Chicken legs to tree trunks: The comprehensive 45-minute leg workout

Nowadays, I mostly do full-body workouts.  But like any hardcore fitness geek, once in a while I’m just in the mood for leg day.

How many muscles do you think there are in the human leg?  Think for a moment.  Quads, hamstrings, inner and outer thigh muscles, calves..maybe half a dozen or so? 

Nope.  What if I told you there were dozens of muscles in the leg?  In fact, what if I told you that each of the “muscles” you can name are actually groups of several different muscles?

The truth is, legs are far more complex than most people realize. They have dozens of muscles which are involved in more than ten distinct movement patterns.  And that means that in order to thoroughly work your legs and develop all of those muscles, you need a fair amount of variety in the exercises you use. 

For this workout in particular, that’s going to mean doing fifteen sets of seven different leg exercises, plus a few sets of upper-body work for good measure.  By organizing the workout for maximum efficiency- going from power work, to strength, to hypertrophy sets, to a finisher, and alternating exercises to allow sufficient muscular recovery while maximizing hormonal response– you can build a pair of truly impressive legs in just one 45-minute workout a week.

In fact, this workout builds all aspects of your legs- power, strength, speed, mass, endurance and aesthetics.  It works all movement patterns.  It makes your legs better at everything. 

In order to make muscle gainz, first you must make mind gainz.  In ordinary person speak, before you do the workout, you need to learn about the musculature of the human leg, and you need to learn how to do each exercise with proper form.

The Muscles in Your Legs

Quadriceps- The big muscle group on the front of your thighs.  This is the main mover when extending/straightening your knees, as when front kicking, doing knee extensions, or squatting.  As the name suggests, it has four “heads,” or sections to it.  Different exercises are better for targeting different heads, so you need to hit the quads with a few different exercises.

Hamstrings- The big muscle in the back of your thighs- except it’s actually three muscles.  They’re the main mover when flexing your knees- that is, bending them, as with the thigh curl. 

Adductors- The inner thigh muscles.  Used when squeezing the thighs together, as well as for stabilization in other exercises like squats.

Gastrocnemius- The upper calf muscle, this is the big bulge in your upper calf.  It pushes your legs upward.    

Soleus- This calf muscle lies underneath the gastrocnemius, and runs down to the ankle.  It’s responsible for flexing the ankle downward, as in the calf raise.  It’s used in conjunction with the gastrocnemius, but is used relatively more for calf/ankle movements and less for squat-type movements.

Tibialis Anterior– The muscle on the front of your lower leg.  Most of it is covered by the shin bone, but you can feel the bottom of it where it runs into the ankle.  Used to flex the ankle upward, bringing your toes towards your knees.

All of your leg muscles are relatively slow-twitch dominant, meaning they need to be worked at somewhat higher rep ranges and higher frequencies than most upper body muscles.  The calf muscles are even more slow-twitch dominant than the thigh muscles, which is why it’s entirely common to see calf raises performed at twenty, thirty, or even fifty reps.

What about the glutes?  They’re not part of the legs, and will be covered in another article.  The glutes are responsible for hip abduction- spreading the legs apart- which is why you see adduction but not abduction talked about here.

The Exercises for Bigger, Stronger Legs

I’m not very good at taking videos. Thankfully other people are, so for each of these I’ve included a video or two of another badass fitness pro demonstrating the movement.

Speed skater lunges- A solid exercise for working the sides of the quadriceps, as well as the glutes and adductors.  These are a good exercise to put early in a workout; the high speed ensures a high degree of muscle activation from the very first rep, and warms you up for the rest of the workout.    

Watch Krista Stryker of 12 Minute Athlete demonstrate:

Bulgarian split squats- The most brutal yet effective squat variant in my opinion.  As with the speed skater lunges, the iso-lateral nature of this movement makes it neurologically taxing, and brings the smaller muscles in the sides of the thighs into play.

Watch Scott Herman demonstrate proper form for the split squat:

As Scott explains, you’ll want to keep a shorter stance to target the quads, while a longer stance (with lower weight) makes it more of a butt exercise.  But with a shorter stance, people often end up not going deep enough. 

Here’s strength coach Jordan Syatt explaining how to correct that:

2-1 leg extensions- This is a machine leg extension in which the weight is lowered with only one leg, after a short static hold at the top.  This is an example of a negative-accentuated exercise- an exercise in which the resistance is higher on the lowering (eccentric) portion of the exercise than on the raising (concentric) portion.  By alternating legs, you also allow a little bit of intra-set rest that lets you get more volume per set than you otherwise could, similar to a cluster set. 

A couple of random dudes from T-Nation (IDK who they are) demonstrate:

Machine leg curl- Pretty much just a standard leg curl, except I would add a 1-2 second static hold at the point of maximal contraction.  There’s also a difference between sitting and lying leg curls; Martin Egwuagu explains why you should mix both types of leg curl:

Seated calf extension- Always go with the seated calf extension or seated calf raise over the standing calf raise; wit the standing calf raise, the weight bearing down on your shoulders can be so uncomfortable that shoulder pain, rather than calf fatigue, becomes the limiting factor.  Avoid the common mistake of sitting with your knees bent so much that the exercise effectively becomes a leg press.

This video covers a couple of other common form errors:

Leg press- The best whole-leg machine exercise.  Yeah, free weight squats are better, but the leg press makes a good late-workout exercise, as form breakdown is less of an issue, and fatigue in the smaller, stabilizer muscles isn’t an issue, allowing you to push the big muscles a bit further.

Using a horizontal leg press machine will involve the glutes more, while an upward-angled machine focuses more on the quads.  Machines where you move your body rather than the foot plate put a lot of pressure on your shoulders; as with the standing calf raise, this becomes a limiting factor and makes these machines sub-optimal. 

Here, John Meadows demonstrates proper leg press technique.  Not how he turns the feet slightly outward to target the outer thighs more, and at the top of the motion he stops short of locking out the knees.  He’s focusing on the quads here; going deeper would involve the glutes more.

My 45-minute Leg Workout

A1) Speed skater lunges, 2 sets of 10-12 per side

A2) Seated leg curl, 2 sets of 6-8

B1) Dumbbell Bulgarian split squats, 3 sets of 5-6 per side

B2) Pull-ups, 3 sets of 3-6

C1) 2-1 leg extension, 2 sets of 12-16 (6-8 per leg)

C2) Lying leg curl, 2 sets of 8-12

C3) Seated calf extension, 2 sets of 20-30

D1) Leg press, 2 sets of 8-12

D2) Push-ups, 2 sets to fatigue

Rest 45-90 seconds between all sets.  For all sets other than the leg press, stop 1-2 reps short of failure.  On the leg press, stop 1 rep short of failure on the first set; on the second set, go to failure only if you were able to do at least 10 reps on both sets, otherwise stop 1 rep short of failure. 

Why include the push-ups and pull-ups?  It’s partly to give you something to do while your legs rest between sets of split squats and leg presses.  But it’s also because even body part specialization workouts should work the rest of the body a little bit.  Including your upper body in the workout produces a stronger hormonal response for greater full-body anabolism.  Plus it keeps your heart rate up, so that’s nice.

Do this workout about once a week, and work your legs (calves especially) at lower volume and intensity during your other workouts, and you’ll start building some serious tree trunks.

There you have it- the ultimate leg workout.


P.S.  If you’re interested in leg workouts, you’re probably also interested in developing your glutes, yes?  In that case, check out my three-part ultimate guide to glute training.