The best leg workouts for women

From squats and lunges to deadlifts and box jumps, keep leg day interesting with these best workouts to tone up your legs

Woman working out her legs with a Swiss ball

Looking to achieve slender, toned legs without them turning big and bulky? We've put together a selection of the best leg workouts for women, designed to shape and strengthen your legs. 

The truth is that leg day can be a bit boring, because the fastest way to tone up your legs is to squat and lunge, and then lunge and squat some more. We all know though, that a boring workout is a workout that just doesn't happen.

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To remedy your leg day blues, we've combined squats and lunges with weightlifting and cardio to ensure your legs are getting the best workout they can, whilst keeping things interesting. Well, as interesting as is realistically possible.

There are three rounds: one focusing on cardio that really works the legs, one using your body weight only, and one that uses free weights to add some extra resistance and give you a complete leg workout that burns fat. 

These are the best leg workouts for women, so we've focused on low weight exercises that we'll do high reps of. If instead you're looking to bulk up and get big legs then check out these leg exercise recommendations from personal trainer (and Love Island star) Frankie Foster. We'd say those are more for men but hey, it's a free country.

The best leg workouts for women: before you start 

Woman stretching her leg

Because we use our legs pretty much all day every day, it's easy to think that they can take more of a battering than other muscles. Sometimes it takes a while for our leg muscles to start to ache and feel sore, so always make sure that you stretch before and after a leg workout, even if they feel okay at the time. 

It's also worth getting yourself a foam roller, which you can use to massage tightness out of fatigued muscles. Be warned: it is supposed to hurt!

 The best leg workouts for women: cardio exercises 

For these exercises you'll need a box or bench to jump on and off of, which you should find in abundance at your local gym. 

If you're working out at home and don't have something you can jump onto that's fine, but you'll need to motivate yourself to make sure you're jumping high enough off the ground to make ensure you're really working your legs. There are also plyometric boxes (ie: those boxes you jump on) that you can buy, such as in this list of…

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For each of the cardio exercises we will workout for a set period of time, rather than counting reps. 

Two women doing box jumps

Exercise: Box jumps 

Time: 30 seconds on, 10 seconds off 

Sets: 3

Stand in front of your bench or box with your feet hip-width apart. Bend and the knee and jump from the ground onto your box, and back off again. Do this for thirty seconds and then rest for ten seconds. 

Exercise: Burpees 

Time: 30 seconds on, 10 seconds off 

Sets: 3

Begin standing upright and then squat down with your hands on the floor in front of you. Push your legs back, extending your body into a plank position. Then reverse the motion: bring your legs back in towards your hands so that you are squatting and then stand up. 

To make this exercise tougher you can add a jump at the end of the motion so that you are jumping up rather than standing up. You can also add a press up before you reverse the motion so that you are working your arms in addition to your legs. 

Exercise: Mountain climbers 

Time: 30 seconds on, 10 seconds off 

Sets: 3

Get into a high plank position with your hands on the floor in front of you and your feet extended behind you. Bring your knee to your chest, alternating legs so that you are effectively running on the spot. Do this as quickly as you can for thirty seconds before resting for ten seconds. 

Exercise: High-knee toe taps 

Time: 30 seconds on, 10 seconds off 

Sets: 3

For this exercise we will use our box or bench again. Stand in front of your box and lift your right knee so that you can tap your right toes on the edge of the box. Now do the same with your left. Do this as quickly as you can for thirty seconds before resting for ten seconds.  

The best leg workouts for women: body weight exercises 

Exercise: Leg side raises 

Reps: 20 (10 per leg)

Sets: 3

Lie on your right side with your legs extended straight.  Support your weight with your right arm, which should be flat on the floor palms facing your feet (arm on the ground as if you're about to arm wrestle, rather than your palm being flat on the ground). 

Slowly raise your top (left) leg, keeping both of your legs straight, and then lower it back down to rest on top of your bottom (right) leg. Repeat this ten times on your right side and then switch to your left side.

To increase the intensity of this leg workout you can add resistance bands around your calves. 

Exercise: Inner thigh leg raises 

Reps: 20 (10 per leg)

Sets: 3

Return to your right side, in the same position as you were for the side leg raises, but this time cross your left leg over your right leg, planting your foot flat on the floor. Your left knee will be bent over your right leg at a 90 degree angle. 

Slowly raise your bottom (right) leg as high as you can without moving your left leg, and then return it to the ground.  This version of the leg raise works your inner thigh in particular. 

Repeat this ten times on your right side and then switch to your left side.   

Exercise: Lateral lunges  

Reps: 20 (10 per leg)

Sets: 3

From standing, step out to the side with your right leg and allow your weight to go with you, so that your right knee is bent and you are lunging to the right hand side but without having turned your body. Return to standing and repeat this motion ten times before changing to lunge to the left. 

To do this exercise correctly keep your shoulders back rather than rolling forward and losing your posture. Also, try not to let your knee hang over your toes  when you lunge.

Woman rising on tip toes to exercise calf muscles

Exercise: Calf raises 

Reps: 20 

Sets: 3

This is a deceptively rough exercise that really doesn't look like it should do anything, but boy can it work your calf muscles.

Stand with your feet hip-width apart and slowly rise up onto your tip toes. Tense your core to keep your balance and squeeze your glutes when you reach the top of your range of motion. Then slowly lower down to put your feet flat on the floor. 

The best leg workouts for women: free weight exercises  

Man deadlifting

Exercise: Romanian deadlifts 

Reps: 20 

Sets: 3

For this exercise you will need a barbell. What weight you decide to have on your bar is completely your choice, but for a reasonably fit and strong woman we'd suggest 10kg - 15kg as a good place to start. 

Hold the bar horizontally across your body with your palms facing inwards.  Your feet should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, and your knees should be slightly bent. 

Keeping the weight close to (but not touching) your legs and without bending your knees any further, slowly lower the weight. As well as being one of the best leg workouts for women, Romanian deadlifts also strengthen the lower back. As such, that's where you should be bending from as you lower the weight. 

You will feel a stretch in your hamstrings, and this stretch will tell you how far to lower the weight; once you've gone through your whole available range of motion without bending your knees, stop.  

Return to your starting position and repeat this twenty times. 

Woman lunging

Exercise: Alternating lunges 

Reps: 20 (10 per leg)

Sets: 3

For this exercise you will need two dumbbells. Again the weight is up to you, but we recommend starting with between 2 and 4kg as we are using them to assist the leg workout, rather than workout our arms. 

Holding a dumbbell in each hand, step forward with your right leg and bend at the knee so that you are in a lunge position. Return to standing and then do the same on your left leg. 

We'll do twenty lunges in total, but alternating which leg we workout so that it is ten lunges per leg. 

Exercise: Sumo squats 

Reps: 20 

Sets: 3

For this exercise you will need a kettlebell or similar weight (a single dumbbell would work too but is less convenient to hold). We recommend between 6 and 12kg depending on your strength and how much resistance you want to add. 

Stand with your feet wide apart and your toes pointing outwards. Hold the kettlebell with both hands in front of you, roughly in between your thighs. 

Bend your knees to squat, pushing your hips back as lower your weight, and then return to standing position. 

Exercise: Single leg deadlifts  

Reps: 20 (10 per leg)

Sets: 3

For this exercise you will need your kettlebell again. You can start with the same weight that you used for the sumo squat and see how that feels, but it's possible you'll want a lighter weight as we're working one leg at a time here.

Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold the kettlebell in your right hand. Slowly extend your left leg out behind you, keeping it straight. As you do, tilt your body forward and lower the kettlebell towards the ground.

As with the Romanian deadlifts, you should not bend your standing (right) leg, and once you feel the stretch in your right hamstring and cannot lower the weight any further, return to an upright position. 

Do this ten times on the right side before swapping the weight to your left hand and working out your left leg. 

Esther Docherty
Esther is a new addition to the team, covering Fitness and Outdoor content.