Often referred to as your thigh muscles, your quadriceps consist of four muscles in the front of your leg that help you lift your knee. If you aren’t able to use these muscles for some time, you can experience a condition known as muscle atrophy, in which your muscles shrink and become less toned. While atrophy in the quadriceps is common after knee surgery, injury or as the natural result of aging, you don’t have to take it lying down -- you can perform exercises to strengthen your thigh muscles. Always speak to your physician before beginning any exercise program, however.
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The phrase “use it or lose it” is relevant to muscle atrophy because unused muscles can shrink with time. The right exercises for atrophy in your quadriceps depend on the reason your muscles atrophied in the first place. For example, some degree of muscle atrophy occurs as you age, both because painful joints may make you sedentary and also from declining hormones needed to support muscle function. But you also may experience quadriceps atrophy as a result of a leg surgery that may keep you from using your quadriceps. In this instance, you would use rehabilitative exercises to reverse the atrophy’s effects. These exercises would involve using less range-of-motion initially than exercises for aging-related atrophy would.
Immediately after knee surgery, your physician or rehabilitation specialist may recommend specific exercises to strengthen your quadriceps. These involve minimal movement but can prevent the thigh muscles from atrophying. An exercise example is quadriceps sets. To perform, sit with your legs extended. Without lifting your leg, focus on tightening the thigh muscle, to bring your kneecap closer to your body. Hold for five to 10 seconds, then release. Repeat 10 times on each leg. Another rehabilitative exercise performed from a seated position is the straight leg raise, where you activate your thigh muscles to lift your leg several inches off the ground. Hold for five to 10 seconds, then lower and repeat 10 times on each leg.
Exercises for Seniors
If your quadriceps atrophy is the result of aging-related muscle loss, you can perform exercises from a seated position to strengthen your thigh muscles. Start by sitting in a comfortable chair and placing a rolled-up bath towel under your thighs at the edge of your chair for support. Slowly lift one leg in the air, stopping just short of locking your knee. Slowly lower your leg and repeat on this leg 10 to 15 times, then switch to your opposite leg.
Certain cardiovascular exercises not only strengthen your heart, but they also reduce muscle atrophy in your thighs. An example includes walking, which requires your thigh muscles to move your legs forward. Another example is riding a stationary bicycle, which can put your thighs to work but does not come with the lumps and bumps of riding a bike on a trail or road.
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Muscle Atrophy
- Journal of Applied Physiology: Muscle-Specific Atrophy of the Quadriceps Femoris With Aging
- American Acaemy of Orthopaedic Surgeons: Total Knee Replacement Exercise Guide
- Allina Hospitals & Clinics: Home Exercise Program: Knee Exercises After Knee Replacement Surgery
- NIH Senior Health: Exercise and Physical Activity for Older Adults