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10 Exercises that Work Your Legs to Exhaustion

Three fitness experts weigh in on how to get the most of your leg day.
10 Exercises that Work Your Legs to Exhaustion

Know those guys who only work their upper body—pumping out bench presses set after set, EZ-barring curl after curl, and bent-over rowing way more than merrily down the stream—with the puny lower body to show for it. While we know you’re not that guy, there are a few reasons this is a bad plan, lopsided development notwithstanding. Specifically, the muscles of the lower body account for the greatest percent of muscle mass on anyone’s body. More muscle equals a faster metabolism, so by building strong glutes, quads, and hams you’ll burn even more calories at rest. Translation: A leaner bod from top to bottom.

To get there, try these exhausting strength moves from expert trainers Jesse Jones of Basecamp Fitness in West Hollywood, Eric Emig at Evolution Fitness in St. Louis, and Josh Holland of Zoomtion Fitness in New York.

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Squats are pretty much at the top of the lower-body exercise master list (and indeed made both Jones’ and Emig’s).  By holding the barbell atop your chest rather than your shoulders, you improve your posture and are less likely to stress out your lower back. Load a barbell heavy enough that you can get through 12 reps but not many more. Do squats for a minute, then rest a minute, and aim for four sets, or try Emig’s favorite 12-10-10-8 rep scheme over four sets.

Jones says: “You’ll get a very effective quad burn using less weight, compared to the back squat, plus it takes some decent technique. If you can't front squat, you can't back squat.”

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A loaded barbell isn’t the only way to add challenge to the squat. Adding some instability underfoot in the form of a Bosu, dome-side-down, forces way more muscles to engage. By loading it with heavy soft medicine balls (one, held in a bear hug, or two, one on each shoulder), you’ll up the ante—and can also safely bail out by dropping the balls.

Jones says: “This move provides a mixture of quads, hamstrings, and glutes will create toned legs quickly. Add some weight and you will be sweating bullets and shaking like a leaf.” 

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A favorite of Jones, Holland, and gym teachers everywhere, taking a not-so-comfy seat against a wall is an excellent way to get your lower body all fired up. Stand about femur-length distance from a wall and just sit down, back flat, as if you were sitting in an invisible chair. Hold it for up to a minute, aiming for three to four reps with a minute’s rest in between. Take the isometric power up a notch with Holland’s suggestion of doing it as an air squat, sans the wall (here, you may not make it past 30 seconds per set, and that’s A-OK).

Jones says: “It’s a fast quad burn you can do while chatting on the phone! If you think you’re tough, try resting your feet on a Bosu, dome-side down.”

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Want another way to kick up your squat game? Add some plyo plus resistance to it. Wrap a small resistance band loop around your lower legs. Standing with your feet hip-width apart, sit back and do a deep body-weight squat, then explode up into a jumping jack, landing back in your squat. Go for three sets of 10 to 20 reps, with a minute’s rest in between.

Holland says: “This move displays explosive power and coordination and timing, and is one that’s going to tire you out for sure.” 

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Balance and control are the keys to getting the most out of this simple, challenging move. Start by facing a bench perpendicularly. Lunge with your front shin close to the bench, and your hands resting atop it. Stand up, balancing on that front foot with your back leg lifted extended out behind you, hips hinged at the waist with your fingertips still on the bench. Slowly bend the front knee to lower back into the lunge, allowing the back toes to touch down at the last possible second. Do 12 reps on one leg, then switch sides. Take a minute’s rest, then do three more sets of 10, 10, and 8 reps, respectively.

Emig says: “They really target the quads, especially around the knees, and also allow a great stretch with a full range of motion—without needing to use extra weights to make them difficult.”

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Another standard, lunges hit the three biggies of the upper legs plus put some onus on the calf as well.  The back-loaded barbell adds weight but also facilitates balance, like a (much heavier) tightrope-walker’s pole. Load up your barbell with your 12-or-so rep max. Get into position with the bar resting across your shoulders. Step forward with one foot, bending both knees and maintaining a slight lean over that front leg. Then press yourself back to stand through the front foot. You can do them in place one side at a time, or take a cue from Emig, who likes the walking version. Aim for four one-minute sets or 12-10-10-8, with a minute’s rest between each effort.

Jones says: “An intermediate single-leg strength exercise that works quads, hamstring, and glutes, these lunges are great because of the way they work on hip mobility.”

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One thing you may or may not have noticed about many, if not most, of the exercises we do: they tend to go in a front-and-back direction. This combo move hits the leg muscles in all directions, by virtue of basically being four exercises in one. Begin with feet shoulder-width apart. Step back into a reverse lunge. Using the strength of the front leg, bring the back leg forward into a front lunge. Push off that front leg and bring it back behind and off to the side of the standing leg for a curtsy lunge. Finally, push into the front leg and lift the back leg from behind and out to the side for a lateral lunge. Phew—that is one rep. Do 6 with one lead leg, then 6 with the other. Rest a minute. For your second, third, and fourth sets, do 5 reps, 5 reps, and 4 reps, respectively.

Emig says: “These are extremely difficult. Huge burn, exhaustion. Make it even harder by holding a pair of dumbbells.”

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You don’t need to jump big to get huge benefits, as this TRX power move proves. Set one TRX handle so it’s about a foot above the floor (hook the other handle up somewhere so it’s not in the way). Stand a wide stride in front of the TRX, and rest the top of your back foot in the TRX stirrup. Bend both knees so you’re lunging with the front leg. Power-hop off that leg and land softly before repeating again. Lunge back and down exploding back up into a hop on front leg landing softly and lowering back into a lunge. Do 12 reps each side, rest a minute, and work up to four sets.  

Emig says: “These are great because they work each leg independently while building explosive power. They’re also challenging on balance. Wanna make it harder? Do it while holding a pair of 10-pound dumbbells.”

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Side-to-side motion is important for building hip stability, which not only will keep you upright when you ski, surf, or ride the subway without holding on, but is essential for keeping your knees safely tracking forward. Grab a small resistance band loop or double one up so it becomes small, and step into it so it’s wrapped around your legs just below the knees. Start with feet hip-distance apart and sit back in a half squat. Take a large step to one side, and a half step to bring the feet back to hip width. Repeat this move to the other side. Pause, jump up, land, and repeat the sequence. Aim for 10 to 20 reps, with a minute rest, and up to three sets.

Holland says: “This is one way to really target the hips within a different plane of motion, focusing on the glute medius and abductors. It also gets your heart rate up and is much tougher than you realize.”

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By now you know that plyo equals power, and this in-and-out jumping squat move seems easy enough—until you do it at the end of your leg workout, as Emig suggests. Grab a dumbbell (say, 20 pounds), and hold it in both hands against your chest. Take a deep squat with feet close together. Jump up and widen your legs, landing in a wide, deep squat. Jump up again, and narrow your legs, etc. Do 10 in-and-outs without stopping, then stop for a minute. Go for three more sets, then stop… for the day. You, and your legs, are done!

Emig says: “I like these because they really hit the quads and glutes hard while building explosive power.”

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