You may have noticed that I’ve been dipping back into strength training a bit more lately! Thanks in part to my awesome friends who kick my ass at the gym every weekend and who have pushed me to try new things and challenge myself to lift what I’ve mentally told myself I can’t. On Monday night I did an hour of lower body strength training at the gym after I taught a spin class. After doing so many gym squad workouts on the weekend, it was so easy to put together a killer leg and glute workout that I didn’t even have to think “uh, what should I do next?” Today I’m sharing some of my favourite leg day exercises!
I used to be… hell, I still am… the girl that likes her weight workouts to feel like cardio. I love supersets, I like full-body movements, I like gasping for breath at the end of a set, and I don’t take very many rest breaks. It’s good for getting a killer sweaty workout in but sometimes not great for building muscle or learning to lift heavier – so whatever your goals, keep that in mind! The gym squad workouts have taught me that rest is good, and you can generally lift a LOT heavier with those breaks and rest in between sets. If I’m dying to do supersets or really just avoid looking like bro squads that do more texting and talking and flexing than lifting, I do core in between leg exercises to keep my body moving.
I’ll go through a few of my main leg exercises on my “leg day,” as well as some variations you could try and a superset option that I might do to get more bang for my buck. Please please please keep in mind I am not a personal trainer and this is just how I train – but always consult someone qualified to incorporate new exercises into your workout, and at the very least to learn the proper form.
NEUTRAL GRIP CHIN-UPS
Okay, so not technically a leg exercise, but starting our workouts with chin-ups, when we’re as fresh as possible has been awesome. It is a very good core, back, bicep, and shoulder move, so it kinds of gets the entire body warm too. I still use a resistance band to help me do chin-ups but I have already noticed great improvements in two months in strength.
How many? 8 sets of 3 chin-ups.
Optional superset: Pushups.
Variations: Pull-ups, muscle-ups, assisted chin-up machine.
One of my absolute favourites right now and I love when that hamstring and glute kicks in as you pull the bar up. I have finally reached 150lb for my romanian deadlift sets and it’s so satisfying to notice improvements in this heavier weight movement. If you’re EVER feeling it in your back, either lighten your load or recheck your form.
How many? 3 sets of 8 reps.
Optional superset: Plank.
Variations: Place two 5-lb. plates on the floor under your toes for extra hamstring work and pull.
This one is awkward to set up and even more awkward to do, but if I can do it in a weight room full of 18 year old boys then you can too! I am weirdly proud of my butt and I think it’s just because I have the genetics to be able to easily add muscle to my legs and butt, but if you’re looking for a great glute move, this is it! I typically add plates to a barbell (45lb; total of 135lb) and make sure to use a foam padding roll or it will kill your hip bones!
How many? 3 sets of 10-12 reps.
Optional superset: You can use the bench you’re working with to do ab leg lowers.
Variations: Add a resistance band around your knees to remember to push your knees out as your thrust the bar up.
CURTSY LUNGES or SPLIT SQUATS
The difference between these two is that curtsy lunges REALLY hit those glutes hard and are usually the ones, next to hip thrusts, that leave me unable to sit for a couple days while split squats are more quad focused. If I’m really looking to use the handicap bathroom stall the next day I’ll do both, otherwise I’ll pick one or the other. I use the smith machine for curtsy lunges so I can add lots of weight (usually 35lb. – 45lb. plates on the smith machine) without having to use dumbbells because gripping that much weight is hard!
How many? 3 sets of 8 reps on each side.
Optional superset: Side plank or bicycle crunches.
Variations: Add weight, increase the height of the bench or step.
The real frenemy of this workout. I love them because they are amazing at working the inner thighs and also getting at those glutes but they are pretty hard, especially as you try and keep great form, back straight, nice and tall. We also typically do drop-sets with this one so by the end you’ll hate me but you’ll love the burn. The idea is that there is NO REST in between the weight swaps.
How many? 2 warm up sets of 6 reps. Drop set -> 6 reps with 45lb. dumbbell, immediately switch weight to 12 reps with 35lb; switch to 25lb. for 25 reps.
Optional superset: Lat pull-down.
Variations: You could also use a kettlebell to do these!
We’re going to do another drop set with this one and we’ll use the exact same pattern: 6-12-25. I asked my friend why we were doing 6-12-25 instead of 6-12-24 and she said, “because my trainer just likes the entertainment of watching us do that last rep.” Fun. My quads tend to be fairly strong but this one gets me every single time. The weight below is just what I use, but the pattern tends to be about 100% for 6 reps, 75-80% for 12 reps, 60-65% for 25 reps.
How many? 2 warm up sets of 6 reps. Drop set -> 6 reps with 388lbs, immediately switch weight to 12 reps with 298lb; switch to 258lb. for 25 reps.
Optional superset: I hope you don’t have the energy for a superset.
Variations: There are other leg press machines, as well as wall presses.
GLUTE CABLE KICKBACKS
If you’re an OG reader, you know that these have been on my rotation for a while, probably since the days of Hot Army Guy at the gym. Actually, I probably started doing them BECAUSE Hot Army Guy was at the gym. Anyway, we’re back to kicking our own asses with this amazing glute exercise. My playlist recommendations for this exercise are “Baby Got Back” by Sir Mix-A-Lot or “Booty” by Jennifer Lopez ft. Iggy Azalea. Your choice.
How many? 3 sets of 12 on each leg.
Optional superset: Close grip cable row.
Variations: You can stand straight up and kick out at a 45 degree angle instead of doing the full extension. It targets more of the gluteus minimus and medius rather than the maximus.
During a leg workout we like to finish with something to make you say “Holy f%$&, I can’t walk.” This could be a few jumping squats or some of the ideas below. the idea is that it doesn’t take more than 10 minutes and just seeks to get your HR up and finish off those legs. If you’re new to leg day, take it easy and see how you feel!
- One lap of the track (200-250m) walking lunges
- Battle ropes with squats or lunges
- Stairs – Doing 2-8 sets of stairs (depends on how big the flights are)
- 5-10 minutes on the Jacobs ladder
- 5-10 minutes on the rower doing 30s intervals of “just legs”
This post could be one workout, or you could toss a couple of these moves into your regular strength training routine. I like sharing because I find that these exercises are some of the heavy weight moves that have helped me get stronger without changing the frequency of my gym sessions, just changing what I’m doing when I’m in there. Many of these leg moves require core strength and incorporate your back/upper body and more than “just legs” so they make your gym time worth your while. I intentionally used cartoon and diagram photos because while I wanted to find really strong women, in appropriate gym clothes, doing these moves, with heavier weight like the mens photos always show, those photos aren’t really out there. Until I take my camera to the next girl squad gym date, I hope the photos were at least able to give a depiction of good form!
I absolutely love leg day so I’d love to hear what some of your favourite exercises are, what your strength routine looks like, or even just a funny gym story!