There are tons of lower body exercise variations to choose from, so I asked 7 personal trainers and strength coaches (and I include my own) to pick just one. I will admit this can be hard but everybody knocked this task out of the park. Enjoy!
Meg Julian-Personal Trainer and Obstacle Course Badass
My favorite lower body exercise is the Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat. While a deadlift, front & back squat allow you to push more weight, the split squat is a valuable athletic move. You’ll still be able to lift solid weight with this exercise, but also work on balance, fix asymmetries, and make great use of all the major leg muscles, as well as the smaller stabilization ones. Which is important if you want to chase down a soccer ball or simply be able to climb a set of stairs.
It’s also easy to regress, by taking away the elevation, or progress, by adding weight.
Mike Anderson-Strength Coach and All Around Good Guy
When Mitch first told me the topic of this round table discussion I thought “oh sure, favorite lower body exercise! That’s easy peasy.”
30 hours later I still didn’t have a clear cut answer! This was a really difficult choice for me because I’ve got a few favorites for a few different reasons. Ultimately the choice I made was for an exercise that I believe benefits all of my athletes and clients and even enhances all of my other favorite lower body exercises; the Romanian Deadlift.
If you know me you know I love deadlifting the most. I also really like front squats and safety bar squats. I program glute ham extensions and hip thrusts constantly. However I feel like the RDL ends up getting the most bang for your buck when it comes to improving performance, aesthetics and having a positive impact on your other lifts.
At this point you’re asking yourself “what magical exercise can do all of these things?!?”. Well the RDL can, and here’s how:
1) Performance: It gets you strong. You’re loading your entire posterior chain when you’re doing these, and when those muscles get big and strong so do you. As your glutes, hamstrings and lats get strong you’ll be running faster and jumping higher. One of the often overlooked benefits of this lift is the change of direction that occurs with the barbell. This is a very difficult position to change directions and it requires a great deal of power.
2) Aesthetics: Glutes and hamstrings. Need I say more?
3) Impacting Other Lifts: Improving your RDL will have an immediate impact on your deadlift, clean and snatch. Your grip will certainly improve which will help your pullups and as your back gets stronger you might see your bench go up. As your glutes and hammies get stronger you’ll probably see an improvement in your squat variations.
Johnny Tea-Strength Coach and Magician With His Hands (Manual Therapist)
My favorite lower body exercise is probably the trap bar deadlift. What I love about this exercise is it’s easy to coach, you can regress or progress the exercise with the higher/lower handle, and it’s suitable for beginners and advanced lifters of all body types. Not too mention it’s more forgiving on your back compared to a barbell and less technical.
John Papp-Strength Coach and Lifter of Heavy Things
I love the trap bar deadlift because of the versatility across all populations that I work with daily in the gym. Straight bar deadlifts are great if you are able to get into position and stay in position through the whole movement but I have found the trap bar variation of the deadlift to be much safer and easier to avoid bad positions for most people. When it comes to the actual movement itself I love the trap bar deadlift because of the hybrid like movement crossing a squat with a hinge style movement. More of a squat than a straight bar deadlift yet more of a deadlift than a traditional back squat. Regardless of what you call it can provide huge strength gains to the lower body and entire posterior chain.
Joe Mosher-Georgia Gwinnett College Strength Coach and Rookie Dad
Asking someone in the strength game to pick his or her favorite lower body exercise is a kin to asking him or her to pick his or her favorite child. We all know we should not have a favorite but we also know we secretly have one. We all start out with the big rocks, squats, deadlifts, and single legwork but as I kicked those around and argued with myself I could not eliminate nor confirm just one of the above mentioned. Once I figured that out, I needed to think harder about the question. I needed to look at my programs and find the one exercise that is in every program I write regardless of sport or time of year. After more thought I concluded that, my favorite lower body exercise is the Russian Lean AKA Nordic Hamstring curl.
I was first introduced to these at the Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, NY in 2004. I witnessed some of the most powerful athletes I have ever seen struggle to control their own body weight and was thoroughly impressed with the exercise. When I inquired why the strength coach picked this exercise, the answer became more complicated than I thought.
It is more than a standard laying hamstring curl. Most directed posterior chain work is dedicated to the concentric side of exercise, as it should be. This grouping of muscles is your dominate “GO” group. If you want to be fast, you need to have a posterior chain that can do it for you.
The only problem is if you build the best engine in the world but do not put comparable breaks on that car, you are going to eventually find the wall and do a lot of damage. As Cal Dietz has shown in his Tri-Phasic system, the importance of the eccentric reserve cannot be ignored. Not only does developing a high eccentric reserve allow you to apply the brakes very quickly it also allows you to raise your concentric ceiling. The human body will never allow the concentric muscle action to overshadow the eccentric action. If it did, the muscle would not only have a greater risk of injury but would most likely tare from the bone.
Now to the point of why this is my favorite exercise. As I stated before, I can use this exercise at almost any point of the year with any athlete. Out of season, it can be used to take the pressure off the nervous system but still effectively train the hamstring complex. Preseason, we can really build that eccentric contraction to help the athlete understand how to decelerate to prepare them for all the cutting and jumping that will be in their program but also in the up and coming season. I even program them in-season, as more of a maintainer of the eccentric strength.
Most of your field sports rarely touch high velocity with running but when they do they need to have that eccentric strength to decelerate the tibia and stiffen the knee joint to prepare of the next foot strike. Also, inseason lifting programs are geared towards the concentric side of lifting, trying to stay fresh and be able to express your strength. By keeping these in, minimal effective dose, we can keep our eccentric strength high without increasing sorness.
My last point and reasoning for this choice is that you can do this exercise in almost any gym, anywhere. All you need is something to anchor your feet and you can get one hell of a hamstring training session in.
Justin Ochoa-Strength Coach and Rec Basketball Monster
The Reverse Deficit Goblet Split Squat is a mouthful of a name, but it delivers some unbelievable results. There is something very special about this exercise as it combines so many elements of athleticism. You’ve got stability, strength, focus, extended ROM, grip and core… ALL IN ONE!
So, why am I so in love with this lunge variation? Simply put, here are some of the main benefits you’ll achieve when you program this regularly:
- Increased neuromuscular focus
- Increased functional ROM
- Decreased shear forces on the knee
- Increased strength in the trunk
- Increased strength in the legs
- Improved balance and stability via strength gains
- Grip strength production
I could go on and on. Bottom line? Just do it! You can go for more of a leg pump with higher reps and moderate weight or use these as a squat alternative with some higher weight for moderate reps. You could even use this to produce power with fast-twitchy reps. The possibilities are endless. Try this out in your next program!
Nick Buchan-Strength Coach and Builder of the Athletic Golfer
I love deadlifts! There is no better exercise for teaching the hip hinge and flat out improving force production. However, if you held a gun to my head and told me choose just one exercise if think we can do a little better – enter the single-leg RDL.
If I wrote down my top 2 priorities for training the average golfer/ general population client for athletic performance, they would probably be:
1. Developing core stiffness to enhance distal athleticism and injury resilience
2. Learning to generate power at hips, not the spine, to once again improve injury resilience and increase force production capabilities.
The single-leg RDL allows us to do both of these pretty effectively.
With the movement being on one leg there obviously a large is a large balance, hip stability and core stability element. Your ability to disassociate hip movement form pelvic movement is also challenged even more than in a traditional hip hinge by being on one leg.
The problem with a typical single-leg RDL for many is it’s just too hard, especially if trying to use any sort of appreciable load to generate training effect. This is where the sliding single-leg RDL variation works great for me, it can be used with beginner clients as the extra support reduces the balance and hip stability somewhat, helping to clean up the pattern (as shown in the video). With more advanced athletes the advantage of the sliding variation is you can load the movement much more heavily than the normal single-leg RDL without as much fear of loss of form.
External loading can be added using a single dumbbell or kettlebell held in the opposite hand to the leg working, a dumbbell or kettlebell held in each hand, or even a barbell.
A common theme throughout this post is how do you pick just one?? You have so many to choose from. You could pick a squat, a deadlift, or a isolation exercise. But I am going to pick one based on it’s versatility.
The kettlebell swing has to be my favorite lower body exercise as it can be used in a number of ways.
Want a great backside? The kettlebell swing can help you build some impressive hamstrings and glutes.
Want to burn a ton of calories? The kettlebell swing can have a huge metabolic effect.
Want to be a more explosive athlete? The kettlebell swing trains for a more powerful hip extension, a staple of athletic performance.
The kettlebell swing also trains the grip as well as the entire back if done with correct form. If you aren’t, you should be swinging.