When it comes to working out, it is just as important to work your lower body as well as your upper body. Many trainers will go further and say that it is more important to train the lower body because that’s the foundation we stand on. Plus, I’ve been told that even just by working your lower body you’ll be able to get stronger and bigger all over.
Here are some of the free weight leg exercises men and women can do. Note that almost all of the exercises can be done using a barbell or a dumbbell. Do note that there’s more technique needed when training with barbells so it’s essentially important to get the form correct specially in the big, heavy exercises like the squats and deadlifts if you plan of lifting with barbells.
This is the king of exercises according to my trainer. Though some will argue that it’s the deadlift. But that’s besides the point. There are many variation of the squat including the front and back. The exercise I’ll be showing here is with dumbbells so everyone can do them even a home. I’ll also be using the front squat version so that even those who have back issues can use it.
- Stand with feet shoulder with apart and toes out by about 30 degrees.
- Pick up a pair of dumbbells, one with each hand and clean them to shoulder height using a neutral grip.
- To squat, keep the back straight and lower yourself down by sitting on an imaginary chair.
- Go down until your thighs are parallel or slightly lower than parallel to the ground.
- Then using legs, push yourself back up to standing position.
- This is one repetition.
The Goblet Squat is an excellent exercise to change things up from the regular squat. It was created by trainer Dan John as a way to teach people how to do the barbell squat properly. It is an excellent leg exercise that lets you squat all the way down.
- Using the same starting stance as the front squat, pick up a dumbbell or kettlebell.
- Hold the dumbbell vertically with both hands on the ends of one side of a plate.
- To squat, lower yourself by sitting back down starting with hips.
- With this exercise it is easier to go down all the way till your butt reaches your ankles.
- Only go down as far as you are comfortable. Your flexibility will get better with practice.
- When you reach the low point, drive yourself up using your feet back to starting position.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
While the squat movements focus on your front thighs, this exercise focused on the back of the legs, mainly the hamstrings. This is something we want to work on for balance since we often use the front side of our bodies more, even when doing everyday things.
- Pick up a pair of dumbbells.
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart and knees slightly bent.
- With the dumbbells in front of you, slowly bend your hips back.
- The movement will feel like trying to close a door that’s right behind you using your back side.
- The goal is to get a stretch of the hamstrings.
- Once you feel the stretch, slowly use your legs to push yourself back up.
This is one of the most functional exercises because it teaches us how to properly lift things off the ground. Too often what we do is bend our back and lift. This works but puts our backs at risk of injury specially with heavier objects. With the dumbbell deadlift we lift with our legs and get stronger overall.
- Position a couple of dumbbells in front of you.
- Stand with feet shoulder width apart and bend your knees to pick up the dumbbells.
- When you get hold of the dumbbells, push yourself up using your legs.
- Finally lower yourself back to put the dumbbells to the ground by starting with your hips.
To work our calves, we’ll do calf raises.
- Pick up a couple of dumbbells.
- You can do this from the ground or on a small step like in the video demonstration to make it more challenging.
- Use your toes to push yourself up like you’re tip-toeing.
- Hold that top position for 3 to 5 seconds.
- Then lower yourself down.
Single Leg Exercises
We’ve so far covered the different bilateral leg exercises. These make use of two legs at a time. These are excellent for building overall power and strength. However, since we’re all dominant on one side of the body depending on whether you’re right handed or left, it is important to try and balance out the muscles.
The best way of correcting muscle imbalances is to make each muscle work on its own without the help of stronger muscles. This is why single leg exercises are important.
Here are the best single leg exercises.
Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat makes us work on strengthening one leg. It is a more advanced exercise compared to the lunge so you may want to start with that first (see below). This split squat variation incorporates balance so the smaller muscles of the leg are also put into action.
- Pick up a set of dumbbells and stand in front of a bench.
- Place foot on the bench behind you.
- You want to position yourself a big step forward away from the bench.
- Like doing a lunge, lower yourself till your thigh gets to parallel with the ground.
- Then push yourself up back to starting position.
- Once you’ve done the desired number of repetitions, don’t forget to work the other leg.
Step ups are another very functional exercise in that they apply to our everyday lives. It helps our legs get stronger but also mechanically teaches up how to go up stairs even when the steps are higher than usual.
- Find a bench or chair that’s about knee high.
- Make sure the object you choose is solid and can hold your weight since you’ll be stepping on top of it.
- With one leg, step on the box, bench or chair and use that leg to push yourself up.
- Without putting the other foot on the object, slowly lower yourself back down.
Lunges are the staple of single limb lower body exercises. There are a lot of variations as you’ll see below. But the first and most basic is the stationary lunge. Here you don’t move from your workout position and just step forward and push the foot back.
- Hold a pair of dumbbells on your sides.
- With feet together, make one big step with one leg forward.
- After making the step, bend down will your thigh is parallel with the ground.
- Using that front leg push yourself back up to the position where you started with.
- Once you’ve done the number of repetitions with that leg, do the other leg to balance things out.
While the front lunge works the quads or front thigh muscles, the thigh is a big muscle and we want to cover it more thoroughly. One way to do this with side lunges. Some people also call this the lateral lunge since we’re lunging to the sides. This improves strength as well as flexibility in the hip area.
- Pick up a couple of dumbbells and hold them on your sides.
- Pick one side, for example the right, and make a big step using your right foot out to the right.
- Bend the right knee down till your thigh is parallel with the ground.
- Push yourself back to the starting position.
- When done, work the other leg.
This exercise is the opposite of the front lunge since we take the step back. It is great is helping us improve our stride and hip mobility since we don’t often stretch the leg back. The reverse lunge also works to strengthen the back of the leg (hamstrings) as well as firm up and tone the butt.
- Stand straight up with dumbbells on your sides.
- Take a step back with one leg and bend down with your knee.
- Push yourself up with your legs to get back to the beginning position.
- After doing the repetitions needed, work on the other leg.
Dumbbell Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
This is a single leg version of the Romanian Deadlift we’ve looked at earlier. This is a great exercise to work the hamstrings, butt and back. The exercise also helps your hip mobility as well as stability since we make a big range of motion with our hips.
You can use one dumbbell or two dumbbells. When using one dumbbell you can hold the dumbbell with the same leg or on the opposite leg. Each of these variation will change the areas that are targeted so mixing it up in your workout is good.
In this example we use a dumbbell on the same side of the leg. So if you’re going to work the right leg, pick up a dumbbell with your right hand. And opposite if you’re doing the left leg.
The exercise is similar to how golfers pick up their golf balls after sinking a putt. So use that as imagery.
- With knees slightly bent, and back straight lift your left leg back and your body forward.
- You’ll be forming a letter ‘T’ when seen from the side.
- Once you reach the letter ‘T’, or your body is parallel to the ground, use your leg’s hamstring to pull yourself back to starting position.
Single Leg Calf Raise
Our final single leg free weight exercise is the single leg calf raise. This is the same exercise as the calf/toe raises earlier except we’re focusing on each leg. This means we load each leg with more weight and make sure it works on its own and doesn’t ‘ride’ on the strength of the other leg to get by.
Again, you can use a small step like a dumbbell plate or just do this on the ground. The small step makes it more challenging and works the calf more.
- Stand on one leg while holding a dumbbell on that same side.
- You can use the other hand to hold onto something for balance.
- With a slight bend of the knee, push yourself up like you’re doing a tip-toe.
- When you get to the top position, hold for 3 to 5 seconds.
- Then lower yourself back down.
- Like the other single leg exercises, when you’re done doing the number of reps, on one side make sure to work the other leg.