If you want to make your leg workouts as effective as possible, these are the moves trainers suggest doing.

By Renee Cherry
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Young beautiful woman working out with dumbbells in the gym.

If you've ever done a heavy leg day, then you know the resulting delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can be exceptionally brutal. (If not, these GIFs perfectly sum up the feeling.) So depending on your appetite for pain, you probably either love or love to hate leg day. Either way, you might as well make the most of your leg day routine by cherrypicking the best moves, since you know you'll be sore regardless.

There are sooooo many leg workout exercises you can add to your routine, especially if you like to get crafty with equipment. But when we recently asked trainers to name their absolute favorite moves, they all stuck to tried-and-true moves. In other words, fancy ≠ more effective. (Related: The Heavy Dumbbell Workout That Builds Strong, Sexy Legs)

Here are the best leg day exercises according to certified trainers. Use one or two in your next leg day workout, or do them all in one session to guarantee you'll be sore (and swole).

(One note: If you're new to creating a leg day workout, keep in mind that order matters. As a rule of thumb, you should do more skills-focused, complex, full-body movements before targeting smaller muscles or using muscle-specific machines. Here's what else you need to know about how to correctly order your exercises in the gym.)

Walking Lunge

No set of leg day exercises is complete without walking lunges, says Mary Nnamani, personal trainer at Blink Fitness. "Not only do they activate the quads, hamstrings, and calves, but they also increase your heart rate, which promotes good cardiovascular health," she says. (Related: You Should Be Doing These Three Types of Cardio) Do them with just your bodyweight or add dumbbells to make them even harder.

How to do walking lunges:

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart. (Optional: Hold a medium-weight dumbbell in each hand by sides.)
  2. Step forward on the right leg, bending knees until both legs are at 90-degree angles, knees directly in line with ankles. Stop back knee just before it taps the floor.
  3. Pause, then take a step forward with the left leg, immediately bending knees to lower into a lunge on the other side. Continue alternating to move across the floor.

Do 3 sets of 8–12 reps.

Hamstring Curl

To target the hammies, David Chesworth, fitness director at Hilton Head Health, loves the lying hamstring curl machine. It allows you to engage your hamstrings without feeling it directly behind your knee, he says.

"Hamstrings prove to be one of the most difficult muscles to isolate and work safely and effectively," David Carson, a Nike trainer and coach on the SweatWorking app, previously told us.  But "the hamstring curl machine allows you to do both, which is invaluable for anyone who is new to resistance training or looking to increase strength and size of the hamstring."

How to do a hamstring curl:

  1. Lie facedown on a hamstring curl machine with lever pad resting on the back of legs just above ankles, holding handles.
  2. Keeping torso flat, squeeze hamstrings to curl feet up toward butt.

Do 3 sets of 8–12 reps.

Bulgarian Split Squat

When she wants a "total leg-destroyer," Cat Kom, founder of Studio SWEAT OnDemand does Bulgarian split squats. "This leg day exercise targets everything: the quads, inner and outer things, hamstrings, calves, hips, and butt," she says. "Nothing makes me feel so satisfyingly sore the next day."

"Your legs will feel it tomorrow," agrees Stan Dutton, Head Coach for Ladder. "I love the rear-foot elevated split squat because we all have imbalances, so it's important to train one side at a time. During this movement, while the front leg is working, your rear leg quad and hip flexor will experience a fantastic stretch." Maintaining the proper distance between your front foot and the bench is key. If you're feeling an intense stretch through your back leg, it's too far forward, and if you feel a lot of tension in your front knee, it's too close, says Dutton. Try a few with just your bodyweight to find the sweet spot before adding dumbbells.

How to do a Bulgarian split squat:

  1. Stand on one leg with other leg extended backward, top of foot resting on a bench, and a medium-weight dumbbell in each hand by sides.
  2. Lower into a squat on the standing leg, keeping chest lifted and standing knee in line with foot. If possible, lower until the front thigh is parallel to the ground.
  3. Engage glutes to straighten (but not lock) standing leg.

Do 3 sets of 8–12 reps on each leg.

Single-Leg Deadlift

Not only are single-leg deadlifts a stellar leg day exercise, but if you're a runner, they're crucial for your strength routine. "Single-leg exercises are critical for athletics that require single-leg stability," says Kathleen Trotter, author of Your Fittest Future Self.

"I run 80+ miles a week and love a move that will help me gain strength and speed out on the road," echoes Emily Fayette, an instructor at Flywheel who also chose the exercise. But even if you hate running, it's still worth doing; the move strengthens your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, and improves balance, core strength, bilateral imbalances, and hip mobility, says Fayette. (Related: One Dangerous Mistake You Could Be Making During Squats and Deadlifts)

How to do a standing single leg deadlift:

  1. Stand with feet together. (Optional: hold a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing body or hold a single heavy dumbbell vertically with both hands.)
  2. Shift weight to one foot, then hinge at hips to lean forward, allowing opposite leg to kick backward and lowering arms alongside standing leg until back and elevated leg are parallel to the floor. Keep a slight bend in standing leg, hips square to the front, and knee of the elevated leg pointing down to the floor.
  3. Reverse the movement to return to start, keeping back straight.

Do 3 sets of 8–12 reps on each leg.

Curtsy Lunge

"There are numerous variations of lunges and most target the hard-to-reach area between the hamstring and glute," says Katie Panas, founder of Bodyrok. Along with lateral lunges, curtsy lunges are one of her favorite options. Try doing them with weights, a slider, or a booty band to mix things up.

How to do a curtsy lunge:

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart. (Optional: Hold a dumbbell in each hand.)
  2. Step one leg to cross behind the other, bending both knees until legs are bent at a 90-degree angle.
  3. Push off of back foot to return to start.

Do 3 sets of 8–12 reps on each leg.

Sumo Squat

JJ Virgin, an ACSM-certified exercise physiologist and author of Warrior Mom, loves this squat variation, which is sometimes referred to as a plié squat. It hits the quads, inner thigh muscles, and glute medius, she says. And if you've been sticking to regular squats, you'll probably find that sumo squats add an additional balance challenge too.

How to do a sumo squat:

  1. Stand with feet wider than shoulder-width apart, toes turned out a 45-degree angle. (Optional: Rack a dumbbell over each shoulder or hold a single heavy dumbbell vertically with both hands between legs.)
  2. Sit hips back and lower into a squat, keeping core engaged and back neutral.
  3. Pause at the bottom, when hips are in line with knees or when form starts to break.
  4. Press into heels and outer edge of the foot to stand.

Do 3 sets of 8–12 reps.

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