If your fitness goal is to develop leg strength for sports or build lean muscle in your legs, then you should definitely be using the 3 big leg exercises with a barbell. Barbell squats, barbell dead lifts, and barbell lunges are 3 of the best overall exercises to build up lower body strength and develop all the leg muscles.
The barbell squat is one of the most important exercises for athletes in running or jumping sports. Squatting is such a fundamental movement, and it has been shown time and time again in research to improve speed and vertical leaping ability. Squats develop all the major muscles in the legs, including the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quadriceps, and calf, and squats will secondarily work the hip adductors, abductors, and ankle and foot muscles.
Obviously, the squat uses all the leg muscles, but it also engages the core muscles and improves balance. When compared to the leg press the squat movement is very similar, but balance and core strength improves to a higher degree during squats because you are standing up. Actually, all of the barbell exercises have the benefit of additional core and balance work because you are standing.
Barbell lunges are the exercise that will challenge your balance the most because of the split stance, and some strength coaches feel lunges are more important than squats because lunges more closely mimic the running motion. Running is a one-legged activity and changing directions requires tons of balance and coordination. Lunges will work all the same muscles as squats, but you will get enhanced ankle work and hip abductor and adductor work because the hip and ankle stabilizers will work harder to help maintain your balance during lunges.
The dead lift is also a great leg exercise for building up strength and lean muscle in the legs. When compared to the squat, the dead lift will place more emphasis on the glutes and hamstrings instead of the quadriceps. The dead lift also strengthens the lower back to a higher degree than lunges and squats. A strong lower back is so important for runners and jumpers, and the lower back is often neglected in training programs.
The dead lift exercise is also extremely important for athletes in contact sports, and it also supports improved posture. A side benefit of the dead lift is increased grip strength and wrist strength, which is important for athletes that hold rackets, bats, clubs or balls.
If you are an athlete trying to improve performance in a sport than these 3 exercises are all key to a strengthening program. And if you want to build lean muscle in your legs, your must include these exercises in your workout program.