Among anyone who lifts, missing leg day is the go-to joke. There’s a serious reason for this. Your legs contain the biggest sets of muscles in the entire body, and not training them can lead to a pretty serious imbalance. In this guide, we’re taking a deep-dive into the best gym equipment for training your glutes, hamstrings and quads.
We’ll cover all the latest leg weight machines you can get for your home gym, as well as the basics you’ll likely already have.
Don’t skip your leg day
If you’re not training your legs, you’re missing out. As well as having the largest and most powerful muscles, your legs and ass play a part in every single compound movement you take, through the posterior chain.
Training legs doesn’t have to be complicated. There are lots of excellent options that make things simple, and fit into any home gym no matter the space or budget. Here’s the breakdown:
Leg Exercise Stations
The Leg Press
The leg press is the staple and core exercise machine for legs, for a really good reason. The leg press works out almost every muscle in the leg, in exactly the same way that a squat does.
There are two kinds of leg press machines; vertical and horizontal. They work in similar ways, with the main difference being the angle of resistance. Let’s take a look a the differences between vertical and horizontal leg press machines, and some examples of what they look like.
Vertical & 45 degree leg press
Vertical leg press machines are very simple, and generally consist of a back pad that’s set at a slight angle (a few degrees off horizontal, with two pillars and a plate carrier on top. Or, the one you’ll find in most commercial gyms – the 45 degree version.
To use it, you load the weight, lie down with your legs up against the plate carrier, and push upwards.
Why use a vertical leg press?
A press like these is more economical, as you’re fighting directly against gravity, so you’ll need to load less plates. Vertical leg presses are also smaller, simpler, and cheaper machines, making them a common sight in powerlifting gyms.
The main concerns with vertical leg press machines are safety and lower back strain.
While a vertical leg press machine might look unsafe, as you’re lying directly under the weight, as long as it’s used correctly it’s not any less safe than any other machine, and far safer than an equivalent squat.
Is the vertical press bad for your back?
As for back pain, again, as long as the machine is used in the correct manner, there’s absolutely no reason why you should ever put excess strain on your back, or any other part of your body.
The body solid leg press is fantastic
About the best leg press machine on the market for home gyms is the Body Solid machine. (Available Amazon) This 45 ° knee press machine is ridiculously tough and can take weights up to 450kg. Although it’s not cheap, if you’re serious about a good leg press machine, definitely check this one out. Commercial quality stuff that will last a lifetime.
Horizontal Leg Press Machines
Far more common in commercial gyms, horizontal leg presses are far more complicated than vertical leg presses, with a much large footprint and more options built in.
Unlike vertical leg presses, a horizontal press has the weights offset at an angle, normally around 45 degrees. This isn’t going to make any difference to the quality of the workout you get, but it might inflate your numbers and require you to stack more plates, especially if you can squat big numbers.
Horizontal leg press machines also tend to be a lot more comfortable, with more padding, larger seats, and other creature comforts built in.
But this all comes at a cost. Literally. Leg presses like these can be expensive, and paired with the large footprint, probably aren’t suitable for all but the largest home gyms.
What’s a good one for home gyms?
These machines are far tougher to get hold of than other kinds of gym gear you can get to train your legs. That being said, if you’ve got the room and the budget, there’s some really solid machines to go for. Pro Line have a top notch press that comes with a dedicated weight stack. See it on amazon.
Leg Extension and Curl Machines
Another common sight in commercial gyms, a good leg exercise machine will let you do both of these exercises on one station. The operation is simple. You sit down, lock your legs against a bar, and curl your legs against a bunch of weight.
Basic, effective and easy.
What muscles do you work with leg extension machines?
Depending on how your leg extension equipment is set up (whether you’re lying face down, or sitting up, you can work two muscle groups.
- Sitting up: target the quads
- Face down (leg curls): will hit the hamstrings
Do you have to buy a machine just for this leg exercise?
No. If you already have a bench, there’s another option. Most benches have the option for a leg workout attachment that locks on to your bench and allows you to do leg extensions and curls from home. Attachments like this bolt on to the bottom of your bench, take up almost no space, and are really reasonably priced, too.
Leg extensions are a brilliant exercise that you can do with one, or both legs
You can also often find weight benches with the weighted extension built in. You’ll have to weigh up whether or not you’ll use it, as they can also get in the way.
Why your should do this exercise
Leg extensions are a great way to develop your legs and, while they’re taken for granted at any gym, they’re not as easy to do at home. But the development you’ll get on the quads is well worth the effort.
What’s a good one for home gyms?
Unless you’ve got space for a full-blown dedicated leg extension machine, then it could be worth looking at some of the benches that allow you do do this exercise. The best one we’ve seen for a decent price is the Golden Mango leg extension bench – available on Amazon.
One often overlooked part of working out legs is the adductor and abductor muscles. These are the smaller muscles in and around the groin that help with rotation and stability. They’re especially important for deep squat movements, but are hard to train without specialist equipment.
Thigh trainers are one way to do this. They’re another relatively simple machine, with a seat and a pair of pads that are either squeezed inwards or pushed outwards by your legs.
Multigyms and cable leg extensions
A compact way to do leg extensions at home
With a huge range of possible exercises in a small amount of space, multigyms are a great option for your home gym.
Most good multigyms are designed as complete workout machines, with a number of stations, generally including:
- Cable pulleys for upper body workouts
- Leg extension and leg curl station
- Leg press station
- Chest fly station
Combined with some bodyweight exercises and free weights, a good multigym can be a one-stop shop for your home gym setup. As far as legs go, they often use cables and an integrated leg extension station.
If you’re getting a multigym, it might be a good idea to pick one that offers a seated leg extension as it’s tricky to do and well worth getting a gym that does this.
See some of the best home multigyms in our guide here
What’s a good multigym for leg work?
Definitely check out Sportstech’s 50-in-1 gym. (Available on Amazon UK) As well as the obvious leg extension at the front, there’s some less-obvious ones like a standing leg curl, that uses the stack and works similar to a triceps kick.
Free Weights: Dumbbells and Barbells
We’ve covered some of the more unusual or expensive options for gym equipment to develop the legs. Now let’s get to the more commonly used and obvious ones, including squats, free weights and smith machines.
If you already have free weights at home, there’s nothing preventing you from using them to get an effective leg workout in. Free weights are easily adjustable, with an almost infinite amount of possible workouts so you’re never going to get bored.
The main difference between free weights and machines is muscle isolation.
An effective leg workout with free weights could include:
- Forward and reverse lunges
- Calf raises
- Glute bridges
See our guide on hex dumbbells for some of the best ones.
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The Smith Machine
If you’ve never used one, a Smith Machine is basically a barbell fixed to a frame, so that it can only go through a single range of motion.
The advantages of Smith Machines is that they let you perform most of the exercises you could do with a barbell, in a controlled and completely safe manner.
If you’re new to weightlifting, you want to isolate certain muscles, or you have an injury that you’re lifting through, then a Smith Machine is an excellent choice.
If you’re lifting for general health and fitness, a barbell in a power cage is recommended, because it’s about as safe, but also trains stabiliser muscles and core strength.
Compare the best Smith Machines here.
Can you use your smith machine for a vertical leg press?
Yes! One brilliant, if often-overlooked, exercise you can do on your smith machine is a vertical leg press. While it takes a bit of practice, the smith machine is perfect for this. Although this is definitely not a beginner exercise and we’d recommend you start of with just the bar to get the hang of it first.
Cardio and Leg Exercises
A lot of the time, when people think about leg workouts, cardio comes up. It seems to be an obvious choice. After all, if you’re running or cycling, you’re working the legs, right?
But lots of cardio might actually be hurting your progress, especially if you’re doing cardio on the days where you hit your legs hard.
This is because solid state, or long-term, low-impact cardio doesn’t force your muscles to work hard enough to enter a state of growth. Instead, it’s just going to burn glycogen stores, and could slow muscle growth.
If you’re serious about your cardio, there’s two ways to integrate it effectively.
1) High intensity interval training (HIIT)
The first is High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT.) This is a training pattern based around short bursts of highly intense exercise, almost at your full speed, for periods as short as twenty seconds up to a minute or two. In between these bursts of maximum intensity, you continue to exercise, but at a slow pace.
HIIT works by forcing the muscles to work at full capacity for a short time, in much the same way as lifting weights does. It can be performed on any cardio machine, but it’s ideal for bikes, rowing machines and cross trainers, which are much more stable and safer than sprinting on treadmills.
2) High intensity interval training (HIIT)
The second method is simple. Train cardio on your off days. You should be taking rest days to let your muscles recover anyway, so mix in a little light cardio on those days to help your body stretch out and warm up.
References & Further Reading
- If you’re going to get into squats seriously, take a look at the Squat Research Review on Peak Performance
- NHS – how to improve your strength and flexibility
- Breaking Muscle have a good guide – Analysis Of The Quads During Leg Extensions
- NCBI did an in-depth study into the effects of everything down to stance width during your squat.
- Cambridge University – Ashley Edwards – Best lower body weight training exercises