21 Best Compound Leg Exercises

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTPublished: October 26, 2022

Compound movements are king when it comes to building muscle size and strength. That means you need plenty of compound exercises in your leg day workouts.

So you’re in the right place if you want to know the best compound leg exercises for bigger, stronger quads, glutes, and hamstrings.

Compound Leg Exercises

What Are Compound Leg Exercises?

In weightlifting, compound movements are exercises that involve multiple joints. For example, the bench press is a compound movement because you simultaneously bend at the elbows and shoulders.

Similarly, compound leg exercises involve both the knee and hip joints. An example of a lower-body compound movement is the squat.

The benefit of compound exercises is that they recruit more muscle groups, allowing you to move heavier weights. And that increased loading helps you build strength and gain muscle size over time.

Compound vs Isolation Leg Exercises

On the other hand, isolation exercises involve one joint. For example, the leg extension and leg curl exercises only use the knee joint. While the stiff leg deadlift only works the hip joint.

Generally, bodybuilders use isolation exercises to target specific muscles for hypertrophy. In comparison, compound exercises maximize workload and strength gains. But it takes both types of exercises to build muscle and power.

Related: Hypertrophy Training vs Strength Training

Isolation vs Compound Shoulder Exercises

Muscles Worked by Compound Leg Exercises

Before we get into specific exercises, it’s helpful to know a little more about lower body anatomy. The legs consist of several muscles, including the quadriceps, gluteus maximus, and hamstrings.

In addition, your legs also comprise the calves and hip flexor muscles. Compound exercises generally work two or more of these muscle groups.

Leg Muscle Anatomy II

Remember, by definition, compound leg exercises involve bending at the knees and hips simultaneously. However, one of those joints usually takes over and is dominant in any particular movement. 

Knee Dominant Compound Leg Exercises

Knee-dominant exercises are where your knees bend more than your hips. Other characteristics of these exercises are a more upright back and knees traveling over your toes.

Knee-dominant compound leg exercises generally involve more quads with less glute and hamstring activation.

Hip Dominant Compound Leg Exercises

Conversely, hip-dominant exercises are where your knees bend less than your hips. Usually, this results in a more forward-leaning posture where your knees stay behind your toes.

Hip-dominant leg exercises generally work the glutes and hamstrings more than the quads.

Compound Leg Exercises Squats

Best Compound Leg Exercises

To make this list easier to browse, I broke it up by barbells, dumbbells, machines, and other equipment. So you can find compound leg exercises no matter your gym setup.

Barbell Compound Leg Exercises

The barbell is a fantastic piece of equipment for leg exercises. It is simple yet functional and allows you to pack on some serious poundage.

1. Barbell Squats

Barbell squats are arguably the best exercise you can do for muscle growth. They work almost every muscle in your lower body and activate your core while you stabilize the weight.

In addition, squats are more versatile than most people realize. The reason is that you can modify the muscles worked by changing your stance and the bar placement.

For instance, the traditional squat has the bar high up on your traps with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart. This technique results in a more upright posture and more knee bend than hip bend.

As a result, the high bar squat is an excellent exercise for building massive quads. But, while it does activate the glutes and hamstrings, I’m about to show you a better technique for building your backside.

Compound Leg Exercises High Bar Squat
Compound Leg Exercises Low Bar Squat

2. Low Bar Squats

The low bar squat involves placing the barbell further down your shoulders. With this bar placement, you shift the center of mass back slightly, completely changing the squat mechanics.

During a low bar squat, you must lean forward more to counteract the rearward center of mass. As a result, your hips bend more than your knees, increasing glute and hamstring activation.

In addition, low bar squats generally use a wider stance. So you will probably find that you can squat heavier weights with the low bar placement because it favors the larger muscle groups surrounding the hips.

However, that’s not to say your quads won’t still get a lot of action. So which bar placement you use is also a matter of preference.

3. Front Squats

The front squat places the barbell across the front of your shoulders instead of on your back. As you probably guessed, this shifts your center of mass forward and changes the squat mechanics differently.

During the front squat, your back stays significantly more upright than it does during a back squat. And that creates more knee bend, which, in turn, activates the quadriceps to a greater extent.

Front squats are great for building huge quads, especially if you experience lower back pain during regular squats. However, the bar placement and balance can be tricky to master.

Compound Leg Exercises Front Squat

4. Box Squats

The box squat is more of a niche squat variation normally performed by powerlifters and athletes. But this exercise is seeing an increase in popularity recently, and for good reason!

The key distinction of box squats is that you sit on a box or bench at the bottom of the movement and start the upward phase from a dead stop. And that pause makes your muscles fire harder to get the weight moving again.

Another thing that makes box squats unique is their body mechanics. By sitting back onto the box, your knees pass behind your toes, putting most of the loading on your hips, hamstrings, and glutes.

Therefore, the box squat resembles a low bar squat where you explode up from the bottom of the range of motion.

5. Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift, or RDL, is essentially a partial deadlift where you only move through the top 2/3 of the range of motion. And it’s probably the best barbell exercise for building your hamstrings.

This RDL is called a hip-hinge exercise because most of the movement occurs around your hips. But you still want to bend your knees slightly as you lower the weight.

Unlike isolation hamstring exercises, the RDL uses multiple muscle groups so you can lift heavier weights while strengthening your posterior chain.

6. Good Mornings

The good morning exercise is like a Romanian deadlift, except you hold the bar on your back. Other than that, you execute the exercise with the exact same body mechanics.

However, the bar placement increases the distance between the weight and your hips, which makes the exercise feel much harder. And you probably only need to use about 1/2 as much weight as you would on RDLs.

Compound Leg Exercises Good Mornings

7. Barbell Lunges

The last compound leg exercise with the barbell is lunges. Another name for lunges is the split squat since you perform the squat movement with one leg in front of the other.

Barbell lunges are excellent for building your legs while improving balance and athleticism. Furthermore, you can do standing or walking barbell lunges. And you can alternate legs or do multiple reps with each side.

Compound Leg Exercises Barbell Lunges

Dumbbell Compound Leg Exercises

Dumbbells are another functional piece of training equipment for leg exercises because you use one or two weights at a time. Also, you have more flexibility on holding the weight in front or at your sides.

8. Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is an exercise variation where you hold a dumbbell (or kettlebell) in front of your chest. Like front squats, this weight placement shifts your center of mass forward and makes the exercise more knee dominant.

Another way to target your quads with goblet squats is by elevating your heels. With this technique, your knees bend even more, and you will feel a deeper burn in the front of your thighs.

My YouTube channel has dozens of videos showing you how to do a variety of bodybuilding exercises. You’ll learn how to target and build specific muscle groups in 90 seconds or less. Click HERE to subscribe, or click on the button below!

9. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is just like the barbell version, except you hold a weight in each hand. One benefit of this variation is that you have more freedom with the range of motion since you can hold the weights off to the side.

Dumbbell RDLs also require a bit more balance and stabilization, which hits your hamstrings differently. Another way to blast those hams is by elevating your toes during the exercise.

10. Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat is like a lunge where you elevate your back foot on a box or bench. With this stance, you effectively increase the range of motion so you can squat deeper than a regular lunge.

Also, the dumbbell Bulgarian split squat is versatile for targeting either the quads or the glutes/hamstrings. Taking a shorter step with your front foot creates more knee bend and works the quads more. By comparison, a longer step targets the glutes and hamstrings more.

11. Dumbbell Lunges

Dumbell lunges are similar to the barbell version, except you hold a dumbbell in each hand. With this lower center of mass, the dumbbell variation makes it a little easier to keep your balance.

I like doing dumbbell walking lunges to failure at the end of a leg workout to destroy any muscle fibers that may have survived. Warning: you might be crawling out of the gym after these!

workouts mobile

Custom Nutrition & Workout Plan

Get a personalized meal plan built to fit your body and lifestyle. Including a custom workout routine designed around your fitness goals.

With your custom plan, you will finally be able to burn fat, build muscle, and transform your body. All this for just $24.99!

Click here to choose your plan.

Machine Compound Leg Exercises

You probably have access to a few machines if you’re working out at a fitness club or commercial gym. So let’s look at some machine compound leg exercises.

12. Leg Press

The leg press is, without a doubt, the most popular leg exercise machine. One reason is that it provides most of the benefits of squats without the stress on your lower back. Plus, it just doesn’t feel as difficult as free-weight squats.

In addition, like squats, the leg press offers many variations allowing you to target different parts of your legs. However, unlike squats, this variation doesn’t come from bar placement. Instead, it’s foot placement that changes leg press mechanics and loading.

Related: Leg Press for Glutes

13. Hack Squats

The hack squat machine isn’t found in every gym, but it’s an awesome piece of equipment for working your legs. It’s basically an inverted leg press where the sled is on your back, and the foot platform is on the floor.

Another difference between hack squats and leg press is your posture during the exercise. The hack squat machine keeps your back in a more upright position, which reduces hip bend and increases knee bend. As you know, that means it’s better for working the quads.

Related: 15 Hack Squat Alternatives That Don’t Require a Machine

Compound Leg Exercises Hack Squats

14. Smith Machine Hack Squats

The Smith machine is another super adaptable piece of equipment that you can use to replicate many exercises. However, hack squats are probably one exercise you wouldn’t have expected.

To do a Smith machine hack squat, simply start by stepping forward slightly, so your feet are in front of the bar. This way, when you squat down, your back remains vertical as it would on the hack squat machine.

15. Smith Machine Squats

You can also do regular barbell squats on the Smith machine. This variation benefits beginners who are learning how to do the squat exercise. Or for advanced lifters looking for a squat requiring fewer stabilizer muscles.

For this variation, stand with heels or foot directly under the Smith machine bar. In the video below, I demonstrate how to do low bar Smith machine squats to target more glutes.

16. Smith Machine Front Squats

As with barbell front squats, Smith machine front squats shift the center of mass forward, resulting in more quad activation. However, the Smith machine makes it easier to balance the bar across the front of your shoulders.

Once the bar is in position, place your feet directly underneath it and perform the front squat as demonstrated below.

17. Smith Machine Split Squats

Smith machine split squats are another exercise variation that can be easier than the free-weight counterpart. Again, the guide rails assist in balancing the weight so you can focus on proper form and technique.

Like barbell or dumbbell split squats, you can tailor the exercise to target more quads or glutes/hamstrings based on your stride length.

18. Smith Machine Romanian Deadlift

I haven’t seen too many people do RDLs on the Smith machine. But Smith machine Romanian deadlifts are awesome for isolating the hamstrings while reducing the need for stabilization.

The key to doing this exercise properly is the setup. First, ensure you get close enough to the bar so that it doesn’t move away from your body as you perform the exercise. Watch the short video below for more instructions.

19. Smith Machine Good Mornings

Another helpful exercise variation is the Smith machine good morning. The guide rails and safety stops make this otherwise intimidating exercise more approachable for beginners. And it can even be safer for advanced lifters.

Again, the key is getting set up correctly so you get the proper movement path and range of motion.

Other Compound Leg Exercises

So far, we’ve covered exercises that focus exclusively on the legs. But some exercises work the lower and upper body at the same time. So here are some total body compound leg exercises.

20. Deadlifts

Deadlifts are up there with squats as one of the best exercises for overall muscle and strength development. But some people (including myself) do deadlifts on back day instead of leg day, so I put this exercise in its own category.

Traditional barbell deadlifts work nearly every muscle on the backside of your body, including the hamstrings and glutes. So it’s a fantastic exercise for strengthening your posterior chain and improving on other exercises, like squats.

Related: 15 Types of Deadlifts & What They Work

Compound Leg Exercises Deadlift

21. Hex Bar (Trap Bar) Deadlifts

I recommend doing the hex bar deadlift variation for those deadlifting on leg day. Another name for this exercise is the trap bar deadlift.

One reason is that the hexagonal bar allows you to keep your feet under you and maintain a more upright body position. And that posture changes the body mechanics of the deadlift to use more legs and less back.

Here is a quick video showing hex bar vs barbell deadlift mechanics and muscle activation.

There you have it, the most complete list of compound leg exercises anywhere on the internet! Go ahead and choose your favorites to add to your next mass-building leg day.

More Leg Exercises

Of course, your leg workout doesn’t have to be only compound exercises. It’s important to include some isolation movements as well. Click below to get more leg exercise ideas, including calf exercises.

Smith Machine Calf Raises

Leg Press Calf Raises

Resistance Band Exercises for Legs

Sissy Squat for Isolating Quads

Nordic Hamstring Curl for Isolating Hamstrings

Now you have a complete list of leg exercises from which to choose. Before you leave, check out some of these other fitness-related articles!

Share with your community and get the conversation started!

By |October 26, 2022|Workouts|0 Comments
Go to Top