If you are focused on powerlifting, or just maxing out your squat or deadlift, what’s the best way to train your legs?
Powerlifters should train their legs with a combination of compound and isolation movements with rep ranges between 1-12 for 3-6 sets. While many leg exercises exist, powerlifters should be focused on those that transfer strength and skill the most to the squat or deadlift.
With that understanding, you have to think critically about which exercises will actually transfer over to your competitive squat and deadlift, and identify the right mix of reps and sets to make that exercise effectively train your legs to meet your goals.
The Goal Of Training Legs For Powerlifting
Powerlifting is all about recruiting every possible muscle to move the barbell up and down.
And in order to effectively use every possible muscle in our legs for powerlifting, it’s necessary to understand which individual muscles are being used and learn how to isolate those muscles to train by themselves, so that each muscle can contribute more when we recruit all of them for a compound lift.
Put simply: if you want to upgrade your car, upgrade the parts one by one, and you’ll have an upgraded car. The same can be done for powerlifters and their muscles.
When training the legs for powerlifting, the goal is to exercise it in such a way that it transfers over to your squat and deadlift, not just works your muscles randomly or for aesthetic reasons.
For example, a great bodybuilding exercise for quads are seated leg extensions or a leg extension alternative. The quad is mostly isolated, so it’s doing all the work, and the range of motion keeps constant tension on the muscle, which is great for hypertrophy and growing that individual muscle.
However, by itself, this is not a motion that offers a direct transfer to the squat or deadlift, and there certainly isn’t much sense in me testing or building up to a 1-rep max of my leg extension.
Alternatively, performing a squat with a narrower stance changes the dynamic of the lift to put more emphasis on your quads, requiring more recruitment from them.
This exercise is very similar to the competition squat, and doing it over time with progression will absolutely strengthen your quads, and transfer over to your competition squat.
Don’t get me wrong, I do seated leg extensions often as a powerlifter, but usually during an off season program or GPP block, and not so much in a strength block or a peaking block before maxing out my lifts.
I simply understand the purpose of them (growing the quad muscle over time so I have more quad muscle fibers to recruit in the future) and use them accordingly with my goals.
Whatever your leg exercise preference is, pay attention to how it affects your squat or deadlift and prioritize the ones that transfer the most to your competitive squat or deadlift form.
Read more about whether you can just deadlift more frequently in order to increase your squat strength.
4 Benefits of Training Legs For Powerlifting
Here are the top four benefits to training your legs for powerlifting:
1. Improve Your Squat and Deadlift Directly
Your squat and deadlift are directly improved when you effectively train your legs.
This one may seem like we are stating the obvious (and we are), but don’t disregard this benefit.
Yes, your regular sets and reps of squats and deadlifts on your days designated for squatting and deadlift will strengthen your legs, as they are one of the many muscle groups you use to perform those compound lifts.
However, a great powerlifter will not simply rely on compound lifts in their competitive form to train their legs.
Look at your squat and deadlift – where did you lose the lift the last time you failed an attempt? Watch the video of your last max and understand where the barbell slowed down. Then ask yourself what muscle group contributes more to this range of motion.
Do you get stuck in the bottom of your squat and can’t even get it moving up? Good, do more quad work.
Do you get stuck at the lockout of the deadlift? Great, do more glute work.
Although these lifts require all of your muscles to work together, that doesn’t mean you should ignore training individual leg muscles by themselves to strengthen them. And it doesn’t mean that the compound lift by itself will equally improve every muscle it recruits to complete the lift.
Add effective variations and isolated lifts into your leg workouts and watch those competition lifts improve.
2. Indirectly Improve Your Bench Press
If you want a big bench, you have to have a good leg drive.
You may have seen big guys move big weight off their chest with a flat back and no leg drive. It’s impressive. But you can’t tell me they wouldn’t be able to bench more if they used their legs.
Using leg drive in the bench press will help you:
- Transfer force more effectively through the barbell
- Allow you to keep a better arched position
- Contribute to greater lower pec activation
The more you deliberately train your legs, the more power they’ll be able to produce for your leg drive in your bench press, and the better neural pathways you’ll have to make sure they are driving the way you want them to while you push the bar off your chest.
You can read more in my article on Leg Drive For Bench Press.
3. Build New Muscle Fibers
Training your legs effectively adds muscle to your legs, which improves your strength potential.
We aren’t here to tell you that powerlifters should never do bodybuilding movements focused on hypertrophy like the leg extension machine or the hamstring curl. Quite the opposite – doing those exercises to build more muscle will give you more muscle fiber to incorporate in your strength training.
These isolated muscle exercises, when done correctly for 8-12 reps and 3-6 sets at a time will trigger a hypertrophic response when the lifter is in a caloric surplus. They will grow your muscles.
Then the next time you go to train your squat or your deadlifts, you’ll have bigger quads, bigger hamstrings, bigger glutes to get stronger for your next competition.
If you neglect these entirely, you’ll just be training the same muscle fibers to try to get stronger until you reach a plateau.
If you have a plateau in squat strength, read my article on breaking through a squat plateau.
4. Add Variety to Your Workout Split
Effectively training legs will add variety to your workout that you won’t get training the squat and deadlift alone.
Powerlifting consists of only three lifts. But you don’t get good at those three lifts by ONLY doing those three lifts.
If you add intelligent, goal-oriented leg workouts into your program, you’ll enjoy a variety of exercises that won’t leave you bored and burned out after a few months or years (and I don’t just mean mentally burned out, those three lifts can toast your CNS if you hit them all the time).
Build those leg workouts around your weaknesses and goals to avoid such burnout, as well as improve your body’s ability to meet the challenges of training the squat and deadlift in your next training block.
Tips For Training Legs For Powerlifting
So now that you know more leg work is valuable to your overall powerlifting program, you may still have some questions about how to effectively incorporate it all. We’ve put together a few tips to make it easier for you.
Stop and think about the leg exercise you are adding to your program for the day, week, or training block. What muscle groups are engaged in that exercise?
As much as possible, select exercises that use the same muscle group as the squat or deadlift, or focus on isolating individual muscles used in those compound lifts.
As we’ve said before, there are some great quad, hamstring, and glute exercises for bodybuilders that won’t do nearly as much for the powerlifter in terms of improving your max squat or deadlift as some others.
I wrote an article on What Day Should You Put Deadlifts On and whether it’s considered a leg or back exercise.
Type of Exercise
Think again about the leg exercises you want to start incorporating into your program. Is it training your legs for strength, or for growth?
Note: I’ve linked any exercise where I’ve written a complete guide on the specific movement.
- Barbell Squat
- Paused Squat
- Wide Stance Squat
- Narrow Stance Squat
- Front Squat
- Box Squat
- Pin Squat
- Negative Tempo Squat
- Isometric Squat
- Banded Squat
- Reverse Band Squat
- Barbell Deadlift
- Paused Deadlift
- Sumo Deadlift
- Rack Deadlift
- Deficit Deadlift
- Block Deadlift
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Negative Tempo Deadlift
- Isometric Deadlift
- Banded Deadlift
- Reverse Band Deadlift
- Glute Bridges
- Hip Thrusts
- Good Mornings
When using the exercises above to train strength, they’ll have the most immediate results for your squat and deadlift, as they are very similar to the standard lift itself, or have a similar motion, and use the same muscle groups.
- Goblet Squats
- Bulgarian Split Squats
- Lunges (all variations)
- Seated Leg Extensions
- Stiff leg deadlifts
- Dumbbell deadlifts
- Hamstring Curls
- Calf Raises/Toe Ups
- Glute Ham Raise/Glute Ham Alternative
- Abductor machine
- Adductor machine
- Leg Press
- Hack Squat
When using the exercises above for hypertrophy, the goal is to keep the tension on the muscle for the entire ROM of the movement.
This is also the reason high reps are necessary – to increase the amount of time the muscle is under tension to trigger a hypertrophic response. Also worth emphasizing again that such a response will not happen if the lifter is not in a caloric surplus with their diet.
For this reason, negative tempo leg exercises can also be categorized as hypertrophy exercises when adjusted for higher reps and lighter load.
Again, these exercises may not have an immediate transfer to your competitive squat or deadlift, but they are absolutely building more muscle that you’ll be able to rely on and utilize in the long term.
Whatever you do, be aware of what type of exercise it is and how/why it will help you reach your goals, whether that’s building more muscle for your lift, or training the existing muscle to be stronger.
I had a mentor when I was young tell me that “practice makes perfect” was bogus, but “perfect practice makes perfect” was absolute truth. The same goes for technique in our powerlifting training.
Doesn’t matter if you pick the right load, the right exercise, the right sets/reps, if your technique sucks in training, it will suck in competition. Never sacrifice good technique.
The better your technique when training your legs, the better results you’ll get from it.
Most powerlifting programs have a dedicated squat day and a dedicated deadlift day. Some programs will include an additional day or two for lower body work.
Those secondary leg days are often dedicated to dynamic effort, or “speed work” with the squat and deadlift, but depending on the program, they can also be great days to do more hypertrophy work on the legs that you don’t have the time or energy to do on the days when you train the squat or deadlift.
Alternatively, another common method is to add 3-4 leg variations or hypertrophy exercises on the same day as squats and deadlifts, but after effectively performing your top sets with the competitive form of your lifts. This is a great option for lifters who only have a few days a week to train, but want to get more volume in.
Leg training tends to be more intense than upper body training, so be aware of how much these workouts are taxing you before you decide to add another day or double up what you are doing.
Read more in my guides on powerlifting frequency for squats and deadlifts:
Sets & Reps
Be mindful of your sets and reps. Generally speaking, higher reps are better for hypertrophy, lower reps are better for strength development (assuming both are done with the appropriate weight).
- For strength work: 3-5 sets of 3-6 reps
- For hypertrophy work: 3-5 sets of 6-12 reps
If you are early in your training block, do more of the higher rep ranges for hypertrophy to build your muscles. As you get closer to competition or max-out day, trade the higher reps for higher load and reduce the reps to acclimate your body to heavier weight and build your strength.
Personally, I’d say a good leg workout should include 15-40 reps of your working set (e.g. 4 sets of 10 reps for a hypertrophy workout, 5 sets of 3 reps for a strength training day, and any variation in between, like 5 sets of 5 reps).
Check out my sample leg workouts below for more.
No matter the goal of your leg work, you should not be pushing to failure. There is too high of a risk for injury if you’re consistently lifting at or near your max on a regular basis.
For strength/hypertrophy work: You only need to push 1 (maybe 2) sets to near failure one-time per week, and keep all other sets within two reps of failure.
Some powerlifters like to use the RPE scale (Rate of Perceived Effort) or RIR (Reps in Reserve) to determine how much effort was required to move the weight for that set. Others prefer to use a percentage of their most recent max.
Whatever method you use, the load should challenge you, but should not be so challenging that you work up to the point of failure, and certainly shouldn’t cause you to miss reps in your first few sets.
Sample Powerlifting Leg Workout
These workouts incorporate both the strength training focus of the top sets, as well as the accessories/hypertrophy that you could break off to a second workout that same week.
Example Powerlifting Leg Workout #1: Squat Strength Focus
- Warm up
- Squat – 5 sets of 3 reps @ 85% of max
- Paused Squat – 5 sets of 3 reps @ 75% of max
- Box Squat (below parallel) – 5 sets of 4 reps @ 65% of max
- Goblet Squat – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Walking Lunges – 4 sets of 12 reps (per leg)
We start with the standard squat, as it is the most taxing and we want to be fresh and focused to hit those sets.
The deeper I get into my workout, the less weight I need to use and the less technical the exercises become so I can continue training my legs, but allowing for fatigue and breakdown of form without risking injury.
Example Powerlifting Leg Workout #2: Quad Hypertrophy Focus
- Warm Up
- Front Squat – 4 sets of 10 reps
- Negative Tempo Squat – 5 sets of 6 reps, 5 second negative tempo
- Wide Stance Squat – 4 sets of 10 reps
- Seated Leg Extensions – 3 sets of 12
- Hamstring Curls – 3 sets of 10
Example Powerlifting Leg Workout #3: Deadlifts/Hamstrings
- Warm up
- Deadlift – 5 sets of 3 reps @ 85% of max
- Paused Deadlift (1” off the floor) – 5 sets of 3 reps @ 75% of max
- Stiff Leg Deadlift – 4 sets of 8 reps @ 45% of max
- Hamstring Curl – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
- Glute Bridges – 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Other Powerlifting Workout Guides
Make sure to check out my other training guides for powerlifting:
- How Do Powerlifters Train Back?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Arms?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Shoulders?
- How Do Powerlifters Train Chest?
The squat and the deadlift rely on every possible muscle you have working together to exert force into the bar. And while they are all stronger together, you can make them individually stronger by identifying movements that target that part of your leg and training it.
If you are incorporating a blend of isolated exercises with your regularly scheduled squat and deadlift training, your legs will absolutely become much better weapons for moving bigger and bigger weights.
Remember, just because a powerlifting competition only includes three lifts, that doesn’t mean your training should be limited to those three lifts. The squat, bench, and deadlift are selected for their ability to demonstrate your overall strength, but the result you see is made up of the sum of the parts.
Powerlifters train their legs so they can grow at the right stages of training, and then they train them to be strong and coordinated at the next stage of training. Use that balance properly, and you’ll be training like the best.
About The Author
Adam Gardner is a proud resident of Utah, where he lives with his wife and two kids. He has been competing in powerlifting since 2016 in both the USPA and the APF. For the past three years, he and his wife, Merrili, have coached beginning lifters to learn the fundamentals of powerlifting and compete in their first powerlifting competitions.