Take your workout to the next level with these barbell exercises to tone, sculpt and strengthen your legs.
Toned and sculpted legs are one of the most sought-after goals of anyone building an effective workout routine.
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The deadlift is a commonly overlooked exercise, sometimes overshadowed by other popular leg exercises like squats and lunges.
While there’s no doubt both are extremely effective in toning the legs, deadlifts are also a powerhouse move that target the glutes, hamstrings, upper thighs, and even the lower back, core, and upper body.
It is also effective in improving posture and improving grip strength. Not to mention, deadlifts are a safe and easy exercise, requiring no special shoes or complicated equipment aside from a barbell weight.
How to Deadlift
Proper form is crucial while deadlifting. One of the number one mistakes many make, especially when they begin to become fatigued, is rounding the lower spine.
It’s important to avoid this and keep the spine in a straight, neutral position. Otherwise, you run the risk of injuring your spinal disks (1).
Don’t be afraid of adding a decent amount of weight to your deadlifts. It’s recommended that beginners start with a weight they can lift for roughly 8 – 10 repetitions, then build from there.
- To begin, start with the bar on the floor, with your feet halfway beneath the bar at hip width.
- Bend forward and grab the bar, palms facing down, arms about shoulder width apart, just outside the legs.
- Bend your knees until your shins touch the bar without moving it.
- Lift your chest, keep your back straight, and avoid dropping your hips.
- Hold the bar as you stand up fully, keeping it against your legs. Avoid shrugging or leaning back once your reach the top.
- Return the weight to the floor by bending your knees and pushing your hips back.
- Congratulations – you just finished one rep!
The squat is considered one of the best exercises for sculpting shapely legs, due to its ability to work the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and even the calves.
However, its benefits extend far and wide beyond just toning the leg muscles, as heavy squats also create an anabolic environment that aids in further muscle building (2).
This helps build the shape of legs while also increasing the total body “burn” needed to shed those last few pounds in order to see your new leg definition.
How to Squat
As with deadlifts, proper form is crucial to get the most out of your squats. One of the most common mistakes while squatting is letting the knees extend over the toes, which causes strain on the knee joints and tendons.
- If you’re using a lighter weight on your barbell, it may not be necessary to have a rack to hold it in between sets. However, if you’re doing heavier squats, a rack becomes necessary to achieve proper form before squatting.
- To begin, step under the bar, placing it on your upper back and gripping it tightly.
- Lift the bar from the rack, and with feet slightly wider than hip width apart, bend your knees and lower to the ground, pushing your hips behind you (as if you were sitting in a chair).
- Squat until your hips fall just below your knees, then return to standing.
- Repeat 15-20 times for beginners, for 2-3 sets.
Lunges are a tried-and-true leg sculpting exercise that work the hamstrings and quadriceps, and are especially effective for lifting and sculpting the glutes.
As an added benefit, lunges also work the core and aid in improving balance.
How to Lunge
- Begin by stepping under and/or placing the barbell weight on your upper back (the same as in the squat position).
- Lunge forward with one leg, being careful not to lean forward or slouch.
- Keep your knees behind your toes as you lower.
- Push off using the heel as you return to a standing position.
- Repeat on the other leg, alternating each time, for a total of 10-15 reps for beginners.
4. Hip Thrust
Hip thrusts are also one of the best exercises for sculpting the glutes and the backside. They can even improve your deadlifts and squats due to fuller extension in the hips (which maximizes the engagement of the glutes).
How to Perform Hip Thrusts
- Begin with a low bench and your barbell, placing the bench pad just below your shoulder blades and the barbell across your upper thighs.
- Place your feet directly under your knees and keep your neck neutral.
- Engage your glutes as you thrust your hips upward until your thighs are parallel to the ground.
- Return to starting position, aiming for 10-15 reps for beginners.
5. Front Squats
Front squats are a slight variation of the traditional squat in that the barbell is now in front of your shoulders, rather than behind.
This placement leads to wonderful quadricep and glute development (some even consider it superior for glute sculpting) as it allows for more squat depth.
How to Perform Front Squats
- Grip is one of the most important aspects of the front squat. To achieve proper grip, it’s important to keep the elbows high, with your fingertips around the bar, palms facing upward.
- Make sure the bar is close to the base of your neck (this may feel strange at first, but keep it there).
- Once you have your grip, place your feet slightly wider than hip width and squat, keeping your spine straight (it’s tempting to round forward due to the weight being in front of you), pushing your hips behind you, and keeping your elbows up.
- When you’ve descended just below parallel, return to standing.
- Aim for 10-15 reps for beginners.
Want more? To get firm, shapely glutes, check out these 19 glute exercises for more lower body power and to protect your lower back.
(Your Next Workout: 41 Butt Exercises to Tone, Lift, and Strengthen)