The Three Best Leg Exercises for Beginners
I’ve worked with a lot of people who were completely out of shape.
Some of them were coming back from a serious illness or injury. They had fallen out of shape during their long recovery. Others hadn’t worked out in years, if ever.
Many of them felt totally lost in a gym and were nervous about overdoing it. Or about being so sore that they wouldn’t be able to walk for days after. Or they simply didn’t know how to progress from machine training to free weights.
They needed a workout that would let them build up a foundation of strength, but would also bring them fairly quick results. I’ve come to rely on just three exercises for that goal.
I shared these 3 exercises and my strength standards for them on Facebook earlier this week. I got such a good response that I decided to write a guide for each exercise and how to master them.
Here’s what one person had to say:
“It’s amazing in doing those three I feel I worked my legs more than all the different machines that target each muscle.”
This article will teach you all three exercises. I’ll explain first why it works so well, and then lay out the exact workout I use with my new clients to get their legs strong and fit.
Here’s What Most Beginners Do Wrong
People, especially those new to strength training, make three common mistakes:
1 – They do too many exercises and don’t take the time to master the basics
2 – They jump into something that’s too hard, too complex, and too intense
Beginners definitely don’t need crossfit. And they don’t need a “leg day” – ‘cause they’re not a bodybuilder.
3 – They don’t have a system for moving from easy exercises to harder exercises (ie – bodyweight squats to barbell squats)
Believe me on this: no matter what you want to be in the end, you will be far more successful if you invest the short amount of time it takes to master the basics.
What to Do Instead
Beginners should focus on achieving the following three strength standards:
- Squat a 35lb kettlebell for 3 sets of 10 reps
- Perform bodyweight hip thrusts for 3 sets of 20
- Perform bodyweight reverse lunges for 3 sets of 15 per leg
These three exercises strengthen the quads, glutes, adductor group, and hamstrings. In doing so, they work the entire upper thigh and butt. They improve balance, flexibility, core strength, and endurance.
(We still use other lower body exercises, like glute bridges and clamshells, in the dynamic warm up.)
When you can meet those 3 standards, progressing to other, more effective exercises becomes easier.
For example, it’s a lot easier to learn barbell squats when you can perform goblet squats with ease. Goblet squats will teach you how to hold your core strong and upright while squatting.
If you can’t do those 3 exercises now, I promise you this:
You will look better, have more energy, and feel much stronger once you can.
How to Master the Three Exercises
How Much to Do and When to Do It
- Perform each exercise 3 days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday)
- Focus on good form and move with a slow, controlled pace.
- Feel free to mix in upper body exercises, like pushups, inverted rows, and pullups, into your workout.
To reduce soreness in the beginning:
- On Day 1, perform each exercise for 1 set of 10 reps.
- On Day 2, or when you’re no longer sore, do 2 sets of each.
- On Day 3, or when you’re no longer sore, do 3 sets of each.
Exercise #1: The Goblet Squat
Learning how to squat well is an article and a video series all of its own. To keep it simple, start off with either counterbalance plate squats (video #1) or light goblet squats (video #2).
- Men: Start with 12kg/26lbs or 16kg/35lbs
- Women: Start with 8kg/18lbs or 12kg/26lbs
- True beginners might start off with 5lb Plate Squats for 3 sets of 10-20 reps
- When you can do 3 sets of 10 with a given weight, increase it next workout for all 3 sets
Exercise #2: Bodyweight Reverse Lunges
The reverse lunge is great for learning how to do a perfect lunge.
It’s a simpler exercise. It takes less coordination than a walking lunge, as well as less space.
With my beginners, I use a progression that I learned from the work of renowned strength coach, Mike Boyle.
- Workout 1 – 1 set of 8 reps per leg
- Workout 2 – 2 sets of 8 reps per leg
- Workout 3 – 3 sets of 8 reps per leg
- Workout 4 – 3 sets of 10 reps per leg
- Workout 5 – 3 sets of 12 reps per leg
- Workout 6 – 3 sets of 15 reps per leg
Stronger people can just jump into 3 sets of 8-15 reps per leg, and do more reps each workout until they get there.
Reverse Lunge Video
Note: if you really struggle with balance, I recommend performing Bodyweight Split Squats, as shown below. Holding a PVC pipe in the opposite hand can help.
Bodyweight Split Squats:
Exercise #3: Bodyweight Hip Thrusts
The hip thrust is the ultimate butt (glute) exercise.
If you want a better looking butt, you gotta do hip thrusts.
It’s ideal for beginners because it puts the emphasis on the muscles of the posterior chain. Namely, the glutes and the hamstrings.
This is critical because the glutes and the hamstrings are notoriously weak in beginners. A weak posterior chain is linked to back pain, knee pain, and hip pain. As well as being god awful at squats and deadlifts.
Seriously. Teaching somebody with weak glutes and hamstrings how to squat and deadlift with a barbell can be a coaching nightmare. It gets a lot easier to learn, and feels a hell of a lot better on your joints, once you have strong glutes.
Hip thrusts are also a great exercise for people WITH knee, hip, or back pain. Many of my clients with back pain can hip thrust without pain – even when using hundreds of pounds (literally).
The key here is to feel each rep in your glutes. They should be burning after a set of 20.
When you can do 3 sets of 20, add resistance in the form of a barbell or a resistance band. Or go learn how to deadlift.
Here’s Bret Contreras, PhD in Glutes himself teaching you everything you’d ever want to know about the hip thrust:
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Meet the Author: Devin Gray
Founder, Head Coach
NSCA-CSCS, FMSC, Pn1 Certified
B.S. in Exercise Science - Texas A&M University
Devin is the owner & head coach of Optimize Fitness & Performance. He helps people become stronger and perform their best. Devin is especially focused on helping people with injuries learn to workout safely after they finish physical therapy.
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