The 6 Best Lower-Body Strength-Training Variations for Plus-Sized Exercisers

woman following an online workout and doing a split squat exercise in her living room
Making tweaks to common leg exercises can help plus-size exercisers feel more comfortable and get the most out of their workouts.
Image Credit: urbazon/E+/GettyImages

Squats, deadlifts and lunges are some of the best exercises to strengthen your lower body, but what these moves look like can vary from person to person. And with plenty of strength-training variations for classic leg exercises, there's usually a way to make a move work best for your body and your specific fitness goals.

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"By using variations of an exercise, you are able to start with a movement you feel most safe doing, and progress as you get stronger. Exploring and finding variations of exercises that are right for ​you​ sets you up for success," Keri Harvey, CPT, a personal trainer in New York City, tells LIVESTRONG.com

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For people with larger bodies, that might mean simply widening your stance in a squat or lunge so that your midsection and thighs don't inhibit your range of motion, so you get the right amount of muscle activation, Harvey says.

"For others, that might mean not going as low in your lunge and stopping at the level you feel safest." And for those with joint or knee issues, that might mean learning to modify high-impact movements to reduce pressure on your joints, she says, by, for example, replacing a jump with a step.

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Also, remember that exercises look different on various body types, Harvey adds. "Your narrow squat may not look as narrow as the next person's, but what's more important is that you feel you can safely complete the movement."

Here, Harvey shares six leg exercises that are particularly great options for people with larger bodies.

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1. Step-Up With Dumbbells

Working your quads and glutes, this highly functional exercise mimics the movement of walking up a flight of stairs.

"Step-ups are great for improving stability and balance and can be [altered] for whatever height you're comfortable with," Harvey says.

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Lower Body
  1. Stand in front of a box or step and hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides.
  2. Step up with your left foot and press through your heel to straighten that leg.
  3. Bring your right foot up to meet your left foot on the box.
  4. Keeping your left foot on the box, gently step back down with your right foot and repeat.
  5. Change sides after finishing all of your reps.

Progression

Try a step-up with leg raise by lifting your second leg at the top of the movement until your thigh is parallel to the floor, then lower it back to the ground. This also adds an extra cardio element, Harvey says.

2. Goblet Sumo Squat

Holding weight in the goblet position is a great way to turn the squat into a full-body move because you're using your shoulders and core to keep your chest lifted and torso upright.

"This wider-stance squat is a great option for people with larger midsections," Harvey says. It also works your glutes and inner-thigh muscles a bit more than a narrow-stance squat.

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Lower Body
  1. Hold a weight, such as a dumbbell or kettlebell, in front of your chest and stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart, toes pointing slightly outward.
  2. Keep your chest up, brace your core and push your hips back as you bend your knees to lower into a squat.
  3. Pause, then push through both feet to return to the starting position.

Progression

Add a calf raise. "At the top of your squat, raise to your tiptoes. Then, lower your heels slowly back to the ground," Harvey says. This not only gets the calves working harder but also adds more of a balance challenge.

3. Good Morning

This move gets you working on the hip hinge, which is a fundamental movement pattern. For example, you use it when you deadlift.

"Good mornings strengthen the lower back and hips, which can lower your risk of injuries and eliminate low back pain in some cases," Harvey says.

Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Lower Body
  1. Place your hands behind your head. Keeping a neutral spine, hinge at your hips, pushing them back as you lower your upper body until it's almost parallel to the floor.
  2. Press through both feet and lift your torso back up to the starting position.

Progression

Try a staggered-stance good morning, Harvey recommends. This variation focuses on one leg at a time. Instead of standing with your feet next to each other, step one forward a few inches. Put most of your weight into your front foot, and use your back foot as a kickstand to help you balance.

4. Box Squat

"Box squats are great for people in larger bodies because the majority of your weight will be distributed between your hamstrings, glutes and heels," Harvey says. That means less pressure on your knees than you might feel in an air squat.

Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Lower Body
  1. Stand in front of a box, bench or sturdy chair.
  2. Hinge forward at your hips and send your butt back as you bend your knees and lower onto the box, bench or chair.
  3. Pause, then push evenly through both feet to come back to standing.

Progression

After you've nailed the body-weight version, hold a dumbbell or kettlebell by your chest to further challenge your strength.

5. Split Squat

Split squats work the entire lower body and are more static and stable than lunges, Harvey says. The extra stability — and the fact that your feet stay planted on the floor — reduces the amount of force that might go into your knee in a forward lunge.

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Lower Body
  1. Step one foot out in front of you so you're in a split stance.
  2. Pull your shoulder blades back and down, brace your core and keep your torso tall.
  3. Bend both knees and let the heel of your back foot rise up. Lower as far as comfortable, or until your back knee almost touches the floor and your front thigh is parallel with the floor.
  4. Press through your front foot to stand up without moving your feet.
  5. Repeat.
  6. S#witch legs after completing all of your reps.

Tip

If you could use additional stability, hold onto a countertop, sturdy chair or railing. Have trouble touching the floor with your back knee? Harvey suggests placing a foam pad or towel under that knee to touch.

Progression

Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest to make this move more challenging.

6. Glute Bridge

The bridge is an excellent way to strengthen all three of your glute muscles, which are important for powering athletic performance. Glute bridges are also beneficial for loosening tight hips and activating your core.

"Bridges are a heavy-hitter core exercise that can be low intensity, depending on the variation," Harvey says.

For example, a weighted glute bridge or a bridge with marches will enlist your core to help you stabilize.

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Activity Body-Weight Workout
Region Core and Lower Body
  1. Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, feet flat on the ground and knees bent.
  2. On an exhale, squeeze your glutes, press into your heels and drive your hips up toward the ceiling.
  3. Raise your hips until your body forms a diagonal line from your knees to your hips to your chest.
  4. Pause here for a moment, then reverse the motion to bring your hips back down to the ground.

Progression

Try a B-stance floor bridge, which focuses more on single-leg strength, Harvey says. To do it, move one of your feet forward a bit so that your heel is in line with the toes of your other foot. Then, rise up onto the heel of that forward food, so your toes are in the air. You should feel most of the work in the leg that's still planted fully on the floor.

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