Cardio activities like running and riding a bike are fantastic for increasing your heart rate and burning calories. You also train your lower body and feel an intense burning sensation in your quads and calves.
But is traditional cardio an effective way to train your lower body? It can be, but you must pick the right exercises for your leg day.
To that end, let’s discuss the difference between cardio and leg training.
Can Cardio Make for a Good Leg Workout?
It’s no secret that cardio trains your legs. Go for a 30-minute jog, and you’ll probably experience a deep burning sensation in your calves and quadriceps. The experience naturally leads to the question: “Does running count as leg day?”
Unfortunately, low-intensity steady-state cardio (LISS) isn’t the best way to train and develop your muscles. According to research, aerobic exercise can bring some hypertrophy, but only initially and for untrained people (1, 2).
Further, cardio activities target a limited number of muscles, only resulting in the growth of a specific area. For example, cycling is good for the quadriceps, but it fails to develop other lower body muscles: the glutes, hamstrings, calves, adductors, etc. (1).
HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is slightly different because the type of training is based on alternating between intense activity and recovery. For example, you can run at 80 percent of your maximum for 30 seconds, walk for a minute, and repeat several times.
Some data suggests that HIIT is more beneficial for muscle growth because of the higher intensity and greater recruitment of fast-twitch muscle fibers (3, 4). Activities like interval running, sprinting, and sled pushes can train your lower body more effectively and promote growth.
8 Cardio Leg Exercises for Muscle Growth, Athleticism, and Endurance
Here are 8 of the best cardio leg exercises:
1. Alternating Jump Lunges
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, chest out, arms to your sides, and core engaged.
- Take a breath and hop. Immediately bring your right leg forward and your left leg back. Plant your right foot on the floor and support yourself on the ball of your left foot.
- Immediately sink into a lunge by bending your right knee. Descend until your back knee is an inch or two from the floor.
- Press through your front heel, propelling yourself in the air. Immediately switch the position of your legs, planting your left foot on the floor and bringing your right leg back.
- Sink into a lunge again.
- Alternate jump and breathe steadily as you do reps.
The alternating jump lunge is a challenging exercise that can stress your joints. Approach the movement with caution and maintain a steady tempo.
More advanced trainees can hold a dumbbell in front of their torso for additional resistance.
2. Skater Hops
- Assume the starting position with your feet shoulder-width apart and arms to your sides.
- Take a breath and flex your abs.
- Bend your right knee and lift the right foot off the floor.
- Jump to the right, landing on the ball of your foot. Bring your left leg close to your right and exhale.
- Take another breath, lift your left leg and jump to the left, bringing the right leg to the left.
- Alternate jump to the left and right for up to 60 seconds and take a break.
Skater hops are a beginner-friendly exercise that doesn’t take much to learn. You can bump the intensity by jumping to the left and right more rapidly.
3. Glute Bridge Pulse
- Lay an exercise mat on the floor and lie down.
- Bend your knees and plant your feet flat on the floor. Have your arms to your sides for balance.
- Engage your core and take a breath.
- Squeeze your glutes to lift your hips toward the ceiling.
- Pause at the top for a moment and lower your hips halfway down.
- Stop and squeeze your glutes to extend your hips to the top position again.
- Keep lowering and raising your hips several inches for up to 60 seconds.
The glute bridge pulse is a great cardio-based activity you can add to leg day. You can make the movement more challenging by training one leg at a time. Plant your right foot flat on the floor and have your left leg straight.
Train one side at a time, switch leg positions, and work your left side for the same period.
Alternatively, position a dumbbell over your hips for extra resistance.
Related article: Top 15 Gluteus Minimus Activation Exercises
4. Pulsing Bodyweight Squats
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and toes pointing slightly out.
- Bring your shoulders back, extend your arms in front of your body, and engage your abs to assume the starting position. You can hold a dumbbell for additional resistance.
- Take a breath and descend until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Keep your heels on the floor for balance.
- Press through your heels to move up several inches and pause.
- Move down to parallel again and extend your knees slightly.
- Keep moving up and down several inches at a time until you’re done.
Pulsing squats are an intense activity you can add to your leg day. One option is to do these as a finisher.
Complete your workout and do a few 30 to 60-second sets of pulsing squats to exhaust your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
5. Walking Lunges
- Stand tall with your feet together, shoulders back, gaze forward, and hands on your hips for the starting position.
- Engage your abs and take a breath.
- Extend your right leg and plant the right foot flat on the floor.
- Immediately sink into a lunge by bending your right knee. Go down until your front thigh is almost parallel to the floor and your rear knee is an inch or two from the ground.
- Press through your front heel and immediately stand up, bringing your left leg in front of the right. Exhale at the top.
- Inhale and descend into another lunge.
- Repeat the lunge and move forward with each repetition.
Walking lunges are more of a traditional weight training exercise, but performing the bodyweight version allows you to do more reps and train your cardiovascular system.
6. Jump Squats
- Stand with your feet apart at roughly hip-width and toes pointing slightly out.
- Bring your shoulders back, engage your core, and take a breath.
- Squat down by bringing your buttocks back and keeping your weight on your heels and toes. Have your arms in front of your body.
- Descend until your thighs are parallel to the floor, and press through your heels to squat up. Immediately transition into a vertical jump, driving your arms back for extra momentum.
- Exhale while you’re in the air, take another breath, and descend into another squat.
- Perform as many reps as possible.
You can hold a light dumbbell for additional resistance. The exercise is an excellent addition to a leg routine. Similar to pulsing squats, the jump squat can be a finisher to pump up the quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
7. Box Jumps
- Assume the starting position by standing in front of a plyo box or flat gym bench. The elevated object should be high enough for you to comfortably jump over and land with both feet.
- Have your feet in a comfortable stance, retract your shoulders, and take a breath.
- Bring your arms in front of your torso.
- Engage your core and take a breath.
- Descend into a half squat (having your hips higher than your knees) and push through your heels to straighten your legs, jumping forward and up.
- Land on top of the box or flat bench.
- Carefully step off the platform, take another breath, and repeat.
Box jumps are a fantastic plyometric exercise that promotes muscle growth, lower body power development, and cardiovascular improvements.
You can do the movement as part of a leg routine or pair it with cardio-based activities: battle rope, interval running, etc.
Related article: Best Leg Workouts and Exercises for a Strong Lower Body
8. Alternating Side Lunges
- Stand tall with your feet together, legs straight, body upright, and arms to your sides.
- Lift your right leg and extend it to the right, planting the foot on the ground.
- Sink into a squat by bending your knee. Bring your hands in front of your chest for balance, and keep your left leg straight.
- Squat until your right thigh is almost parallel to the floor, and hold for a moment. Your upper body should be upright.
- Press through your heel to extend the right knee and immediately bring your leg in as you exhale.
- Take another breath and bring your left leg out, descending into another squat. Keep your right leg straight.
- Repeat the motion, alternating between squatting to the left and right until you’re done.
You can hold a dumbbell in front of your chest for additional resistance, but it’s best to start with the bodyweight version first. Doing more reps is beneficial for engaging your cardiovascular system and burning more calories.
HIIT Leg Workout (Train All Lower Body Muscles)
The following is a HIIT cardio workout for your lower body muscles. It only takes 15 to 20 minutes to complete, and you will need an exercise mat. A light dumbbell can also work if you’re more advanced.
- Alternating Jump Lunges
- Skater Hops
- Jump Squats
- Alternating Side Lunges
Perform each exercise for 30 to 45 seconds, resting for up to 30 seconds. Once finished, take up to a minute to recover and do another round.
You can start with two rounds and gradually work up to five. Each round should take you no more than five minutes, and you can fit four in 20 minutes.
What to Avoid When Doing a Cardio Leg Workout (Leg Day Errors)?
1. Going too Fast
Most people new to high-intensity interval training and cardio leg training tend to push themselves too hard. Doing so limits their performance and increases the risk of technique breakdown.
Take the above workout as an example. If you push yourself too hard right from the start, you’re more likely to be exhausted by the time you get to the third and fourth exercises.
Avoid that by maintaining a steady tempo from the start to see what intensity you can handle.
2. Training at a Low Intensity
In contrast to the previous mistake, the second error is training at a low intensity, which prevents them from recruiting the fast-twitch muscle fibers primed for growth (5).
Low-intensity training mainly works your cardiovascular system but doesn’t stimulate much muscle growth.
You should push yourself hard enough to feel relatively winded within 30 to 60 seconds on most activities.
3. Only Doing a Couple of Movements
The third thing to avoid is only focusing on one or two activities––for example, interval running.
Your workouts should include several activities to train all lower body areas effectively. For example, the combination of exercises we’ve listed in our workout is effective because you get to train your legs in several ways and more evenly develop all the major muscle groups.
Traditional cardio activities like jogging are not good for training your legs and promoting significant muscle growth. The growth stimulus is small, and you’re only training a limited number of muscles.
The good news is that you can mix cardio-based training with resistance exercise. A simple HIIT routine that includes several activities at a high enough intensity can train your cardiovascular system and help you develop strength, power, and overall athleticism.