Looking to build some size in your legs? I’ve got you covered, here are five simple and effective leg workouts for hypertrophy. I’ve arranged each leg workout based on equipment, so you’ll find a:
- Leg Workout With Barbell
- Leg Workout on Cable Machine
- Leg Workout on Smith Machine
- Leg Workout Calisthenics
- Leg Workout Superset
- Leg Workout Equipment List
- Leg Workout Frequently Asked Questions
- Next Steps
You’ll also find example videos for exercises, quick tips for each workout, and a few frequently asked questions to round things off.
Let’s jump right into it.
Leg Workout With Barbell
Here’s a simple but insanely effective leg workout using only a barbell.
- High Bar Back Squats: 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps @ 2RIR
- Romanian Deadlifts: 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps @ 2 RIR
- Hip Thrusts: 2-3 sets of 15-20 reps @ 2 RIR
Quick Barbell Leg Workout Explanation
This barbell leg workout is simple but incredibly effective. The high bar back squats target your quads, the romanian deadlifts target your hamstrings and the hip thrusts target your glutes for well-rounded leg hypertrophy.
You perform 2-3 sets of each exercise, and you should each set leaving a couple of reps in the tank. There’s no need to train to failure in order to maximise muscle growth (Grgic et al. 2021) especially when leg workout bodybuilding creates so much fatigue already.
Leg workout with barbell pros
The beauty of a barbell-only leg workout is that you can provide a tonne of stimulus to your legs in very few total sets, perfect for bodybuilders who like to keep things simple.
Leg workout with barbell cons
The drawback of the barbell-only leg workout is that it is highly fatiguing and systemically demanding, which means it’s tiring not just to your leg muscles but to your entire body.
Leg Workout on Cable Machine
Here’s something different, a leg workout using only a cable machine, a piece of kit that most people wouldn’t think of as being ideal for leg training. With the right approach, you might be surprised how much you can do with this machine.
- Cable machine sissy squats: 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps @ 2 RIR
- Cable machine lying hamstring curls: 3-4 sets of 15-20 reps @ 2 RIR
- Cable machine side leg raises: 2-4 sets each side of 15-20 reps @ 2 RIR
Quick Cable Leg Workout Explanation
This cable leg workout is designed using higher rep ranges to get you some real pumps in your quads, hamstrings and glutes. The trick is to use a controlled eccentric, taking 3-5 seconds on the downward phase of every single rep.
You perform 3-4 sets of each exercise, and you should each set leaving a couple of reps in the tank. There’s no need to train to failure in order to maximise muscle growth.
Leg workout with cable pros
Since you’ll be using cables (and not loading your spine as with a barbell or smith machine) the total systematic fatigue will be much lower. The constant tension from the cables can also make it a bit easier to feel a mind-muscle connection with your quads and hamstrings.
Leg workout with cable cons
The drawback of cable machine leg workouts is that you’ll often have to use more total sets to achieve the same level of stimulus as you’d get from heavier barbell or smith machine leg workouts. So if you typically need 3 sets of barbell squats for quads, a leg workout for quads using the cable machine might require you to perform 4 or 5 sets.
Leg Workout on Smith Machine
This smith machine leg workout takes classic barbell leg exercises and moves them onto the smith machine to provide a new stimulus.
- Smith machine high bar back squat: 2-3 sets of 8-12 reps @ 2 RIR
- Smith machine RDL’s: 2-3 sets of 5-10 reps @ 2 RIR
- Smith machine calf raises: 2-3 sets of 20-30 reps @ 2 RIR
Quick Smith Machine Leg Workout Explanation
This leg workout on the smith machine (despite what some folks might tell you) is incredibly effective. You’ve got two big compound movements, the squats to hit your quads and glutes, and the rdl’s to hit your hamstrings and glutes. You’ll then follow these up with some high-rep lighter work for your calves.
Leg workout with smith machine pros
The smith machine adds a lot more stability to your lifts, which in many ways allows you to focus on feeling the specific muscles working. The fixed track of movement also allows for standardised reps. Personally, if I’m doing a leg workout my hamstrings get a BETTER stimulus from smith machine rdls than from barbell rdls.
Leg workout with smith machine cons
The drawback of leg workouts on the smith machine is that it can take a bit of time and experimentation to find your ideal set-up and position. Your first few reps might feel a bit ‘off’ if you haven’t dialled in your specific set-up yet.
To work around this, I recommend starting all your smith machine leg workouts with a few warm-up sets, and using these sets to play around with the equipment and find your ideal set-up.
Leg Workout Calisthenics
This calisthenics leg workout uses no equipment and no weights, it only requires your bodyweight and the ability to work hard. Remember, leg workout hypertrophy isn’t caused by weights, it’s caused by applying tension to your muscles, which you can absolutely do with bodyweight.
- A) Heels elevated Tempo Bodyweight Squat: 3 sets of 10-15 reps
- B) Superset with Walking Lunges: 3 sets of 20 reps (10 each leg)
- A) Lying Hamstring Slides: 3 sets of 8-12 reps
- B) Superset with Feet Elevated Hamstring Bridges: 3 sets of 10-15 reps
Quick Calisthenics Leg Workout Explanation
This leg workout without weights is all about using your own bodyweight intelligently to produce great training results. Since you’ll be using no equipment, you’ll have to perform higher reps, you’ll also be using supersets, where you pair two exercises together to deliberately overload certain muscle groups, for example:
- Squats plus lunges will burn your quads and glutes
- Whilst hamstring slides and bridges will torch your hamstrings
Plus, on your squats, you’ll be using a controlled tempo, taking 5 seconds on the way down, 3 seconds pause at the bottom, and then going fast up. Trust me, you’ll be feeling these!
Calisthenics leg workout pros
A leg workout based around calisthenics requires little to no equipment, which means lower costs, less set-up time and no gym membership required. Plus since you’ll be doing each leg workout without weights you can perform the workout anywhere, making it ideal for holidays, travel, work trips etc.
Calisthenics leg workout cons
The drawback of hypertrophy leg workouts based around calisthenics is that you can’t overload movements simply by adding weight, so you often have to get creative in terms of your set-ups, leverages and exercise selection to get a similar level of training stimulus.
To get around this issue I use supersets, slow-tempo reps, and higher-rep schemes, and I suggest that you do the same. Be warned though, this type of leg workout is absolutely brutal when done properly.
Leg Workout Superset
If you’re short on time this leg workout superset will have your legs absolutely torched.
A) High bar Back Squat: 3 sets of 8-12 reps
b) RDL’s: 3 sets of 6-8 reps
I recommend resting for 2-3 minutes between supersets.
Boom, that’s it.
The squats hit your quads and glutes, the rdls hit your hamstrings. Job done.
If you want to get fancy with it. You can use down sets, which is where you keep the same exercises but reduce the weight to hit new rep schemes. Your workout could look something like:
- Set one: squats and rdl’s for 5-10 reps
- Set two: squats and rdls for 10-15 reps
- Set three: squats and rdls for 15-20 reps
Quick Leg Workout Superset Explanation
This leg workout superset is called an agonist-antagonist superset. In the high bar squats your quadriceps are the agonist (the main working muscle) and your hamstrings are the antagonist (the opposite muscle which is mostly not being used). Then in the rdls your hamstrings are the agonist and your quads are the antagonist.
Doing your leg workout supersets like this allows you to hit both leg exercises one after the other with high levels of intensity and focus. It also allows you to save time by cutting out some of the rest that would typically be taken in between sets of exercises.
Leg workout superset pros
Leg workout supersets are time-efficient, so if you’re short on time you can into the gym and hit a good quality leg session for quads, hamstrings and glutes in 30 minutes or less.
Leg workout superset cons
The drawback of superset leg workouts is that supersets SUCK. What I mean by that is that supersets are hard, especially on lower body exercises. Your breathing will be elevated, your heart rate will be elevated and you’ll likely have some lactic acid buildup. This means you’ll have to work extra hard to maintain good technique.
Top tip: Embrace the pain, my friend, that’s where the hypertrophy lives!
Leg Workout Equipment List
Here’s some of the basic equipment you can use for your leg workouts:
- Weighted Vest
- Squat rack or squat stands
Leg workout gym machines
Here are some of the most common leg workout machines you’ll find in the gym:
- Leg press: For quads
- Hack squat: For quads
- Leg extension: For quads
- Lying leg curl: For hamstrings
- Seated leg curl: For hamstrings
- Reverse Hyper: For glutes and lower back
- Glute Ham Raise: For glutes and hamstrings
Leg Workout Frequently Asked Questions
Is 3 exercises enough for legs?
Yes, 3 exercises is definitely enough or legs. In fact, some leg workouts only need to use one or two exercises when designed properly.
How do you do killer leg day?
A killer leg day is achieved by performing way more sets, reps or weight than your body can currently handle. The real question is, why would you want to perform a killer leg day? Your goal in the gym is to get bigger and stronger, not to destroy yourself. Trust me, you will see FAR better results by being consistent with moderate workouts, than by doing 1 huge, killer workout and then not training legs again for 1-2 weeks (or months!)
Is a 45-minute leg workout enough?
Absolutely, a 45-minute leg workout is definitely enough time to make some real progress in lower body strength and size. In fact, the superset leg workout up above can be completed in under thirty minutes and is still incredibly effective at adding mass to your legs.
Is it OK to do legs everyday?
Doing legs everyday is not the smartest training idea, as it will likely lead to overtraining and underperformance. I highly recommend you check out my article on SRA curves, but the TLDR is that your legs need time to recover between workouts in order to adapt and become bigger and/or stronger.
How many sets for legs?
I recommend performing 2-4 sets per exercise for legs, so if you’re doing 3 exercises in your leg workout, that means 6-12 sets in total for that workout in order to stimulate hypertrophy. If that doesn’t seem like enough, I strongly recommend revisiting your technique, aiming for a full range of motion and using a controlled eccentric.
How long should a leg day take?
Leg day should take anything from 30 to 90 minutes depending on how you’ve structured your leg workout and which week of your training mesocycle (training block) you’re in. You should also consider that a leg workout whilst you’re massing might take longer than a leg workout whilst you’re cutting, as you’ll be able to handle more total sets whilst in a calorie surplus.
What makes a perfect leg workout?
There’s no such thing as a perfect leg workout, but a leg workout that hits all your major leg muscle groups such as quads, hamstrings and glutes is a good start. Ideally, you want your muscles to feel disrupted and somewhat sore for a few days, but not in a way that overlaps with your next leg workout.
Leg workout without squats
You can have a great leg workout without squats by using exercises like walking lunges, split squats, bulgarian split squats, leg extensions, hamstring curls, RDLs and loads more. You might also want to try leg presses as a good squat substitute in your leg workout. Put simply, there are loads of exercises you can use in your leg workout to add mass, so you don’t have to do squats if you don’t want to.
Alright, that’s enough reading for today, time for action…
1) Give one of these hypertrophy leg workouts a try, or consider having a look at custom programme options if you want something a bit more personalised.
2) If you want more training tips, workouts and programmes, feel free to join my mailing list.
3) And if you’re looking for 1:1 strength and conditioning coaching, you can find more information about my services here.
‘Til Next Time
Alex Parry, MSc, BA
Alex is the Head content writer and Coach at Character Strength & Conditioning, as well as an Assistant Lecturer and PhD Researcher at the University of Hull.
His experience includes 8+ years within professional strength and conditioning, as well as working as a tutor & educator for British Weightlifting.