It’s time to stop skipping leg day. Why? Because your legs are your body’s engine. They run, jump, and move you through the world. Strong legs will improve your performance in every athletic endeavor (except maybe handstand racing) and will help you maintain your mobility far into the future. So, how do you give your legs the love and respect they deserve at the gym? While newer exercisers may be more comfortable using resistance machines, eventually you should incorporate lower body free-weight workouts into your fitness routine.
Performing free-weight leg exercises using equipment such as dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, weight plates, and barbells can improve your functional fitness, burn more calories, and increase your strength.
Not sure how to begin a free-weight leg workout? Not to worry. Here’s a list of the 10 best leg exercises with free weights that includes options for every fitness level.
How to Start a Free-Weight Exercise Routine
Before we get to the list of best free-weight exercises, it’s important to understand how to ease yourself into a free-weight routine.
Your number one focus when you start using free weights should always, always, ALWAYS be on performing your reps with good form. Using poor or sloppy form will not only slow your progress, but can also lead to injury. Begin each set with light weights and make sure you feel comfortable with your form. If you aren’t sure you’re doing a rep correctly, ask a staff member or trainer at the gym to watch you. Only when you feel comfortable with the movement should you gradually increase your weights.
Free-Weight Leg Exercises
This article will do its best to describe the movements accurately, but make sure to ask a gym staff member to review your form before trying each movement for the first time.
1. Box Step-Up with Dumbbells
Works: Quads, glutes, calves, forearms
Perform: Three sets of 20 (10 on each leg)
This free-weight thigh exercise will activate many of the major muscles in your legs. To start, prepare a box you feel comfortable stepping up to. Beginners may want to start with a step platform and then add risers over time. Pick up a medium-weight dumbbell in each hand. Alternating legs, step up onto the box or riser. Stand up tall with both feet on the box, then step down using the same foot. Pro-tip: try to avoid jumping or using momentum while performing this exercise.
Alternatives: Use kettlebells instead of dumbbells
2. Weighted Calf Raise with Dumbbells
Works: Calves, forearms
Perform: Three sets of 10
Pick up a moderately heavy dumbbell in each hand and hold them at your sides. Keep your gaze forward and focus on a single point to assist with balance. Avoid locking out your knees. Keeping your core tight and shoulders down, rise up onto the balls of your feet. Slowly lower your heels back to the ground. Concentrate on maintaining your balance.
Alternatives: You can use kettlebells instead of dumbbells and place the weights on your shoulders instead of holding them at your sides. To make the movement more challenging, stand with your heels hanging off the edge of the step, to allow for a greater range of motion.
3. Weighted Dumbbell Walking Lunge
Works: Quads, glutes, core
Perform: Three sets of 20 (10 on each leg)
Choose a pair of medium-weight dumbbells and place a dumbbell on each shoulder. Hold onto the dumbbells so they don’t fall. Starting from a standing position with legs together, step forward and lunge. Try to lunge low enough so that your front knee bends at 90 degrees. Your back knee should either touch the ground or hover just above the floor. Make sure your front knee doesn’t move past your toes. Use your glutes and your core to stand up and step forward with the opposite foot, completing a lunge with the opposite leg.
Alternatives: When first starting this movement, it may be easier to lunge in place. You can choose to lunge backward or forward. If you have knee issues, place a yoga mat or towel under your back knee. You can also choose to stand from your lunge, bringing your feet together before lunging with the opposite leg. Finally, weighted lunges can also be performed with kettlebells, a weight plate held to the chest, or a barbell held on the back
4. Weighted Glute Bridge
Works: Glutes, hamstrings
Perform: Three sets of 10
The glutes are the power center of your body, so this free-weight glute exercise is an excellent way to tone and strengthen your glutes. Choose a medium-to-heavy weight plate. Lay on your back (you may wish to lay on a mat). Bend your knees while keeping both heels on the ground. Let the weight plate rest on your hip bones and hold onto the plate to keep it in place. Squeezing your glutes, lift your lower body. Keep your shoulders on the ground. Hold at the top for one second, then lower your glutes back to the ground. Don’t allow yourself to rest on the ground. Immediately squeeze and lift again.
Alternatives: You can also switch the weight plate for a heavy dumbbell or kettlebell. To make this movement easier, take away the weight plate. To make this movement harder, straighten one leg at the top of each rep. Alternate legs.
5. Kettlebell Goblet Squat
Works: Quads, glutes, core
Perform: Three sets of 10
(Here’s everything you need to know about how to do a squat)
Pick up a medium-weight kettlebell (go lighter if this is your first time performing this movement). Hold the kettlebell to your chest with your elbows down and out slightly to the sides. You can choose to hold the kettlebell by the horns or by the bell. Start from a standing position. Keeping your chest up and gaze forward, push your hips back. Bend your knees. Squat low enough so that the crease of your hips is below your knees. Resist the urge to round your back or lower your chest. Squeezing your glutes, push your knees out and stand up.
Alternatives: To make this movement easier and to get used to squatting, perform bodyweight squats. You can also use a dumbbell or weight plate for this squat.
6. Russian Kettlebell Swing
Works: Glutes, core, hips, shoulders, low back
Perform: Four sets of 12
This free-weight glute exercise is a powerful compound movement that will help improve your explosiveness. When trying this movement for the first time, choose a lightweight kettlebell. After becoming comfortable with the movement, upgrade to a medium-weight dumbbell.
Grasp the kettlebell by the handle with both hands and let it rest in front of your body on the tops of your thighs. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hinging at the hips, push your hips back so that the kettlebell hangs between your legs. Keep your back straight (do not round your back). Squeezing your glutes, thrust your hips forward and use the momentum to swing the kettlebell out in front of your body, keeping your arms straight. Bring the kettlebell up to the level of your eyes, then let it drop back down in a controlled manner. Do not let the kettlebell jerk you down or round your back. As soon as the kettlebell swings between your legs, squeeze your glutes, thrust, and repeat the swing.
Alternatives: To add a little more shoulder work into the movement, try an American kettlebell swing, which requires you to bring the kettlebell completely overhead at the top of the swing.
8. Medicine Ball Slam
Works: Quads, low back, core, shoulders
Perform: Three rounds of 10
Another compound movement that helps you work on your explosivity is the medicine ball slam. Choose a light or medium-weight medicine ball for this free-weight thigh exercise. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and the medicine ball at your feet. Your first instinct will be to bend over and pick up the ball but resist that temptation unless you want to immediately burn out your lower back. Instead, push your hips back and bend your knees. Scoop up the ball, keeping your back flat (not rounded), so that your glutes and quads are doing most of the work. Using your momentum, pull the ball up and overhead and then slam the ball down into the ground. As you get better at the movement, try to scoop up the medicine ball as it bounces and repeat the movement.
Alternatives: You can also use a smaller type of ball called a slam ball if your gym stocks them.
8. Barbell Deadlift
Works: Hamstrings, lower back, core
Perform: Three sets of 8 – 10
Deadlifts are one of the best free-weight hamstring exercises around, but it takes discipline and precision to perform the movement correctly. Start with a light-weight barbell and increase in weight only when you feel comfortable with the movement. Begin with the barbell on the ground. A neat little trick to finding the right hand placement on the barbell is to stick out your thumbs and touch the outsides of your knees with your thumbs. This is, roughly, where you should pick up the bar.
Bend your knees, keeping your glutes low, and feel the tension in your hamstrings. Place the bar over the middle of your shoelaces. Using your glutes and hamstrings – not your back! – lift the bar and stand tall. Slowly, in a controlled manner, lower the bar. Do not allow your back to round.
Alternatives: You can also perform this movement with a pair of dumbbells and kettlebells.
9. Barbell Back Squat
Works: Glutes, quads, core
Perform: Three sets of 5 – 10 reps
You’ll need a barbell, weight plates, and a squat rack for this movement. As usual, begin with a light weight and work your way up if you can maintain good form. Start with the bar in the squat rack. Duck under the barbell and rest it on the meaty part of your upper back. Your elbows should be down and slightly out. Take a few steps away from the squat rack to give yourself room to perform the squat. Position your feet hip-distance apart. Take a deep breath and activate your core.
Keeping your chest up and your gaze forward, push your hips back. Bend your knees. Don’t let your chest drop. Try to reach a depth where the crease of your hip is below your knees (known as “below parallel”). Your weight should be evenly distributed across each foot. Expelling your breath, push your knees out and stand.
Alternatives: You can also perform squats with dumbbells or kettlebells on your shoulders.
10. Barbell Thrusters
Works: Glutes, quads, core, shoulders
Perform: Five sets of five
Depending on whom you ask, thrusters are either one of the best compound movements to add to your workout routines or a sadistic form of torture. This simple-seeming movement utilizes major muscle groups throughout your body and also requires serious aerobic capacity. Start with an empty barbell and gradually increase your weight and reps
Start with the barbell in the front rack position, which means you’ll hold the barbell right at your collar bone with your elbows tucked under the bar. Keeping your head and gaze forward, perform a front squat. Remember, chest up and knees out. At the bottom of the squat, use your glutes and hips to stand up, pushing the barbell up and overhead. At the top of the movement, your arms should be straight with the barbell over the crown of your head. Bring the barbell back down to the front rack position and drop into your front squat. Ideally, your thrusters will flow together with no pauses between the reps.
Alternatives: You can also perform thrusters with dumbbells.
Ready for a Lower Body Free-Weight Workout?
This is far from an exhaustive list of free-weight leg exercises, but it will give you a great start as you launch your journey into working out with free weights. If you feel a little uncertain about free-weight leg workouts, start with the beginner exercises in this list and use light weights. Learning the correct form is well worth the patience and extra work and will pay big dividends later.
Also, you don’t have to try free-weight exercises on your own. A great way to get started is to join a strength-focused group fitness class. Many of these classes utilize dumbbells, barbells, and even kettlebells. Just let the instructor know it’s your first time in the class so they can keep an extra eye on you.
Finally, if you would feel more comfortable with the help of an expert, hire a personal trainer. Make sure to let your trainer know your fitness goals and the fact that you want to focus on the best free-weight exercises. Your trainer will demonstrate movements and help you develop the right form for each movement. Over time, you’ll feel comfortable doing your free-weight leg workouts on your own.
EōS Fitness provides a great selection of free-weight equipment, including dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, barbell racks, weight plates, and more. A variety of strength-based classes are also offered that will incorporate free weights. Check out an EōS Fitness near you.