Leg day is vital in your workout routine, and compound leg exercises mean more bang for your buck – especially if you’re short on time. Activating multiple muscle groups has many benefits for your lower body, such as burning more calories and improving intramuscular coordination.
Read along to learn about the best compound leg exercises, their benefits, and how to perform them.
Table of Contents
- 1 11 Best Compound Leg Exercises
- 2 Benefits of Compound Leg Exercises
- 3 How to Train Legs
- 4 Leg Anatomy
- 5 Compound Leg Exercises FAQs
11 Best Compound Leg Exercises
- Conventional deadlift
- Romanian deadlift
- Goblet squat
- Front squat
- Hex bar deadlift
- Hack squat
- Barbell hip thrust
- Good mornings
- Leg press
Benefits of squats
This workout targets almost all parts of your lower body. This includes the quadriceps, glutes (the medius and minimus working as stabilizing muscles), calves, hamstrings, abs, and erector spinae.
Squats enhance your core and leg strength while promoting stability and flexibility. This workout further builds resilience by training your brain to communicate between muscle groups. Additionally, doing this exercise when you’re younger builds a foundation to live a more mobile life when you’re older.
How to perform squats
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing straight ahead or slightly outward.
- Keep your chest upward and shoulders back, and maintain a neutral spine. Engage your core to stabilize your torso.
- Start squatting by bending your knees and pushing your hips back as if you were sitting on a chair. Keep your weight on your heels.
- Lower your body until your thighs are parallel to the ground. Go as far as your flexibility and strength will allow.
- Ensure that your knees stay in line with your feet and that your back is straight.
- Push through your heels to straighten your knees and hips to rise from the squat position.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
This video should help guide you:
How to program squats
This compound leg exercise and its variations target many muscles. This means that there’s no need to overdo squats, especially if you want to fit in other leg exercises. A reasonable goal would be 3 sets of 10 to 20, three times per week. This rep count will allow your muscles a proper workout, while still allowing time for recovery.
Benefits of conventional deadlifts
One advantage that a deadlift offers is muscle-induced mechanical loading. This means that deadlifts maintain bone density due to the weight of the load. Although this science applies to most resistance-based exercises, deadlifts work multiple muscle groups simultaneously, making the benefit more pronounced.
The lower back, quads, hamstrings, and glutes are the primary muscles activated in a conventional deadlift. The secondary muscles worked include the lats, traps, obliques, forearms, abdominals, and calves.
How to perform conventional deadlifts
- Start with your feet under the middle of the bar, hip-width apart. The bar should be in the middle of your foot (mid-foot), and your shins should not touch the bar. Point your toes slightly outwards.
- Bend over while keeping your legs straight to grab the bar. Your grip should be shoulder-width apart.
- Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar. Don’t let the bar move away from the mid-foot position. If it does, you should start from step 1.
- Pushing through your heels, straighten your hips and knees simultaneously, and lift the barbell off the ground. The movement should combine pushing your hips forward and standing up straight. Do not squeeze your shoulder blades.
- While lifting the bar, it should remain in contact with your legs. Ensure your spine remains neutral throughout the lift.
- Stand straight with your shoulders back and hips fully extended.
- To end the rep, hinge at your hips and bend your knees to lower the barbell back to the ground. Keep the bar close to your body during the descent.
Here’s a video explaining the steps to perform a conventional deadlift:
How to program conventional deadlifts
If hypertrophy is your goal, you can use moderate loads of 20-30 reps per set of 4 to 16. For heavier loads, you can lower the reps to between 5 and 10. In most cases, the sweet spot for a deadlift workout routine is twice a week.
Benefits of Romanian deadlifts
Romanian deadlifts (RDLs) are superb at targeting the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, and lower back). But what’s the difference between them and regular deadlifts?
A Romanian deadlift places a significant emphasis on the hamstrings, which improves strength and muscle development in the back of the thighs. This emphasis enhances athletic performance, reduces the risk of injury, and improves overall lower-body functionality.
How to perform Romanian deadlifts
- Stand in front of the barbell with your feet hip-distance apart. Leave a slight bend in your knees. Your toes should point slightly outwards.
- Bend forward over your hips, keeping your spine straight as your torso reaches toward the floor.
- Grip the barbell at shoulder distance apart while moving your shoulders back and down and tightening your abdominal muscles. Keep your head and neck aligned with your spine to avoid hyperextension.
- Engage your glutes and hamstrings, and push your feet into the ground to stand up straight while lifting the weight to the height of your upper thighs. This is the starting position of an RDL and where it differs from a standard deadlift.
- At the starting point, you should keep your back straight, chest up, and shoulders back.
- Start the Romanian deadlift by pushing your hips back while slightly bending your knees. Your back should remain straight throughout the descent.
- The barbell should travel down the front of your thighs. Continue to hinge at your hips until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
- Lower the bar as far as your flexibility allows, ideally between your knees and toes, without compromising your form.
- To end the rep, rise back to an upright position by driving your hips forward. Focus on using your hamstrings and glutes to lift, and remember to keep the bar close to your body.
Note: You can also use dumbbells or kettlebells for this exercise.
Here’s a video to see what the Romanian deadlift looks like:
How to program Romanian deadlifts
Romanian deadlift sets work well with reps of 20–30 with light loads, 10–20 with moderate loads, and 5–10 with heavy loads. It is recommended to do a maximum of three sets of RDLs twice a week.
Benefits of goblet squats
The goblet squat is a great alternative exercise to a leg press. Goblet squats cover all the major muscles in the lower body. Goblet squats also target the middle and upper body, including the core, lower back, forearms, biceps, and shoulders.
It is one of the best compound leg exercises because it promotes a deeper squat position, enhancing mobility and flexibility in the hips and ankles.
How to perform goblet squats
- For a goblet squat, you must grip the dumbbell vertically, with both hands beneath the top of the weight. Hold the dumbbell to your chest throughout the exercise.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-wide, pointing your knees in the direction of your toes.
- Squat your lower body by sitting back on your hips while engaging your abdominal muscles with an upright spine. Your hamstrings should nearly touch the back of the calves.
- Push through your heels to return to the starting position to end the rep. You should always keep your feet flat throughout the goblet squat.
You can swap the dumbbell for a kettlebell if you prefer.
Here’s a video on how to do goblet squats for reference:
How to program goblet squats
If you want to program your sets, you can do this exercise with a light load for 20–30 reps or a moderate load for 10–20 reps. With all squat leg exercises, you should only perform up to 18 sets per week, depending on your fitness level or the advice of your certified personal trainer.
Benefits of front squats
If you get bored of performing squats with just your body weight, a barbell will add some extra spice — and gains. Did you know that a front squat is one of the top exercises for outer quads?
Front squats help build lower body muscle mass, especially in the quads. With the supporting musculature involved, you’ll also benefit from improved core engagement, enhanced stability, and increased overall functional strength.
How to perform front squats
- At the squat rack, rest the barbell on your upper chest. The bar should be close to your neck, but not touch it.
- Grip the bar shoulder-width apart by placing your fingers under and around the bar, with your elbows pointing forward and away from your body.
- Move your chest upwards and shoulders backward while maintaining a neutral spine to support the barbell. Engage your core to stabilize your torso.
- Unrack the barbell and step away.
- Place your feet shoulder-distance apart or slightly wider. Your toes can point straight ahead or slightly outward.
- Initiate a squat by bending at your hips and knees until your hamstrings nearly touch the back of your calves or until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground. You should keep your back straight in this movement.
- Push through your heels and straighten your hips and knees to rise back into a standing position.
Here’s a video from Squat University to help you visualize how to do a front squat properly:
How to program front squats
Quad gains require either a moderate or heavy load. Moderate-weight sets can consist of 10 to 20 repetitions, and heavier-weight sets between 5 and 10 repetitions. You can balance your routine with 8 to 22 sets a week.
Hex bar deadlifts
Benefits of hex bar deadlifts
Hex bar deadlifts (a.k.a. trap bar deadlifts) are a compound leg exercise that ticks many boxes. Isolation exercises have nothing on the sheer amount of muscle groups this workout impacts. Hex bar deadlifts work magic on the quads, hamstrings, glutes, calves, hip and back extensors, and core muscles – with an added bit of lat muscle action.
Unlike regular and Romanian deadlifts, this compound leg exercise creates a lower center of gravity, which puts less stress on the lower back. This makes it beginner-friendly and gives those with back problems a less strenuous deadlift option.
How to perform hex deadlifts
- Step into the middle of the hex bar with your feet shoulder length apart. The handles of the bar should be at your sides.
- Bend at your hips and knees to reach down and grab the handles. Maintain a straight back, keep your shoulders back, and lift your chest.
- Adjust your grip width as needed, but your hands should be roughly in line with your hips. Your palms should face your body.
- Push through your heels to lift the hex bar off the ground while keeping your shins perpendicular to the floor.
- Once you are straight, you should stand tall with your hips fully extended and your shoulders back.
- Reverse the movement to end the rep by hinging at your hips and bending your knees to lower the barbell back to the ground.
This video explains how to do a hex bar deadlift correctly:
How to program hex bar deadlifts
Like the other deadlifts on this list, you can fit this into your workout once or twice a week. Hex bar deadlifts work well with a moderate load of 10–20 reps or a heavy load of 5–10 reps. Perform 4 to 16 sets per week.
Benefits of hack squats
Hack squats are newbie and lower-back-friendly. There are also several hack squat alternatives. Performing these exercises will mainly fire up the quads, but also engage the core muscles, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, and calves.
It’s easy to give all the attention to upper body muscles, but your quads, glutes, and hamstrings play a significant role in supporting your torso. This compound exercise ensures you balance muscle growth and support your posture.
How to perform hack squats
- Position yourself on the hack squat machine with your back against the pad and your shoulders under the shoulder pads.
- Place your feet shoulder-width apart on the platform with your toes slightly outward or straight ahead.
- Press your back against the pad, and hold the handles for stability.
- Release the safety handles and lower to the platform by bending your knees while keeping a straight back. Lower yourself until your thighs are parallel to the platform or as far as your flexibility allows without bending your back.
- Ensure that your knees stay aligned with your toes and don’t collapse inward.
- Push through your heels to extend your knees and return to the starting position. Keep your back against the pad throughout the movement.
- Stand up straight with your knees extended, but avoid locking them.
This video will help you understand the workout better:
How to program hack squats
If you’d like to add this monster quad-builder into your routine, you can use moderate weights and perform 10–20 reps or go heavier with 5–10 reps. 3 to 4 sets per week should do the trick.
Barbell hip thrusts
Benefits of barbell hip thrusts
This compound exercise is renowned for its exceptional ability to activate and strengthen the glute muscle groups. Barbell hip thrusts are one of the only compound exercises that uniquely focuses on isolating and emphasizing your glutes and hamstrings.
Barbell hip thrusts offer an explosive workout, believed to improve your running speed. So, if you’re a runner or sprinter looking for cross-training exercises that reap results, this compound workout is worth a shot.
How to perform barbell hip thrusts
- Place a bench horizontally and sit so that your upper back rests on it.
- Position a barbell on your lap, just below your hip bones. It’s best to use a barbell pad for comfort.
- Place your feet flat on the ground, hip-width apart, with your knees bent so that when you lift the bar, they bend at 90 degrees.
- Grab the barbell with an overhand grip, with your hands about shoulder-width apart.
- Engage your core muscles to stabilize your spine.
- Lift the bar by pressing through your heels, squeezing your glutes, and raising your hips toward the ceiling. The bench should support your upper back and shoulders.
- Raise the bar until you create a straight line from your knees to your shoulder parallel to the floor. Do not overextend your back.
- Lower your hips toward the floor, controlling your movement.
- Repeat for the desired repetitions, focusing on contracting your glutes at the top of each rep.
Here’s a video from Mountain Dog to give you some pointers:
How to program barbell hip thrusts
To achieve hypertrophy, you can add moderate to heavy weights to the barbell. If you decide to lift heavy, you can try 5–10 reps per set. When lifting a moderate weight, increase up to 20 reps. As a guideline, you can fit three to five sets into your week.
Benefits of good mornings
Good mornings are compound exercises that work the muscles along the backside of your body. The list includes the hamstrings, glutes, erector spinae, and lower back muscles. Although good mornings are not primarily a leg workout, they can contribute to leg strength and improve your hip-hinging form.
How to perform good mornings
- Place the bar on the rack just below shoulder level. Then move underneath the bar, resting it on your upper back.
- Grab the barbell with both hands on either side. Lift the bar off the rack with your back by pushing it towards the ceiling.
- Step back and stand with your feet around hip-width apart, with knees slightly bent.
- Brace your core and then hinge forward at the hip, pushing your glutes back until your torso is nearly parallel with the floor. You should feel a slight stretch in your hamstrings.
- Pause before returning to an upright position.
- Thrust your hips forward as you rise, making sure to squeeze through your hamstrings and glutes.
Check out this video to help you perfect your form:
How to program good mornings
Good mornings are best to do with a light to moderate weight as it is more about maintenance than heavy lifting. Light loads can include sets of around 12 repetitions, and moderate loads can be reduced to 8 repetitions. You can generally add up to five sets to your weekly routine.
Benefits of lunges
Forward lunges are one of the best compound leg exercises for mobility. While all types of lunges are well-suited for a leg workout, regular lunges can be adapted and modified to suit various fitness levels by adjusting step length and incorporating additional resistance.
This compound exercise requires an engaged core as you shift weight from one leg to another, improving overall mobility. It is also a compound leg workout that requires you to exercise unilaterally. A unilateral exercise means that you target both sides of your body independently. Studies show that unilateral exercises improve muscle imbalances.
How to perform lunges
- Stand with your feet together, shoulders back, and abdominal muscles engaged.
- Take a step forward with your right foot. The length of your stride will depend on your comfort and flexibility. The common practice is to take a stride long enough that when you lower your body, both knees form a 90-degree angle.
- Lower yourself until your right thigh is parallel to the ground, with the knee at 90 degrees, and the left knee points toward the ground. Your weight should be distributed evenly between both legs.
- Rise back to a standing position by pushing your weight on the right heel.
- Repeat with your left foot.
You can use a barbell, kettlebell, or dumbbells to add extra weight to your lunges.
Use this video as a guide to help perfect your lunge form:
How to program lunges
You can do lunges and variations thereof up to three times a week in a balanced schedule. 20–30 repetitions per set is a good rule of thumb, but if you add more resistance, you can reduce it down to 10 reps. It’s suggested to do 2 to 4 sets per session. If you’re a beginner, you should start by doing lunges with only your body weight as resistance.
Benefits of leg presses
There is no one compound leg exercise suited to everyone, but the leg press is up there as it promotes functional strength. A leg press works various muscles, but it is among the best compound exercises that target the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. This exercise is one of a few ways to a gym machine for legs.
Many compound leg exercises that use a machine allow those struggling with balance (especially beginners) to work their desired muscle group with less hassle.
How to perform leg presses
- Adjust the leg press machine so your lower back is supported, with your feet flat on the platform about hip-width apart. Your knees must form a 90-degree angle, and your toes should point slightly outward.
- Always keep your head and back flat aligned against the seat pad.
- Raise the platform by engaging your core, pushing through your heels, and extending your knees.
- Pause once your legs are fully extended. Always control your movement and avoid locking out your knees at the top.
- Return the footplate to the starting position by gradually bending the knees back to a 90-degree angle. Remember to maintain flat feet and a straight back throughout.
This video shows you how to do a proper leg press:
How to program leg presses
If you’re new to leg presses, it’s best to begin modestly with lower weights and higher repetitions. For hypertrophy with moderate weight, sets of up to 20 reps will do you well. If you lift heavy loads, you can reduce the maximum to around 10 repetitions. Perform up to 18 sets of glute-involved compound workouts a week.
Benefits of Compound Leg Exercises
While compound leg exercises are known to target various muscles simultaneously, there are also numerous other benefits of doing this type of leg workout, including:
- It elevates your heart rate, which means a higher rate of calorie burn.
- It can help with weight management.
- The wide range of motion of compound leg exercises enhances joint mobility and muscular stability.
- Exercising multiple muscles at once is time-efficient.
- You can gain evenly distributed muscle mass.
- Your body becomes more functionally strong.
How to Train Legs
The best way to train legs is to do resistance exercises that target the multiple muscle groups in the lower body, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves. A mixture of isolation and compound exercises is essential to ensure that all your lower body muscles are evenly stimulated for balanced growth.
Use these guidelines to help you program your training sessions:
- Glutes: Up to 18 sets a week (most compound leg exercises involve the glutes)
- Hamstrings: 4-16 sets a week
- Quadriceps: 8-22 sets a week
- Calves: 8 sets a week
- Glutes: The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body, and is paired with the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus muscles. These muscles make up your buttocks. Its functions include hip extension, hip abduction, and external hip rotation.
- Quadriceps: This is your front thigh muscle, which helps with knee extension and hip flexion.
- Hamstrings: They are located at the back of the thigh and function to help with knee flexion and hip extension.
- Adductors: The inner thigh comprises five muscles that maintain stability and balance during movements that require your legs to move together.
- Calves: Located at the back of the lower leg containing the gastrocnemius and soleus, the calve muscles let you point your foot downward.
- Tibialis anterior: This is the front of the lower leg, which helps you lift your foot upward.
Compound Leg Exercises FAQs
How often should you train your legs?
It’s generally best to train legs two to three times per week. However, intermediate and advanced lifters can train their legs 3-4 times a week if they wish to. Be wary of excessive muscle soreness or decreased performance, as it may indicate that you need more rest between leg workouts.
At what intensity should legs be trained?
Your leg workout intensity depends on your level and goals. The main principle is progressive overload. This means you should gradually grow your workout intensity over time by increasing weights, reps, sets, or workout frequency. Progressive overload keeps your muscles stimulated and helps them grow.
What rep range should be used for training legs?
When training for leg hypotrophy, your rep count depends on the weight of your resistance. Generally, heavy loads should include 5–10 reps, medium loads 10–20, and light/no loads of 20–30.
What types of exercises train legs?
The most effective way to train the various muscles in your legs is to combine compound and isolation exercises. Compound exercises target multiple muscles, while isolation workouts focus on a specific one.
Are compound or isolation exercises better for legs?
Compound movements are better for building strength and mobility. It is far more functional than working out one particular muscle. Isolation exercises, like hamstring curl machines, are better for muscle definition. However, overworking a specific leg muscle can neglect the supporting muscle groups and lead to pain or injury.