By Ashely Mateo; Photograph by Freepik
Building strong, lean legs doesn’t take as much work as you think.
Here’s the thing about leg workouts: When you’re moving, the majority of the time, it’s going to incorporate your legs. Maybe even every day! And how you train depends entirely on your goals, your current fitness level, your ability to recover between workouts, and how long you can realistically spend in the gym each day and week, says Kristy Zurmuhlen, a trainer at Soho Strength Lab in New York City.
That said, whether your goal is long, lean legs or super-muscular ones, you’re going to want to be lifting weights. Running alone won’t necessarily do the trick. That’s because “traditional cardio is training [muscle]-fibre types and energy systems,” says Zurmuhlen. “It gives you a good base level of conditioning that will help support recovery and general fitness.” But to gain strength and muscle, “you need to focus on the main mechanism of muscle hypertrophy, which is the mechanical tension and stress we create from lifting weights.”
Zurmuhlen typically trains her own clients by targeting legs—meaning primary movers like the glutes, hamstrings, and quads—two to three times per week, either as part of a full-body workout, or part of a four-day upper and lower body split, where they focus on the lower body two times a week and the upper body two times a week. “I like to leave two days between leg workouts to ensure that my clients are recovering properly and not overtraining,” she adds.
When it comes to the lower body, movement patterns are either hip-dominant or quad-dominant, Zurmuhlen explains, and they’ll each affect your body in different ways. “If the exercise is a hip-dominant movement pattern, like deadlift variations, it will require a greater contribution from the posterior chain, lighting up the hamstrings and glutes,” she says. “Quad-dominant movement patterns like squat variation will require more work from the quads than the glutes and hamstrings.” It’s important to make sure you’re doing both types of movements for a well-balanced lower-body workout.
“A typical lower body-focused training day for me will include a squat or deadlift variation followed by single-leg work and accessory core work,” says Zurmuhlen. Squats and deadlift variations—big, compound movements—maximise mechanical tension across multiple muscle groups, which is key for getting stronger and building lean muscle. Accessory work targets weakness and imbalances that could inhibit larger movements.
Here’s how Zurmuhlen would break down two leg workouts for the week:
1A Compound hip-dominant movement: deadlift variation (conventional, sumo, or trap-bar deadlifts)
1B Mobility or posture correctives (like thoracic spine mobilization)
2A Quad-dominant accessory exercise (goblet squat, kettlebell squat variations, plate-loaded front squat)
2B Unilateral hip-dominant accessory exercise (single-leg supine glute bridges, single-leg off-bench hip thrusts, single-leg deadlifts)
3A Loaded carry variation
3B Anti-extension core exercise (reverse crunches, roll-outs, plank variations)
1A Compound quad-dominant movement: squat variation (barbell squats, front squats, goblet squats)
1B Mobility work or posture correctives (like dead bugs)
2A Hip-dominant accessory exercise (hip thrusts, Romanian deadlift variations, kettlebell deadlift variations, leg curls on gliders)
2B Unilateral quad-dominant accessory exercise (step-ups, lunge variations, split squats, Bulgarian split squats)
3A Loaded carry variation
3B Anti-rotation core exercise (Pallof Press variations, cable chops/lifts—you can use a resistance band if you don’t have access to cables)
Zurmuhlen also swears by these four leg exercises in particular:
“Dumbbell deadlift variations are great for posterior-chain accessory work, and for learning how to hinge properly before moving onto traditional deadlifting with the barbell or trap bar.”
How to: Hold a dumbbell in each hand at arm’s length in front of hips. With knees slightly bent, hinge at hips to lower weight to the floor. Keeping back straight, squeeze glutes to thrust hips forward and return to start.
“These are great for learning how to squat with good core activation and posture, and they can be very challenging if you load them up and work at different tempos,” says Zurmuhlen.
How to: Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell vertically in front of chest, elbows pointing toward the floor. Push hips back and bend knees to lower into a squat, elbows brushing the insides of knees. Push back to start. That’s one rep.
“These are are a great bridge exercise before introducing true single-leg work. They can also be very challenging if you add weights.”
How to: Stand with legs staggered, left foot about two feet in front of right. Bend knees to lower body until left thigh is parallel and shin is perpendicular to the floor. Straighten legs to return to start.