3 Essential Lower Body Movements and the Best Ways to Perform Them

Whatever your training split and no matter your experience level, there are certain fundamental movements that are worth mastering.

For the lower body, our Big Three are the Squat, the Lunge, and the Deadlift. Here are a few variations of each worth trying.

 

Squat

Goblet: Hold a dumbbell, kettlebell, or medicine ball to your chest and perform squats.

This variation of the weighted squat is ideal for two reasons. First, it helps maintain a neutral back throughout the movement. Second, it can be performed with less equipment and less space that a traditional barbell squat.

Jumping: Drop into a deep squat, then launch yourself upward, allowing your feet to leave the ground as you push yourself as high into the air as possible. Don’t land with straight legs: use the eccentric portion of the move to soften your landing by returning immediately to the bottom position of your next jump.

This plyometric movement develops explosive power. Start with just your bodyweight, focusing on maximum height every time. Eventually, add light dumbbells in each hand.

Barbell: Using a rack for safety, load a barbell, place it on your back or your front, and squat. This timeless exercise allows athletes to go heavy, but demands a proper gym setup and excellent form. Never lift a weight so heavy that it compromises the integrity of your form at any stage of the range of motion.

Form tip: Your toes should point between straight forward and 45-degrees outward, while your feet should be anywhere from shoulder-width to slightly wider than your hips, depending on your mobility, limb proportions, and personal preference.

 

Lunge

Rear: Most people lunge forward by default. This is a good exercise, especially for the quads. But rear lunges help work other leg muscles, particularly the hamstrings and glutes.

Step back with one leg, then slowly lower yourself until your knee is one inch from the floor. Return to the starting position, then switch legs. TO add weight, hold a dumbbell in each hand—or, for a shoulder stability challenge, lighten the load and hold the weights with straight arms overhead.

Jumping: These are typically called “power lunges” or “jumping split squats.” From the bottom of a lunge position, launch yourself upward with maximal force, switching your legs in the air. You’ll land with your feet in opposite positions from the first rep; repeat this continuously. Start with bodyweight, then gradually add light dumbbells as you build explosive strength.

Overhead: This variation challenges your shoulders, your core, and your balance. Start at no more than 50% of your regular lunge weight and hold the weights with straight arms overhead for the entire set.

Form tip: At the bottom of a lunge, both legs should form roughly 90-degree angles at the knee joint. Look sideways in a mirror if necessary. Avoid allowing your front knee to pass the toe.

 

Deadlift

Conventional: With a loaded barbell over mid-foot, stand up, keeping your arms straight and your neck and spine neutral. The barbell should remain as close to the body as possible throughout the movement. Ensure your shoulders are set back. Squeeze your glutes toward the top of the motion.

This battle-tested exercise is excellent for building all-over strength, including the development of grip strength, scapular stability, and a powerful core. Conventional deadlifts target the lower back, but also slam the hamstrings, forearms, and traps.

Romanian: This twist on conventional form sees legs remain straight (but don’t lock your knees). By sending your butt and hips backward to keep the barbell (or dumbbells) over mid-foot, Romanian deadlifts emphasize the hamstrings and glutes.

For a full range of motion, lower yourself until your back is parallel to the floor. If this is a struggle even at light weight, improve hamstring flexibility through stretching and foam rolling before and after every lower body session.

Single Leg: Perform a Romanian or stiff-legged deadlift on one leg to bolster stability in the lower body and mitigate muscular imbalances. Hold weights in both hands or just one on the side of the planted leg. Both legs should remain almost straight throughout the movement, but one will remain fixed to the floor, while the other will rise up until parallel to the floor, aligning with your back.

Form tip: We strongly recommend deadlifting in flat, non-supportive shoes, such as Converse sneakers—or, even better, in socks or barefoot.

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