I love leg training and always have. From my first awkward and wobbly squat, I fell in love with it and have always made sure to give my legs the attention they need.
I'm certainly not the strongest person in the gym, nor do I have the most impressive set of legs. But over the years, I've picked up some important lessons, and I would like to share them with you today.
In this guide, you'll learn how to get bigger legs. Of course, there is always a lot to be said about a topic. But the information below will help you get started and build a solid foundation below the waist.
Read on and get started, my friend.
Legs Anatomy And Functions
The lower body is relatively simple to understand. The four muscle groups to pay attention to are your quadriceps (quads), hamstrings (hammies), glutes, and calves.
Here they are:
The quads are located on the thigh's front side and consist of four muscles - rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius. Their primary function is knee extension, such as on exercises like squats and leg extensions.
The hamstrings are located on the backside of our thighs and serve as an antagonist to the quadriceps. They consist of three muscles - semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris. Their primary function is hip extension and knee flexion.
The glutes consist of three different muscles - gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. They are involved in several activities, including hip and trunk extension, internal and external hip rotation, posterior pelvic tilt, and more. Their most prominent role is in hip extensions such as a glute bridge or hip thrust.Fun fact: Gluteus maximus is the largest and most powerful muscle in the entire body.
Our calves consist of two muscles - gastrocnemius and soleus. The gastroc has two heads - an inner and outer one. As a whole, our calves work to extend the foot at the ankle and flex the leg at the knee.
How to Get Bigger Legs: The 7 Best Best Exercises For Mass
1. High-bar back squats
Barbell back squats are among the most effective exercises we can do to develop our legs. Specifically, this movement is excellent for strengthening our quads, but it also involves our glutes, calves, and hammies to some degree (1).
I've used this exercise for as long as I've been training and contribute most of my quad development to it. My number one tip for this movement is to perform each repetition with a solid range of motion. Aim for parallel thighs with the floor before pushing through and going up.
Even if that means lifting a bit less weight, the range of motion will activate your quads better and undoubtedly result in more growth over time.
The low-bar back squat is also great for quad growth, but because of the bar's position, it involves more hip extension, which is one reason why most folks tend to lift a bit more weight.
2. Bulgarian split squat
Bulgarian split squats: the exercise I love recommending and hate doing myself. Just kidding. In truth, Bulgarian split squats are one of the best quad exercises. But unlike back squats, this variation is a bit more focused on the posterior chain and tends to train our hamstrings and glutes a bit better.
This makes it a perfect addition to any leg workout for mass, seeing as regular squats train the posterior chain to a lesser degree (2).
What's even more interesting is that Bulgarian split squats and other unilateral movements might improve lower body strength just as effectively as bilateral exercises (3).
Another advantage of the Bulgarian split squat is that it works one leg at a time, which is fantastic for fixing strength and muscle imbalances and preventing them from occurring in the future.
3. Front squats
While similar to the first exercise on our list, front squats offer some unique benefits. The most apparent benefit of front squats is that they keep you honest.
A significant drawback of back squats is that cheating and ego lifting can quickly become the norm. We sacrifice range of motion for pounds on the bar and believe that we are getting stronger.
This isn't possible with front squats. Due to the barbell's position, you have to keep your torso a lot more upright, which means that your back has to work extra hard. If you can't maintain the position, you can't do the exercise. There is no cheating or thinking that you're squatting well.
If you've never done front squats, you're in for a sobering experience. The first time I tried front squatting, I could back squat around 300 lbs. I told myself that I would work to around 185 lbs for several sets of six to ten reps. Boy, was I wrong. The exercise felt so awkward, I could barely keep myself upright, and my upper back was sore like never before. I barely squatted 115 lbs that day.
Front squats are also more quad-dominant, making them a perfect addition to any leg workout for mass (4). You can also do them instead of back squats if growth is your primary concern.
4. Romanian deadlift
While similar to the classic exercise, Romanian deadlifts – also known as RDLs – emphasize our hamstrings because we have to keep our knees almost entirely straight (5).
RDLs are also fantastic for glute and back development, and the overloading potential is incredible. Unlike isolation movements like hamstring curls, you can work up to impressive weights on the RDL and impose significant mechanical tension on your posterior chain.
With that said, I urge you to always focus on technique first. Ensure that you do each repetition with a full range of motion and feel a good stretch in your hamstrings before pushing through your hips to get back to the starting position.
One simple technique tweak I found works well for me is to keep my shoulders back throughout each set. That alone helped me engage my hamstrings a lot more and keep my technique in check.
5. Glute-ham raises
Similar to RDLs, the glute-ham raise is another fantastic exercise for the posterior chain. It also emphasizes the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back (5).
What's more interesting about this movement is that it seems to compliment the RDL incredibly well for hamstring activation. According to research, Romanian deadlifts activate the semitendinosus and semimembranosus (hamstring heads) more in the eccentric phase (on the way down) (5). In contrast, the glute-ham raise activated those two muscles better on the concentric phase (on the way up). Because of that, it would make sense to make room for both exercises.
Besides this, I'm a big fan of the movement precisely because of its simplicity. Plus, the glute-ham raise machine is typically free, which saves time.
If your gym doesn't have a glute-ham raise machine, you can also do this movement by pinning your legs underneath a loaded barbell. If you plan on training at home for now, I've listed a reliable alternative to glute-ham raises below.
6. Hip thrusts
When most people think of lower body training, they typically consider muscle groups like the quads, hamstrings, and calves while completely disregarding the glutes. I've been guilty of this myself.
But as the biggest muscle group in the body and one of the primary hip extensors, we need to pay attention to our glutes as they significantly contribute to our overall power, strength, and explosiveness.
The hip thrust is arguably one of the best glute-building exercises out there (6). Heavily popularized by Bret Contreras, the hip thrust is a go-to exercise for him, and he largely contributes the success of many of his clients to it.
Plus, as with the other barbell exercises on this list, the hip thrust has an excellent overloading potential, which means that you can impose significant mechanical tension on your posterior chain.
7. Seated/standing calf raises
Our calves are relatively small muscles situated at the back of our lower legs. Because their primary function is ankle extension, a simple exercise like the calf raise works great. You can pick from different variations: machine, donkey, bodyweight, Smith machine calf raises, and more.
I enjoy unilateral standing calf raises with a dumbbell in one hand. It forces me to focus on one calf at a time instead of allowing my right one to take over each set.
It's also worth noting that it's a good idea to have at least one standing and one seated calf raise variation (7). This is because the gastrocnemius crosses the knee joint, so performing a seated calf raise allows for better activation.
Two Sample Mass Building Leg Workouts
Note: Keep in mind that I've put together these workouts for the sake of giving you an example. It's always a good idea to evaluate your goals and design workouts that fit your style, injury history, and preferences.
With that said, you don't need anything fancy to grow and get stronger. So long as you focus on the fundamentals and remain consistent, you will succeed.
Strength-Focused Gym Workout
Low-bar back squat
4 sets of 4 to 6 reps
3 sets of 5 to 10 reps
Bulgarian split squats
2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps
2 to 3 sets of 8 to 15 reps
This is a typical prioritization of exercises where you start with one or two core movements and gradually progress to assisting lifts.
It's worth noting that you can also begin a strength-focused leg workout with movements like trap bar and conventional deadlifts. I prefer to start with squats, but nothing is to say that this is the rule.
Hypertrophy-Focused Gym Workout
High-bar back squat
4 sets of 6 to 10 reps
3 to 4 sets of 8 to 15 reps
3 sets of 8 to 12 reps
Lying hamstring curls (machine)
2 to 3 sets of 12 to 15 reps
Standing machine calf raises
2 to 4 sets of 12 to 20 reps
This is a relatively balanced workout for the lower body and does an excellent job of training all major muscle groups. It's a good idea to experiment with different exercises and repetition ranges and see what you respond to best.
For example, if two squat variations in one workout are too much, you can swap one variation for leg presses. If you want more work for your calves, you can do more sets and add a second variation.
How to Get Bigger Legs at Home: 8 Fantastic Exercises
Given the circumstances, home training has become incredibly popular in the last few months. If you're interested in having your leg workouts at home, I've outlined some fantastic home exercise alternatives.
1. Bulgarian split squat
We already looked at the Bulgarian split squat above, but this is also a fantastic movement if you plan on training at home (2, 3). If you're relatively new to training or lack much quad strength, you can start with the bodyweight variation and work from there.
I love having a few burnout sets of bodyweight split squats at the end of some leg workouts - the pump and mind-muscle connection are incredible.
If bodyweight split squats feel too easy, you can bump the difficulty by filling a backpack with books, holding onto a pair of dumbbells, or stepping over a resistance band and grabbing it with your hands.
2. Single-leg Romanian deadlift
I'll admit, single-leg Romanian deadlifts look easy enough, and I made the mistake of underestimating them at first. Boy, was I wrong. This movement is fantastic for hamstring and glute engagement and does a great job of improving balance and training one side at a time.
If you've never done single-leg Romanian deadlifts, the bodyweight version will suffice. If you're a bit more advanced, you can hold onto a pair of dumbbells for extra resistance.
3. Bodyweight jump squat
Bodyweight jump squats are a fun and effective way to add plyometrics to your training and improve your power.
I enjoy doing this movement because it trains the same muscle groups as barbell squats, and it also helps me improve my vertical jump. Plus, you can do more repetitions and get some aerobic exercise in.
4. Glute bridges
Similar to hip thrusts, glute bridges are a fantastic movement for the posterior chain. You can do the single-leg version of the movement to make it more challenging (8). You can also elevate your foot on something like a chair and position your upper back on a sofa to have your butt remain in the air. That will provide you with some extra range of motion and glute engagement.
If you've never done hip thrusts, glute bridges serve as an excellent introduction due to the inherent similarity and because they teach you how to engage your glutes better.
5. Chair step-ups
This movement is fantastic for training your quads, hamstrings, and glutes at the same time. If you don't have much equipment to work with, you can fill a backpack with some heavy objects, take a sturdy chair, and do step-ups.
Plus, similar to Bulgarian split squats and single-leg Romanian deadlifts, step-ups train one side at a time, which is fantastic for fixing strength and muscle imbalances.
6. Slick floor bridge curl
This is among the more unusual exercises on our list, but it works wonders for the hamstrings and glutes. If you have to train at home and don't have much equipment to work with, this exercise will work wonders.
Make sure that you're performing on a slick floor to prevent excess friction. I've found that having socks on and doing these on wood and laminate works great.
If you find that you're struggling with technique initially, avoid overextending your legs. Start by having your heels travel slightly in front of your knees, stop, and curl. As you build your posterior chain and get better at the exercise, you can gradually extend your knees more and more.
7. Pistol squats
If you're training in a home setting and don't have much equipment to work with, pistol squats are a fantastic choice. Besides the sheer amount of balance and stability you need to perform these, you also need a fair amount of quad strength.
I recommend holding onto something for balance and making sure you perform each repetition slowly, with control, and through an extensive range of motion.
8. Unilateral standing calf raises
Training at home makes it challenging to target the calves well, but this variation works great. A good place to do these is on stairs where you can grab onto something for balance. But so long as you can elevate the balls of your feet and have your heels remain in the air, you can make this work.
For loading, I recommend starting with bodyweight calf raises and doing them to the point where you can do around 25 smooth repetitions with a full range of motion. After that, you can start holding onto a dumbbell, a jug full of water, or filling a backpack full of books and wearing it for each set.
Rules to Follow When Putting Together Effective Leg Workout Routines
1. Start with a heavy compound exercise
I'm a firm believer in compound exercises and recommend them to everyone. Whether your primary goal is muscle or strength gain, starting each workout with a heavy compound movement is great. The reason is, lifting heavy weights imposes significant mechanical tension on your muscles, which is an essential factor for growth (9).
If you primarily care about hypertrophy, you can start each leg workout with a few sets at around 70-75 percent of your 1RM for 6 to 10 reps. For example, if you want to train your lower body twice per week, you can start your workouts like this:
- Workout 1 (e.g., Monday) - barbell back squats for four sets of 6 to 10 reps
- Workout 2 (e.g., Thursday) - barbell front squats for four sets of 6 to 10 reps
Your exercise selection for hypertrophy is somewhat larger. You can start your leg workouts with various movements, including back and front squats, leg press, hack squats, and more.
If you care more about strength, lifting heavier would be better: 80+ percent of your 1RM for sets between two and six reps. It's also a good idea to train with a higher frequency - anywhere from two to four days per week (10). For example, you can use daily undulated periodization like so:
- Workout 1 (e.g., Monday) - 4 sets of 8 reps with 2-3 reps left in the tank
- Workout 2 (e.g., Wednesday) - 5 sets of 6 reps with 1-3 reps left in the tank
- Workout 3 (e.g., Friday) - 6 sets of 4 reps with 1-2 reps left in the tank
As you can imagine, exercise selection here isn't as liberal. It's better to perform the core lift you want to improve (e.g., low-bar squat) and close variations (e.g., high-bar squat and front squat).
2. Do exercises for all muscle groups
Sure, the squat is a fantastic lower body movement, but learning how to get bigger legs also comes to understanding exercise selection. As we went over above, there are many exercises to pick from, and each offers unique benefits.
My recommendation is to have at least one direct exercise for the major muscle groups (quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves). For example:
- Quads - high-bar back squats and Bulgarian split squats
- Hamstrings/glutes - hip thrusts and glute-ham raises
- Calves - a standing and a seated calf raise variation
If you want to do more volume for your legs or train them more than once per week (which I recommend), you can add other movements such as Romanian deadlifts, leg press, leg extensions, hamstrings curls, and glute bridges.
3. Diversify your rep ranges and adjust your resting intervals accordingly
It's important to remember that optimal training is the result of variety. Aside from picking several exercises for the different muscle groups, you should also diversify your repetition ranges to some degree. In doing so, you can impose diverse types of stressors on your muscles, and hopefully, achieve better results in the long run (9).
For example, you should lift heavier weights for mechanical tension (squats, hip thrust, Romanian deadlift, etc.), but you should also lift lighter weights for metabolic stress (e.g., leg press, leg extensions, hamstring curls, glute bridges, etc.).
You will see improvements even if you pick a single repetition range and do all of your exercises there. But diversity allows you to stimulate your muscles in unique ways, keep your training engaging, take breaks from heavy lifting, and reduce the risk of cumulative injuries.
Here are some guidelines:
- Sets in the 4 to 8 rep range (compound exercises - deadlifts, hip thrusts, and squats)
- Sets in the 8 to 15 rep range (assistance exercises - leg press, split squats, glute-ham raises, calf raises, etc.)
- Sets in the 15 to 25 rep range (assistance/isolation exercises - leg curls and extensions, calf raises, etc.)
And since you're training in various ranges, you also need to adjust your resting intervals accordingly. A set of heavy squats will take you a lot longer to recover than a set of light leg extensions. Here are some recommendations:
- 3 to 5 minutes on heavy sets (3-6 reps)
- 2 to 3 minutes on moderate sets (5 to 8 reps)
- 1 to 2 minutes on lighter sets (8 to 12 reps)
- 30 to 90 seconds on light work (12+ reps)
It's also important to avoid taking most sets to failure because that significantly prolongs your post-training recovery and hinders your performance on subsequent sets (11). Plus, research doesn't seem to find failure training more beneficial for muscle growth (12).
A Simple Model Of Progression That Works Great
Progressing with your training is crucial. The problem is, know when and how to do it can be tricky. If you go about it too timidly, you risk leaving gains on the table. If you go about it too aggressively, you risk hurting your technique and getting injured.
Succeeding here will come down to a combination of good old common sense and data. For example, say that you're squatting with 220 lbs. (100 kg.), and your goal is to do sets of eight reps.
Week 1: 4 sets w/ 220 lbs. for 7, 7, 6, 5
Week 2: 4 sets w/ 220 lbs. for 8, 7, 7, 6
Week 3: 4 sets w/ 220 lbs. for 8, 8, 8, 7
Week 4: 4 sets w/ 220 lbs. for 8, 8, 8, 9
Bingo. Now that you've done at least eight reps on every set, you can add 5 lbs. (2.5 kg.) to the bar and start working to four sets of eight reps again.
Still, before you add more weight to the bar, make sure that:
- You're not compromising your technique to do more reps (e.g., not squatting as low).
- You're mostly staying away from muscle failure, and you always have at least one more repetition in the tank.
- Your technique is good. (You can film some of your sets to see what your form looks like from the side.)
Many people crave the complicated approach to progression, but the simplicity of linear increases in weight will work great for most people. It adds up little by little, and you eventually find yourself much stronger than when you began.
You can (and should) use this philosophy when trying to progress on every other exercise, as well. It applies to split squats, lunges, deadlifts, hip thrusts, and everything in between.
How to Progress If You're Training At Home
The philosophy of linear progression also applies to home training. But given that you might not have access to as much weight, you need to get creative to keep yourself challenged.
Here are some ideas:
1) Add weight.
This is an obvious way to induce overload and one that works quite well. For example, you can fill up a backpack with books and put it on for some movements like split squats. You can also make use of water jugs, buckets, and other appliances.
2) Use resistance bands.
Adding resistance bands for various exercises is a great way to increase the difficulty. For example, you can step over a resistance band, grab it with both hands, and perform Bulgarian split squats.
3) Do more reps/sets.
Doing more volume is also a great way to make your training more challenging. Plus, seeing as training volume is a vital factor for growth, we can't overlook it.
For example, if split squats feel too easy, do more repetitions - upward of 30. Though it may seem like a waste of time, research supports the use of low intensities for muscle gain, so long as you push yourself near failure. You can also do more working sets.
4) Unilateral exercises.
The beauty of bodyweight training is that most exercises come with a unilateral option. For example, if classic squats feel too easy, do pistol squats. If Romanian deadlifts feel comfortable, do the single-leg version. Instead of doing glute bridges, do single-leg glute bridges.
Putting Everything Together
If you've read everything so far, you might be feeling a bit overwhelmed. Don't worry – it's normal. We went through a lot of information, so let's do a quick recap:
- Decide what you're training for. As we saw above, your training goal will determine how you tackle your workouts and overall programming.
- Be careful of your exercise selection and bet on the tried-and-true movements with a proven track record.
- Do at least one exercise for each muscle group. Ideally, perform two—for example, squats and lunges for quads.
- Prioritize your exercises carefully. Start with compound movements before moving to assistance and isolation exercises.
- Know that home leg training is entirely possible, and you can achieve some great results with the above exercises and tactics.
- Remember to use your best judgment as you go about progressing. On a similar note, a linear progression model will likely work best for most people out there.
Whatever your fitness goals are, I hope you got a lot of value from this guide. Tie what you've learned today with consistency and effort, and you will be successful.
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