutes and quads, but you’ve got to engage your core as well to remain stable while balancing heavy weights. There’s also a cardiovascular aspect to leg exercises: “Training large or multiple muscle groups increases your heart rate and, as a result, you combine strength and cardiovascular movements. That is a bang for a metabolic buck,” Earnest notes.
Now that you’re all caught up on the ins and outs of lower body workouts, it’s time to get a little more specific. The following are the 32 best leg exercises to do in your next sweat sesh, as reviewed by Earnest. Get ready to feel that lower body burn.
Time: 10 to 20 minutes
Equipment: Looped resistance band, stability ball, dumbbells
Good for: legs
Instructions: Choose seven or eight exercises from the list below. Perform three or four sets of 10 to 12 reps of each move, or 30 to 45 seconds if you're going for time as opposed to reps. Then, rest for 30 to 60 seconds and continuing onto the next.
How to: If you're a runner, you should definitely be adding skaters to your routine, Earnest says. "This cardio exercise helps strengthen your legs and knees, and improves stability and balance," Earnest notes. To do this one, stand with your feet hip-width apart. Then, shift your weight onto one leg and use it to laterally jump toward the other side, landing on the opposite foot. Visually, you'll look like you're skating. (Hence, the name.)
Why it rocks: This move helps runners stay quick and agile while also strengthening knee stability.
2. Jump Rope
How to: No, you don't need an actual jump rope to carry out this move. (Though if you have one, feel free to bring it out.) All you need to do is a series of continuous small jumps in place, vertically or laterally, moving your arms as if you're swinging a rope underneath you with each burst.
Why it rocks: Not only does this move give your legs a serious burn, but it'll also amp up your heart rate for a healthy cardiovascular workout, too.
3. Hip Circles
How to: To do this move, support yourself by putting your weight on on your elbows and knees. Keep your shoulders over the elbows and hips over the knees, then make circles in the air with one knee, moving from the hip. Draw circle as wide as possible while keeping torso stable. Continue moving right knee in circles for 30 seconds, then switch legs and repeat on left leg for 30 seconds.
Why it rocks: Yes, this move should make your glutes burn, but it'll also help you maintain some much-needed mobility in your hip area.
4. Walking Lunges
How to: Rest your hands on your hips, then take one large step forward with your right leg, keeping your torso upright. Bend the knees and lower your body into the lunge position, stopping when your legs are forming 90-degree angles. Press through the right foot and step forward again so that you land in the same position with your left side, as if you are "walking." (Pro tip: Amp up the effort by adding dumbbells into the mix.)
Why it rocks: Walking lunges increase your range of motion, balance, and posture by loosening up your hips and hamstrings, Earnest explains.
5. Broad Jump
How to: With your knees hip-length apart, bend at the glutes and hips, then launch your body forward in a controlled jump movement. Land on your feet as far as you (comfortably) can from your initial starting point. "Maintain a soft bend through your knees to land like you’re a ninja trying to not make a noise," Earnest adds. "This will help keep your knees safe and your jump fluid."
Why it rocks: Consistently doing broad jumps will not only increase the distance you can jump over time, but it will strengthen your quads and glutes, as well as your ability to perform burst-like movements.
6. Side Lying Plank
How to: Lie on one side with your legs stacked on top of one another. Place your forearm on the floor with your elbow below your shoulder and forearm parallel to your mat. Pushing off your elbow, engage your core, glutes, and legs to lift your body weight off the mat.
Why it rocks: While this is categorically a core exercise, you're also engaging your glutes, quads, and lower legs to support your entire body as it's lifted off the ground.
7. Donkey Kick
How to: On your mat, support yourself on your arms and legs. Keeping your right knee bent at a 90 degree angle, lift your right left into the air until your leg forms a straight line with your shoulders and back, your right toe pointing upward. Reverse the movement to return to start, and switch legs after completing one set on your right side.
Why it works: If you want an exercise that's going to make your butt burn, this one's for you. Get ready for super strong glutes.
8. Goblet Squat
How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a weight in front of chest, elbows pointing toward the floor. Push hips back and bend knees to lower into a squat. Push yourself back to start. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: This beginner-friendly way to load up your squats also activates your core.
9. Banded Lateral Walk
How to: Place a mini resistance band a few inches above ankles, and stand with feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent. Maintaining a tight core, step left foot out to the side, followed by right. That’s one rep.
Why it rocks: This move warms up your glutes and hits your often-overlooked glute medius muscles.
10. Single-Leg Deadlift
How to: Holding a weight in either hand, stand on left leg with palms facing toward thighs. Keep left leg slightly bent while hinging forward at hips, extending right leg straight behind you, until torso is parallel to the floor. Weights should be lowered straight down as you move until they're almost touching the floor. Drive into left heel to return to standing. That’s one rep.
Why it rocks: This unilateral (single-side) exercise targets your hamstring and glutes and challenges your balance.
11. Sumo Deadlift
How to: Holding two kettlebells or dumbbells, stand with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed out. Position weights in front of thighs, palms facing in. Keeping knees slightly bent, press hips back as you hinge at the waist and lower the weights toward the floor. Squeeze glutes to return to standing. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: This deadlift variation really targets your glutes, hamstrings, and back.
12. Stability Ball Bridge
How to: Start lying on back with arms by sides, legs bent at 90 degrees (shins parallel to mat) and feet on stability ball. Push down into soles, upper back, and arms to lift hips off ground a few inches. Return to start. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: Performing bridges with a stability ball challenges your hamstrings, glutes, and balance in a whole new way.
13. Lateral Lunge with Balance
How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart, hands at sides. Take a big step to the right, then push hips back, bending right knee and lowering until right knee is bent to 90 degrees. Push back to an upright position, lifting knee and pulling it into chest with arms. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: Most workouts focus on forward-and-backward movements, but lateral (side-to-side) movements are important for well-rounded fitness.
14. Squat with Heel Raise
How to: Stand with heels wider then shoulder-distance apart, toes turned out slightly. Bend knees, reach hips back, and lower down into a squat. Drop arms down in between legs. Then, drive in into heels to stand up, circling arms out to the sides. At the top, lift arms straight up overhead and press up onto toes. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: The heel raise added here targets your calves.
15. Suitcase Deadlift
How to: Hold a weight with left hand, feet shoulder-width apart and right hand clenched in fist. Keeping abs engaged and knees soft, sit hips back to slowly lower weight until it reaches middle of left shin. Back should be parallel to the floor. Pressing through heels and engaging abs, quickly return to start. Squeeze glutes once completely upright. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: In addition to firing up your hamstring, glutes, and back, the suitcase deadlift also activates your obliques.
16. Bulgarian Split Squat
How to: Start standing about two feet in front of a step, holding a weight in each hand. Extend left leg back and place left foot on step. Bend knees to lower body as far as you can (or until knee hovers right above the ground), keeping shoulders back and chest up. Pause, then press through right heel to return to start. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: This leveled-up split squat variation really tests the strength of your front leg, upping the intensity of your workout and warding off muscle imbalances.
17. Sumo Squat
How to: Stand with heels shoulder-distance apart, then turn toes open slightly. Hold a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of hips. Bend knees, reaching hips back, and lower down into a squat. Allow arms to hang so that the weight remains under shoulders. Lower until hips are slightly below the level of knees. Pause at the bottom for two seconds, then drive into heels to return to standing. That’s one rep.
Why it rocks: This squat variation targets your inner thighs more than the traditional version.
18. Stability Ball Hip Thrust
How to: Start with arms behind head and elbows wide, upper back pressed into stability ball, legs bent and feet flat on floor, hips hovering above mat. Lean back into stability ball and lift hips toward ceiling until thighs are parallel to mat. Return to start. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: In addition to turning up the burn for your glutes, using a stability ball here requires you to fire up your core, too.
19. Isometric Calf Raise
How to: Hold a pair of dumbbells and stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping the rest of body still, lift up onto the tips of toes. Hold for up to 30 seconds. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: This move really hits your calves, no machines necessary!
20. Reverse Lunge
How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart, and hold dumbbells in either hand at sides. Step back with right leg and bend both knees as you lower until knees are both bent at 90-degree angles. Push through left foot to stand. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: This staple unilateral exercise works your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
21. Supported Single-Leg Deadlift
How to: Stand on left leg with a dumbbell in right hand, palm facing toward thighs, left arm by side. Step right leg a few feet behind body, lift heel, and press right toes into the floor for balance. Keep left leg slightly bent. Lean forward, hinging at the hips with a long, neutral spine while lowering the weight toward the floor. Drive into left heel to return to the standing position. That’s one rep.
Why it rocks: If single-leg deadlifts feel frustrating and unstable, this is a great modification that still targets your hamstring and glutes without as much of a balance challenge.
22. Duck Walks
How to: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, and cross hands in front of chest. Slowly sit hips back and down into a half squat position. Keeping hips stable, lower right knee down to the ground, followed by left. Bring right foot forward, followed by left, and return to half-squat position. That’s one rep.
Why it rocks: This fun exercise is guaranteed to burn out your quads and glutes.
23. Curtsy Lunge
How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Take a big step back with right leg, crossing it behind left side at the same time. Bend knees and lower hips until left thigh is nearly parallel to the floor. Keep torso upright and hips and shoulders as square as possible. Return to start. That’s one rep.
Why it rocks: Compared to regular lunges, curtsies put greater emphasis on your outer thighs and glutes.
24. Step Up
How to: Start standing facing a box or step, holding dumbbells in front of chest. Place left foot on the bench and right foot on the floor. Pushing through left foot, lift body up until standing on top of the bench. Drive right knee up until it forms a 90-degree angle. Pause, then return to start. That’s one rep.
Why it rocks: This single-leg move (which works your quads, hamstrings, and glutes while testing your balance) is helpful for all sorts of everyday activities.
25. Pistol Squat
How to do it: Start standing with feet hip-distance apart. Lift right leg while sitting hips back and bending left knee, bringing body as low as possible while keeping torso upright. Arms can be held out in front of chest or out to sides for balance. Driving through left heel, stand up to return to start. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: If you have the ankle mobility and balance to attempt this advanced unilateral exercise, it'll test your quads like no other.
26. Lateral Step-Out Squat
How to: Stand up straight with a resistance band wrapped just below knees. Clasp hands in front of your chest. Take a big step to the right, then bend knees, sit back, and lower hips until thighs are parallel with the floor. Engage glutes and press back up through heels to return to standing. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: This squat variation turns up the heat on your outer glutes and thighs.
27. Mini Band Clamshells
How to do it: Lie on right side with knees bent. Place mini resistance band around thighs, just above knees. Place left hand on left hip and form a 90-degree angle with right arm to prop yourself up and remain stable. Working against the band, squeeze glutes and thigh muscles to press left thigh up as far as possible. Then slowly bring left thigh back to starting position. This is one rep.
Why it rocks: Want to really focus in on your outer glutes? These do the trick (and happen to be a great activation exercise for larger compound exercises).
28. Mini Band Kickback
How to: Get on hands and knees. Put one end of mini band around right foot and position the other end on left thigh, just above knee. While keeping abs tight, contract glutes to slowly kick right leg back until it's straight. At full extension, squeeze glutes for a second. Slowly bring it back down. That’s one rep.
Why it rocks: Another isolation glute move, banded kick backs also require you to engage your core.
29. Lying Lateral Leg Raise
How to: Lie on right side, resting right elbow on ground just below right shoulder, and placing left hand on the floor in front of chest for stability. Right leg should be straight on the ground, and left leg should be bent over right leg. Without moving any other part of body, slowly raise right leg as high as you can. Pause, then return to the starting position. That’s one rep.
Why it rocks: This underrated bodyweight exercise hones in on those inner thighs.
30. Isometric Squat
How to: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped in front of chest. Push hips back and bend knees to sink hips until thighs are nearly parallel to the ground. Hold for up to 30 seconds. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: Adding isometric squat holds to your workouts helps you overcome muscle imbalances while also improving body control, awareness, and core activation.
31. Banded Glute Bridge
How to: Wrap a resistance band around thighs and lie on back with knees bent, feet on the floor 12 to 16 inches from butt. Brace core, then press into heels and squeeze glutes to raise hips toward the ceiling while pushing upper back into the ground. Pause in this position and expand the band by pressing knees apart. Return to start. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: Added resistance from the mini band helps you up your focus on your glutes.
32. Stability Ball Hamstring Curl
How to: Start lying on back with arms at sides and legs extended at 45-degree angle, feet resting on stability ball. Press into upper back and arms to lift hips off ground. Then, bend knees and engage hamstrings to pull heels toward butt. Re-extend legs. That's one rep.
Why it rocks: This weight-free hammy curl hones in on and tires the backs of your thighs surprisingly quickly.