Last Updated on December 30, 2020

What are the best compound exercises for legs?

One of the most effective, complex, functional and compound exercises for legs with no doubts are those performed on free weights. You will need barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, med ball and fitness box.

You don’t always need the equipment to perform effective leg training. However, if you care about building strength or muscle mass, you’ll need a few simple weights available at every gym.

Why free weights are better than machines?

What’s the reason for free weights to be better than machines? The reason is simple, machines isolate individual muscle movements and are much less functional. Legs exercises with free weights like barbell, dumbbells or kettlebells give a greater range of motion. Training on machines could be easier for beginners, however, those who spend some time to learn the correct techniques of working on free weights will certainly appreciate strength training with their use. We strongly recommend training with free weights.

What are compound exercises?

Compound exercises are movements that involve large muscle parts, several joints and additionally the muscles stabilizing the torso. Such training offers numerous benefits, builds large groups of muscles, accelerates fat burning, strengthens joints, reduces stress, increases growth hormone and testosteron levels, and prevents injuries. All the exercises presented below are compound movements.

Compound exercise for the legs: Squat – front and back

compound exercises for legs: back squat
Compound leg exercise – Back Squat

One of the three most well-known and effective compound leg exercises are squats. The best leg exercises are those that at the same time engage the gluteal muscles to work. Nothing will engage them better than extra weight – a barbell. You can keep the bar either from the front of the shoulders and arms (so-called front squat) or from the back (back squat). The squat with a barbell at the front is technically a bit more difficult, however, it is worth doing both options. Both exercises perfectly hit the muscles of the legs, but also strengthen the core muscles of the body, involving a large amount of stabilizing muscles to work.

The correct squat technique is extremely important. You need to watch it, especially when working with weight. Knees must not collapse inside. They should be pointing strongly outwards. Another very common mistake is the excessive leaning of the body forward. During the workout, the spine should keep its natural bends. Another important thing is to activate the buttock muscles to work. This is to avoid overloading the back and knees.

Front and back squats common mistakes:

  • Pushing knees inward
  • Excessive forward bending of the body
  • Arching the back

Compound exercise for the legs: Lunges with weight

Compound exercise for legs: lunge with weight
Compound exercise for legs – Lunge with Weight

The lunges themselves are a great exercise for the legs, but when we add the weight and put the hands to work, the benefits will be tremendous. Again, proper technique is the key!


  • The body should be straight,
  • The knees should not exceed the ankle line
  • Both legs bend at an angle of 90 degrees.

Compound exercise for the legs: Deadlift

Compound exercise for legs - deadlift
Compound exercise for legs – Deadlift

This is the third best-known compound exercise, after squats and lunging, involving the whole body to work. This movement requires the work of many joints at once: ankles, knees, hips, spine and shoulders. Strong joints are just as important as strong muscles. Deadlift strengthens the deep muscles that are along the spine, creating a strong muscular corset. This prevents back pain and ensures the maintenance of a stable and upright posture. However, the deadlift is a technically difficult exercise, performed incorrectly can cause injury. Incorrect execution can bring the opposite effect to that expected. Always remember to keep good posture and be careful even with low weight.

The list of 10 best compound exercises for legs:

1. Front Squat

Squat with a barbell held in front – front squat is one of the most well-known and best compound leg exercises. Front squats involve the quadriceps muscles more than back squats. The auxiliary muscles are the gluteus great, adductor and calf muscles. The function of stabilizers is performed by the sciatic-shin muscles, gastrocnemius, straight abdominals, oblique abdominals, trapezius, scapula levator, anterior shoulder acton, lateral shoulder acton, supraspinatus, as well as the greater pectoral muscle – the upper part.


  • Before starting the exercise, you should set the height of the racks correctly, so that pulling the barbell requires only slightly straightening your knees. 
  • Choose the width of the barbell grip individually. Too narrow a grip can cause discomfort or later pain in the elbow. 

How to do front squat:

  • Get under the barbell, put the barbell on your shoulders. Remember: your elbows are pointing forward.
  • Start the exercise from an upright position, look straight ahead.
  • Keep your feet flat on the ground. Point your toes outside. 
  • Push your hips back by squatting and return to the starting position. Keep your back straight during the exercise.
  • During the squat, you should consciously engage the buttocks and abdominal muscles. This will help to maintain the correct path.

2. Back squat

This is one of the most known and popular complex leg exercises. It is usually done with a barbell resting on shoulders and weighted according to your capabilities. The advantage of free weight complex exercises is engaging a very large muscle group that allows you to maintain balance and stability of the body under the load. For beginners, it is advisable to use smaller weights and focus on the technique of performing the exercise. Since it is also a very injurious exercise, it is recommended before the actual series to perform several warm-up repetitions with the bar only or completely without weight.

How to do back squat:

Technically, this exercise is very similar to the front squat, but in this case, we go “under the bar”, placing it firmly on the shoulders. The rules remain the same as for the front squat.

3. Deadlift

How to do deadlift:

  • Stand facing the barbell, adjust your feet to the width of your hips. The bar should be above your feet.
  • Bend at the hips and knees withdrawing the buttocks. The back remains straight, the shoulders tightened, the lower spine strongly stiffened.
  • Grab the bar and take a deep breath. Tighten the handle firmly and tighten the body.
  • Lift your torso, pulling the bar to yourself. The bar should go close to the legs during the lift.

Make sure your knees do not collapse inward. When the bar reaches your knees, pull your hips forward (keep your buttocks and stomach tight). You end up with the barbell in your outstretched arms, leaning it on your thighs. Let the air out, but not completely. Take a deep breath again and, controlling your weight, lower the bar down, pushing your hips back. Remember, the deadlift is not a squat. Do not turn or twist your head during work, it may cause injury. Keep your back straight with your shoulder blades tight in and firm your stomach muscles – they are your natural protective belt for the spine.

4. Kettlebell squat

This is another type of weight squat. When lifting the kettlebell, remember the deadlift technique.

How to do kettlebell squat:

  • Grab the kettlebell with both hands, making sure your elbows are close to your torso
  • Raise the kettles to chest height.
  • Get down to a full squat (if your body mobility allows). Remember strongly involving the gluteus muscle and abdominal muscles.
  • Without relaxing your torso, return to the starting position.

Make sure that the squat technique is correct during the exercise.

5. Squat with kettlebell and press

Stand slightly apart, your knees should be pointing outwards. Perform “Clean” with kettlebell pressing the elbows against the torso. Then go down as low as you can. Coming back up, press kettlebells above your head. This is a complex exercise, which in addition to the legs perfectly involves the arm and shoulder muscles.

6. Kettlebell Lunge with Twist

Stand straight, set your feet to the width of your hips, extend your arms to the level of your chest, holding the kettlebell. Make a lung forward (bend front knee at an angle of 90 degrees). The thigh should be parallel to the ground. The knee of the back leg falls so that the leg balances on the toes of the foot, forming a 90-degree angle in the knee joint (the knee should be in line with the spine) with the torso turning sideways and extending the arms. Return to the starting position. This exercise emphasizes hamstring, buttock, triceps, quadriceps and rectus abdominis muscle.

7. Box jumps

It looks innocent, but jumping on an object with 60-80 centimeters means that not only do the leg muscles work intensively, but the heart rate also increases quickly. This is an excellent exercise to improve muscle endurance and jumping. People who have problems with the knees or ankles should replace this exercise by stepping up and down.

How to do Box Jumps:

  • Stand in front of the box.
  • Jump and land on the box, use the technique known from the squat
  • Jumping in, land on bent knees, rotating them gently outwards, then straighten the body, engaging the gluteus muscles.
  • Jump or step back the box.

8. Step up with weights

Use kettlebells or dumbbells for this exercise. Grab the weights and remain the correct posture (straight back, shoulders tightened, head straight, eyes directed straight ahead, muscles of the abdomen and buttocks involved), step up. The leg that steps on first also steps back first from the platform. 

9. Weight overhead walking lunge

Find some space in front, so that you can perform a few steps forward. Grab the weight, it can be kettlebell, dumbbell or plate.  Remember to adjust the load to your capabilities), lift the straight arms with the weight above the head, and then start walking forward. Keep the correct technique of making the steps. It is very important to maintain balance and stabilize body position. Although these are leg exercises, we do not forget about tense stomach muscles and active buttocks.

10. Med ball wall throws

How to do med ball throws

This is another example of a compound exercise that activates the whole body to work. Besides, after a dozen or so repetitions, the heart rate accelerates significantly. Grab the medicine ball, keeping your elbows close to your torso. The ball should be at chest height. Then go down in full squat and while straightening legs, throw the ball dynamically up. Grab the ball and get down into the squat right away. Try to perform this exercise smoothly and dynamically, making sure your back is straight, your knees are gently rotated on the outside, and your abdominal and buttock muscles are tense.

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