Some women fear that building leg muscle will make them appear bulky. On the contrary, building lean muscle in the lower body can make you look leaner, longer and sexier.
As an added bonus, building muscle helps rev your metabolism so you burn fat faster. Whether you lift weights in the gym or do body-weight exercises at home, there are a variety of ways you can build muscle for strong and sculpted legs.
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To build muscle, you have to damage the muscle fibers. This sounds worse than it is. The damage done during resistance exercise is minimal, but it's enough to cause tiny tears that the body has to repair. As the body goes through the repair process, the muscles become stronger and larger.
You don't need to lift a lot of weight to build muscle. In fact, doing calisthenics or body-weight exercises is a great way to gain lean muscle mass and functional strength.
However, if you want to build mass, adding weight will help increase muscle damage for bigger gains. Some resistance exercises, such as deadlifts, are very effective total-body exercises and great time savers.
It's OK to focus on the muscles of the lower body — the hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps, adductors, abductors and calves — but you also need to do upper-body and core exercises to avoid structural imbalances and to promote overall strength.
Compound Vs. Isolation Exercises
For purposes of building overall lower-body lean muscle, it makes sense to stick to compound exercises. These types of exercises involve more than one muscle group.
For example, squats work every muscle in the leg. Isolation exercises, on the other hand, primarily work one muscle at a time. A hamstring curl works just the hamstrings.
You'll save a lot of time and get a great workout by doing a few compound exercises. Because compound exercises activate several muscle groups at one time, they use more energy. This means you burn more calories while you're working out than if you were doing isolation exercises.
Your Strategy for Leg Exercises
Building leg muscle doesn't have to be complicated. Choose a few different exercises and perform them at a challenging intensity a couple of times a week on a regular basis. Be sure to include proper recovery time — 24 to 72 hours between workouts, depending on the intensity of your workout — eat a nutritious diet and get enough sleep. That's it!
Keep challenging yourself to see long-term results. Change up your leg workouts every few weeks, and add sets, reps or weight to each exercise over time. Each exercise should feel challenging, but not so challenging that you might injure yourself.
Alternate weight training with cardio exercises that also help build leg strength, such as running, hill climbing, stair climbing and cycling.
Read more: Top 5 Most Effective Leg Exercises
Try These Exercises
There are hundreds of leg exercises you can do, and they all contribute to building and toning the legs — but you don't need to do all of them. If you choose compound exercises like squats that use multiple big muscle groups, you don't have to worry about whether you're working out all the muscles in your legs.
If you're unfamiliar with working out with weights and a barbell, specifically, make sure you take time to learn the technique before adding weight. Ask a trainer at your gym to watch your form and give you feedback. Once you've mastered the moves, you can add more weight.
Squats are one of the most effective lower-body exercises. They build strength in the glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. You can do them without weight in several variations, including single-leg squats, or you can add weight in the form of a barbell, dumbbells, a kettlebell or a medicine ball.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your feet hip-distance apart. Bend at the hips and knees, sending your butt back and down as if you were sitting into a chair. Keep the torso erect and transfer the weight back slightly into your heels. Come down until your thighs are parallel with the floor or slightly lower. Exhale as you drive through your feet to push yourself back up to standing.
For barbell squats, you'll start with the barbell in a squat rack. In this case, position the bar squarely across the shoulders, grasping it wider than your shoulders. Stand up and step out of the squat rack.
If you're using dumbbells, position them resting lightly against the fronts of your shoulders with your elbows bent.
For kettlebell squats, stand on two exercise steps positioned 12 inches apart with your feet a little wider than hip distance. This elevates you so that you can come parallel with the floor without the kettlebell touching down. Hold the kettlebell with both hands between your legs.
If you're using a medicine ball for resistance, hold it in front of you with your arms extended or bend your elbows and hold it against your chest. You can also hold it overhead for an extra challenge.
Deadlifts are a very effective exercise for efficiently building leg strength. You can practice the basic movement at home before you ever pick up a weight; mastering good technique is imperative so you don't hurt your back when you do add weight.
HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your feet about hip-distance apart. The weight — whether barbell or kettlebells — should be right in front of your shins so you can easily reach down for it. Take a slight bend in your knees. Hinge at the hips as you lower your torso down. Your back should stay perfectly flat. When your back is almost parallel to the ground, reach down and grasp the weight. Drive through your feet to stand back up again with the weight. Contract your glute muscles and fully extend your hips at the top of the motion.
3. Hip Raise
Want a better butt? Look no further than hip raises. These are easy to do and easy to modify for more or less challenge, and they'll tone and firm your butt like nothing else. Start with no weight until you get the hang of the technique.
HOW TO DO IT: Sit in front of a weight bench with your shoulder blades touching the long side of the bench. Bend your knees and place your feet flat on the floor hip-distance apart. Keep your knees and feet parallel throughout the exercise. Exhale as you lift your hips until your thighs are parallel with the floor. Pause at the top and squeeze your glutes. Inhale as you lower down.
To add weight, place a barbell across your pelvis. Although you can position the barbell yourself, it's easier to have a partner or trainer do it for you. Place a pad around the barbell to avoid pain or bruising.
Read more: 17 Exercises to Shape and Tone Your Booty