Leg workouts can be challenging. Difficult. Sometimes painful, in a deep, muscular exhaustion sense.
A word much less often used to describe a typical leg day? Fun.
Yet there is no rule that the more tedious and boring a leg workout is, the better it builds lean muscle. In fact, by opening up your leg-training repertoire, perhaps ditching the same-old machines and barbells at the gym for a set of kettlebells, a Swiss ball, and some free and open space, you can break yourself out of a rut — and break through to new levels of development.
The following circuit routine aims to inspire as you perspire, with a varied range of exercises that target the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves. Before 30 minutes are up, you’ll have stimulated your lower body to the max and, dare we say, had a little fun along the way.
The Lean-Legs Workout
Do the following circuit three to four times through. For weighted moves, choose successively heavier dumbbells or kettlebells from set to set. Catch your breath for one to two minutes between rounds while only resting minimally when switching between exercises within the circuit.
|Kettlebell Goblet Squat||3-4||15, 12, 10, 8|
|Kettlebell Lateral Lunge||3-4||15, 12, 10, 8|
|Unilateral Kettlebell Stiff-Legged Deadlift||3-4||15, 12, 10, 8|
|Glute Hip Thrust||3-4||15-20|
|Stability-Ball Hamstring Curl||3-4||15-20|
|One-Leg Bodyweight Box Calf Raise||3-4||15-20 (last set to failure)|
Kettlebell Goblet Squat
Take a stable, wide stance just outside shoulder width. Hold a kettlebell close to your chest with the handle just under your chin, grasping it with both hands, one on each side of the handle. From here, drop your hips and bend your knees, descending to a point at which your elbows make contact with your knees and your thighs are at least parallel to the floor. Drive back up through your heels as you bring your hips forward into a standing position.
Pro Tip: Proper form on squats can quickly get away from you if you’re not focused. More important than getting aggressive on your weight selection is to master the form and the feel of the movement. If you find you can’t comfortably drop straight down into a squat position in which your thighs are parallel to the floor, incorporate at least 10 minutes of lower-body stretches at the end of every workout (not just legs). Some of the best include the couch stretch, Pigeon Pose and Downward-Facing Dog Pose.
Kettlebell Lateral Lunge
Holding a kettlebell in the same start position as the goblet squat, take a long, deep step out to your left side, bending your left knee to lower your torso and hips. At the bottom of the squat position, your trailing right knee will end up fully extended with the inner edge of your right foot in contact with the floor. From the lowermost point, return to standing by driving through your left heel and straightening your knee. From standing, step out laterally to the opposite (right) side and repeat the sequence.
Pro Tip: As your strength gains progress, one kettlebell may no longer be enough. At this point, you can hold two kettlebells in the double-kettlebell front rack position, which should allow you to handle more overall weight. (Note: This is a badass way to do your lunges.) Of course, this advice goes for goblet squats, as well.
Unilateral Kettlebell Stiff-Legged Deadlift
Grasp a kettlebell in your right hand with both legs straight (but your knees not locked out). Balance on your right leg and lift your left foot up so it just clears the floor, bending that knee slightly. Maintaining a flat, straight back from your head to your glutes, with your left leg straight, bend forward at the hips, lowering your body until your torso and left leg reach a point parallel to the floor, with the kettlebell a few inches from touching down. From that point, flex your right glute and hamstrings to bring your body back to an upright position.
Pro Tip: On each rep, remember that your non-working straight leg should serve as a counterbalance, but it should never propel the movement — all the muscle action should be generated from the glutes and thighs of the planted leg while that free leg simply rises and lowers in concert with the torso.
Glute Hip Thrust
Lie faceup on the floor, feet flat, knees bent and arms flat on the floor on each side of you for support. Keeping your head, shoulders and feet in contact with the floor, raise your hips toward the ceiling by flexing your glutes until your torso and lap are aligned. Hold this position for a count, then lower your hips back toward the floor. To maintain tension on the muscles throughout the exercise, don’t let your glutes fully touch down to the floor between reps.
Pro Tip: You also can do this movement with your head and shoulders sideways on a flat bench, which helps increase the total range of motion. It also allows you to incorporate added resistance by holding a kettlebell or medicine ball on your hips.
Stability-Ball Hamstring Curl
Lie with your ankles balanced on top of a stability ball, legs together, while your head, shoulders and arms are flat on the floor. Your body should form a bridge from your feet to your upper spine. From this position, flex your hamstrings to bend your knees and roll the ball toward you, with your heels approaching your glutes. When your knees are fully bent, squeeze the contraction for a count, then slowly roll the ball back to the start. Repeat for reps.
Pro Tip: Feeling especially spry? This difficult movement can be kicked up a level by doing it unilaterally, with your non-working leg lifted up off the ball (with your knee bent) so it’s out of the way.
One-Leg Bodyweight Box Calf Raise
Stand on a box (or stair step) with the balls of your feet on the box and your heels hanging off. Place your hands on a sturdy object or wall for support. Bend the knee of your non-working leg 45 to 90 degrees to lift it out of the way. From here, raise the heel of your planted leg by flexing your calf, elevating as high as you can. Hold the top for a one-count, then slowly lower down into a full stretch so that the heel of the working leg goes below the level of the box. Continue the pattern with a deliberate, controlled motion and deep stretches on every rep.
Pro Tip: Sets of 25 getting too easy? Hold a kettlebell in the same-side hand as your working foot to increase the load.