A lot of people overthink training the lower body, check out Instagram and you’ll see many lycra-clad “influencers” performing hundreds of variations of the same few exercises. People talk about hitting the legs from different angles, or throwing in supersets, high intensity interval training, or whatever else is currently popular.
But here’s the thing. There is a much simpler (note how we’re not saying easier) way to get rapid growth in your lower body … okay that came out wrong. There is a much simpler way to build muscle and increase strength in your lower body, utilizing the following five exercises.
Firstly, What Muscles Are In The Lower Body?
There are many muscles that make up the lower body, but the main ones are the quadriceps, the hamstrings, the gluteal muscles, the calves, and the muscles of the lower back. Some people also include the abdominal muscles and muscles of the core.
- Quadriceps: These are the large muscles that cover the front of your thighs, they extend the knee and are crucial for almost all movements. There are four muscles that make up the quadriceps: Rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedialis.
- Hamstrings: The hamstring muscles make up the back of your thighs, their main function is to flex the knee (working with the quadriceps). Hamstring muscles also help to extend the hip. There are three muscles that make up the hamstrings: Biceps femoris, semitendinosus, semimembranosus.
- Gluteals: The gluteals are three muscles that make up the buttocks. The gluteals are responsible for moving the hips. There are three gluteal muscles: Gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, gluteus minimus.
- Calves: The calf muscles are located on the back of your lower leg, they are attached to your Achilles tendon and the back of your knee. The calf muscle is made up of two muscles: Gastrocnemius and Soleus.
- Lower Back Muscles: There are many muscles that make up the lower back, the main ones are the erector spinae, internal and external obliques, and the interspinales.
- Abdominals: Your “six pack” muscles, the ones that everyone cares about. But your abdominals contain more than just the “six pack”. You’ve got the transverse abdominus, the internal and external obliques (yes we also mentioned them as lower back muscles – they tend to cover the back and sides of your abdomen), and the rectus abdominus (the six pack).
Now that we know what muscles make up the lower body, we can identify five of the best exercises for strengthening the lower body. We will describe each exercise and mention which muscles they work.
Exercise #1 Back Squat
The barbell back squat is known as the king of exercises, and it more than lives up to this title. It works the quadriceps, gluteals, hamstrings, calf muscles, lower back muscles, and the abdominals. It will lead to a lot of calories burned, a lot of strength gained, and will really help you pack on muscle (provided you are eating enough to create a calorie surplus).
To perform a barbell squat you will need a squat rack (in the video you can see me performing the squat without a squat rack to better demonstrate the movement). Place a barbell at around shoulder height onto the squat rack. A little bit lower than shoulder height if possible, as it is better to crouch down under the bar to get into position.
Climb under the bar and raise yourself up so that the bar is resting on your trapezius muscle. Place your hands either side of your shoulders and grab the bar in an overhand grip. Get the bar nice and stable and then lift the bar off the squat rack and walk backwards.
Stand with feet shoulder width apart and toes turned out slightly. Pause, and then take a deep breath, pushing your chest out. Slowly lower your glutes to the ground as if you are about to sit down on a very low-to-the-ground chair. Stop when your thighs are at least parallel to the ground but go lower if you can (while still maintaining good posture). Pause briefly at this position before driving upwards until you have reached the starting position again.
When you have finished, walk forward and place the barbell back onto the squat rack.
If a barbell back squat is too difficult for you, then consider a dumbbell goblet squat instead. Hold a dumbbell in front of your chest (the dumbbell should be sideways with you holding one of the sides) and then squat down using the same technique. The dumbbell should be easier to use, and the position of the dumbbell should really help you to maintain the right posture.
Exercise #2 The Deadlift
If the barbell squat is the king of exercises, then the deadlift should be the … Queen? Emperor? Who knows? It’s a really good exercise and works just as many (if not more) muscles as the squat. The deadlift is probably the most useful exercise to learn, as it will teach you how to pick things up in a safe and effective way.
The deadlift works the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, lower back muscles, abdominals, and it also works the upper back muscles (trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles). Some people call the deadlift a back exercise because of this, but that’s insane. The deadlift is a predominantly lower body exercise, that also happens to work a couple of upper back muscles.
To perform the deadlift, you will need a barbell, a flat surface, and some Olympic lifting plates. Large weighted plates will do, but bumper plates (Olympic plates) are the best. Because they allow you to drop the bar at the end or if you feel you’re failing a lift. They also tend to stay stable throughout the lift, while normal plates can move around a bit and distract you.
Place the plates on either side of the barbell (if you are not strong enough for this, then try the kettlebell deadlift instead) and lock them into place. Walk up to the barbell and place your feet underneath it. Where your shoelaces are tied is the middle of your foot, this should be directly under the barbell. Your feet should be shoulder width apart with feet turned out slightly.
Push your knees forward until your shins touch the bar, then place your hands on either side of your knees and grab hold. Your lower body and hands are now in position, but chances are your upper body is in a horrible position with you all hunched over the bar. Lower your hips slightly and push your chest forward while pulling your shoulders back. This should cause your upper back to straighten. You are now in a perfect deadlifting position.
Pause, take a deep breath, and then lift the bar off the ground. To do this you will need to push your hips forward. This will cause your body to straighten up and will allow you to raise the bar off the floor. You should finish with your hips fully pushed forward into the bar. Breathing out as you do so.
Once you have reached this position you need to get the bar back down again. To do so, push your hips backwards while keeping your chest pushed out and shoulders back. This will allow you to slowly lower the bar back to the ground without bending your back.
Exercise #3 Romanian Deadlift
The Romanian deadlift is quite possibly the best hamstring exercise out there, it is also one of the most difficult to get right. To perform a Romanian deadlift, you will need a barbell (though you can also use a dumbbell), and you will also need some flexibility in your hamstrings. This is not an exercise you can force; you really need to work at it.
You may want to place the barbell on a squat rack, but if not, you can deadlift it up to hip height (the starting position). Your feet want to be shoulder width apart, or a little bit narrower. Both feet need to be facing straight in front of you. Bend your knees very slightly, but after that your knees need to stay static. Push your chest out and bring your shoulders back.
What you need to do now is bow from the waist forward, keeping your chest pushed out. You will immediately start to feel this in your hamstrings. Bow forward and the bar will begin to go down your shins, stop lowering the bar when your hamstrings begin to resist. The more you perform this exercise the more flexible your hamstrings will become; this will lead to an increase in range of motion.
Once you have lowered the bar as far as you can you can pause and then (keeping your chest out and shoulders back) rise back upwards pushing your hips forward as you do.
Exercise #4 Walking Lunges
Walking lunges are such a great quadricep and gluteal exercise, but they can be really annoying if you are in a busy gym. If this is the case, just perform static lunges – you really don’t want to be the guy who irritates an entire gym by walking round it with a barbell on your back whilst terrified gym goers scuttle out of your way.
You can perform a walking lunge with a barbell, a couple of dumbbells, a kettlebell, or even as a bodyweight movement. But in this example, we’ll discuss the barbell walking lunge, because it’s the best!
Stand upright with a barbell resting on your trapezius muscle, you can use a squat rack to set it up if you want – or you can get a spotter to help you place the bar on your back. Once the barbell is in position, stand with your feet together, chest pushed out, and shoulders back. Take a large step forward, drop your back knee towards the floor as you raise your back ankle. Pause, and then bring your back foot forward in a large step while dropping your other knee.
Exercise #5 Leg Press
Up until now, none of the exercises that we have picked are in any way controversial. Strength coaches, powerlifting coaches, and fitness experts would have stroked their collective chins and said “Yes, these exercises are great”. But now we’re going against the grain.
The leg press is not an exercise that many people rate, it is not as “functional” as the others, studies have shown that it does not activate as many muscle fibers as the barbell squat, nor does it lead to as large a release of testosterone or growth hormone.
But you know what? If you are looking to increase the size of your quadriceps or glutes, then the leg press is awesome. Because it is a fixed resistance machine you are able to lift more weight, and you can perform drop-sets and the like a lot easier. So, we’re including it.
A leg press machine has what is known as a foot plate, this is the large surface where you put your feet (pretty self-explanatory). The leg press we are using in this example is a 45 degree one, but you can also use a flat leg press (they’re just not as good).
Place your feet on the foot plate with toes facing straight up and feet shoulder width apart. Ensure that your lower back is flush with the seat, a common mistake is to arch your back while performing the leg press. Also make sure that your head is touching the seat rather than bending your neck forward.
Take a deep breath and slowly push the foot plate up off the brakes, now the foot plate should be entirely under your control. Extend your legs until they are almost locked and then pause. Bring your knees towards your chest, do this slowly and under control. When your knees are almost touching your chest you need to pause, and then push the foot plate away from you.