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

Squat Form: 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. Warmup the hip and ankle joint and glute muscles liberal before performing squats.

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.

Bonus Tip: Keep your weight touching the body throughout the range of motion to prevent forward lean.

JUMP: 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.

Bonus Tip: Involve your arms and hands to reach new heights.

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. And note that while this is a leg exercise primarily, this complex compound movement will also make demands of the core and lower back.

Bonus Tip: On your way up, press into the bar with your hands as if to perform an Overhead Press for additional concentric force.

Lunge

Lunge Form: At the bottom of a lunge, both legs should form roughly 90-degree angles at the knee joint.

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.

Bonus Tip: Try elevating the front foot with a plate or stepper to hit the glutes and hams even harder.

JUMP: These may be 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.

Bonus Tip: Add a split squat rep in between each jump to reduce the cardio effect and stretch out the set.

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 (or keep it down and press up while in the bottom portion of the lunge).

Bonus Tip: Keep the barbell stacked above your head, and your torso above your hips, for optimal stability.

Deadlift

Form tips: For purposes of performance and stability we strongly recommend deadlifting in flat, non-supportive shoes, such as Converse sneakers—or, even better, in socks or barefoot. Chalk is suggested for anyone struggling with grip strength issues; we also recommend taking a look at this Victorious Academy article on grip training for alternative solutions to this common issue. Straps and belts are options as well but recommended for advanced lifters dealing with heavy weight (double their bodyweight or more).

CONVENTIONAL: With a loaded barbell over mid-foot, stand up, keep your arms straight and your neck and spine neutral. The barbell should remain close to the body throughout the movement. Ensure your shoulders are set back. Remove tension from the bar, initiate the lift with a strong and engaged upper back, and complete the exercise by driving your hips forward, squeezing 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, hamstrings, forearms, and traps. When done right,virtually the entire posterior chain can be involved.

Bonus tip: Keep your stance narrow to allow for a narrow grip, which creates a stronger setup position. Push your knees into your elbows in this position to generate additional tension.

SUMO: When your knees are outside of your grip. A wider stance lowers the hips and recruits the quadriceps muscles. Overall targets similar areas and functions as conventional deadlift. For some people, particularly women, this exercise replaces Conventional as the primary Deadlift.

Bonus Tip: A “mixed-grip”—one hand pronated and the other supinated—allows for a stronger hold on the bar than a strictly pronated or supinated grip.

STIFF-LEGGED: 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, the stiff-legged deadlift—also known as the Romanian Deadlift, or RDL—emphasizes the hamstrings and glutes while reducing involvement from the lower and upper back.

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

Bonus Tip: To initiate the movement with the hips, imagine a wall one or two feet behind you. You want to reach that wall with your butt as you descend to the bottom.

SINGLE LEG Perform a Romanian deadlift on one leg to bolster stability in the lower body and mitigate muscular imbalances. Hold a barbell or a kettlebell in the hand of the planted leg. Both legs should remain mostly 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.

Bonus Tip: This movement is best executed slowly with full control, so avoid going too heavy. perform after heavier compound lifts.