Want to build stronger legs? Bring on external loading.
While bodyweight strength exercises are king for developing upper body strength across a functional, big range of motion, with the legs you can’t go past barbell compound lifts. There are several reasons for this, but one is that there is a lot of residual strength already in the legs. For a lot of us, we walk on them daily, they are already conditioned to hold our bodyweight. So, even if we were to do a lot of bodyweight strength movements with the legs, we still would get far better results with loaded exercises.
We also know that developing strong legs is key for functionality, performance and even longevity - being mobile and strong when we are older allows us to move freely for example. So, what are the best exercises for developing strong and functional legs?
While an individual definitely can have specific requirements, here are three of our favourite exercises for building leg strength. Furthermore, we are able to modify these main movements where needed to suit most individuals.
A key movement pattern. There are many options for leg strength, but there are reasons why the squat is often called the king of lifts. It is simple, brutally effective and has phenomenal carry over to other areas of strength and movement.
There are a ton of different variations with the squat, but the back squat is simple, effective and all-inclusive. Glute, quads, calves, core and even back, this is truly a full-body exercise that deserves a place in your program.
The famous hip-hinge pattern.
Pick the weight up off the floor and put it back down. Simple, powerful. The deadlift pattern comes in alongside the squat - in fact, many would even say it is preferable. The lift recruits almost every single muscle in the body when done right. It requires great tension, timing, sequencing and intent. These lifts will help you develop a strong posterior chain (think glutes, hamstrings, back) as well as help to boost full body strength. We’ve often seen a correlation between strong a strong deadlift and other pulling strengths such as the pullup.
There are many variations with the deadlift, but even in it’s simplest form, the conventional deadlift has a huge return on investment.
The Split Squat is what’s called a “uni-lateral” movement. It is a lunge pattern.
Long story short, these help to correct imbalances, strengthen the body, improve mobility (when done right) and build strength through a full range of motion.
The split squat looks similar to the lunge from the un-trained eye, but has a subtle difference - you stay in the split position until you finish the entire set on that side. These can be done with just body-weight, or with external loading (dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, sand-bags.. anything!).
We can again modify the movement with changing not just loading, but body position or the height of either foot. With this one, keep the front foot flat on the ground.
A Few Tips
These lower body lifts will take you a LONG way in your search for strength.
They’ll assist in movement, body composition, mobility, jumping, sprinting and more. However, they need to be done correctly. This doesn’t mean that they look the same for everybody, but simply means we want to make sure we are getting what we want out of the lift, that it is executed well, and that the body is prepared for the movement.
One common phrases you’ll hear us say is “range of motion.” In simple terms, this means we are looking to develop a nice, deep squat pattern, or a deep split-squat for example.
This would mean that we create a great range of motion of the hip, knee and ankle joint.
Take it slow - explore these patterns fully. Try un-weighted first, then slowly progress. Of course, as usual we need to make sure we are hitting the mobility and prep-work for the entire body to make sure we are set up for success with these lifts (and all strength training!)