Best Exercises for Lower-Body Weight Training

Build Strong Legs and Butt

The Deadlift
Ready for the Deadlift. Photo (c) Paul Rogers & Cooloola Fitness

I see plenty of men, especially younger men, who bulk up in the arms, chest and shoulders and just about forget about the legs and butt. This is not a good look. I suspect many who train like this don't play sport of any kind and are only interested in the T-shirt look.

However, if you are interested in strong and shapely legs and rear end, beware that lower-body and leg training is hard work. Squats are hard work and squats will be your main lower-body exercise .

. . but not the only one.

In this article, I'll look at how you can vary your lower-body training with the best exercises, including some you may not have tried before that will ad variety and results.

General Form Considerations for Squats and Deaflifts

Many of these exercises have similar form requirements. Any exercise where you lower or raise a weight, including your bodyweight, by flexing at the hips with feet planted on the ground, demands that you implement these form rules for safety and efficacy. Also brush up on the general weight training safety tips.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor and don't raise up onto the toes or lift the heels from the floor. This takes a little practice, so you should practice squats with bodyweight only until you get comfortable with this movement. You will feel like falling backward at first. Try it with a low bench behind you if you want a safety barrier.
  • Try not to get the knees extended past the toes. As long as you keep those heels planted firmly, your knees won't usually get much beyond the toes. Body shape and flexibility can impact this, so don't worry if the knees extend a little.
  • Set the feet about shoulder-width apart with heels planted solidly on the surface. Toes should point outward slightly and knees should never track inward or outward as you lift or lower.
  • Keep the back straight. Beginners often find this advice confusing. It doesn't mean you can't bend at the hips, it just means you should not flex the back at the lumbar or thoracic spine, that is, bend your back and spine in a curved shape. When you flex at the hips to do a squat or deadlift, your back remains straight. See this squat example.
  • One of the best ways to get this right is to make a deliberate movement outward with your butt as you bend the knees. Thrust that derrière out as a first priority and you will get a feel for proper form for squat and lift type exercises. Practice this and you will never lift or lower anything heavy again at gym or home or work without making this basic move.

Squats can be performed to any of the squat depths described below.

Different Types of Squats

  • Bodyweight squats. Squatting without weights is the basic exercise movement for any further weighted squat. The rules described above apply. This is a convenient and useful exercise that you can use at a variety of times and locations.
  • ATG squat. You lower all the way as far as you can go. This is called ATG or "ass to ground squat." If you've ever used an Asian or Middle Eastern pit toilet or had to do like a bear does and **** in the woods, then you will be familiar with this form of squatting.
  • Quarter squat. You lower to the point where your upper and lower legs form 90 degrees at the knee joint. (See picture in previous link.) This is generally called a quarter squat.
  • Parallel squat. Lowering to a point where the top of the thighs (quads) is horizontal and parallel to the floor is called a parallel squat.
  • Half squat. When you lower to the point where the surface of the lower thigh (hamstrings) is parallel to the floor, this is generally called a half squat. Some variation in terminology exists.

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.
  1. 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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