8 Leg Workouts That Aren’t Squats, If Dropping Low Feels Lousy
If you could choose one body part to never have to exercise again, what would it be? If you just envisioned sets on sets of sweaty squats, and dreamily opted out of leg day forever, I can relate. Leg day does have a bad rap, but what if I were to map out a leg day that never required you to drop it like a squat again? That would be quite the game-changer, right? Well, as it turns out, there are plenty of leg workouts that aren’t squats, so gone are the days when exercising your bottom half basically just translated to getting low at the gym.
Seriously, what is it about squats that you and I love to loathe? Is it the way they make your knees ache, how your legs tremble after only two sets, or the very real struggle it can be to find a pair of leggings that are actually squat-proof? Regardless, there’s no denying that squats get the job done, but there have to be other leg exercises out there that are just as, if not more effective, without the hassle, right?
If after weeks, months, even years of squatting, you still have not mastered or aren't totally comfortable performing the move, rest assured your leg days are not doomed, my friend. You can still strengthen and tone your lower body, sans squats. To find out how, I reached out to a few fitness trainers in hopes that they'd share their favorite squat-less leg exercises. Here are some of their go-to moves.
1. Calf Raises
Calf raises are one of those exercises that don't appear to be very difficult, but give it a few reps, and you'll feel a fire in your calves like never before.
Timothy Lyman, director of training programs at Fleet Feet Pittsburgh and an ACE and ISSA certified personal trainer, tells Elite Daily that through this seemingly simple heel-raising movement, you're actually activating a number of muscles. Depending on how you move, you can actually activate each one of them differently, "by changing things like the ankle of flexion in your knee or the rotation of the feet," he explains.
2. Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
A leg workout that can be performed lying down? Yes, please. Not only can hamstring curls be performed on your back, but Lyman says this positioning is preferred.
"[Hamstring curls] are best performed lying on your back with your feet elevated and heels resting on a stability ball," he explains. This particular exercise is excellent, because it's multipurpose, working your hamstrings, stability, and even your core strength.
"Push into the stability ball to elevate your hips and engage your glutes into a bridge position, then slowly flex your knees to draw the stability ball towards your pelvis," Lyman instructs, adding that it's best to work through the motions slowly. This way, you're able to "control both the concentric and eccentric contractions, which allows for more time under tension for the hamstrings."
3. Romanian Deadlifts
A friend of mine introduced me to the Romanian Deadlift, or RDL, back in college. We'd snagged a few barbells from our campus gym, and found a secluded spot out in the hallway so she could teach me the ropes. Watching her perform a set, I swore deadlifts would be the death of me, but they actually turned out to be one of my favorite leg exercises.
Lyman tells Elite Daily that RDLs are a staple move of any effective strength-training routine, because it's an integral movement that teaches "good hip hinging mechanics," as long as you keep a flat back and a neutral spine. "This is also a fun exercise to modify because you can use dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell in addition to mixing things up like doing them unilaterally (single leg) or introducing a balance component," Lyman says. In other words, you can modify or intensify as you see fit, just as long as you stay mindful of your form.
4. Reverse Lunge
I can only speak for myself, but for some reason, deadlifts are my jam, and reverse lunges are my kryptonite. I cringe at the very thought of them, but as the saying goes, "no pain, no gain," right?
Aaptiv trainer Kenta Seki tells Elite Daily one of his favorite leg workouts is the reverse squat. The movement works your quads and glutes, ergo, like a squat, you're working your stems and booty. Plus, they're fairly easy to perform.
All you have to do, Seki explains, is start by standing with your feet together, than step one leg "all the way back, and bend both knees until your front knee is bent at a 90 degree angle and your back knee is a few inches from the ground." Step forward, repeat on the opposite side, and, if you're feeling fancy, add some dumbbells or a barbell for a challenge.
5. Side Lunges
Seki really loves lunges, and as much as he is in favor of reverse lunges, he's also a fan of side lunges. Not only will side lunges work your quads and glutes, but they also incorporate some inner thigh movement as well. In short: They're a package deal.
To perform a simple side lunge, start by standing with your feet together, as though you were going to perform a traditional lunge. From there, step one leg "all the way out to the side, and bend that knee to a 90 degree angle," Seki explains. "Then step it back in, keeping your opposite knee straight the whole time."
Personally, I associate bridges with my at-home yoga practice, so when Seki mentions bridges during our interview via email, I'm thrilled. Evidently, bridges are not just relaxing hip openers, they're also an awesome glute, quad, and hamstring exercise.
To perform a bridge, begin lying on your back with your knees bent, and your feet flat on the floor. From there, "lift your hips up and down, pressing into your heels and squeezing your glutes," Seki instructs. You can add bands for resistance, but personally, I love to rest a dumbbell on my lower stomach.
7. Banded Side Steps
I don't know about you, but I have a whole bunch of resistance bands in a drawer, and never really knew how to utilize them — until now. Resistance bands are a full body tool, and Corey Phelps, a D.C.-based NASM-certified trainer, says they're especially great for leg work. On her squat-free leg days, Phelps tells Elite Daily that banded side steps are her go-to.
To start, Phelps places the band around both thighs so that they rest above the knee joint. Then, sitting down in a kind of half squat position — keeping feet about hip-width apart, her hands at her chest — she takes a step to the left with her left foot, so that her feet are "shoulder-width apart," she explains. Repeat on the following side. Simple, right? (Just wait, it burns.)
8. Standing Resistance Band Kickbacks
Here's what I do know about resistance bands: You can basically add them to pretty much any movement you'd like for a more intense workout. Case in point: resistance band kickbacks.
During our exclusive chat via email, Phelps tells me that resistance band kickbacks are challenging, but satisfying. To begin, place your band around your ankles and hold your hands at your chest or hips, shifting all of your weight into your right leg. From there, place your left toes on the ground about an inch diagonally behind your right heel, so there is tension in the band, Phelps explains.
"Squeeze your abs and tuck your tailbone under as you kick your left leg back," she adds. For best results, be mindful of keeping your knee straight. Then you can return your left foot to the ground, keeping tension in the band.