The 3 best (and worst) leg exercises

I often get asked questions like what are the best exercises to tone the (insert body part here)? My answer is there are no good exercises to tone a specific body part.

Toning doesn’t exist.

The effect of looking toned only comes from having low body fat, the stuff you can pinch, and no amount of leg extensions or inner and outer thigh machines will help create a significant dent in those fat levels.

I also get told, I don’t need to lose weight, I just want to tone up. Well I’ve bad news for you. You do need to lose weight (fat weight). Sure the scales might not shift but the fat needs to if you want great looking legs.

Rather than i at it as ‘toning’ you can now aim to become leaner. Think about a lean piece of meat, it’s got very little fat on it. That’s our aim when we want to look better and ‘tone’ the legs etc.

To get this lean look a few things need to be in place.

1. Nutrition must be spot on. The leaner you get the tougher it is to burn fat so ensuring your nutrition intake is spot on will boost your chances of success.

2. Exercise intensity is key. If your still doing 30+ mins of steady pace cardio at the start of your workouts then that needs to change first. The bulk of your training sessions should consist of full body metabolic enhancing weight training sessions. This can be achieved using a mix of bodyweight exercises and equipment like dumbells and kettlebells. And the session should be performed for bursts of high effort followed by short rests like we do in our Dublin Bootcamps.

3. Pick the right exercises. Most exercises seen in magazines, on tv and even in gyms are useless for getting great long term results. So here are the 3 best (and worst) leg AND FULL BODY ‘toning’ exercises.


Considered the king of exercises, the squat can be a great full body, fat burning exercise. It can work every muscle in your lower body as well as a lot in your upperbody. It can help you develop great looking legs. BUT it can also do nothing for you and it can injure you. So how can one exercise be good and bad? The key is how it’s performed. Take a look at these variations

All of the above variations will work very little muscle and so don’t burn enough calories to burn fat. And before you even mention that these girls are in shape please be aware that they are in shape in spite of doing these squats and not because of. I can be pretty sure that they’ve never had to to lose any significant amount of weight either. Yes these are the most common squats you’ll see in magazines and in gyms, but they give very little results.

The following 2 variations are great and will not only work every muscle in your legs but open up your hips and help strengthen your lower back and core muscles. The key is range of movement. Notice how low they are dropping their hips, this actually strengthens the knees and forces the glutes (backside Muscles) to work. in the variations above the glutes have no need to work because of the lack of depth.


This is my favourite exercise. It strenthens your lower back, abs, hamstrings and hips. It works the upper body too. It’s also taking over from the squat as the king of exercises. The unfortunate thing is that most instructors and even personal trainers don’t teach it. Why? Because it is a bit technical and they simply don’t want to waste time trying to teach it when they can just stick you in a machine and let it do the work for you.

Just like the squat, if the deadlift is performed incorrectly it won’t do much for you except injure you.

The above ‘deadlift’ is a sure fire way to injure your spine. However simply pushing your hips back and straightening out your back (as in the correct version below) will keep the spine healthy and force the hips/ backside to do the work. In fact the deadlift is one of the best exercises to tighten up the glutes/backside muscles.

Imagine pulling the bar up, with the glutes and hamstrings, along your thighs and driving your hips forwardwd staying really tall in the upper body. Start with a weight that you feel comfortable using – ie just a 20kg bar and once the technique is right then increase the weight.

Split Squat/Lunge

The split squat, most people incorrectly call it a lunge, is another great leg exercise. (the difference between alunge and a split squat is that your feet remain in the same spots when doing a split squat, when doing lunges you will move forwards or backwards and is a more advanced version.

The key to choosing your exercises is to ensure they use as much muscle as possible so you burn loads of calories . This is done through range of movement and through proper weight selection. So there’s no point in using the 2kg dumbells for this exercise if you can easily do 12 reps. However when I prescribe this exercise for my clients and camp members and show them how to do it properly many struggle with just their own body weight.

While the above photo may look perfectly fine to most there are a few things wrong.

1. Becasue of the 90 degree bend in the front knee a lot of the stress is now placed into the back knee. But the back knee has no support under it and so is easily hurt this way.

2. The knee in front is only bent half as much as it can and should be. This means you will only use half the muscle and only gain a small amount of strength.

Looking at the picture below you can see a much greater range of movement. This allows for greater muscle involvement and more strength gains which all leads to a metabolism burning fat all day long.

A lot of trainers will teach this exercise very differently but when you look at the research you will find that there is greater muscle recruitment and strength development when the split squat/lunge is performed like this. It will also strengthen the knees and not harm them contrary to popular belief.

If you cannot drop as low as in the pic then you must raise your front foot on a higher step and this will allow you to get a full knee bend, get stronger and more flexible.

For all of the above exercises start off with 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions, after 3-4 sessions drop the reps to 10-12 and add another set.


The information contained on this website is provided for general information only and should not be treated as a substitute for professional supervision or advice. Before starting any exercise regime you should consider consulting a qualified fitness or sports adviser to ensure the regime is suitable for you and your own doctor if you have a medical condition or taking medication or have related concerns.

Do not undertake any exercise program, diet or treatment provided by the site, without professional or qualified supervision.

Any programs involving weights, intense workouts and apparatus may put strong physical demands on any child who is still growing, meaning supervision is obligatory.

John O’Connell/Dublin Bootcamps/SFFitnessCamps can not be held responsible for any injuries which may occur as a result of these exercises.

If you have or have  had asthma, heart condition, growth condition or have experienced chest pains or dizziness in the last month we strongly advise you NOT to try any of our work outs. Please seek medical advice first

Our site is not a medical facility and no information contained in our web site should be used to prevent, treat or diagnose medical conditions of any kind.

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