Muscle Group Series: Leg Workouts
Building out and sticking to a workout plan feels good and helps you efficiently accomplish your fitness goals. However, building out a structured weekly plan requires you to have a solid understanding of muscle groups, muscle building, and general body composition. Today we’re breaking down leg day—a crucial part of a full-body fitness plan.
Legs can be broken down into a few muscle groups; from the top of your legs down are glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves. Within and around these areas are individual muscles, and they all function together to ensure lower-body movement.
The gluteus maximus muscles (glutes for short) control the extension and external rotation of the thigh at the hip joint. These muscles also help your thighs move outwards and inwards toward one another. Sitting down and standing up from a chair is an example of a movement that activates this muscle group.
Quad muscles, properly referred to as quadriceps, are the muscles in your leg that help you kick, run, cycle, and jump. They run down the front side of your thighs, between your hips and knees. Quad muscles handle a lot of impact when working out, so strengthening and stretching this muscle group is important for injury prevention.
Opposite the quads, hamstring muscles run along the back of your thighs. These muscles help you bend your knees, tilt your pelvis, squat down, and walk. According to PubMed Central, hamstring injuries are the most common sports injury. Similar to quads, it is very important to develop strong, healthy hamstring muscles through strength training and stretching.
Calf muscles are on the backside of the bottom half of your legs, below the hamstrings. They are the muscles between the back of the knee and the heel of your foot. These muscles help you press onto your tip-toes, jump into the air, move your foot, and propel you forward when you walk.
Now that you have a strong understanding of the main muscle groups in your legs, we are going to dive into useful exercises to strengthen each muscle group. It is important to rotate through these muscle groups so that your legs are strong and toned throughout. Having an imbalance in one leg muscle group can lead to overcompensation of another muscle group and eventually leads to injury.
Below is a list of exercises that can be used to strengthen your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves.
Begin standing upright with your legs a bit wider than hip-width distance apart. Your feet should be parallel to one another, facing forward. Imagine a string pulling you upright from the top of your head the entire time, this will ensure a straight and engaged back.
Start by bending your knees, your body will begin to lower towards the ground. Pause once your knees are as much as your body allows, but do not bend any further than a 90-degree angle at the knees. Once you’re as low as you can go, press back up to your starting position. The lower you bend, the more your glutes engage.
Fire Hydrants (Glutes)
Begin on your hands and knees in a table-top position—knees under your hips, wrists under your shoulders.
Keep one leg in this position while lifting the other out and up, externally rotating your hip open. The higher you can lift the outside of your knee to the ceiling, the more engaged your glute will become. Once you’ve lifted as high as you can, return both legs to a tabletop position and repeat on the other leg.
Begin standing upright with your left foot placed slightly behind your body and your right foot about double the distance in front of you, both toes facing forward. Maintaining an upright back, begin bending your back knee towards the floor, leaning onto the toe mound of your back foot. Lunge down until your knee is hovering right above the ground, and then press up, switch feet, and repeat on the other side. Your front knee will also bend as you lunge down.
If your front knee travels beyond your front toe, lengthen your stance. You always want your front toes in front of your front knee at all times.
Cycling is a great way to combine a quad and cardio workout. Indoor cycling classes, also known as spin, are group classes on stationary bikes led by an instructor. If you’re new to cycling, we recommend starting out with some guided spin classes. Ask your instructor to help you set up your bike properly and watch others for guidance in the beginning.
Leg Curls (Hamstrings)
A great way to isolate the hamstring muscles and really make them work is to use a lying leg curl machine.
On this machine, you lay face down on its bench, which is peaked so that your quads are resting on an upward slope and your torso is resting on a downward slope. On one end of the machine, there is a bar with adjustable weight resistance. Place the backs of your ankles below the bar and then lift the bar up by pulling your feet towards the glute muscles as you exhale. The movements of the lower leg should be slow and controlled.
Dumbbell Deadlifts (Hamstrings)
For the deadlift, begin standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. While holding weights down at your side, lean over, maintaining a straight back and letting your arms follow the path of gravity so they hang straight down toward the floor. Then, engage your hamstring and glute muscles to pull the torso back up so that you return to your original upright standing position.
It’s important to maintain awareness of your back the entire time. Rounding your back places unnecessary strain on the lower back, which can lead to injury. You want a straight, strong, engaged back throughout the entire deadlift. Rather than rounding your back, the rotation should happen at the hips; keep in mind that the strength for this exercise comes directly from the legs.
Calf Press (Calves)
The calves can be worked out using a calf press machine.
Your legs should be almost fully extended when you sit in the machine, with the balls of one’s feet on a bar that is connected to resistance weights. Ankles should be flexed, with toes pointing up towards the ceiling. Once you’ve set your resistance, push the balls of your feet, pressing down on the weight. Your calves will engage as you push your feet against the resistance.
This exercise can also be done on a leg press machine by simply putting the balls of the feet on the moving platform and extending one leg out. Then, rather than bending your knees as you would do for a leg press, keep your legs extended and create small movements by flexing one ankle at a time, pressing with the balls of your feet.
You can also do it on the floor by holding a weight (or not) and rising onto your toes and back down slowly.
Ankle Roll (Calves)
The ankle roll is a very easy and effective calf exercise. Begin standing upright or seated in a chair. Place one foot flat on the ground beneath you, and lift your other foot up so that you can rotate your ankle around. Move your lifted foot in a circular motion with the rotation occurring at the ankle. It is helpful to imagine your foot drawing a big circle. The larger the circle, the more your calf will work.
Some of these workouts require specific fitness machines. If you can’t get into a gym, don’t fret, there are plenty of body-weight exercises that you can do from anywhere. However, fitness machines often help isolate and optimize a specific movement and muscle group, which can result in a more efficient and targeted workout. Fortunately, we have over 30 Chuze Fitness Centers across four states, each equipped with top-tier exercise equipment machines and spaces to help you accomplish your fitness goals.
Ani is the Vice President of Fitness at Chuze Fitness and oversees the group fitness and team training departments. She’s had a 25+ year career in club management, personal training, group exercise and instructor training. Ani lives with her husband and son in San Diego, CA and loves hot yoga, snowboarding and all things wellness.
- Davis, Nicole. “How to Design a Leg Workout Using the 15 Best Exercises.” Healthline. 12 May, 2021. https://www.healthline.com/health/fitness/leg-workout
- Hayes, Annie. “Best Leg Exercises: Upgrade Leg Day with These 27 Moves.” Men’s Health. 5 May, 2021. https://www.menshealth.com/uk/workouts/a29208586/best-leg-exercises/
- “50 Best Leg Exercises and Workouts of All Time.” Men’s Journal. https://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/best-leg-exercises/