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How to Build Leg Muscles for Women

author image Andrea Cespedes
Andrea Cespedes is a professionally trained chef who has focused studies in nutrition. With more than 20 years of experience in the fitness industry, she coaches cycling and running and teaches Pilates and yoga. She is an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer, RYT-200 and has degrees from Princeton and Columbia University.
How to Build Leg Muscles for Women
A woman lifting a heavy barbell in a cross fit gym. Photo Credit Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News/Getty Images

If you have trouble stripping fat from your hips, buttocks and thighs and replacing it with lean, strong muscle, you're not alone. This area is a trouble zone for many women. If you've been hitting cardio in hopes of losing weight and building up your legs, your strategy is all wrong. Most cardio does focus on the muscles of the lower body, but it doesn't provide enough resistance to give you seriously defined thighs. To build leg muscle, women must get off the treadmill and head to the weight room floor.

Heavy Weights

Fitness model Elaine Goodlad told "Oxygen Women's Fitness" that heavy weights are her key to a strong, lean and defined lower body. Certified strength and conditioning coach Rachel Cosgrove backs up this strategy in her book "The Female Body Breakthrough." Cosgrove notes that women often shy away from heavy weights for fear of gaining more bulk, especially in the lower body. Women lack the testosterone levels that cause Hulk-like results, however. Your muscles must encounter stress to build muscle. Your muscle fibers break down when you lift heavy weights, but when they heal, they multiply and toughen up, creating the muscular legs you desire.

Upper Legs

Classic leg exercises such as squats and lunges are the way to build leg muscle. Once you master the basic execution of these moves, add variety and reps with progressive versions. For example, a complete leg workout might include barbell squats in which you squat with a heavy barbell resting across the back of your shoulders; pistol, or one-legged, squats; goblet squats done by holding a heavy dumbbell at the center of your chest; and split squats with your rear leg elevated on a box or chair. When performing each repetition, focus on getting your thighs parallel to the floor and your butt slightly below your knees for maximum activation of the quadriceps, recommends Goodlad. You should also include lunges and their variations, including Smith-machine lunges, side lunges and walking lunges.

Lower Legs

Your calf muscles will build muscle in response to cardiovascular exercise -- but not the steady-state slog on the treadmill. You'll need to engage in high-intensity variations that literally keep you on your toes. Sprinting stairs, jumping rope and plyometrics, or jumping, movements are all calf developers. Standing and seated calf raises should also be part of your leg routine. Standing raises, which primarily target the large gastrocnemius muscle, can be done against a wall or with your heels hanging off a step or low ledge. Seated calf raises are usually performed using a machine to target the smaller soleus muscle.


To build muscle size, you'll want to do three to six sets of eight to 12 repetitions using 80 to 85 percent of the most weight you can do for one repetition. To build size, rest 30 to 60 seconds between each set. If it seems like this strategy is the same as the way the men train -- you are correct. Men and women build muscle in much the same way; women -- with the exception of genetic outliers -- just aren't capable of gaining the same absolute size as men. Do your leg-specific workout at least two times per week on nonconsecutive days. Go for three days per week for even greater results. Because this leg-centric routine will take time, save your upper-body exercises for alternate days so you aren't too exhausted.

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