Building strength and size for the legs and glutes can be confusing with all the Instagram hype and poor quality 'influencer' workouts. To get the most out of your training, you should be focusing on two things: big compound lifts and the principle of progressive overload. Forget spending half of your leg day doing cable kickbacks and abductions; to build a bigger and stronger lower half the key is using the large complex lifts.
What are compound exercises?
Big movements which require multiple muscle groups to complete are called compound exercises. A squat is a great example; the glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings, lower back and core are all needed to lift the load. Other compounds include: deadlifts, barbell rows, bench presses and hip thrusts. Always warm up for these using a glute band to prevent injury.
The four main types of compound lifts are also defined by the muscle groups they target. These are:
- Pressing Movements - chest, shoulders and triceps
- Pushing Movements - upper and mid back muscles, and biceps
- Hip Extension Movements - quadriceps, hip flexors and adductors
- Knee Flexion Movements - gluteals, hamstrings and lower back muscles
Why are compound exercises best for strength and mass?
As more muscle groups are used to execute compound lifts, a significant amount of weight can be lifted per repetition. This means there is a huge amount of stress on all of the muscle groups involved, which is typically more stress than a single muscle group lift, such as a bicep curl. This extra stress leads to higher levels of muscular trauma and a higher potential for size and strength gains as muscles recover.
How often should I increase the weight?
Progressive overload is where you gradually increase the weight, frequency or repetitions in your workouts to continually improve. The simplest way of doing this to make your workout harder, is to add poundage. This is very effective when applied to heavy barbell based movements, as nothing else changes in the session. Typically you should increase the weight by 5-10% when you can comfortably complete all of the sets and reps you are aiming for, for that exercise. So if you are aiming for 3 sets of 8-10 reps on your deadlift, and comfortably lift rep 10 of your third set one day; the weight should then be increased.
The best barbell exercises for legs and glutes.
Now you know why barbell compound exercises are the most effective way of building size and strength to your legs, try adding some of these movements to your training plan.
Method: choose any 2 from the exercises below for your main lifts, and perform 4 sets of 8-10 repetitions on each before continuing with your other legs and gluteals movements. Aim to increase the weight using the progressive overload method, once you can execute all reps and sets.
Barbell Sumo Squat
Set your feet wider than shoulder width, with the feet turned out. The bar should be in a low bar squat position, resting on the lower part of the upper back, not by the neck (as shown in the pictures below). Lower down until your hips align with your knees and push the knees outward. Keeping your core tight, drive through your heels to a standing position. Do not squeeze your glutes at the top, instead stop before your hips fully extend and repeat the rep. The low bar squat position, knee flare and lesser hop extension will place greater stress on the glutes.
Barbell Hip Thrust
Place a barbell pad on the barbell to protect your hips. Set your mid back on a bench which is between 13-19”. The optimal height will allow your shins to be vertical and a 90 degree angle of the legs (see technique pic by scrolling through). Place feet at just outside shoulder width and externally rotate about 10-15 degrees. You can play around with this - but typically, this will promote the most amount of glute engagement. Drive the bar up (or hips if using bodyweight) and squeeze your glutes hard for a second. The aim here is to look down your body with your chin tucked. This encourages posterior pelvic tilt and reduces hyper extension of the back
Barbell Sumo Deadlift
Stand with with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width, with the toes pointing outward. Lower your hips down and push your knees out, then grip the bar. Keeping your back flat and your hips low, push through your heels and extend your hips to lift the bar, pushing your heels into the ground at all times. Finish the move by pulling your shoulders back, then lower the bar back to the ground with control. Your back should never round during the lifting or lowering phase.
Barbell Reverse Lunge
Place the bar in the low bar squat position; resting on the lower part of the upper back, not by the neck. Use a barbell pad to make this more comfortable. Keep your core tight and step backward about 4 feet. Lower your hips down so your rear knee almost touches the ground. Drive through the heel of your front leg, and push the front knee outward as you stand up. To get more glute engagement and reduce injury risk; try to keep the majority of your weight through your front heel at all times, and do not allow the front knee to collapse inward.
Barbell Romanian Deadlift
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and with a slight bend in your knees. Hold the bar at shoulder width. Start by leading your hips backwards, the bar staying close to your shins as it is lowered. Always keep. flat back, and lower until the barbell passes your knees, spo your hamstrings feel a slight stretch. From here, maintain a neutral spine and push through your heels to extend hips forward. Do not squeeze your glutes at the top, instead stop before your hips fully extend, and repeat the rep to keep the glutes under tension.
And here some information about isolation exercises, to also help you out!
How can isolation exercises compliment compound exercises?
Isolation exercises target just one area or the body by using one muscle group. An example of these would be a cable glutes exercise such as a kickback. These should be added near the middle and end of your workouts, as less weight can be lifted due to fatigue. They are important because:
- They improve the strength of secondary muscle groups used in big lifts. These muscles will assist the completion of your reps, and also help provide stability to joints.
- They allow you to target specific muscle groups that may be weaknesses, and which are hindering your progress.
So to conclude this post, we recommend choosing 2 compound exercises at the start of your workout, perhaps 3 if you are more advanced. After these are complete, 1-2 isolation exercises should finish to complete your legs session.
Thank you to Jiva, our Israeli athlete for the great pictures.