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There are so many different ways to hit your legs. But if you have a sneaking suspicion that all of those leg workouts you’re doing aren’t really helping you make as much progress as you’d like, it might be time to reevaluate your leg day routine

While there are plenty of different leg workouts that can help you build strength and muscle in your lower body, some studies have indicated that certain exercises are especially helpful to include in your leg day workouts. 

These exercises have been proven to better activate those muscles and can also help you make better progress towards your body composition goals. 

A note: it’s important to remember that building muscle — aka muscle hypertrophy — depends on more than just the kinds of workouts that you do. You should also incorporate the principles of progressive overload, or gradually increasing the load of the weights that you are working with, to challenge your muscles and help with optimal growth. 

A good, protein-rich diet is also necessary to give your muscles the fuel and tools needed to recover

With that said, when compared to other moves, these exercises have been proven by science to truly activate the muscles in your legs. So, without further ado, here are some of the most effective leg workouts, backed by scientific evidence!

The Best Evidence-Backed Leg Workouts

Squats

Diagram showing the muscles of the legs and buttocks.

If one of your goals is to build a stronger lower body overall, you should definitely add squats to your leg day routine. 

Resistance training workouts can generally be divided into two different groups: compound and isolated exercises. As the names suggest, compound exercises involve several muscle groups, while isolated exercises specifically target one muscle group at a time. 

Isolated exercises like leg extensions and hamstring curls target fewer muscle groups than compound exercises and are therefore good to have in your routine if you’re trying to grow specific muscles. 

However, compound movements, like squats, are valuable because they activate several large muscle groups, making them a great choice for building overall strength and balance throughout your entire lower body. 

Squatting targets many different muscle groups, including your glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, calves, and even your core. 

What’s more, there are several variations of the squat that you can incorporate into your workouts, and the specific muscles they activate can change depending on the kind of squat you do

For example, one study found that during the descending phase, front squats, which involve holding your weights in front of your body, near the chest, activate the gluteus maximus and the gluteus medius more than other squat variations.

A front squat.

Meanwhile, standard sumo back squats, as well as sumo back squats with externally rotated feet, are squat variations that involve a wider stance and weight being held on your back. 

The same study found that these variations led to better activation of the vastus lateralis and adductor longus

A back squat. 

In addition to the many muscles that they engage, squats can also lead to better overall athletic performance, especially when compared to isolated exercises. 

One study found that participants who did squats saw bigger improvements in their jump performances than a group who did isolated leg press training. 

If you want to get the most out of your squats, it’s important to remember that your form is very important

As you descend into your squat, your thighs should be roughly parallel to the ground, at about a 90-degree angle to your shins. You should be sitting back into the movement so that your knees aren’t overextending forward. 

Not only is this good form safer, but studies have shown that completing a squat with a full range of motion is more effective for developing adductor and gluteus muscles than half squats are. 

Hip Thrusts 

A hip thrust.

The hip thrust is one of the best exercises you can do when it comes to building strong, well-defined hip and glute muscles. Like squats, hip thrusts are a compound exercise that target multiple muscle groups at once, from your legs to your core. 

But because hip thrusts engage your glute muscles in the shortened position, which squats and deadlifts don’t do, this makes them especially effective for building strong and defined butt muscles

In fact, one study found evidence that barbell hip thrusts activate the hip extensor muscles like the gluteus maximus more than other exercises like squats. 

Another major benefit of hip thrusts is that they involve a shorter range of motion than other common compound leg workouts, while at the same time, they specifically target a very strong group of muscles. 

In many cases, this means that you can work out with heavier weights than you might use for squats and deadlifts. 

Step-ups 

A step-up.

Step-ups tend to be overshadowed by other leg workouts. But as it turns out, the evidence shows that they’re actually one of the best workouts out there for building your glute muscles.

The power of step-ups was highlighted in a 2020 review of several exercises to see which was the best at activating the glutes. 

Researchers compared several popular exercises, including multiple variations of step-ups, deadlifts, squats, hip thrusts, and lunges. 

While several of these exercises were found to be very effective at activating the gluteus maximus, step-ups had the highest levels of activation

To perform a step-up, find a stable elevated surface, such as a weightlifting bench or box. Use one leg to step up onto the surface, keeping your back upright and core tight. 

Straighten the leading leg so that you are standing on the top of the bench, then carefully descend using the opposite leg that you used to step up, then bring your leading foot to the ground. Repeat on the other side. 

To really challenge your glutes, hold onto a pair of heavy dumbbells while you step. 

Deadlifts 

A man does a deadlift.

Like squats, deadlifts are also a compound workout that targets several muscle groups. Engaging your glutes and hamstrings as well as your core and back, deadlifts are an effective total-body workout!

In fact, a comparison between deadlifts and squats found similar gains in lower body strength between them.  

What’s more, deadlifts are a functional exercise, which means that their benefits translate to real life. Having the ability to lift a heavy weight off of the ground can help you with a variety of real-life situations, such as moving furniture or helping somebody else up off of the ground after a fall. 

As with squats, there are several variations of deadlifts. 

The conventional deadlift, for example, involves picking up your weight from a “dead stop” on the ground with each repetition, while Romanian deadlifts keep a more constant tension on your hamstrings by requiring you to not put weights completely down in between repetitions. 

Again, the variation of deadlift that you do can change the way that individual muscles are activated. 

For example, for the most efficient workout, conventional deadlifts may be superior to Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) since they are better at targeting more muscles at once. 

However, if your focus is to build your hamstrings, Romanian deadlifts are a good choice as well. 

Conclusion

No matter what body composition goals you are working towards, a good leg day routine is important. 

Don’t forget to include these powerful leg workouts in your workouts. They can help you to build stronger and better-balanced leg muscles, achieve your fitness goals, and increase the strength you need for all your real-life endeavors. 

To find out how much muscle mass you have in your legs and to track its growth, a body composition test may be helpful. For this purpose, you can utilize a 3-D scan or test on a BIA device that offers segmental lean analysis of each limb and the trunk.

Remember to stay consistent in your workouts, and don’t overlook the importance of progressive overloads and a healthy diet. Both will help you to get the most out of these leg-building powerhouse workouts!

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