When the famous model Twiggy was walking the runways of Europe and the U.S. in the 1960s, stick-thin legs were all the rage. Today, though, an athletic physique—complete with well-developed leg—is a sought-after look. But how to get that physique?
Building leg muscle will help "thicken" your legs, while giving them a toned and defined appearance. Exercises that target the hamstrings, quadriceps and calf muscles will thicken your legs in all the right places.
Squat It if You Got it
Squats are the go-to exercise for building muscle in the legs, targeting the hamstring, quads, calves and glutes. There are myriad ways to do squats -- including both with and without weight -- but the basic technique is the same. Practice the technique before you add weight to prevent injury.
How to Do It
- Stand up tall with your feet hip-distance apart. Pull your shoulders back and down, and puff up through your chest. Contract your abs. Maintain this upper-body positioning throughout the exercise.
- Inhale as you bend at the knees and hips simultaneously, sending your hips back and down as if sitting into a chair. Keep the weight back in your heels so that your knees don't extend past your toes. Keep your torso erect.
- Squat down until your thighs are parallel or a little below parallel with the ground. Pause for a second, then exhale as you rise back up to standing.
When you've got your squatting form mastered, add weight to increase the challenge and build more muscle. You don't need to squat a lot of weight at first -- just enough so that the exercise feels very challenging by the last rep of each set. You can use a barbell across the backs of your shoulders, hold two dumbbells at shoulder-height or hold a medicine ball in the center of your chest.
Lunge for Great Legs
Lunges work every muscle in the lower body. You can do them stationary, stepping one foot out and then back; walking; or to the side to get a complete lower-body workout. As with squats, master the technique first before adding weight.
How to Do It
- Stand with your feet together and your torso erect.
- Inhale as you take a big step forward with your right foot, landing with a bent knee. Lower down until your knee forms a 90-degree angle. Your knee should be directly over your foot, not coming past your toes. If it does come past the toes, take a bigger step next rep.
- Pause for a second at the bottom, then exhale as you push off of your right foot to return to the starting position.
- Switch sides, stepping forward with the left foot this time.
- Stand with your feet together. Exhale as you take a big step forward with your right foot, landing with a bent knee and coming down until your thigh is parallel with the ground.
- Pause for a moment at the bottom, then exhale as you rise up, bringing your left foot forward and stepping right into a lunge on the left side. Ensure that your left knee does not go past your left toes and keep your torso erect.
- Continue alternating as you move forward.
- Stand with your feet together. Inhale as you take a big step out to the side with your right foot. Land with a bent knee and the right foot parallel with the left foot.
- Lunge down until your thigh is parallel with the ground, but keep your torso erect.
- Exhale as you push off the right foot to bring it back to the starting position.
- Switch sides, lunging with your left foot.
When you've mastered the form and want to add challenge, add weight with a barbell across your shoulders, two dumbbells held at shoulder-height or a medicine ball held in the center of your chest. You can also hold weights above your head, which increases the difficulty of the exercise.
Step Up Your Leg Game
With a move as simple as stepping up onto a bench, you can develop your glutes, hamstrings and quads. Lifting your own bodyweight up on one leg is no easy feat, but once you master the form and build some strength, you can add weight to really thicken your leg muscles.
How to Do It
- Stand in front of a weight bench or sturdy chair with your torso erect and shoulders back.
- Step your right foot up on the bench, placing your your whole foot solidly on the surface. Exhale as you push into your right foot using your thigh muscles to rise up until your knees and legs are fully extended.
- Inhale as you step your left foot down and then your right foot. Repeat, stepping with your left foot first. You can also do all your reps on one side, then switch and do a set on your left side.
Swiss Ball Hamstring Curls
By now, your whole legs have gotten a tough workout. However, your hamstrings might need a little more specific toning. You can do hamstring curls on a machine, or grab a Swiss ball and do these curls on a mat at the gym or at home. These are typically done without adding weight.
How to Do It
- Lie on your back on an exercise mat with your legs extended. Lift your feet and place your heels right on the top of the Swiss ball.
- Pressing through your heels, lift your hips up in line with your chest so your body forms one straight line.
- Exhale as you contract the hamstrings and roll the ball in toward your butt. Keep your hips lifted throughout the exercise.
- Curl the ball in as far as you can, pause for a second, then inhale as you roll the ball all the way back out. Repeat.
You can lower your hips to ground in between reps or keep your hips up in between. The latter option makes the exercise more difficult.
Tips for Building Great Legs
How much weight you should lift and how many reps per set you should do depends on how much muscle you want to build. Lower weight and higher reps builds smaller muscles that give a more toned look. Heavy weights lifted for fewer reps causes muscles to grow larger -- sometimes significantly. Your body type and whether you put on muscle easily also plays a role in how much muscle you'll build with either strategy.
You can get toned, athletic-looking legs just using your body weight, as long as you do enough repetitions to really "feel the burn" by the end of your set. If you're using your body weight only, work up to sets of 10 to 20 reps.
If you want to build very thick muscles in your legs, you'll need to add some weight and do lower repetitions per set. Start out gradually, and add weight so that you're doing 3 to 8 reps per set and really feeling challenged on that last rep.