From Squats to Lunges: Mastering the Best Leg-Strengthening Moves

Key Points

  • Your leg muscles are big and can handle a lot in addition to their substantial workload.

  • Legs are capable of a lot of motions; make sure to train them all.

  • Exercise caution but advance accordingly.

Leg workouts are a keystone for any good workout program and for a good reason. Without them, you'd end up top-heavy, for one thing. Beyond that, there's the matter of properly implementing your leg workouts in the context of an entire program.

female doing a lunge

Importance of Leg-Strengthening Exercises

Your legs carry your whole body, and it might not seem like it, but people tend to bemoan the lower body exercises because of their intensity. However, you must train them with such intensity because they do so much work in your daily life. Even though, as of May 2023, the Hollywood writers are on strike, you shouldn't have trouble finding a well-written leg program.

Therefore, training your lower body exercises with the proper intensity and volume is essential to elicit any substantial training effect, whether that effect is gaining mass or losing fat.

Also, selecting and performing the right exercises can keep your body mobile and resilient in your later years. Think of the old saying "use it or lose it" because that applies here.

Different Types of Leg-Strengthening Exercises

First and foremost, being aware of your abilities and limitations will dictate what exercises you do. Squats and deadlifts are great. Not only that, calf raises, leg curls, and other leg-specific exercises are great additions to round-out programming.

With any workout, evaluating your goals will dictate the pace, the volume, and the exercise selection, so think about that. Do you want to get stronger? If so, how do you want to get stronger? Do you want to get leaner? Do you want more endurance?

If you're an advanced trainee, do you want to specialize? Do you feel like your legs lack size and need them to catch up to the rest of your body? Are they too big, and you need your upper body to catch up to your lower body? Are you a powerlifter with a total that you're not quite happy with because your best lift is the bench press?

No matter how you answer these questions, there's good news: There's much overlap in how you approach your leg training regardless of the goal.

group of people working out

How To Perform Leg-Strengthening Exercises Safely and Effectively

Safety is crucial. Nobody wants to end up in the hospital with a torn quad, a strained back, or a broken bone because a barbell crushed them.

Look for any pain when exercising, whether it's upper or lower body. Pain indicates that you should stop doing whatever's causing it and modify or nix it.

Your range of motion is important, too. In an ideal world, you can complete any exercise using a full range of motion. The world, unfortunately, is often less than ideal, so you have to work within the parameters your body allows. This might mean doing partial reps, variations, or combinations of either.

Assess your mobility and choose your exercises accordingly. This means practicing good judgment when you decide to take on more advanced exercises, like step-ups. The same applies to any knee pain you may experience, so before hopping on the leg extension machine, ensure you can handle it without any pain.

female fitness legs

Benefits of Incorporating Leg-Strengthening Exercises Into Your Workout Routine

Leg training helps out in many areas of life. You must put your body through a lot of physical effort to train them properly. The legs are also a massive group of muscles, so they can do that work. Doing that work results in a greater output of energy which adds to the calorie burn of your workouts.

In addition to the workload they provide, training your legs will also make your pants, skirts, shorts, and dresses more flattering.

Leg-Strengthening Exercises for Specific Sports or Activities

Training your legs improves movement quality — specifically where some sports or life activities are concerned. In comparing squats to the leg press, for example, the former increases your jumping ability.

You might not play a sport that involves jumping, and you might not jump too often in your everyday life. As such, choose your priorities wisely when choosing your exercises.

Alternatively, you might not jump around every day, but mastering the range of motion on this exercise is associated with a longer life. Personal trainer Cathleen Kronemer notes, "It seems as though every week a new research study presents data indicating the long-term hazards associated with prolonged periods of 'chair time.' As the glute muscles deteriorate, hip flexors tighten from lack of use, and inactive abdominals weaken, we ought not wonder at the preponderance of back problems seen by medical professionals."

Unilateral variations in your leg work are also beneficial. In addition to helping you balance by working your vestibular system, such exercises also help with hip and knee stability since your hip abductors play a role in stabilizing your body. Strengthening your entire musculature is good for your hip and knee joints as you age.

man performing leg press

Progressions and Variations for Leg-Strengthening Exercises

There are, of course, ways to make your exercises more difficult as you continue working out. Your balance, strength, and confidence will help dictate when to advance and practice the more difficult variants.

Leg Press

The best bang for your buck on this one is to keep the range of motion as wide as you can safely handle and add weight judiciously until you can take it to a heavy level. Aside from that, start with a lighter weight and perform the leg presses with one leg.


There are two basic types to work with: forward and reverse. The easiest is the reverse. When those become easier, take that beginner exercise and perform it with your working leg on a step to increase your range of motion.


The most accessible variant in terms of equipment, but perhaps the most difficult to perform, is the one-legged variant of deadlifts. You don't need any equipment. Stand on one leg, stick your butt back until you feel the hamstring stretch, and stand back up. Add weight over time.

Calf Raises

Of the two-legged versions, you have standing, seated, and donkey raises. To make progress, perform each of them with one leg. Err on the side of caution when choosing to add weight.

man performing leg curl

Leg Curls

Also called the hamstring curl, this is more of an isolation exercise. Also, your gym might be one of the lucky ones to have a few different hamstring curl machines at your disposal.

The classic is the prone hamstring curl. Lie face down, and curl the weight. Make sure your calves are supporting the pad.

There's also the seated hamstring curl. The only difference between the two is how you're positioned. Anecdotally, some people like the seated one more than the prone version. Ideally, do both.

Finally, there's the standing hamstring curl, which is typically a unilateral exercise. Add it into the mix along with the other two variations.


These resemble a more difficult version of the forward lunges mentioned previously. Your mobility dictates the step size, so start off smaller than you think you need to and adjust it higher if necessary.

Place the step before you, place your foot on it, and push yourself up.

Leg Extensions

Sometimes called knee extensions, these are another isolation exercise to target your quads. Knee extensions are great for a good quad pump, and like many of the other exercises, you can also perform them unilaterally.

Make sure to adjust the machine to your liking.

two people working out

Apply It to Your Workout

You have a wide range of exercises at your disposal. Master them, then for kicks to up your workout game, perform the isolation work before the heavier lifting.

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