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how to construct a complete leg workout

As they say, there are many ways to skin a cat… so how do we construct the Perfect Leg Workout that will ensure you will build not only muscle size but strength and explosiveness as well? 

First we want to realize that there are a couple of serious issues with the typical leg training session that we have to fix!

  1. Most leg workouts only work in the sagittal plane, so we want to fix that by making sure we’re also including exercises that work in the transverse and frontal planes.
  2. Typical leg workouts for men hit the major muscles but neglect some of the smaller muscles.  We need to fix that by working ALL the muscle groups including smaller ones.

The Perfect Leg Workout should overlook no component of upper leg training to ensure we’re hitting the hips, the glutes, the hamstring muscle, and the quads and working in all three planes of motion.

Don’t let anyone mislead you!

While the Squat is a GREAT exercise, you can’t develop all the muscles optimally with JUST that exercise.

The Perfect Leg Workout should overlook no component of upper leg training to ensure we’re hitting the hips, the glutes, the hamstrings, and the quads and working in all three planes of motion.
Here’s a map of the biggest muscles that make up the legs and I’ll go into greater detail in the next section on each of these areas and their main function.
leg muscles anatomy including vastus medialis and lateralis, adductors, abductors, rectus femoris, semitendinosis, biceps femoris


The Perfect Leg Workout needs to hit 4 important muscle groups in the legs: the quads, the hamstrings, the adductors and the abductors.

I’ll demonstrate the leg anatomy with the Muscle Markers to help show how each of these muscle groups functions.

By the way, there will be NO MUSCLE MARKERS FOR THE GLUTES.

Jesse did volunteer, but it ain’t going to happen, guys.

(You’ll have to use your imagination.)


True to its name, the Quadriceps has four components:


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vastus medialis leg muscle
The Vastus Medialis is the medial component of the quad on the inside of the knee. Its main function is to help with extension of the knee.


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vastus intermedius leg muscle cant be seen but is below the rectus femoris
The Vastus Intermedius is the medial component of the quad beneath the muscle in the middle of the knee and can’t be directly seen. It is also involved in extension of the knee.


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The Vastus Lateralis is the lateral component of the quad on the outside of the knee. This muscle also helps with extension of the knee.


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rectus femoris leg muscle
The Rectus Femoris is the only component of the quads that has an attachment above the hip, allowing us to have some function on the hip and its ability to lift you into flexion.


On the back side of the legs, the Hamstrings have two main muscle groups we want to make sure we’re focusing on:


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biceps femoris leg muscle
The Biceps Femoris is the outside lateral component of the Hamstring.


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semitendinosis leg muscle
The Semitendinosus is the inside lateral component of the Hamstring.


On the inside of the legs, the Adductors are a muscle group that many people neglect in their training but they are important:


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adductor muscles of leg
The Adductors are on the inside of the anterior chain and it's important not to neglect them in your leg training.


The Abductors are a muscle group on the outside of your legs that require separate targeted training:


The Abductors are a chronically weak muscle that needs to be targeted separately.

THE best LEG WORKOUT: step by step

The best leg day workout must consist of compound exercises for the quads, glutes and hamstrings while not overlooking the smaller muscles of the hips and our ability to train in all three planes.


All of our Perfect Workouts kick off with a good compound exercise. The best, when it comes to training legs, is the Squat. 

We’re going to work our way up to the Squat in a warmup fashion using some submaximal sets.

While warming up, the key is not to exhaust yourself more than necessary.  Often people perform too many warmup reps, cutting into energy reserves for their working sets.

While warming up the key is not to exhaust yourself more than necessary.  Often people perform too many warmup reps, cutting into energy reserves for their working sets.

Try to use half of your working weight and then about 20% less than what your working weight is going to be, and just do a few reps with each weight. Just enough to ‘grease the groove’ and warm up the joints to prepare yourself for the working sets.


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submaximal squats sets

Exercise Notes: To warm up for the Squat perform submaximal sets of a few reps each of half your working weight and 20% less than your working weight. Starting position is with feet shoulderwidth apart, grabbing the bar from the squat rack, lower into squat position until legs are parallel to the floor or just beyond parallel, being sure to maintain balance. Push through your heels to return to the start position.

I also like to include some touch up sets using a Box Squat. With a touchup set, we’re trying to overreach with an additional 10% more weight than what we’re going to use in our first working set, to our five-rep max.

That 10% overreach allows us to feel more ready and able to attack our working sets with a lighter weight. Neurologically it’s a powerful tool to help “lighten” the load that is to come.

Doing the touch up sets with box squats has the benefit of allowing us to squat down and feel the safety of the box, giving us the confidence that we have a bottom point. It will give us biofeedback to know, ‘that’s the point I’m heading for’. Give it a one or two rep touch, come back up, then start your working sets.


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box squat touch up sets

Exercise Notes: Doing a few Box Squat Touch Up Sets allows us to feel a bottom point in the movement. Use 10% more weight than what you’re going to use in your first working set.


Now we’re starting with our heavier sets of the barbell squat, and they should feel a little lighter after your touch up sets.

The squat is one of the foundational leg exercises for building strength in the lower body muscle.

Our first two sets are a 5RM, then work ourselves up to a 10RM, and then a grueling 25RM. Training your legs up to higher reps is important if, for nothing else, to train your mental fortitude.

With squats as with any of the advanced exercises, make sure you have researched and are using proper form to reduce risk of injury.


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barbell squats exercise
Barbell Squats are by far the best compound movement for the legs.

Exercise Notes: Your first 2 sets are 5RM, followed by a 10RM set and then a 25RM set. Starting position is standing with your feet shoulder width apart, grabbing the bar from the rack and begin slowly lowering your body through the entire range of motion until your thigh muscles are parallel or just beyond parallel to the floor. Then return to the upright position. Ensure you are using proper squat form and engaging the core muscles to reduce the risk of injury. Perform a 30 Second Bar Hang (see below) between sets. Rest about three minutes between work sets.

We’ve got some compression going on because of the loading of the squat. When we pair the Squat with a 30 Second Bar Hang, the hanging allows us to get a decompressive benefit.


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bar hang for 30 seconds for decompression of spine

Exercise Notes: Performing a 30 Second Bar Hang following each set of Squats gives us a decompressive effect which helps avoid back injuries.


Next we’re going to hit the posterior chain with a compound exercise that hits the hamstrings and glutes in one powerful movement.

I’ll give you two exercises to choose from, but you’ll just do one of them. Either of these exercises is great for strengthening your legs and building bigger legs.

You might be expecting deadlifts here, but instead of deadlifts I’d like to provide you with some alternatives so that you have a wide range of workout ideas for training the target muscles in the posterior chain.

OPTION 1: The Barbell Hip Thrust allows us to load up much heavier than Option 2, so you’ll want to choose this option if your main goal is training for lower body strength. If you choose the hip thrusts, we’re going to work backward in a 25-10-5-5 rep sequencing.

This helps you recruit your glutes to be the main driver of the movement, and then allow the hamstrings to assist. Many of us do not have good control over our glutes, so starting out with the lighter weight helps us to establish that mind muscle connection to the glutes.

Try to establish that purposeful movement, initiating with the glutes, and then squeezing with the hamstrings. Doing this with a light weight allows us to get into the movement pattern, and then as we get more comfortable we begin to use heavy weight.


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barbell hip thrust glutes exercise
The Barbell Hip Thrust allows us to use a heavier load and is the preferred option if your main goal is training for strength.

Exercise Notes: Work backward in a 25-10-5-5 rep sequencing. Starting position is lying with your upper body and feet flat on the floor, knees bent at a 90degree angle, and head resting on a box, with the barbell resting on your pelvis near your hip flexors. Push your hips up, initiating the movement with the glutes and then squeeze through the hamstrings. This is essentially a weighted glute bridges movement that goes a long way to help you build bigger muscles in the entire posterior chain. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets.

OPTION 2: The Glute Ham Raise is ideal if you are looking to get more active engagement of the hamstrings through their concentric range of motion.  The Glute-Ham Raise contributes active engagement in areas that the Hip Thrust only challenges isometrically.

Not everyone has access to the glute-ham raise machine, which takes this exercise off the table right off the bat. But if you do have it, I’m going to explain why it provides some additional benefits.


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glute ham raise exercise
The Glute Ham Raise is ideal for getting active engagement of the hamstrings through their concentric range of motion.

Exercise Notes: If you choose the Glute-Ham Raise for this training session you would still use the same 25-10-5-5 rep scheme, but you’d have to load yourself appropriately. To do that you may have to use an assisted version, using your hands to creep yourself up during the first portion of this exercise. You may also want to include some weight held across your chest to allow you to fail in those heavier ranges. Rest 2-3 minutes during sets.

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glute ham raise with weight plate
Use a weight plate during the Glute-Ham Raise to allow you to fail in the heavier ranges.

In the Glute-Ham Raise you’re going to feel it much more directly in your hamstrings. However, you will also feel this in your glutes if you squeeze your cheeks together as hard as possible on the initiation of the movement back to the top.

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squeeze glutes at top of glute ham raise
Squeezing your glutes on the upward motion of the Glute-Ham Raise will ensure this exercise hits both your glutes and hamstrings.

While I do prefer a Barbell Hip Thrust if you’re doing a legs workout to build strength, don’t overlook the value of the Glute-Ham Raise, especially for athletes looking to get stronger glutes and hamstrings.


One of the things I preach all the time as a trainer to athletes is the value of single leg training.

Some single-leg exercises include the walking lunge or regular lunges and split squats.

Not only do you get dynamic stability benefits in the hips with this type of leg training, but it challenges the frontal plane of the body in ways that traditional bilateral training such as squats cannot do, allowing for additional muscle gains. Single-leg exercises can help you work through muscle imbalances since you are working just one side at a time.

Our unilateral exercise is a split squat variation called the Bulgarian Split Squat in High-Low Fashion that you’ll perform with a pair of dumbbells. You’re going to alternate the position of your torso on each rep to ensure you hit both the quads and glutes more effectively on each rep.


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dumbbell bulgarian split squat in high low fashion

Exercise Notes: Start position is standing with your left foot on the floor, bending your knee of the left leg and your right leg resting on a bench behind you with dumbbells in each hand. Lower down until the dumbbells touch the floor and then come back up. Alternate reps dropping straight down with reps in a sprinter lunge position.

We can load this more through our quads, or we can load it more through our glutes and posterior chain, depending upon the angle of our torso on each repetition.

If you drop straight down, initiating the lift off from the bottom of this exercise through the quads, you’ll get the most muscle recruitment and overload there.

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dropping straight down in the bulgarian split squat hits the quads preferentially
Dropping straight down in the Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat allows you to more directly target the quads.

Then on the next rep, you’ll go down into a sprinter lunge position, which loads the posterior chain by placing the glutes under enormous stretch and increasing the muscle recruitment there.

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the sprinter lunge position in bulgarian split squats preferentially targets the glutes
Using a runner's lunge position in the Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat creates for more efficient targeting of the glutes.

Exercise Notes: Alternate Bulgarian Split Squat repetitions between upright and sprinter lunge position to failure for two sets.


Explosivity should be considered a part of all effective leg workouts.

To incorporate explosive movements into our leg workout we’re going to do a Bodyweight Plyo Bulgarian Split Squat which will go even further to build strong glutes and legs.

There are two key reasons this is an important exercise to include in any bodyweight leg workout.  One is that you should always try to speed up what you slow down so that you don’t get stuck in only slow patterns. When you only train slow you eventually become slow unless you try to become more explosive and deliberate with your movements.

When you only train slow you eventually become slow unless you try to become more explosive and deliberate with your movements.

The other reason explosivity is important is that it helps us train for stability of the knee in jumping and landing situations by challenging this function of the Vastus Medialis.  Body weight exercises with jumps like this allow us to become a little more athletic in our training and to work on our balance, which should always be a goal of yours.


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bodyweight plyo bulgarian split squats
Doing the Bodyweight Plyo Bulgarian Split Squat helps us train for greater athleticism and builds knee stability.

Exercise Notes: Starting in a staggered stance, jump explosively pushing through the front leg and clap your hands under the back of the knee. Do 1 set of Bodyweight Plyo Bulgarian Split Squats to failure on each leg. Pay attention to your balance in this exercise.


It’s important to understand that there is no way to isolate the medial or inner portion of the quads during an exercise.

What you can do is influence its ability to contract fully and ensure it gets full stimulation by going to a full lockout position of extension on every rep.  Instead of using a leg extension machine I prefer closed chain environments, where my foot is in contact with the floor.

The TKE Drop Lunge is a great way to ensure resistance through terminal knee extension. We can overload that with the addition of resistance bands as well.


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tke drop lunge exercise

You can use dumbbells in your hands to load this exercise fairly heavy.  You’ll put the band behind your knee and it will resist as you go down, pulling your knee forward. When you come back up, drive your knee back as hard as possible, into full extension.

There’s no danger in driving your knee into full extension. It is a myth that lockout can be a damaging component of a joint’s function.  In actuality it is part of the complete function of a joint.

Exercise Notes: Do two to three sets in a rep range of 10 to 12RM in your hands for the drop lunge on each leg.


No Perfect Leg Workout would be complete without the additional focus on the adductors on the inside of our legs.

Many people believe that after hitting quads and hamstrings your leg workout is complete, but as a physical therapist I will tell you that’s not the case. I say it all the time: ALL MUSCLES MATTER.

We can hit the adductors very well with the Goblet Adductor Lunge, one of my favorite dumbbell leg exercises. We are performing a lateral lunge on a slick surface to allow you to slide or squeeze your legs together to get yourself back to a standing position.  Also, we’re using this exercise as an opportunity to work our legs in the transverse plane.

Many people believe that after hitting quads and hamstrings your leg workout is complete, but as a physical therapist I will tell you that’s not the case. I say it all the time: ALL MUSCLES MATTER.

This will light up the important adductor muscle fibres on the inside of your thighs and help you to build inner thigh strength. You can do this on on a hardwood floor with your socks on.


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dumbbell goblet adductor lunge

Exercise Notes: Do two sets of 10 to 12 on each leg to hit these key muscles.


To wrap up the Perfect Leg Workout we have to hit the outside abductors of the hips as well. 

We’re going to accomplish this with a Hip Band Ladder finisher.

Sorry guys, but you’re going to hate me for this one!

You’ll notice that while there’s not a lot of resistance here, you’ll be burning like hell.

That’s because these muscles are chronically weak.

The Hip Band Ladder requires that you work your way up from 1 rep to 10 reps in each direction of a side step while making sure to keep your toes pointed straight ahead at all times. Take a band and anchor it against your arms and on the outsides of your feet.

Do not allow your toes to start drifting and turning outward because you’ll start to use muscles as a compensation rather than the abductors. During this finisher we’ll be working our legs in the frontal plane.


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hip band ladder

Exercise Notes: Start with one step to the right and one step back to the left. Then two steps out to the right and two steps back to the left. Work your way up the ladder until you reach 10 steps in each direction. Be sure to include at least one set, and if you’re psychotic, you could add a second round.


So, here is the entire PERFECT LEG WORKOUT step by step, all sets, all reps for you guys to follow.

I’m telling you, if you haven’t done this killer leg workout already, you’re in for a treat. Or at least you’re going to hate me. And that would be a good thing because you’re going to feel things in your legs that you’ve never felt before. Plus it will translate into important impacts on your strength and your physique.

This Perfect Leg Workout routine is just one example of how training like an athlete means you don’t overlook a single muscle group!  If you’re looking for a step by step program that lays out the science behind exercise selections and the reason why we do what we do, check out all of our complete ATHLEAN-X programs. Start training like an athlete and start looking like one fast!

Program Selector ==> See which program best fits your fitness goals
AX1 ==> Burn Fat and Build Muscle With Dumbbells and Minimal Equipment
Monster Maker ==> Full body training with the ability to add additional targeted split muscle group training


  1. The two main problems with most legs workouts is that they only work in the sagittal plane (ignoring the important transverse and frontal planes) and that they neglect many important muscle groups beyond those found in the quads and hamstrings.
  2. When we structure the best leg workouts, we want to be sure to work ALL the leg muscles including quads, hamstrings, abductors, adductors and the smaller muscles. We also want to be sure we’re working in the sagittal, transverse and frontal planes.
  3. The best leg workouts for men should incorporate a variety of training elements: anterior and posterior chain compound lifts, single leg training to correct muscle imbalances, and direct targeting of inner portion of the quads, the adductors and the abductors.

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