Your First Leg Workout

Last week I outlined a beginner’s weight training routine for the chest based on a weight training plan I put together last month. Today, I’m going to talk about legs.

Woman doing squats
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What I mean is a beginner’s weight training program to work the major muscle groups in the legs.

As you may recall from the above-cited blog posts (if you need a refresher on that info, click the links), this beginner’s weight training program is designed to be a full body workout you can do in one session at the gym. You can employ this program two or three times a week.

As with the chest routine, I’m going to assume that you’re starting out performing just one set of each exercise, adjusting the weight so that you can perform about ten reps in the set. You can also perform reps to technical failure, which is when you continue to perform reps until you cannot lift the weight for the full range of motion without changing something about your position during the lift or otherwise “cheating.” If you choose the latter method, select a weight for each exercise that will let you perform between 8 to 15 reps.


Here are my recommended exercises for your legs:

  • Leg Extensions
  • Leg Curls (seated or lying)
  • Leg Press

I included a lot of details in my description of a beginner’s chest workout that are generally applicable to any set of exercises using weight machines, so if you haven’t read or reviewed that article, please do so before continuing here.

Okay, all set? Let’s go.

I’m going to assume that you’ve just finished your chest exercises and you’re moving on to the weight machines that will workout your legs. Remember, in setting the weight on these machines, it’s better to err on the side of being a little light, at least at first, rather than going too heavy and risking injury or discouragement.

Machine Leg Extensions

leg extension
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I like to recommend starting a beginner’s leg routine with leg extensions and hit the quads hard from the start. This will mean that your quads will already be tired when you get to the leg press machine at the end of your leg session, a strategy that’s supposed to stimulate growth.

As I just mentioned, this exercise will work your quadriceps or what you probably think of as the front of your thighs. The leg extension machine can be adjusted in three ways: the position of the seat, the position of the leg pad, and of course, the weight.

Position the seat so that the back of your knees are at the seat edge and your back is pressed against the seat back. Position the leg pad so that your legs, when placed behind the pad, are vertical or near vertical. Bending at the knees, your legs should be at a 90 degree angle. This should ensure you get a full range of motion during the lift. The pad should be placed at the top of your lower leg, just above your feet. As I said above, select a weight that you believe will let you perform about 8 to 15 reps. You can also just shoot for doing 10 reps for each set at the beginning just to get used to how this exercise works.

Grip the handles on either side of the seat to stabilize yourself during the exercise. Then extend your legs forward to the maximum position, which should place your legs straight out.

Tip: Remember to exhale on the lift and to inhale when returning to the starting position.

After you have reached the maximum position, return your legs nearly but not quite to the starting position. Don’t let the weight stack come to rest but try to get the stack as close to the starting position while maintaining tension on your legs.

You’ve just completed one rep. Repeat for the desired number of reps or until technical failure. When you’ve completed your reps, in a controlled manner, lower the weights to the original position and then stand up.

If the weight is too heavy, you’ll be tempted to arch your back. If this happens, you’ll probably need to make the weight lighter. Always keep your back pressed fully against the seat. Leg workouts are notorious for stressing your lower back and if the weight is too heavy, you’ll end up “tweaking” your back and probably postponing any further weight training until it is healed. An ounce of prevention.

Variation: You can do this exercise, along with the next two, one leg at a time if you want to work on a weaker vs. a stronger leg, but this is somewhat advanced and for your first time out, it’s best to stick with two legs.

Learn more about leg extensions at

Machine Leg Curls

leg curl machine
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Usually a gym will have both a lying leg curl machine and a seated leg curl machine. I prefer the lying machine as I can’t ever seem to get the right seat position in the seated machine. I’ll describe how to work the lying leg curl machine and provide links below for more information on both machines.

This exercise works your hamstrings or what you think of as the back of your thighs.

Adjust the leg pads for your height so that when you’re lying on the bench, the pads are positioned on the back of your calves just above your ankles. Adjust the weight so you can perform the desired number of reps for your set. Keep your body flat on the bench and grip the handles to steady your position. Remember to exhale as you lift the weight and inhale as you lower it.

Pull your feet as far as possible toward your glutes, lifting the weight stack and then lower the weight to almost starting position.

You’ve just performed your first rep. Repeat for the desired number of times and then gently return the weight stack to the starting position.

As with the previous exercise, if the weight is too heavy, you could injure your lower back. Also, if it’s too light and you are swinging or jerking your legs, you can risk injuring your back or hamstrings.

Here’s more information on lying leg curls and what you need to know about seated leg curls. You can use whichever machine you prefer as they both work the same muscles.

Leg Press Machine

leg press machine
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This exercise primarily works your quads but also your hams and glutes. remember, your quads and hams are already somewhat tired from the previous two machines, so this last exercise in your leg routine is designed to “finish them off,” so to speak, stressing the muscles so that, with the proper intake of protein and application of rest, they can rebuild with more lean mass.

The seat distance from the foot pad can be adjusted to place your body as near or as far from the pad as desired. Positioning your body too far away won’t allow for a full range of motion, but being too near puts a tremendous strain on your knees.

If there’s any machine you want to start out a little lighter than you think you can lift as a beginner, it’s this one because of the risk of injury to your knees and lower back. Just get used to it before adjusting the weight upward. That said, a leg press machine will let you lift more weight than either of the other machine’s I’ve described

Position the seat so that when you sit in this machine, your legs bending at the knee make a 90 degree angle. Put your feet at about shoulder width apart directly in front of you. Adjust the weight accordingly and grip the handles on either side of the seat. Remember to exhale during the lift and inhale as you lower the weight.

Press your legs outward until they are straight out but do not lock your knees. Lower the weight by returning your legs to make a 90 degree angle but as in the other exercises, don’t completely lower the weight to a resting position.

Caution: When your legs are fully extended, maintain the tension. If you should relax your legs while extended, the weight may cause one or both legs to bend improperly resulting in injury. This is more likely to occur if you are lifting too heavy.

You have just performed your first rep. Repeat this action for the desired number of reps and then, in a controlled manner, lower the weight to its starting position and stand up.

I perform this exercise using a plate loaded machine rather than the LifeFitness or similar machine you’ll be starting out with, but the essentials are the same.

Bonus: Calf Extensions

While not essential for a first-time weight trainer, you’ll eventually want to also build up your calves. There are a number of ways you can work your calves. At the gym I go to, there’s a LifeFitness Calf Extension Machine that is probably the best way to start out.

Adjust the seat so that your legs are almost fully extended but placing your feet against the pedal forces your toes to point toward your body. Place the balls of your feet against the pad. Set the weight so you can perform the desired number of reps. Grip the handles on each side of your seat. Remember to exhale as you press and inhale and you lower the weight.

calf raises
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Press with your feet so that the pedal rotates forward raising the weight, stretching your calves as much as you can. The distance the weight stack lifts above starting position won’t be nearly as high since your feet aren’t moving very far. Lower the weight but not quite all the way.

That was your first rep. Repeat for the desired number of reps and then gently rest the weights back to the starting position and stand up.

You can also perform the same seated workout on a plate loaded machine, which is what I do. Additionally, there’s a variation, where you perform a calf press on the leg press machine but that’s a bit more advanced since you have to hold the weight in place with your legs fully extended and then press further with the balls of your feet while raising your heels.

You can also just grab a dumbbell in each hand and repeatedly stand on your “tippy-toes” and then lower yourself back on your heels, although this usually requires a 2 to 3 inch high piece of wood to place under the balls of your feet.


Congratulations! You’ve just successfully completed the legs portion of your full body workout.

Remember to stay hydrated by having a water bottle with you and taking sips whenever thirsty. Proper hydration improves your physical performance during exercise. Since your body is trying to keep your muscles cool through perspiration, have a towel handy to clean up after yourself when you’re done with each machine.

I’ll continue this series next week.

You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.

Zig Ziglar


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