In most cases, “best” can be a relative term… and will often depend on goals! This article will contain opinions only, so feel free to disagree. But in my opinion there are certain exercises that are more effective in hitting specific body parts, and some that aren’t that great at all!
One muscle group at a time I will go over my favorite exercise and explain why it is my favorite!
We will first be breaking down the lower body exercises into the 4 major muscle groups: Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves.
Quads (quadriceps): Barbell Squats
There are many (MANY) exercises that hit the quads, and within those exercises there are many ways to perform each exercise. Barbell squats is in my opinion the MOST effective at building both size and strength! Here is why I like them:
This compound exercise (targeting multiple joints at once) trains nearly every single muscle group in the legs all at once! Also as another bonus you are using a lot of core (both abs and low back!).
I chose barbell squats instead of dumbbell or kettlebell goblet squats for a very specific reason; you can continually increase the load (weight/resistance) in relation to leg strength. If you are holding a kettlebell or dumbbell, you will find that after a certain weight your grip strength or arm strength is the first to give out… this is obviously not ideal if you are training legs! If you can squat 200lb but can only hold 80lb with a DB/KB, you're not doing your legs justice. Of course, KB/DB goblet squats do have their place in programming, but when training for size/strength go with barbell!
Squats are a highly functional movement as well! There are many times you will be bending at both the knees and the hips to pick something up, walk up stairs, get into or out of a chair, etc. This exercise promotes mobility, stability, and balance which will benefit people of all ages!
Downsides: Barbell squats do have a couple downsides. First is that the shoulders must have proper mobility to be able to grab the bar as it rests on your back. If you don’t have enough shoulder mobility, you can use a bar called the “safety squat bar” which has the handles come to the front of the body. Barbell squats should also only be done in the presence of a spotter, or done inside of a squat rack with the safety bars setup at the right height… otherwise it can be a very dangerous move. You must also be sure your ankles, knees, and hips have the proper mobility before attempting the barbell squat. If you are unsure, start with KB/DB goblet style squats to check form and ROM (range of motion).
Runner-Up: As a second favorite I like Step-Ups. This exercise allows you to isolate one leg at a time and hits the quads really well. It also works wonders for balance and stability in the ankles and entirety of the body. Just like squats, it's a highly functional movement… walking up stairs anyone? :) The only downside of step-ups is that you will be holding the weight in your hands and grip-strength could be a limiting factor. It is possibly to do barbell step-ups, but ONLY if you have great balance already (we don’t want you falling off the box with a barbell on your back!).
Glutes: Walking Lunges
Not too many people automatically associate walking lunges with their glutes. Well, time to re-think the exercise! Walking lunges are usually performed with a weight in each hand. Take a large step forward and bring your back knee toward the floor (your front knee should not pass the front of your toes). From there you push off slightly with the back foot but let the front foot/leg do all the heavy lifting to bring your body upright and right into the next step (if you need to catch your balance but the foot down in the middle of each rep at the top). Be sure to keep your chest upright and try to avoid bending over too far at the hips. Here is why I LOVE walking lunges:
Compound exercise utilizing strength, balance, mobility, stability, and every single muscle group in the lower body! Talk about an exercise that does it all!
It hits the glutes HARD! Usually when performing the exercise, it will feel like the quads are getting hit the hardest…. BUT the next day you will know how hard it actually worked the glutes by how SORE you get (if you did proper weight)! I have never found an exercise that works my glutes better while also working on so many other aspects at once, not even squats or bridges, or kickbacks or any of those “butt-only exercises.”
Even though they hit the glutes hardest in my opinion, they also work wonders on the quads and the hamstrings, and even the calves to a lesser extent. This means they are a TRUE lower body compound exercise. You’ve heard them say “workout smarter, not harder” well incorporating walking lunges into your routine will certainly mean you are working out smarter!
Downsides: Holding the weights in your hand again could mean that your grip strength can be a limiting factor on this exercise. You can perform walking lunges with a barbell on your back to increase the resistance for the legs, but it is not recommended unless you have a spotter/trainer with you or you already have mastered the movement pattern when using dumbbells and are very confident in your balance and ability. This exercise is also not recommended for someone with poor balance and stability. You could however start them off with split squats to improve those aspects. If you have trouble with the range of motion (getting you back knee all the way to the floor) work on your joint mobility (knees and hips mostly) and perform them bodyweight until you have mastered the form.
Runner-Up: Barbell Bridges are my clear-cut runner up for glutes. Set up a bar on the floor with a pad in the middle and slide yourself under the bar. After bringing the heels toward the butt, position the bar right over the hips and drive the bar up to the ceiling using your glutes (and hamstrings). Getting a good squeeze at the top of this exercise is essential, and focusing the glutes rather than the hamstrings is also super important. If you want to work on glute strength this should be a go-to!
Hamstrings: Romanian Deadlifts (RDL’s, also known as Stiff Leg Deadlifts)
The Romanian Deadlift is performed by standing up tall with weight in your hands (can be barbell or dumbbells), and slowly hinging at the hips to lower the weight. Your hips should move backward slightly while the weight stays close to the front of your legs. Making sure the back and spine stay nice and straight, lower the weight until your hamstrings get a decent stretch. It is okay to bend the knees slightly if you have tighter hamstrings! Here is why I like them:
Very easy to perform and maninupate depending on person attempting them. Almost anyone can perform this exercise! It is also very easy to know when you have reached your full range of motion, right when the hamstrings tighten up and you can not go any further without rounding your back (which you should never do on a RDL!).
The entire posterior chain gets hit pretty well on this one, and you can certainly feel the good stretch in the hamstrings in the bottom position. On the way up try to single out the hamstrings, and squeeze the glutes forward at the top.
It is HIGHLY functional! Similar to the conventional deadlift, this is a movement pattern that you will duplicate many many times over your lifetime. Reaching down to pick something up off the floor with straight legs (RDL) might even occur more often than picking something up with bent legs (conventional deadlift)!
Downsides: Some people who are hyper-flexible will be able to bring the bar/dumbbells all the way to the floor with straight legs and still not get the desired stretch in the hamstrings. In this case you can elevate the feet on a low box maybe 4 or 6 inches to allow a larger ROM. This exercise is often performed with rounding of the back when people reach further toward the floor thinking the weight must reach the floor, which is an absolute no no. You only want to go down as far as the hamstrings and back will allow without bending at the back.
Runner-Up: Slider Hamstring Curls (or machine hamstring curls if you don’t have sliders) are my absolute second favorite for hamstrings! You lay on your back with a slider (furniture slider) under each foot and bridge your body up then slowly extend the leg keeping the hips off the floor as long as you can. An advanced version is to also pull the feet back in toward the butt while the hips stay in the air, SUPER hard excise but no doubt about how well it works the hamstrings when you do it! There are also lots of modifications to make it harder or easier so its a great exercise for everyone.
Calves: Standing Calf Raises
When setting up for the standing calf raise you want to have the balls of your feet on a slightly elevated surface, like a low ledge or a 2x4. Holding weight (you can hold a db in each hand or use a barbell on your back) you drive up through the balls of your feel almost in the tip-toe position, balance and squeeze the calves for a second or two before bringing the heels back to the floor. Here's why I like it:
You will challenge your balance at the same time as working the calves hard. In most calf exercises/machines the ROM is fixed to a point so you just have to push up and down, not thinking or worrying about balance and stability. With this exercise, your stabilizer muscles in the ankles and calves will be working overtime while you’re up and holding that squeezed position, and you’ll feel the difference!
Calves are on of those muscle groups that get indirectly worked a lot of times even when you are not trying to work them directly, so its best to keep it simple.. And this exercise does just that!
Downsides: This exercise does require a lot of balance and stability, so someone who struggles with those should start on a very low surface or maybe even the floor until they are more comfortable balancing on the balls of their feet. That is honestly the only downside I can think of for this one!
Runner-Up: Literally ANY jumping exercise or agility exercise! As previously stated, your calves get a lot of work even when you are not intentionally doing them - box jumps/lunges/fast feet/agility ladder/skater hops/etc - ALL work wonders on the calves as well :)
All hail the plank! The ultimate core exercise with nearly unlimited modifications to make it harder or easier or just to change it up! There are literally hundreds of core exercises, but the plank takes the cake for me… here's why:
The core works all of the muscles of the core (including abs/obliques/low back) all at once. The plank also utilizes stabilizer muscles throughout nearly the entire body!
The amount of modifications means this exercise can be done by virtually anyone! You can make it much much easier, or much much harder… depending on your current ability levels you can modify it to exactly what you need! If you can do a 3+ minute plank, you should be modifying upward (making it harder). If you can’t hold a regular plank for at least 1 minute, you should be modifying downward (also known as regressing - or to make it easier).
There are so many moves performed where you are already in the plank position… and most times people don’t even realize they’re working the core! Pushups (and all of its variations), mountain climbers, renegade rows, etc ALL are in a plank position! It is in this position where you will know how to brace the core and tighten the abdominal muscles to get the perfect body alignment. This tightening of the core is also needed for almost every other exercise out there! If your core wasn’t tight, you would experience low back pain, or maybe worse experience an injury.
Downsides: One downside is if someone has an elbow or shoulder injury and get not get into the proper positioning, they will have to find another core exercise that they can do. Another downside is that this position is often done with poor form, rounding the low back or scaps squeezed with head toward the floor. It is imperative that this exercise is done with proper form to get the most benefit from it. You should have a nice neutral spine and flat back, head and neck straight, glutes engaged slightly to prevent hips from elevating toward the ceiling.
Runner-Up: My second favorite is ab rollouts, performed with a short barbell and rolling plates on the end, or sliders, or even the ab roller that you’ve seen on tv (yes that's one of the few “as seen on tv” machines that actually work!). This exercise is VERY tough to execute, so make sure that you do not try it until your core is already plenty strong enough. Also it is imperative to make sure that your low back doesn’t round or arch as you roll out and your body gets closer to the floor. If you can perform this one with good form, give it a shot and your abs will let you know about it the next couple of days :)
Well that is the end of part 3, and the final installment of this series!! I hope you have all learned about some of the most important exercises that exist for each body part. If you were to only do the exercises outlined in this series for the rest of your life, you would 100% be good to go while also achieving great results!
Thanks for reading! And see you guys soon at Fitness Fusion to GET FUSED!
As always, let me know if you have any questions!