The Best Leg Exercises for Sculpted Calves, Quads, and More

If you aren’t happy about your legs, you’re probably grateful that long pants weather is here. Here’s the bad news: Summer will be back; and with it, shorts weather. Here’s the good news: You have all winter to get your butt to the gym and make a difference. There’s nothing sexier than dropping trou’ and being able to flex some impressive leg muscle. (Like all exercise programs, safety first. Consult your doctor. Consider a trainer.)

Beyond how great your legs will look with the right exercise, getting those gams into good shape will also give you good game for life’s “other activities.” Be it skiing, biking, competitive baby stroller-pushing, or the horizontal mambo, the additional power and stamina you’ll develop from a solid leg routine provide better control and protection against injury. The more work you do now will also help your legs retain muscle volume later in life.

Maybe most important? Leg exercises stimulate the production of testosterone, so a solid leg routine will help inject that big, fat, hairy hormone (as well as others like human growth hormone) into the leg muscles to contribute to your overall gains. To get a little more guidance, we spoke to Hannah Eden, founder and owner of PumpFit Club in Fort Lauderdale, Florida and NordicTrack spokesperson, about the best leg exercises for men.

We met Hannah when she was demonstrating the NordicTrack Fusion CST, a piece of high-intensity strength training equipment that uses magnets rather than weights to produce tension. It’s a compact solution for a home gym (and at $2,000, it’ll pay for itself in no time compared to a gym membership).  It also plays nicely with the rest of NordicTrack’s iFit suite of products that include rowers, treadmills, ellipticals, and stationary bikes. Each comes with a screen for streaming workouts and easy-to-use touch controls. We tried the Fusion, and it made for a pretty intense, sweaty workout.

Banded Goblet Squats

goblet squats
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Throwing a bar on your back isn’t the only way to build quads. Form and stabilization will take you further and more safely than simply adding plates.

“I love to incorporate resistance bands into my training because they force us to activate the target muscle groups. We often just move from point A to point B, rather than connecting mind to muscle and reaping the maximum benefits of the exercise,” says Eden.

“Find a heavy mini-band and place it around your legs just above the knees. Place your feet hip- to shoulder-width apart. Hold a kettlebell with two hands in front of your chest. Pull your shoulder blades back and together, keep your core tight, activate your glutes and hips by keeping tension on the band throughout your entire range. Keeping your weight on your heels, send your hips back and down till your hip crease passes parallel. Inhale on the way down, exhale on the effort and you extend your hips to standing.”

As Eden points out, this method will help keep you mindful of your movement throughout the entire exercise. Don’t be afraid to start out with a lighter (or no) weight until you’re completely at ease with the movement. Have a buddy check your form to be sure you’re keeping your back nice and straight, not letting your knees come forward, and that you’re driving up from the heels. For a good visualization, imagine there’s a bench behind you that’s just out of reach, and you’re trying to sit your butt down on the very edge of it.

Heavy Dumbbell Deadlifts

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“We can’t forget your posterior chain,” says Eden. (Spoiler alert: Your legs have two sides.) “It is often overlooked and a weak posterior chain can lead to back issues.”

For those of us who aren’t anatomists, the posterior chain refers to a group of muscles that run up the back of your body. They include the hamstrings, glutes, and the “erector spinae (a group of muscles in the center of your back),” as well as your traps and delts. While getting into some specific back exercises is a whole other article, everything is connected, so working on those leg muscles will contribute to keeping your back strong and limber.

“Grab two moderate to heavy dumbbells and place your feet under your hips. It is important to understand the difference between a hinging motion and a squat. We ‘hinge’ during a deadlift to engage the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back,” explains Eden.

Here are some cues to help improve your form and engagement: “With your feet under your hips, stand proud and engage your core. Soften your knees and bend at the hip; send your hips back as if they are trying to reach a target, as your hips hinge back your chest will naturally come forward as your core is engaged and attached to the top of your hinge. Drive through your heels and squeeze your behind as you return to standing.”

(Editor’s note: I always visualize one of those drinking bird toys when doing deadlifts.)

Iso-Lateral Leg Work

lunge split squat
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To build on Eden’s routine, we also like another exercise that has serious results but is relatively easy to pull off without risk of injury. The isolateral squat, a.k.a. the split squat, a.k.a. the lunge that works the whole leg can easily be built on by adding dumbbells once you’re comfortable with the exercise.

With legs about hip-distance apart, do one giant step forward with the right leg and drop the left knee to the ground. If you’re unsure of your distance, take a knee so you can see your profile in the mirror. Your kneeling position should show a right angle at your front knee and your back knee. Push up, driving through the right leg. Upon the return, be sure the left knee makes it all the way back to the ground (in a controlled fashion).

For form, don’t lean forward to make it feel easier, keep upright and chase after the difficulty. Shoulders should be held back so they are directly above your hips. Slow down — you should feel the muscle working.  Do 15 reps, switch sides, and repeat. Once you feel solid and comfortable with the movement, try holding a pair of 10- or 15-pound dumbbells to add some weight.

Hip Openers

hip opener pigeon pose
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Last, the more you can move, the more you can work. Building healthy hip mobility will be the best thing for building the form (and function) of that posterior of yours.  So, how? It’s simpler than you’d expect, but it’s gonna give you some feels.

Maximize your hip mobility with the crouch hold pigeon stretch — you practitioners of yoga out there already know how good this one feels. Basically, you get down on all fours, drop your arms so you’re resting on your elbows. Cross your right foot under to your left side so your right foot is resting beneath your hips and stretch your left leg out behind you. Where you feel is what’s most important; under the glutes of that leg bent under you is where the stretch should be. (Does that look like a pigeon? Yeah, we didn’t think so either, but the stretch does wonders.) Switch leg positions and try it again.

Build these leg blasters into your regular routine and we’ll have you ready for those short shorts by the time spring rolls around again. And don’t forget your arms.

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