Choosing the Best Exercises: Lower Body

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Last updated on December 17, 2022

Most people give very little thought to the exercises they use to build their body. They simply do what everyone else is doing. Yet, if there is one thing I’ve learned in life, it is this…

Following the crowd is never a smart idea.

That is certainly the case when it comes to muscle building. Most of the exercises that are being done to build the legs, chest and back are completely missing the mark. Often the muscles that a person thinks they are targeting are hardly being activated at all. As a result, their workouts are highly inefficient and they end up wasting a lot of time and effort.

The key to finding the right exercises to work specific parts of the body is to forget what you know and start making decisions based on biomechanics, physics and logic. That is what we will be doing in choosing the best exercises to build lean muscle, starting with those of the lower body.

Lower Body Anatomy

When it comes to building muscle, there are four primarily muscle groups of the lower body:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Glutes
  • Calves

In order to understand which is the best exercise for each of them, we need to learn a little bit about their anatomy.

Quadricep anatomy

The quadriceps, or thighs, have the job of extending the knee. The quads operate on the knee the same way that the triceps operates on the elbow. The quads are one muscle, with four separate parts or heads. Only three of them are visible on a developed physique. These are the …

  • Vastus lateralis
  • Vastus medialis
  • Rectus femoris

The four heads of the quadricep muscle all converge on the quadricep tendon, located just above the knee, and then travel down the patella to attach onto the tibia, or lower leg bone.

Three of the four heads originate at the tip of the femur (thigh bone). The fourth head, the rectus femoris, crosses the hip joint to originate on the pelvis.

Best Quad Exercises

The best exercise to activate the quads is one that requires knee extension involving the straightening of the leg. The classic move to do this is the leg extension. Most people do not appreciate how great a quad exercise this is. As a result, they throw it in after squats for a few sets to ‘shape and define’ their quads.

The leg extension will not shape and define your quadriceps. When done properly though, it will make them more muscular.

The second best exercise to work your quads is the cable squat, with the pulleys set as low as possible. This squat version eliminates the problem of spinal compression when you have a heavy weight on your back. It also allows you to lean back into the squat and track your knees further over your toes to provide greater quad activation. Cables also provide a far better line of resistance on the quads than the downward force of gravity that you get with the traditional barbell squat.

You will recall from the lesson on sets, reps and frequency that so long as you have selected the best exercise, you only need to do one exercise for each bodypart.

When it comes to the quads, I recommend doing the leg extension and the cable squat and alternating between the two each workout. Do 12 -14 sets with rep ranges going from a high of 30 down to a low of six.

Anatomy of the Hamstrings

The four muscles that are on the back of the thigh are known as the hamstrings. Those four muscles are the …

  • Biceps femoris short head
  • Biceps femoris long head
  • Semimembranosus
  • Semitendinosus

All four of these heads work together to perform knee flexion. This action brings the heel of the foot back and up toward the butt. The hamstrings have a secondary function of assisting with hip extension, though this is mainly done by glutes. Because the hamstrings play such a minor role in hip extension, the stiff legged deadlift is not a very effective hamstring developer, despite its reputation.

Best Hamstring Exercise

The best exercise for the hamstrings will involve bending the knee. The most effective way to do this with resistance is on a seated leg curl machine. The seated position allows the hamstrings to get a better stretch than if you are using a lying leg curl machine as well as a better angle with which to achieve optimal hamstring contraction when the knees are fully bent.

The exercise that you will do for the hamstrings then is the seated leg curl.

Glute Anatomy

The glutes, or butt muscles, are made up of three separate muscles:

  • Gluteus maximus
  • Gluteus medius
  • Gluteus minimus

The most important of these for physique developments is the gluteus maximus. Of the three, this is the largest and most powerful. The function of the gluteus maximus is to extend the hip joint by pushing back and down. It moves the torso upward from a seated or squatting position and is also a prime mover when you are stepping onto a platform or going upstairs. The glutes are the muscles that propel you forward when you’re walking or running.

Best Glute Exercises

The absolute best exercise to work the glutes is the glute extension on a multi-hip machine. It allows you to work the glutes through a full range of motion against resistance without loading the spine. The exercise can also be done on one leg at a time, allowing you to correct any strength imbalances.

Another benefit of the glute extension on the multi hip machine is that it provides resistance through the entire range of motion, including at the very end of the range. This is not the case with more commonly used glute development exercises like barbell squats.

If your gym has a multi-hip machine, you should definitely use it. Unfortunately, a lot of gyms do not have this machine. If that is the case for you, the best alternatives are:

  • Reverse lunges with dumbbells
  • Step Ups with dumbbells will
  • Glute Bridge with shoulders on a bench

Anatomy of the Calves

The calves consist of two muscles:

  • Gastrocnemius
  • Soleus

 These two muscles produce the single action of plantar flexion, or extension of the ankle. The soleus muscle has very little growth potential, so it is the gastrocnemius (gastro) that provides the vast majority of the bulk of the calf muscle.

Because the job of the calf is to allow you to rise on your toes and then lower so your ankle is below the level of your toes, the exercise options to work the muscle are quite limited. You have to do some version of a calf raise. This can be done either seated or with a straight leg.

The straight leg version is the best option. That’s because, when you are seated, the length of the gastro is severely shortened. This over-shortening of the muscle causes muscle weakness and can result in a cramping sensation.

The straight leg version of the calf raise can be done either standing on a calf raise machine or on a 45 degree leg press. The leg press is the better option because it does not involve having a weight pressing down on your spinal discs.

When doing the leg press version of the calf raise, place your feet on the foot platform so that they are slightly angled in, with the balls of the feet resting along the bottom of the platform. In this position, your  midfoot and heel will be off the platform and resting in mid air.

Use as full a range of motion as you can to fully extend and contract the calves. The calf muscle responds best to relatively high repetitions.

Best calf exercise = 45 degree leg extension calf raise.

Putting It all Together

Now that we have identified the best exercises to work your lower body, we can plug them into your program.

If you are a beginner doing a full body routine, or splitting your body into two separate workouts, you should do the following:

  • Leg extensions – 3 x 20
  • Leg curls – 3 x 20
  • Glute extensions – 3 x 20
  • Calf Raises – 3 x 20

Once you move into a 3 and 4 day split, do the following for your legs:

  • Leg extensions – work up to 12 sets
  • Leg curls – work up to 8 sets
  • Glute – extensions – work up to 12 sets
  • Calf raises – work up to 8 sets

Wrap Up

When it comes to following smart training principles, you will find yourself doing different exercises to the majority of trainers. That is why there are no barbell squats and deadlifts in this leg workout. But the biomechanics, anatomy and physics of your body make it absolutely clear that the exercises that we’re using will give you the best results in the shortest time with the least amount of injury. Trust the science – rather than the Bro science – and you will get to your training goals a whole lot faster!

For further exercises on the lower body check out our Smart Fitness Results Homepage.

Steve Theunissen has qualified from the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) and is a certified Personal Trainer and Nutritionist. He has over 30 years experience in fitness and nutrition and currently working with famous fitness professionals. He is currently living in New Zealand with is wife and daughter.

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