Set your workouts up with an upper/lower body split for optimal muscle development, flexibility, and efficient use of time. When tackling the lower body, you’ll get the best results from a combination of exercises that work all of your musculature, including glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves. This gives you the best, well-rounded results. Built With Science founder Jeremy Ethier has developed a lower body workout program based on research and body mechanics. It’s simple, effective, and great for both beginners and seasoned lifters. Use this in association with an upper body workout on alternate days, and you’ll be showing off strength and muscle mass gains in no time!
One of the simplest ways to organize your workouts is with an upper/lower split. It’s an effective method to ensure balanced training, with adequate rest and recovery for your muscles. While the general suggestion is two sessions each of upper and lower body exercises, with a rest between two consecutive days, the plan is easily adaptable to both your schedule and skill levels.
Monday – Upper
Tuesday – Lower
Wednesday – Rest
Thursday – Upper
Friday – Lower
Saturday – Rest
Sunday – Rest
Lower Body Exercises
The best lower body workout will focus on building strength and mass in your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. This will give you proportional growth in all areas and help prevent injuries from muscle imbalances or weakness. A combination of moves that will hit all of these areas is ideal. With an upper and lower body split, you can also switch things up between your day one and day two sessions with similar exercises, so your body doesn’t get used to the same thing. Check out the A and B alternatives for your different sets. Another significant aspect of this program is that both beginners and experienced lifters can use it. Start with the lower end of the suggested sets and reps if you’re new. However, if you’re an old hand, the higher end is perfect with a progressive overload scheme.
1a. Barbell Squats
A barbell squat is one of the most fundamental moves you can utilize in the gym. Thanks to its high quadriceps activation, it’s one of the greatest exercises you can choose for developing the lower body. It also heavily involves the glutes for a firm and toned butt. Another great feature of squats is that you can easily and efficiently overload the exercise with increased weight for continuously improved results. A classic barbell squat is an ideal addition to your Tuesday routine; however, alternate this with a front chest squat on Fridays for more well-rounded thigh development.
- Center the bar across the back of your shoulders, using an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width.
- Unrack the bar and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, with toes pointing slightly out.
- As your lower your body, shift your hips backward, keeping your knees in line with your toes. The weight should remain on your heels.
- Keep your spine and lower back neutral, and avoid collapsing your knees inwards.
- Lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the floor, or if you have the mobility until your hips are just lower than your knees.
- Drive back up through your heels, keeping your knees and toes in line until you’re back to the starting position.
Rest: 2-3 minutes
1b. Front Chest Squat
The mechanics of a front chest squat are very similar to a regular barbell squat and offer a roughly equal quad activation. However, shifting the weight to the front has been shown to emphasize specific muscles, such as the vastus lateralis and rectus lateralis, more so than back squats. As such, if you’re serious about building strength and size, it’s a good idea to alternate between the two on your different lower body workout days. Again, these are also easy to overload with weight, and you get progressively stronger. Add these to your Friday routine.
- Position the bar across the top of your chest and shoulders, with an underhand grip slightly wider than your shoulders and elbows high.
- The weight should be supported by your chest, not your hands or fingers – they should only be there to stop the bar from rolling forward.
- As you unrack the bar, stand with your toes pointed out slightly and feet shoulder-width apart.
- Sink into a squat, keep your spine neutral, hips under the weight, and stop when your hips are just lower than your knees.
- Try to keep the weight centered through your whole foot, not on the balls of your feet.
- Push back up, driving through the ground into a standing position.
Rest: 2-3 minutes
2a. Romanian Deadlift
Romanian deadlifts (along with glute ham raises) are among the best exercises for focussing on the hamstrings and glutes, thanks to the slightly straighter position of the legs. Adding these to your lower body workout will strengthen your posterior chain and is ideal for progressively overloading the weight as you get stronger. This exercise is an excellent option for Tuesdays, with a conventional deadlift an alternative for Friday.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and lift the bar to the starting position in front of your thighs using an overhand grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder-width.
- Slowly lower the weight to just in front of your shins, using a hinging movement to push your hips back, so your upper body becomes more parallel to the ground. Keep your head, back, and hips aligned.
- As you descend, keep your knees relatively straight; however, this will vary based on your hamstring flexibility.
- To return to the starting position, contract your hamstrings and glutes to push your hips forward, so you’re upright again.
Rest: 2 minutes
2b. Conventional Deadlift
A conventional deadlift is an excellent alternative to the Romanian deadlift to mix things up in your routine. Its a compound exercise that works your glutes, quads, hamstrings, lats, traps, and lower back. Your focus while performing this movement should be on the lower body muscles, driving with your hips. This will help prevent overusing or extending your back, which can lead to injury.
- Stand in front of your barbell with feet hip-width apart, with the bar positioned over your mid-foot.
- Hold the bar in an overhand grip, with your hands positioned just outside your knees and the bar sitting in line with your scapula.
- Your knees should be bent with hips pushed back, sitting between your head and knees – not too high or too low.
- As you pick the bar up, drive into the floor, squeezing with your glutes and hamstrings to push your hips forward. Keep your spine straight with your head, hips, and back aligned so your spine doesn’t round.
- The bar should move up in a vertical line, and at the top of the move, it should rest in front of your thighs with your arms straight.
- To lower back down, shift your hips backward as you bend your knees back to the starting position with the weight on the ground.
Rest: 2 minutes
3a. Bulgarian Split Squats
Feel the burn in your quads, hamstrings, and glutes with some Bulgarian split squats in your Tuesday session. This is an excellent exercise that hits all the major leg muscles, emphasizing the posterior chain. It’s a perfect complementary move to use in combination with regular squats, as it utilizes the glutes and hamstrings more. Plus, being a unilateral move, it can also prevent muscle imbalances by working each side individually, so one can’t compensate for the other when there’s weakness. Finally, foot placement can also change this move. A longer step, so your shin is vertical, makes it hip dominant, emphasizing the glutes and hamstrings, while a shorter step is knee dominant with a focus on the quads. What you choose will depend on your goals and mobility.
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, stand with one foot behind you on a bench or elevated platform.
- To focus on your hamstrings and glutes, your front foot should be further out, so your shin remains vertical when dipped. Alternatively, position your front foot closer to the bench for a quad-dominant move.
- Lower yourself down, bending your front knee and dropping your back knee towards the ground. Don’t lean forward excessively.
- Stop once your front thigh is parallel or just lower than parallel to the floor (depending on your mobility/balance).
- Push back up, using the muscles in your front leg, keeping your knee in the same direction as your toes and a neutral spine.
Rest: 2 minutes
3b. Forward Lunges
A good alternative to Bulgarian split squats is forward lunges. It provides a combination of mechanical tension, metabolic stress, and burn, which are critical for muscle mass growth. Again, as a unilateral move, you can help rectify muscle imbalances between the two sides of your body. Not only will this work your lower body muscles, but it’ll also force your core to engage to counteract the movement and keep you stabilized. Using a forward lunge, as opposed to a reverse lunge, will focus on the quads while still engaging the glutes and hamstrings. A reverse will do the opposite, so if that better suits your goals, feel free to opt for that instead.
- Begin in a standing position, with your feet shoulder-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand.
- Take a long step forward with one leg, sinking into the lunge at the same time. Keep your torso upright with a neutral spine, bending both knees while avoiding your front knee from extending over your toes.
- At the bottom, both knees should be at an approximately 90-degree angle, with your bottom knee an inch or two above the ground.
- Drive back up through the heel of your front foot, engaging the muscles through your thigh and glutes, returning to the standing position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
Rest: 2 minutes
4a. Glute Ham Raises
The final exercise for your Tuesday set is a glute ham raise. This killer move is perfect for targeting your hamstrings, plus the glutes and lower back. It’s also an excellent complement to Romanian deadlifts, which are a hip-dominant move that activates the upper hamstrings as well as the semitendinosus and semimembranosus muscles on the way down (eccentrically). Meanwhile, glute ham raises are knee-dominant, working the lower hamstrings, with concentrical activation of the semitendinosus and semimembranosus. If you don’t have access to a glute hamstring machine at your gym, you can also do this on a hyperextension machine; however, that will also work your erector spinae, with less emphasis on the lower body.
- Set yourself up on the glute hamstring machine, so the footplate allows your feet to lay flat, and the pad rests across the front of your thighs. Your knees will be bent while your body is upright.
- Engage your core, and using your hamstrings and glutes, lower your torso (with control) down to either parallel with the floor or slightly below. Your knees will straighten while keeping your head, back, and hips in line.
- To ascend, contract your hamstrings and glutes while bending your knees, and your whole body should move as one unit back to the start.
- Avoid arching or rounding your back, moving the footplate further away if it’s too difficult.
Rest: 2 minutes
4b. Swiss Ball Leg Curls
The alternative to glute ham raises and the perfect addition to your Friday set is Swiss ball leg curls. It’s a fun yet challenging move that will engage your hamstrings and glutes. In addition to working the lower body muscles, you’ll also give your core a solid workout. If you find it too easy, you can always take it to another level by doing a single leg curl.
- Lie on your back, with the heels of your feet resting on a Swiss ball and palms flat on the floor by your hips.
- For the starting position, lift your hips towards the ceiling, so your body is straight while your shoulders and head remain on the ground, with hands bracing either side. Keep your feet in the center of the ball.
- Bend your knees, rolling the ball in towards your body as you raise your hips higher by squeezing your glutes and hamstrings. Your hips should be aligned with your knees at the top.
- Slowly release the ball, so it rolls back to the starting position.
Rest: 2 minutes
As you get stronger, you’ll need to continually increase the difficulty of your exercises. The double progression method for overload is an effective scheme to follow. When you can comfortably perform the full suggested sets with the highest reps, increase the weight you’re using. Then, aim for the maximum sets again, but with around a quarter fewer reps. If you can do that, continue building up to the maximum reps again, and repeat the process. If you can’t, drop the weight back and continue working with the previous combination of weights, sets, and reps a little longer before trying again. Patience and consistency are essential, and it’s important to remember that improvement isn’t always linear.
What is the best exercise for the lower body?
There is no single exercise that’s best for the lower body. However, a combination of exercises that work all lower-body muscles, including glutes, hamstrings, and quads, is the best for well-rounded and effective results. Try a mix of barbell squats, Romanian deadlifts, Bulgarian split squats, and glute ham raises.
Can you just do lower body workouts?
How you choose to structure your workout will depend on your fitness and health goals. However, in general, it’s best to work all areas of your body for maximum and well-rounded results. While many compound exercises affect multiple muscle groups, having strength everywhere will make things easier.
How can I build my lower body at home?
Many exercises in this lower body workout can be adapted for the home with minimal equipment. If you can invest in a couple of dumbbells or kettlebells, try a goblet or dumbbell squat. Split squats or lunges are also easy to do at home with dumbbells, as are Swiss ball leg curls. Deadlifts are designed explicitly for heavyweights, making them harder to substitute outside the gym. Instead, try a standing band hip thrust or a single-leg dumbbell deadlift.
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