best lower body exercises

The Best Lower Body Exercises For Athletic Performance

When selecting lower body exercises you have a lot of options. Each sport has its own unique features and each athlete has specific physical attributes that they need to improve on, thus making exercise selection quite varied. However, a great coach will keep coming back to certain exercises that have carry over to improve athletic qualities such as speed, power, and vertical jump. Here are the best lower body exercises to transform your performance in sport.

#1: The Squat

Increasing squat strength relative to bodyweight has been shown many times over to improve key sports performance markers, like speed and acceleration.

The back squat is probably the most versatile exercise in terms of the number of variations you can perform with it. Here are some examples of what makes the squat such a good exercise:

  • You can vary bar placement, which will change muscle fiber recruitment: Front, Back, Hack, Overhead, Zercher.
  • You can use a high training frequency as the squat has the most ability to be used for high-volume work of any exercise. This pays off in increasing leg strength quickly.
  • Additional variations include hand placement, tempo, squatting with chains and bands, or squatting from different positions off pins.
#2: The Clean

The clean performed from the ground and caught at the bottom position is the most bang for your buck exercise that will increase your physical output on the field of play. Let’s go through the different parts of the clean to explain why this is such a G.O.A.T. exercise!

The Starting Position

In many sports, you are required to start from a stationary position and accelerate your body from a dead stop. The clean teaches this as you accelerate the bar quickly off the ground to create momentum into the second pull.

The Second Pull of The Clean

A hallmark of the clean is triple extension of the hip, knee, and ankle joint. You should emphasize vertical displacement and have your athletes “jump” as high as they can off the floor. As the weight gets heavier, the distance of the toes off the ground will lessen, however, it’s the effort to accelerate the bar that will have the greatest impact on adaptations.

The Catch

The catch trains you to handle fast eccentric lowering and absorbing forces in disadvantaged positions. This requires great flexibility, stability, and strength to catch the loaded bar and stabilize it.


When the body is at its deepest position, the challenge of getting out of the squat and accelerating the bar is tremendous for developing strength. This is why you don't want to catch at the top quarter position: You miss out on eccentric lowering and reaccelerating the bar.

If you are doing 5 sets of 5 reps in the clean and you don’t catch it deep, you are missing out on 25 reps of front squat. After 3 weeks of 5 x 5 you would miss out on 75 reps of squatting. Lord forgive you for all the gainz you're missing out on!

#3: Romanian Deadlift

It’s the only deadlift on the list, so you know you better have it in your program. The RDL is one of the best exercises for improving speed. It’s also one of the best movements for developing lower body structural balance and bulletproofing the body against injury because the RDL overloads the stretched position of the posterior chain. From an aesthetic point of view, the RDL is a go-to for building the hamstrings and glutes. It is best performed between 6 and 15 reps.

#4: Power Snatch

The power snatch is the great equalizer because you need peak flexibility through the shoulder, hip, and ankle joints to perform this exercise correctly. Having the power snatch in your program is a strong motivator to stay current with stretching and mobility work.

It also develops speed. The power snatch helps take the strength gained in traditional exercises like the squat and deadlift and turn it into power by increasing the rate of force development.

#5: Glute-Ham Raise

The glute-ham raise is a go-to exercise for improving the “drive” acceleration phase when sprinting. Use it to increase speed over 10 to 25 yards.

The performance benefits don’t stop there. Training the hamstrings at the “knee joint” improves knee stabilization, which enhances change of direction ability—key for performance but also important to keep you healthy and injury free.

#6: Split Squat

A staple for building structural balance in the lower body, the split squat is a great stretch/strengthening exercise. While it might not be the exercise that takes you from first string to best on the team, good numbers in the split squat are essential to get you on the team in the first place.

This exercise strengthens a weak VMO in the quad. It also improves speed in the “acceleration phase” when sprinting. And it overloads the bottom position of the squat, where most athletes tend to be very weak.

#7: Single Leg Horizontal Back Extension

The single leg horizontal back extension improves single leg power by overloading the hamstring, glutes, and lower back at the angle of recruitment in the sprint position.

This exercise can be done fast or slow with longer holds at the top. Done rapidly mimics the activation of the muscles associated with sprinting and jumping.

Done slowly, it evens out imbalances in the lower back and glutes. This is key for sports like basketball in which athletes tend to have a favorite leg they like to jump off. Same goes for positions like a kicker or punter in football that tend to have major imbalances in the posterior chain due to the nature of their sport.

Bonus: Overhead Squat

The overhead squat is one of the most underrated exercises to improve athletic ability. Charles Poliquin did not like this exercise due to the limited ability of the shoulders to hold a large enough load overhead to stimulate strength in the lower extremity. He is not wrong.

However, this exercise is great for developing flexibility and strength in a disadvantaged position. It also adds a way to perform a difficult movement without taxing the lower body. Think of the split squat as a valuable stretch/strengthening exercise.

Many Olympic lifting strength coaches agree that the overhead squat is a valuable “accessory exercise” to develop athletic qualities. Bulletproof Adan Lopez, a former Olympian bobsled athlete for team USA, says that he has seen a direct correlation between the overhead squat and vertical jump due to the strengthening of the shoulder girdle in the squatting pattern.

Here are some additional benefits:

  • Trains the squat pattern in a challenging manner, without taxing the legs.
  • Improves both static and dynamic flexibility around the ankle, hip, and shoulder joints.
  • Improves strength and stability through the entire shoulder girdle and mid back.
  • Directly correlates to improvements in vertical jump and sprint speed.
Get Started

It’s best to perform rep range between 3 and 8 reps and lighter loads. Start with the empty bar and work up.

Final Words

To make gains in your lower body training, you need to work smarter not harder. Use these eight best exercises to bulletproof your lower body and take your performance to the next level.


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