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Best Exercises for Lower-Body Weight Training

The Top 12 Lower-Body Exercises With Weights


Updated June 19, 2014

Back Barbell Squat

This is the standard barbell squat with bar on the shoulders. Advanced trainers can choose from a high or low bar position on the shoulders. You need a degree of shoulder flexibility for barbell back squats. If you find bar positioning challenging for any reason -- as I do because of shoulder injury problems -- choose from other squat forms below.

Front Barbell Squat

The front squat uses similar form as for the back squat except you hold the barbell at the chest. Some novices don't find this particularly easy either because of the wrist flexibility required. There is an alternative front squat grip that some find a little easier. This involves wrapping the arms around the bar at the shoulders.

Dumbbell Shoulder Squat

This form is quite useful for individuals who can't handle heavy barbells at the back or front positions. In this form, dumbbells are held across the shoulders in a hammer grip and resting on the shoulders. It works quite well and allows a useful weight to be utilized.

Front Barbell or Dumbbell Hang Squat

I use this exercise regularly, although technically it tends to morph into a form of deadlift. It doesn't matter what it's called, here is how to do it.
  1. Stand with barbell (or dumbbells) hanging in front at the thighs -- or sides for dumbbells if preferred.
  2. Squat down as low as you can go (ATG) and return to standing position. Use good form as described above.
  3. Do sets of 8 or 12 repetitions.

With a challenging weight, this exercise will work you hard.

Rear Barbell Hang Squat (Hack Squat)

The old-fashioned hack squat, which is not seen much in gyms these days, is a rear version of the front hanging squat. A barbell is placed behind the legs and the squat is performed ATG. It sounds (and looks) odd but works well in practice.

Stiff-Legged Deadlift (Romanian)

Sometimes called a Romanian deadlift, this is a great exercise for hamstrings and posterior chain including butt, lower back, thighs and even abs. Here's how.
  1. Lift a barbell from the floor to the thighs.
  2. Lower the bar while keeping the legs relatively stiff. That is, don't bend at the knee as you would in a squat movement.
  3. Remember to keep the back straight.
  4. Lower the barbell -- you can also use heavy dumbbells -- until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings. If you're stiff in the lower back, bend the knees slightly so that you get some depth in the movement. How low you go will depend on hamstring, hip and back flexibility in relation to your requirement to keep the back straight. You can touch the floor if you like.
  5. Do sets of 8 to 12 repetitions.

Good Mornings

In the Good Morning exercise, you use a barbell on the shoulders, or you could substitute with dumbbells resting across the shoulders as described above. The movement is a flexion of hips with straight legs in a bowing movement from which the name is taken. It's a nice exercise for the hamstrings and posterior chain.

The Leg Press

The standard leg press is a popular exercise but it can place the back in a vulnerable position if you don't tuck in tight to the back pad. In addition, you really don't want to try for maximum weights on this machine because of the pressure on the lower back. Otherwise, for general workouts it's a good leg and butt exercise.

Sled Hack Squat

The sled hack is more or less a reverse of the machine leg press. In this case, the weight is at your shoulders and you push up with the legs. I like this better than the leg press because it places the back in a more favorable position.

Leg Extension Machine

The standard leg extension machine is disliked by some authorities because it forces the knee into a fixed track, which some say can be dangerous. Even allowing for this criticism, it is widely used in knee rehabilitation. Like many of these issues, the danger is likely to lie only at the extremes of weight and repetition. As used in rehab situations, lighter loads and moderate reps will provide a good workout for the quadricep muscles of the front thighs.

Calf Raise - Machine or Heel Raises

The calf raise works the muscles of the calf -- obviously. If you do sufficient running of any type -- sprints, long distance or team sports -- it's unlikely that you'll get much value from the calf raise exercise because running develops the calves well. Even so, I've included it here because bodybuilders probably have some use for it and it does target the lower leg more specifically than other leg exercises.

Hamstring Glute-Ham Raises or Nordic Reverse Curls

I've deliberately omitted the standard leg curl exercises for hamstrings. Leg curls are usually done on a machine where you hook your ankle under a bar and lift a weight in a knee flexing movement with heel toward the butt. Leg curls are not in my best lower-body exercise list.

Bodybuilders may need to do them for muscle definition requirements, but I prefer the exercises outlined above plus the glute-ham raise for the delicate hamstrings that are the absolute bane of professional sports men and women.

Read more in my article on hamstrings.

Lower-Body Programs

  • If you're doing a split routine where you do upper and lower body workouts on different days, do no more than six of these exercises in a session and include a squat exercise in that selection.
  • Depending on your fitness, you might do 3 to 5 sets of 8 to 12 exercises as a general fitness routine equally targeting strength and muscle.
  • Two sessions a week with two days between workouts should be sufficient to allow recovery.
  • If you incorporate these lower body exercises in a full-body session of upper and lower body for 3 or 4 days each week, you may need to reduce the sets to 3 so as not to overdo the training.

Read up on weight training fundamentals if you need more background information on the principles and practices of weight training.

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Weight Lifting Leg Exercises

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