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7 Best Compound Leg Exercises to Build Muscle for Beginners

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Compound Leg Exercises – Introduction

What are the best compound leg exercises for beginners to build muscle?

Bodybuilders have a saying: Friends don’t let friends skip leg day.

Your lower body makes up about 40% of your total muscle mass, and if you don’t work your legs, you’re leaving a whole lot of muscle untrained.

It doesn’t matter if you are working out for hypertrophy (building muscle), strength (e.g., powerlifting), improved sports performance, fitness, or fat loss – lower body training is critical to your success.

Skipping leg day will severely undermine your progress.

But, which exercises should you do?

Are leg extensions and leg curls the way to go, or are there other, better leg exercises that deserve a place in your workouts?

This article reveals the seven best compound leg exercises to build muscle for beginners!

What Are Compound Exercises?

Broadly speaking, exercises can be categorized as isolation or compound.

Compound exercises involve two or more joints and multiple muscles working together.

In contrast, an isolation exercise involves just one joint and far fewer muscles.

Examples of compound leg exercises include squats, lunges, and leg presses.

Leg extensions, leg curls, and calf raises are all isolation exercises.

Both types of exercise have their uses, but compound movements are generally more time-efficient and better for building strength. muscle mass, and functional fitness for everyday life.

You can train your entire lower body with just 2-3 compound exercises, whereas you need five or more isolation movements to achieve the same training effect.

The main muscles trained by a single compound exercise are:

  • Quadriceps – muscles on the front of the thigh
  • Hamstrings – muscles on the back of the thigh
  • Gluteus maximus – muscles on the back of the hips
  • Adductors – muscles on the inside of the thigh
  • Abductors – muscles on the outside of the hip and thigh
  • Core – muscles of the midsection
  • Erector spinae – muscles of the lower back

While most compound exercises involve all these muscle groups, the amount of work done by each one varies according to the movement you perform.

For example, squats emphasize the quadriceps, while deadlifts emphasize the glutes and hamstrings.

However, all compound leg exercises involve these muscles to a greater or lesser degree.

The 7 Best Compound Leg Exercises to Build Muscle for Beginners

There are dozens of compound leg exercises to choose from, but some are better than others, and some are especially suitable for beginners.

So, to make selecting the right one easier for you, we’ve condensed dozens down to a list of the best compound exercises for beginners.

Remember, all compound leg exercises involve more or less the same muscles.

However, for clarity, we’ve listed the main muscles emphasized by each one.

#1. Leg press

Muscles worked: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus

The leg press is arguably the most straightforward compound leg exercise.

The weight and your movement are guided by a leg press machine, so it’s a hard exercise to do wrong.

The back support may also be very welcome, adding an extra layer of safety.

That said, bending your legs too far or rounding your lower back can still cause injuries.

How to do it:

  1. Lie on the machine and place your feet on the footplate.
  2. They should be about shoulder-width apart.
  3. Extend your knees and disengage the safety catches.
  4. Bend your legs and lower the weight until your hips and knees are flexed to about 90 degrees.
  5. Do not round your lower back.
  6. Extend your legs, stopping just short of full lockout, and repeat.

See The 5 Best Leg Press Machines for Your Home Gym in 2022.

Demonstration of 2 classic mistakes performing the leg press

The first image demonstrates the correct position of the feet, to avoid overloading your knees. The second image is the error of lifting your butt from the seat while pushing.

#2. Goblet squat

Muscles worked: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus

There are lots of squat variations, and each one has benefits.

However, exercises like front squats, the barbell squat, and overhead squats are technically challenging and hard to master.

The goblet squat is a far more accessible exercise and also safe to do without a squat rack.

How to do it:

  1. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest and just below your chin.
  2. Step out and into a shoulder-width stance.
  3. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
  4. Push your hips back and bend your knees.
  5. Descend until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor.
  6. Do not round your lower back.
  7. Stand back up and repeat.

Goblet squats, reverse lunges, pushups circuit

#3. Lunge

Muscles worked: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus

Many compound leg exercises are also bilateral, meaning they work both legs simultaneously.

Lunges are a unilateral exercise that emphasizes one leg at a time.

Unilateral exercises are good for building muscle but are also more functional as they replicate activities like walking and running.

As such, lunges may help improve your athletic performance.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet together and your arms by your sides.
  2. Take a large step forward and bend your legs.
  3. Lower your rearmost knee down to within an inch of the floor.
  4. Push off your front leg and return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat on the opposite side, alternating legs rep by rep.
  6. You can also do lunges while holding dumbbells or with a barbell on your shoulders.

Forward lunges with dumbbells

However, to reduce stress on your knees and lower back, and provide more engagement of your glutes and hamstrings, try the reverse lunge as demonstrated by Dr. John Rusin:

#4. Hip thrusts

Muscles worked: Hamstrings, gluteus maximus

Hip thrusts emphasize your posterior chain, which is the collective term for the muscles on the back of your body.

This is a very lower back-friendly exercise making it ideal for anyone suffering from lower back pain.

It can be done with or without weights as preferred.

How to do it:

  1. Sit on the floor with your legs bent and your upper back resting against an exercise bench.
  2. If using weight, place and hold a barbell across your hips.
  3. Drive your feet into the floor and lift your hips up toward the ceiling.
  4. Your knees, hips, and shoulders should form a straight line.
  5. Lower your butt back to the floor and repeat.

Barbell hip thrusts

#5. Romanian deadlift

Muscles worked: Hamstrings, gluteus maximus, erector spinae

Like squats, there are lots of deadlift variations to try.

However, the Romanian deadlift is arguably the easiest to learn and the most accessible of all the deadlifts, as you can do it with dumbbells or a barbell.

Romanian deadlifts also teach you how to hip hinge, which is a crucial exercise skill.

How to do it:

  1. Hold a barbell or dumbbells in front of your thighs.
  2. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart, knees slightly bent but rigid.
  3. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
  4. Push your butt back and hinge forward from your hips without rounding your lower back.
  5. Lean as far down as your flexibility allows.
  6. Drive your hips forward and stand back up, taking care not to lean back at the top.

Romanian Deadlift (RDL) vs Conventional Deadlift (CDL)

#6. Barbell deadlift

Muscles worked: Hamstrings, gluteus maximus, quadriceps, erector spinae

The deadlift is one of the most outstanding compound lifts because it is a full-body exercise that targets multiple major muscle groups simultaneously.

As well as heavily working your leg muscles, deadlifts also involve many upper body muscles.

Therefore, compound leg exercises don’t come much more beneficial than deadlifts.

For this reason, deadlifting is a staple in most strength training programs such as powerlifting, bodybuilding, CrossFit, and a great way to weight train for weight loss.

However, they can be a little tricky to learn, which is why they’re not at the top of our list of the best exercises for beginners.

That said, once mastered, the deadlift truly deserves a prominent place in your workouts!

Note: While you might be able to lift heavier weights than you first imagine, as a beginner. you should start with a lighter weight, practice proper form, and gradually increase the weight lifted over time.

How to do it:

  1. Place your barbell on the floor, so it’s roughly nine inches above the floor.
  2. Use regular-sized bumper plates or, if unavailable, raise your bar on blocks.
  3. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and toes under the bar.
  4. Reach down and grab the bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip.
  5. Straighten your arms, lower your hips, so they’re slightly below your shoulders, pull your shoulders down and back, and brace your core.
  6. Your lower back should be slightly arched and never rounded.
  7. Without bending your arms, drive your feet into the floor and stand up.
  8. Keep the bar close to your legs throughout.
  9. Do not lean back at the top.
  10. Reverse this movement to lower the bar back to the floor.
  11. Reset your core and grip and repeat.

#7. Bulgarian split squat

Muscles worked: Quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus maximus

Your final compound leg exercise is a more advanced variation of lunges.

Also known as the rear foot elevated split squat, this exercise will improve your balance and hip mobility.

It’s a unilateral exercise, so you’ll also be working one leg at a time.

It’s a little trickier than lunges, so feel free to do this exercise next to a wall for support.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your back to a knee-high box or bench.
  2. Bend one leg and place the top of your foot on the bench behind you.
  3. Hop forward and into a short split stance, feet about hip-width apart.
  4. Bend your legs and lower your rear knee down to within an inch above the floor.
  5. Keep your front shin relatively vertical.
  6. Stand back up and repeat.
  7. After completing your set, rest a moment and then do your next set with the other leg to the front.
  8. You can do this exercise with just your body weight for resistance or holding dumbbells.

How to Use These Exercises in a Leg Workout

Because of the compound nature of these exercises, you only really need to do 2-3 of them to train all of your leg muscles.

So, simply choose one quadriceps-dominant exercise, one hamstring/glute dominant exercise, and then add a unilateral exercise to train all your lower body muscles equally.

For example:

  1. Goblet squat
  2. Hip thrust
  3. Lunge

Or:

  1. Leg press
  2. Romanian deadlift
  3. Bulgarian split squat

In terms of sets and reps, most beginners will do well with 2-3 sets of 10-12 reps per exercise.

Armed with these seven exercises, you should be able to construct several different lower body workouts, so your training need never be boring or repetitive.

Compound Leg Exercises – Wrapping Up

Working out can be time-consuming, so the last thing you want to do is waste your valuable time on unnecessary or unproductive exercises.

Building your leg workouts around compound exercises is one way to make sure you get the best results from your workouts at home or in the gym.

And while upper body exercises like the barbell bench press, pull ups, push ups, and the overhead press are important, it’s lower body training that has the biggest impact on how you look, feel, and perform.

So, as the bodybuilders say, don’t skip leg day.

Instead, make a point of training your legs 2-3 times a week.

Whether you want to build muscle, burn fat, get stronger, or run faster, regular leg workouts are the key to your success!

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