I am passionate about shedding light on common fitness myths and instead, sharing science-backed info to help you get to your goals. I wasted a lot of time at the beginning of my fitness journey believing myths… you know things that are click-bait and catchy article titles like “shed 10 lbs of fat with these 3 moves.” I aim to provide the facts that will actually benefit you.
So, when it comes to “toning” or “sculpting” leg muscles, let’s get some facts out there as to what are really the most effective leg exercises. First off, I know exactly what women mean when they use those two words: toning and sculpting. I like to note there is no such thing as actually toning or sculpting a muscle. Muscles either undergo hypertrophy and build or atrophy and breakdown.
When women tell me they want to tone their leg muscles, it requires muscle hypertrophy and building muscle. Don’t worry… this doesn’t mean bulky. Muscle is actually more dense than fat, meaning it physically takes up less space on your body as compared to fat. As you build muscle and shed fat, you may actually get smaller.
There are 4 exercises I regularly incorporate into my leg workouts because they are just the best. They’re staples. They’re proven. They work. They’re not the flashy, eye-catching moves that you may stop to look at on social media, but they will get you to your goal in a more effective way.
Here they are…
Best Leg Exercise 1: Sumo Deadlift
This exercise has built my leg muscles more than any other move. In fact, my husband, Anthony saw such great results doing this move regularly that I copied him and started working it into my lifts more often.
To begin, step your feet out so that your knees are stacked directly above your ankles. Slightly angle out your toes to a 45 degree angle. Brace your core as you bend down to pick up the weight. Think of you arms as hooks as you grasp onto the bar or dumbbells
As you stand up, think of spreading the floor apart with your feet. That will help keep the work in your quads, hamstrings and glute muscles. This is a movement where you can use challenging weight, so it will really stimulate the leg muscles.
Best Leg Exercise 2: Hip Thrusts
Just like a sumo deadlift has been the best for my leg muscles, hip thrusts have built my glutes more than any other move. It can be tricky to isolate your glutes from your quadriceps (front of legs) and hamstrings (back of legs) muscles, but this move does so!. Hip thrusts allow the glutes to be the main muscle group worked. You can perform this move with a barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, bands, a small child on your lap, or just about anything!
Begin with your butt on the ground and a bench behind you. Bend your knees and plant your feet on the ground, resting the weight on your hips. If using a barbell, I suggest a pad around the bar on anything to provide some padding. Rest your shoulders on the bench behind you.
Drive through your heels and your glutes as you lift the bar up. When you reach the top position, your knees should be bent at 90° and your shoulders should be near the top of the bench, so that your body is forming a straight line between shoulders and knees. Squeeze your glutes and the top and lowly lower hips back down.
Best Leg Exercise: Bulgarian Split Squat
This is a single leg squat variation that really works the leg muscles. I also love that is is an isolateral exercise; this is a technique that is used in fitness to work on side of the body at a time rather that training both sides at once. You can choose to perform this move with both feet on the ground or elevated in which the back foot rests on a bench or box.
Begin in a lunge position with your chest upright, core tight and hips square to your body. You can choose to keep your back foot on the floor or elevated on the bench. The front leg is going to be the “working” leg.
Bend at the knee, lowering your front thigh until it’s almost horizontal. Keep your knee in line with your foot. Press through your front heel to return back to the starting position.
Best Leg Exercise 4: Wide Stance Squat
I couldn’t complete this list without including one variation of a squat. Squats work because they are a compound movement, meaning they target multiple muscle groups. Squats work your quadriceps (front of legs), hamstrings (back of legs), glutes (butt), and core. Because these are major muscle groups, they also burn more calories to work! A traditional squat is great, but my favorite version and the version I find works my glutes best is a wide stance squat.
Begin in a slightly wider than shoulder-width stance with toes pointed outward. You can use dumbbells or a barbell and rest it on the back of your shoulders. Draw your belly button to your spine to engage your core.
Keep your chest high as you sit back into a squat, descending toward the ground until thigh become parallel to the floor. Pause at your lowest point and push through your heels to return to starting position. Squeeze the glutes to drive up.
If you’re looking to build muscle, I highly suggest my Weight Training Plans. I have several versions- they can be completed in any order. My current favorite in the Q2 version!