The 30-Day Squat Challenge has resulted in many before and after photos proving that squats are great for toning and slimming down your thighs. The key to thinner thighs is to choose the right training method and prioritize healthy eating. Strength training and cardio are equally important.
If your goal is thinner thighs, squats are a great way to tone up your entire lower body. For best results, add this exercise along with a healthy diet and regular aerobic exercise to your routine.
The Many Benefits of Squats
The squat is one of the best exercises to tone the lower body and counteract a sedentary lifestyle, says Harvard Health Publishing. This is a highly functional movement as it mimics activities you do throughout the day, such as sitting, standing and getting in and out of a chair or the car.
This exercise works so well because it engages multiple muscles at the same time, including the following:
- Glutes (gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus and gluteus medius)
- Hip flexors
Squats also force your core muscles and upper body to work harder to stabilize you, making it a total-body movement, points out the American Council on Exercise. In addition to making your legs look fantastic, this move may also help you run faster and jump higher.
There are many ways to work your legs with squats. If you want more of a challenge, you may use dumbbells or a barbell for added resistance. Standing on a stability ball will challenge both your muscles and your balance.
Basic Squatting Techniques
To prevent injury, it is important to maintain proper form when doing a basic squat. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. If you're a beginner, you can stand with your feet slightly wider than your shoulders for more stability. Push your hips and buttocks back as if you're getting ready to sit in a chair and then lower yourself down.
If you are new to this exercise, you can even place a chair behind you to get the feel of the right movement. To prevent knee injury, think about first hinging your hips back as you start squatting. If you bend at the knees first before pushing your hips back, it can put undue stress on your knees.
As your hips hinge back and you continue squatting down, your knees will fall in the correct alignment. Your goal is to squat down far enough that your thighs are almost parallel to the floor.
Keep your feet flat on the floor and your core engaged. Stop if you feel knee pain at any point. You can hold on to a chair or place your arms in front for balance.
Will Squats Make You Bulky?
You may have noticed that some people gain muscle mass more easily than others. The amount of muscle you gain with exercise is based largely on genetics, says Columbia University.
If your goal is thinner thighs, you shouldn't worry that squats will make your legs bulky — which is a common concern among women. In fact, women don't have the testosterone or the growth hormone levels that allow men to bulk up, says the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
Doing strength training, like squats or leg presses at the gym, will result in building up lean muscle mass for a toned appearance. Plus, lean muscle mass burns more calories (even at rest!) than adipose tissue and will help in keeping the extra weight off.
Read more: Do You Gain Weight When Lifting Weights?
As you strength train, you won't lose fat just in your thighs, but everywhere. You can't "spot reduce" in just one area, as where you lose fat is determined by your genetics, says the NASM. You will notice as you train that you are becoming fitter and leaner everywhere, including your thighs.
Even though genetics do play a big role, your training technique can also determine how much muscle mass you gain, notes Columbia University. Female athletes who have large, muscular thighs often train with power movements, such as pushing off when sprinting, along with lifting very heavy weights.
When strength training, it's important to know your one-rep maximum (1RM). This is the most you can lift for only one repetition. Those looking to gain more muscle mass will perform one to four sets of three to five repetitions with a heavy weight, which is defined as 85 percent of your 1RM.
To strengthen and tone your muscles without building as much muscle mass, Columbia University says to perform three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions with a lower weight. That's about 50 to 70 percent of your 1RM.
Start by doing squats with just your body weight. If it's too easy, start using weights at 50 to 70 percent of your 1RM. Your muscles should be fatigued after 15 to 20 reps. If they aren't, you need to add more weight.
Try These Squat Variations
Once you have mastered the basic body-weight squat, it's time to mix it up and add in some weights, keeping in mind your 1RM. The following squat variations will work your muscles in slightly different ways and challenge your lower body, states the American Council on Exercise.
Move 1: Barbell Squat
The barbell squat recruits more muscle fibers than a regular body-weight squat, so your thigh muscles will tone up more quickly.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Place a loaded barbell behind your neck, on the top of your shoulders.
- Squat down as if you are sitting in a chair until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Remember to hinge back at the hips first; then bend your knees as you squat down.
- Keep your back as straight as you can, with your core engaged and feet flat on the floor.
- Push your heels into the floor to come back up into the standing position.
- Perform 3 sets of 15 to 20 repetitions.
Move 2: Dumbbell Sumo Squat
By slightly changing your foot placement to a 45-degree angle, this squat variation targets the inner thighs.
- Hold one dumbbell in your hands with your arms straight down.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than your hips. Point your toes out to a 45-degree angle.
- Bend your knees and squat down until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Keep in mind good squatting technique and avoid letting your knee come too far in front of your foot.
- Keep your arms straight throughout the entire squat.
- Return to standing.
- Perform 3 sets of 15 to 20 repetitions.
Move 3: Front Barbell Squat
This deeper squat really challenges your lower-body muscles. Avoid it if you have knee issues or knee pain while performing it. Otherwise, it should be safe.
- Stand with your feet a little wider than your shoulders.
- Rest a loaded barbell in front of the top of your shoulders, holding it with your palms facing back.
- Bend your knees and squat back as if you are sitting in a chair.
- Continue squatting until your thighs are past parallel to the floor, keeping your back as straight as possible and your core engaged.
- Push your heels into the floor to return to standing.
- Perform 3 sets of 15 to 20 repetitions.
Move 4: Wall Squat
This isometric squat variation is ideal for those who have knee pain with a traditional squat.
- Stand with your back against a wall, with your feet 6 to 12 inches away.
- Keeping your back against the wall, bend your knees and lower down until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Your knees should be at a right angle to the floor, with your ankles underneath your knees.
- Hold the position for 30 seconds.
- Return to standing, keeping your back against the wall.
- Repeat 3 to 5 times.
In addition to these exercises, there are many other squat variations to consider, including:
- Side squats
- Jump squats
- Deadlift-to-squat combo
- Squat jacks
Cardio Exercises for Thinner Thighs
The right formula for lean and strong thighs is incorporating both strength exercises, like squats, and cardiovascular training into your workouts, states Piedmont Healthcare.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), you should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio per week. This breaks down to about 30 minutes of aerobic training, five times a week. You can also do 75 minutes per week of more vigorous aerobic activity. This breaks down to 25 minutes, three times a week.
In addition to the cardio workouts, the HHS recommends strength training at least two days per week. Every two to three weeks, increase the amount of weight you are lifting by about 5 pounds to challenge your muscles and avoid plateaus.
From biking to the stair climbing, whichever type of cardio exercise you enjoy and will consistently do is the one you should stick to. If your goal is lean thighs, running is a great choice, points out Columbia University.
Researchers note that distance running is one of the best ways to build lean muscle in your legs. Start by running 1 mile and work your way up to 5 or 10 miles per training session.
In addition to squats, incorporate other lower-body strength exercises into your routine for variety. The leg press, leg curls, leg extensions and calf raises are just a few to mention.
You may also include high-intensity interval training (HIIT) into your workouts. These circuit training routines incorporate both cardio and strength training to burn fat and calories while building muscles.
Don't forget to add a stretching routine to your fitness plan. Stretching increases flexibility and may help prevent injury, states Piedmont Healthcare. Do a light warm-up for five to 10 minutes, followed by a stretching routine. After your main workout, cool down with another stretching routine.
How Diet Plays a Role
It's important to know that many before and after squat photos with the more dramatic transformations require not only cardio and strength training but also following a balanced diet. Combining healthy eating with physical activity is the best way to lose weight and body fat.
It's necessary to burn 3,500 calories to burn 1 pound of fat, according to the Mayo Clinic. You can lose body fat by reducing the calories you consume, as well as burning it off through exercise. If you cut 500 to 1,000 calories from your diet per day, you can safely lose 1 to 2 pounds per week.
Read more: The Best Diet to Lose Body Fat for Women
You don't have to do dramatic changes to your diet to get results. Start by swapping high-calorie foods for lower-calorie options, as well as reducing your portion sizes. Snack on healthier and lower-calorie foods, such as vegetables and hummus or an apple, and cut out high-calorie ultra-processed foods.
Pay attention to the beverages you drink, such as high-calorie coffee drinks or soda, and stick to zero-calorie or lower-calorie options. Beware of hidden sugars and empty calories. Soft drinks, for example, have little or no nutritional value. Many so-called diet foods contain high-fructose corn syrup, coconut sugar and other hidden carbs that increase your energy intake.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "The Lowdown on Squats"
- American Council on Exercise: "5 Variations of the Body-Weight Squat"
- Columbia University: "How Do I Slim Down Bulky, Muscular Thighs?"
- National Academy of Sports Medicine: "5 Fitness Myths Busted"
- Piedmont Healthcare: "Cardio vs. Strength Training for Weight Loss"
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Mayo Clinic: "Counting Calories: Get Back to Weight-Loss Basics"
- American Council on Exercise: "Is It Ever Okay for Your Knees to Extend Beyond Your Toes While Doing Squats or Lunges?"