Do your legs start to shake after walking up two flights of stairs? Is it a Herculean effort to walk up the hill to your office? You probably need to do some leg strengthening. Developing strong legs takes time and commitment, but it's not that hard.
You can do plenty of leg exercises at home — just choose those that are appealing to you, do them regularly and continue to increase the challenge over time.
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Exercise for Legs and Thighs
First, it helps to know what muscles you're actually trying to strengthen when doing exercise for legs and thighs. This will be helpful in exercise selection and putting together a well-rounded leg-strengthening routine.
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), there are five major muscle groups in your legs that strength-training targets. Each of these have different jobs in helping you move your body.
- The quadriceps on the fronts of the thighs extend the leg at the knee.
- The hamstrings on the back of the thighs bend the leg at the knee.
- The abductors, including the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus and tensor fascia lata (TFL), move the leg away from the midline of the body. The TFL extends down the side of your thigh.
- The adductors on the insides of your thighs help move your legs toward the midline of your body.
- The calf muscles on the back of your lower legs help plantar flex the foot, such as when you rise up on to your toes.
To get strong legs, you have to do exercises for the legs and thighs that target all these major muscle groups. Failing to do that will cause muscular and strength imbalances.
The Best Leg-Strengthening Exercises
When strength is your goal, compound exercises are your best choice. Compound exercises work more than one muscle group at a time, as opposed to isolation exercises, which only work one muscle or muscle group at a time, explains ACE.
An example of a compound exercise is a squat — it uses your quadriceps, glutes, adductors and calf muscles, according to ExRx.net. An example of an isolation exercises is a leg extension, which only targets your quadriceps.
With that in mind, here are some of the exercises you should include in your leg-strengthening program:
- Split squats
- Leg presses
- Hip thrusts
All of these have variations, too. But if you're just starting to work out, don't worry if you don't know how to do all of these and their many variations. Learn a few, focus on those for a while, then add in a new exercise to switch things up.
A basic squat is a great place to start and can build a foundation for all the other lower-body exercises. You don't need any equipment and, like a lot of the moves listed above, you can include them in a routine of exercise for legs and thighs at home. Here's how to do a body weight squat correctly, according to ACE:
- Stand with your feet a little wider than hip-distance, toes turned slightly outward and hands by your sides.
- Roll your shoulders down and back and tighten the core muscles of your abdomen and lower back.
- Keep your torso erect and your chest facing straight ahead as you shift the weight back into your heels and push your hips out behind you, as if you were going to sit down in a chair.
- Hinge at your hips and knees at the same time as you lower your hips down until your thighs are parallel or near parallel with the ground. Ensure that your knees are not jutting out ahead of your toes. You should be able to see your toes when you look down.
- Pause for a moment, maintain erect posture in your upper body, then press through your heels to rise back up, straightening the knees and hips.
Read more: 22 New Lunges to Supercharge Leg Day
Proper breathing is key to correct exercise technique. In a squat, you should inhale as you lower down and exhale as you rise up.
Lunges are another easy exercise for beginners to do that will have a lot of impact on starting to build a solid foundation of strength. The Mayo Clinic explains proper technique to do a forward lunge:
- Stand with your feet together, hands at your sides or on your hips. Keep your back in a neutral position, shoulders back, chest out, and contract your core muscles.
- Take a big step out in front with one foot. As you land, begin to bend both knees. Come down until your knees form 90-degree angles and your back shin is parallel to the floor. Check your front knee position here — it should be just above your ankle.
- Pause for a moment, then rise up, extending at the knees and hips. Use enough momentum that you can push off your front leg and return to the starting position in one step.
Practice forward lunges, then try backward and side lunges. To do a backward lunge, take a big step back with one foot, instead of forward. For side lunges, take a big step out to the side, bending that knee but keeping the other leg straight.
Volume and Frequency of Exercises
If you were to work with a professional, certified personal trainer, they would plan a leg-strengthening program for you with the following factors in mind: volume, or the number of sets and reps you do and the amount of weight you lift each workout and each week, and frequency — how often you work your legs.
In the beginning of a strength program of leg exercises at home, your volume and frequency will be low. Your body needs time to get used to the stress of strength training — do too much too quickly and you will at best be very sore and at worst, get injured.
When starting out with strength training, do two to three sets of 8 to 12 reps of each exercise for legs and thighs. This is a foundational strength stabilization phase recommended by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).
After that, you can begin to reduce your reps and increase your weight. Lower reps in the range of one to five and an increased number of sets — four or more — are most effective for building maximal strength, according to NASM.
Plan to start with one or two lower-body workouts each week on non-consecutive days. It's important to allow adequate time for rest and recovery in between sessions. Your legs don't get stronger while you're working out — they get stronger during recovery, when your body is repairing damage from your workout and adapting to the stress by building stronger muscles, explains ACE.
If you don't allow enough rest between workouts, your strength gains will slow or even come to a full stop.
Lastly, it's important to get enough sleep, drink enough water and get proper nutrition. With all these components in place, you can achieve your true potential and your goals — whether it's bounding up a flight of stairs or climbing Mount Everest.
The best way to get a solid plan in place for progressing from the first to the second stage is to schedule some sessions with a certified personal trainer. They can give you a roadmap for success and prevent you from the plateaus that many new weightlifters experience.
- American Council on Exercise: "Muscles That Move the Leg"
- American Council on Exercise: "5 Benefits of Compound Exercises"
- ExRx.net: "Squat"
- ExRx.net: "Lever Leg Extension"
- American Council on Exercise: "Bodyweight Squat"
- Mayo Clinic: "Video: Lunge Exercise"
- The National Academy of Sports Medicine: "Essentials of Personal Fitness Training"
- American Council on Exercise: "8 Reasons to Take a Rest Day"
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