The 5 Missing Lifts for Lower-Body Strength

Functional Exercises for Legs and Glutes

Don’t be all show and no go. Add these exercises to your program to build athletic strength, boost performance, and build even more muscle.

What does it mean to have strong legs and glutes? Well, it involves more than just being able to move a lot of weight.

Real-world strength and resiliency are about being stable under load and having the capacity to move big weights outside the typical sagittal plane (forward and backward) or when both of your feet are cemented to the floor, as with squats and deadlifts.

Having as much “show” as “go” in your lower body is all about maintaining control, strength, and proficiency in all planes of movement.

Here are five functional, athletic exercises that’ll get the job done:

1. Heavy Back-Loaded Bulgarian Split Squat

The glute craze has certainly put Bulgarian split squats on the map, but I rarely see them loaded with significant weight or back-loaded. Why? Because heavy back-loaded Bulgarians are really hard to do.

They require much more stability than their less challenging dumbbell counterpart. Good luck loading up the dumbbell version for triples and doubles. Your grip will give out before your lower body.

Back-loaded Bulgarians are one of the best strength, muscle, and resiliency builders you can do for your lower body. It’s a staple exercise with my MMA fighters in their strength-building phase.

Try 3-5 sets of 5 reps, or 5 sets of 3 reps per leg.

2. Landmine Curtsy

Frontal plane exercises are great for athleticism and overall functionality. The body moves through all planes of motion when playing a sport. It’s wise to develop genuine side-to-side strength.

The landmine curtsy places a high demand on the lateral hip and glute medius, making it a deadly resiliency builder to add to your training routine for a block or two.

Do 3 sets of 10-12 reps per side.

3. Glute Ham Raise/Developer

If your gym has a GHD and you’re not using it, you’re missing out! The GHD places incredible demand on the glutes and hamstrings but in a much more localized, high-tension manner. It’s impossible to replicate with isolated machine lifts. Any exercise that’s hard to do with just body weight is a must-do exercise.

The glute ham raise also places a high degree of tension on the hips and lumbar spine – the foundation of a bulletproof lower body. Unfortunately, due to its difficulty, many people break at the hips and hyperextend at the spine, losing the true value of the exercise.

Until you can perform it with immaculate form, use band assistance and get strong with good form.

Generally, perform 3 sets of 8-10 reps.

4. Single-Leg Barbell Deadlift

Take the average powerlifter or bodybuilder that can pull 500 pounds off the ground and get them to do a single-leg deadlift. They’ll quickly realize how unstable and weak they are on one leg, even though they’re incredibly strong as a unit. Single-leg barbell deadlifts highlight how much stability is required to keep the pelvis and hips in position, and just how much weaker certain stabilizers might be. An admirable goal? Within reason, become just as comfortable on one leg as you are on two.

An added benefit is that your bilateral lifts, like your deadlift and squat, will become significantly stronger after you’ve tightened up some weak links side-to-side.

Focus on keeping the hips, shoulders, and torso close to parallel to the floor as you hinge your hips back. Place tension into the ground with your base foot by cementing that foot in place and gripping the floor.

Brace your core and drive the hips back with control, keeping the bar tight to the body. Continue until the bar is slightly past your knee before extending your hips into lockout.

Do 3 sets of 6-8 reps per leg.

5. Pistol Squat

This exercise eluded me for some time, mostly because I’d fail. I thought my time was better spent in the squat rack. But I knew that a strong lower body should be able to perform most, if not all, movements with control, stability, and strength, including the highly challenging pistol squat.

Pistol squats build a surprising amount of strength and muscle and improve the functionality of your lower body by increasing hip mobility, strengthening your hip flexors, developing stronger and more flexible ankles, and improving stability.

Try 2 sets of 5-7 reps per leg.

Make any workout work better. Fuel it.



Three and four are so key especially GHD I’d even say 45 degree back extension.

1 Like

Thanks for this @Brandon_Rynka! I’ve always been curious about single leg deadlifts - Do you strive for a more straight leg approach in order to keep balance, or is it just a matter of feel?

Re pistol squats I’ve never thought about doing it standing on a bench (thank you)! Will add this to my home leg workout along with sissy squats, dumbbell squats and wall standing isometrics. I wonder if resistance bands is doable on the pistol squats? Something to try.

Shame GHR is not at my gym. Same with reverse hyper

Worst gym injury I’ve had was from single leg barbell deadlift. Twisting under heavy loads is the most dangerous possible activity for your spine. You might say the goal is to strengthen the muscles to avoided loaded torsion, but the risk/reward ratio is extremely unfavorable. Regular deadlifts and low bar squats with heavy weights will make the same muscles strong (although not in a targeted way) and are not nearly as risky.

Glute-ham is by far the best exercise on this list.