The legs are often the most neglected body part when it comes to working out, and it’s a downright shame, since the thighs can truly be one of the most attractive parts of the human body. Also, the thighs, the glutes and the hamstrings are so large, that they have the potential to become the most powerful muscles in the whole body, if they are given the proper attention which they deserve. If you’re determined to include all your body areas in your workout routine and perhaps spend a little more time on your legs, your overall strength and fitness will be better for it.
If you’re a guy, take note that effective leg exercises actually produce the most testosterone out of all types of physical activity, and this extra testosterone will then help the rest of your body grow. If you’re a woman, you can rejoice that these exercises will not only make your legs toned and beautiful, but they will also keep cellulite at bay. Make sure you check out our guide for leg exercises in the process, so you have all the information you need in one place. Our following guide includes leg exercises for women, leg exercises for men, a beginner leg workout routine, as well as specialized leg exercises designed for shaping the thighs, the hamstrings, the butt and the calves.
Leg workouts for beginners: Leg muscle anatomy overview
The muscular system of the legs and feet is one of the most complex muscle systems in the whole human body. Its main purpose is supporting, balancing and propelling the body in its daily motions, as well as helping other systems such as the back muscles to also do their job properly. The muscles of the legs, taken together as a whole, are amazing in the fact that they can exert immense power (compared with the other muscle systems in the body), while also making very fine adjustments for positioning and balancing the body. This combination of sheer strength and fine adjustment accuracy is one of the things which make the legs and their muscles so special and unique.
The leg muscles are divided, for functional purposes, into the thigh, butt, calf and hamstring, and we will later present to you sets of exercises targeting precisely those areas. But the muscle anatomy itself is way more complex than that, and each of the groups we named contains other muscles. For example, the anterior muscles (namely the quadriceps femoris, iliopsoas, and Sartorius) work as a group to flex the thigh at the hip and to extend the whole leg in the knee area. The posterior muscles, such as the hamstrings and the gluteus maximus (which is the anatomical name for your butt), produce the opposite motion: the extension of the thigh at its hip and the flexion of the leg with the help of its knee. The lateral muscles, like the gluteus medius, abduct the thigh at the hip, while the medial groin muscles adduct the thigh permitting more movement. Does all this seem like medical slang to you? Wait till you start working out with our leg exercises and you’ll begin to see these babies in action. Prepare to be amazed at what your body can do.
A few words about popular leg workout routines and activities
When it comes to toning your legs, there are a number of popular general workouts that are widely believed to be gold for this area, though they don’t constitute an actual workout, but more like a general exercising session. Such activities include roller skating, jogging, and even walking for relatively long distances (like any sustained walk with the duration of over an hour). These are all good instances of exercising, of course, and some of them may even have wonderful health benefits for the whole body (like the intense cardio of jogging, for example), but they are not professionally designed routines for the legs. While they may have good effects on the general leg muscle toning, we would hesitate to call them leg exercises.
Of course, exercising at least like that a few days a week is a good first step and should be in no way belittled; the people who exercise by jogging around their house or by walking to work are still doing something about their health and fitness and should be encouraged to do so. But if you’re looking for something which counts as an actual workout – no matter if it’s done at home or at a training gym – all of the examples above shouldn’t count as very effective or targeted leg exercises. A proper leg workout can be done without much fuss – with a series of at home exercises, or at a training facility, using weights, bands and other equipment – on the condition that the exercises it contains are actually specifically designed for the legs.
General exercises for the legs and the leg warm-up routine
One of the first questions beginners often ask is “do I need a warm-up for this kind of exercises?”. It is indeed a very valid question, since not every kind of workout needs a warm-up. Surely, every work-out session would benefit from a little warm-up before you get started, but some types of work-outs can be somewhat dangerous to perform without a proper warm-up on the area you plan on using. The risks of exercising without warming up first are minor, of course, ranging from rapid exhaustion to mild joint sprains or inflammation of a misused area. In the case of leg exercises, a warm-up is only necessary for certain types of moves, like the ones that put more pressure on your ankles, but instead of thinking about exactly what kind of exercises you’re going to perform during your work-out, it’s easier to just do the warm-up anyway. Even if you won’t attempt those exercises that put you at risk of straining, a warm-up has other benefits which can help with the overall success of your training.
A proper leg warm-up consists of:
· Before moving to your actual work out session, spend between 5 and 10 minutes warming up your legs.
· Start with your ankles: do a standing ankle mobilization first, by flexing up a leg behind you and catching your ankle in your hands. Then move the ankle in a gentle circular motion, with the help of your hands, clock-wise and counter clock-wise, until you feel it start to loosen up (2 to 3 minutes). You can also stand up on your toes and let one foot/ankle at a time support your weight, alternating between them at a steady and fast pace. Walk on your toes around the room a few times as well.
· Do a series of leg stretches too, combined with a little self-massage. Stand up and on your toes, trying to contract and stretch your overall leg muscles as much as you can, then relax for a couple of seconds and repeat. After 5 of these intense, on-your-toes stretches, you can sit down and gently massage your thighs with the full strength of your fingers, to get the blood moving and loosen up the muscle tissue.
· Jump up and down for a couple of minutes too. After doing all this, your legs should be ready to take in the exercises about to follow.
Beginner leg exercises
If you’re not hardcore into working out yet, or if you’re used to working out, but have neglected your legs for a while, it’s a good idea to take it slower at first. These exercises are ideal for beginner leg workout enthusiasts, since most of them are simple moves which come more or less natural to everyone.
Squats:There couldn’t be a simpler move than this one. This is the move which elementary school sport teachers include in their basic rotations when they ask kids to perform some not-too-straining gymnastics. Literally everyone in the world, no matter the age, if they don’t have any impairing health problems, can do squats. But the relative banality of the exercise does not mean that squats are not so effective. On the contrary, if done right, squats can be one of the most powerful moves of toning and expanding your thigh, hamstring and butt muscles. To get started with squats, try performing 4 series of 15 squats in a row, with only 2-3 minute breaks between the series.
Breathing squats:A more advanced, slightly modified version of squats, this kind of exercise is a bit slower-paced, but it requires a more intense work of certain muscle portions situated in your thighs and lower abdomen. It doesn’t tire you as fast as some quick-paced regular squats so you can keep it going for longer even if you’re still a beginner, and it also doesn’t have their potential high cardio value, but it can work your hamstring and glutes into a more defined shape and build more mass. To do some breathing squats, all you have to do is this: persevere and persevere. Do a series of 20 repeated squats, as deep as possible, in order to increase the range of your motion. Repeat the series of 20 squats 3 or 4 times, and use a dumbbell to lift on your shoulders as well, during at least one of the 20 squat series. This way, you will force your body to lift much more weight during squatting, and your leg muscles will expand and grow over very little time, if you repeat this workout routine at least 3-4 times a week. Usually, the breathing squats routine is accompanied by a high protein diet, and very often this diet choice is a gallon of milk a day (at least for the men who want to build strong leg muscles).
Lunges:There is more than one way of doing lunges, so if you’re also attending a gym and have a trainer to consult with, perhaps you should try asking him or her about the best way to do lunges for your particular body configuration and also based on the other components of your training routine. If you’re not interacting with any trainer, don’t worry: lunges aren’t all that different no matter how you do them, and your leg muscles will benefit from them even if you do them at home, by yourself. That’s what our site and resources are for! So, to get started with lunges, you should stand your ground on the floor and position one of your legs in front of the other, with one knee slightly bent and the foot kept firm on the ground. The other leg which should be positioned behind will be strained to maintain the position, while the leg which is positioned forward will do the movement. The movement of a basic lunge is the lowering of the body in this position, slowly, using bodyweight alone for the strength training. Some trainers also recommend using additional weights (like a dumbbell or kettlebell held in each hand, or a barbell over the shoulders) during this kind of lunge based workout, but this isn’t something to consider while you’re still just getting started. A well-performed lunge can seriously stimulate the quadriceps (thigh muscles), the gluteus maximus (the butt muscles) as well as the hamstrings into bulking up and becoming more powerful.
Reverse lunges: After you master lunges, reverse lunges shouldn’t be difficult at all. Reverse lunges are actually a low-level, low-intensity version of the basic lunge exercise, which professional strength trainers employ when they want to take a break from more straining exercises, or when their knees are too sore. Reverse lunges are a great way of avoiding knee injury which sometimes stems from more intense leg workouts, or a way of continuing to train even though you already have a mild injury but you don’t want to get out of shape and rhythm. To do a reverse lunge, just lower your hip to the floor until the knee of the leg which stands behind reaches that floor. This way, the knee of your front leg will form a right (90 degree) angle. Push yourself back up to begin the rocking motion and try to alternate your leg’s positions as you come back up and down. This is one of the best home exercises for women who want to work their legs into a more toned shape.
Dumbbell lifting with the legs: This is another great example of an exercise that can be done easily at home, in the absence of machines or professional equipment, and by groups which are not that well-equipped to sustain heavy physical training (like women, seniors, people with bad knees, and beginners in general). Just get yourself a pair of really light dumbbells (of 1 pound weight each or something to that effect) and tie them tightly to each of your ankles. Then alternate between lifting one leg at a time off the ground, or even lifting them up in the air while you’re lying down on the floor. If you do 3 series of 10 to 15 such lifts, you should get your butt into the best skinny but toned shape it’s ever been in. If you feel like this is a bit too difficult, then you can just use a single weight on one of your legs at a time, and don’t begin this exercise without a good stretching beforehand.
Wall sits: The exercise known as a wall sit has been performed by athletes since antique times, hence its alternative name of “Roman chair”. Wall sits are known first and foremost for their benefits on the quadriceps muscles, aka your thighs, so they’re basically a go-to choice for a good leg exercising routine. Still, take note that this kind of exercise is very intense, so you if you maintain this straining wall pose for too long, it can become painful or downright dangerous (for the knees, especially). If you do it at your own pace, however, and you don’t hold the wall pose for too long, everything will be fine and your thighs will build both volume and strength at an unbelievable rate. This is also a good exercise for people suffering from sciatica (intense, nerve-derived back and hip pain), since it requires a good vertical back pose. Please note that the advice presented here shouldn’t replace a professional opinion or therapy.But let’s return to a wall sit: to do this exercise, sit with your back against the wall, glued to it as tightly as you can, and with your feet at shoulder width apart, and a bit in front (as in, with your heels not right next to the wall). Then, as slowly as you can, bend your knees and lower your hips, with the back still upright against the wall, until your knees form a right angle (just like an amped-up squat). Maintain the pose for a few seconds, and then slowly move back up.
Vertical jumps: This may seem like a joke, but some jumping up and down may be just the thing for you to try after you’ve already practiced the more difficult exercises described above. Jumping may be viewed as a kid’s exercise and not something to be taken too seriously, but it’s a good way to work your hamstrings and lower feet muscles, which are often neglected during more intense exercises focusing mainly on the thigh muscles. If you’re tired from the intense leg workout done so far, just do a series of jumps, in appropriate sportswear to prevent knee injury (leggings and sports shoes will do), and accompanied by some happy music if you’d like. It will be both fun and efficient, so why not?
Leg exercises for men
When men exercise, they tend to focus on other things than women and to expect different things out of a workout. They’re not in it mainly for the potential slimming effect of working out, but would rather build mass to avoid the so-called and dreaded “skinny legs” and gain more strength as the pay-off for their training. Moreover, when men decide to work on their legs more, they do it upon the sudden revelation that all their workouts so far have been focused on the upper body at the expense of their lower body muscles, and they want to make up for the lost time. If you’re looking for some specific exercises for leg development for men, in addition to those beginner exercises already detailed above, here are a few ideas.
Dumbbell lunges and dumbbell squats:Hold a dumbbell in each hand, with the hands stretched a bit apart from your body, to the sides. Make sure your dumbbells weigh at least 4 pounds (or 2 kg) each, so the workout is intense enough for visible results. Then proceed with the lunges and the squats just as you would normally do (see above for a detailed description of each exercise, or check out our video archive to watch them live). This will not only work out your arms and upper body, a bit, since those muscles will need to support the extra weight, but your legs will also have to sustain and propel more than just your bodyweight, especially when you move back into a vertical position after each squat or lunge.
Calf raises (with dumbbells):Another great thing to do with dumbbells, if you’re working out from home and not at the gym, is to use them while performing several series of calf raises. The idea of this exercise is pretty simple: stand in front of a step (just use a sturdy short box or something like that, if you’re exercising at home) and then climb it. Position yourself standing at the margin of the step, with your heels hanging off its edge. Hold dumbbells at your sides (in each hand) and push yourself up on your toes, slowly allowing yourself to come back down. Repeat this exercise for 3 or 4 sets of 10 repeats, adding to the weights you hold once you feel ready to take on a bigger challenge. This type of exercise is a valuable addition to your leg workout routine because it stimulates the calves, which are so often overlooked by most other exercises, which tend to focus more on the thighs and glutes.
Leg extensions and leg curls (with the machine, at the gym):If you are in the habit of working out at a gym, then you are probably already familiar with some of the common machines there, including the leg curl machine and the leg extension machine. These should be your go-to-s from now on whenever you go to train at the gym. For the leg curls, just climb on the curl machine and place the foot pad just above your heels. Hold on to the handle bars and bend your legs, bringing your heels closer to your butt, but not touching it with them. Slowly bring your heels back down and repeat in 3-4 series of 10. For the leg extensions, sit on the machine, with bent knees, and straighten your legs until they are parallel to the floor. Maintain the position for a second or two and then bring your legs back down. Also repeat the exercise for 3 or 4 series of 10, depending on how fast you tire.
The bent-over row (with a barbell):This exercise can be done at home too, provided you have a barbell lying around, but it’s more probable to find one at the gym, along with the rest of equipment and exercise machines. So, what you need to do is grab a barbell which feels manageable, weight-wise, and hold it at hip level while standing up, with your feet at shoulder width apart. Then, lower your torso until it becomes parallel to the floor, slowly, maintaining your back’s natural position (arch) throughout the exercise. Maintain the pose a bit, and then pull the barbell back up, squeezing your shoulder blades together and rowing the weight upwards, until the barbell’s height reaches your sternum. Take a deep breath, exhale, and repeat the exercise until you’ve counted 10 of these bent-over rows. This will be useful especially for your quadriceps (thighs) and calves; adding mass and building volume to the legs, but it will obviously work up the arms in the process as well. If you’re looking, perhaps, for exercises which are useful for more than one body area, this is precisely one such gold mine.
Leg exercises for women
What women usually want from exercising, when it comes to their legs, is to obtain a more toned but especially thinner shape. Slimming exercises are always popular with this gender segment, and it you through in some cellulite fighting properties as well, what you get is that leg exercises are always more on women’s workout agendas than on men’s. If men usually need to be reminded to pay attention to their legs as well when working out, women definitely don’t need such reminders. Everyone likes a pair of toned legs, and if the workout will have a slimming effect, it will seem to lengthen the legs as well (even if that’s not technically possible). If this extra pressure for thinness is sort of a downside to all this, then the bright side is the fact that le exercises designed for women are way less straining than those for men and not much strength is required to successfully perform then. Even if you’re just beginning to work out, you can take it slowly and still shape your legs wonderfully. Here are a few effective exercises to start with.
Basic squats and lunges:Just like described at our “Leg exercises for beginners” section, squats and lunges are among the most common exercises for the legs found in every workout routine. But this shouldn’t make you ignore them, on the contrary: this means that squats and lunges are easy enough to perform, both in matters of logistics (you don’t need a specialized gym) and previous level of body fitness, and effective enough to make them a must add in any routine. Even if it feels like you’re doing a very old-fashioned exercise instead of going to a more modern pilates class, don’t worry: if you repeat those squats and lunges enough, you’ll soon have awesome legs that will be both strong and hot. Another advantage of this basic exercising is that both of these moves are perfectly safe for pregnant women as well (the same goes for the elderly), so you can do all the squats and lunges during pregnancy without worrying about potential injury, losing your balance and falling or anything like that. For a general get hot till summer routine tailored for a woman’s average body, you should start with 2 series of 10 squats and 2 series of 10 lunges every day. Yes, every day. The routine is the most important part of all this, so don’t be tempted to do twice as much after you skip a day or any other compensatory act. Then, after a while, you can raise the game to 3 or even 4 series of 10.
Lunges and leg lifts with a fitness ball:A fitness ball, also called a Swiss ball sometimes, can be a very useful addition to your workout routine, especially if you train at home, away from the machines and equipment normally housed at the gym. Such a fitness ball can be a very useful addition to ab exercises as well, but let’s not digress. To use this ball for toning up your legs, you need to place it under your butt while you perform lunges to amp up the intensity of the work-out or at least to vary the exact muscle portions which you will work while doing the lunge. The same fitness ball will come in handy for lifts: just stand on the floor with your upper body, and your calves resting on the ball, with the knees bent in a right angle. Then, lift up each leg, alternating between them, to an upright position, also thrusting it forward through the air. The thrusting movement will push the ball a bit forward as your leg comes down upon it, which is precisely why a ball is required for such an exercise, instead of just a tall box or small chair or whatever. And this is just the beginning: a fitness ball can be used for a lot of other classic leg exercises: standing on it as you squat or as you do wall sits, bearing it between your calves as you lift both your legs in the air and so on. You can ask your trainer for more ways in which you can include a Swiss ball in exercises, and you’ll notice that most of these modified moves are particularly effective for the legs.
Pistol squats:This is another great exercise if you want to work some magic by the pool in no time, wearing the swimsuit you fancy without having to worry about how your legs may look in it. As a warning, it’s possible that you may lose your balance during these squats, so be prepared to fall on your butt every now and then, but from a very short distance, since your butt will be pretty low to begin with. On the plus side, said butt will benefit from these particular squats so much, that a little gentle bumping will not trouble your tush at all, trust us. To get to the point, a pistol squat is when you hold your arms out in front of you, and one leg extended to the front as well, as you slowly lower your body by bending the knee on your other leg. This way, your body resembles a pistol, hence the name. To benefit from this exercise, you can start with just a series of 10 pistol squats for each foot, in addition to the basic kind of squats already included in your leg workout.
Goblet squats:For a goblet squat, you will need to have a dumbbell around or a similarly shaped weight of at least 2 pounds (or 1 kilogram). Hold that dumbbell in front of you with both hands, as if you’re holding a heavy goblet (hence the name of this exercise), and slowly squat as low as possible, then slowly rise back up. The “goblet” pose must be maintained all this time, just as the straight positioning of your back must be maintained as well. This will put extra pressure on your quadriceps and hamstrings, shaping them and warding off cellulite – all in all, it’s one of the best leg exercises for women which you could find.
Tae bo-inspired air kicks:Don’t neglect the awesome potential or imaginary air kicks, both for the beauty and thinness of your legs, and for the sheer fun of it. If you’re not familiar with tae bo classes, all you need to know is that it’s a gymnastics program derived from some classic martial arts moves, with an intense cardio effect and a graceful and slender result for its regular attenders. What you can take out of this as inspiration, even if you never enroll for such classes, are the air kicks. Just repeat air kicks for at least 20 times for each leg, at a relatively fast pace, and before long, you will notice how intense this kind of exercise is, in a good way. It’s hard to get a workout this good even out of a professional exerciser at the gym.
Yoga poses for the legs (the “Warrior” poses):Since we’re on the topic of workout moves or exercises inspired from an established practice, we can’t overlook yoga for its immense potential and inspiration. Yoga has such wonderful results for the development of the whole body that nowadays it’s practiced mostly for this than for its initial spiritual intentions. What you can take out of yoga precisely for the leg-toning effects are, first and foremost, the Warrior poses. There are many yoga poses which can be practiced as exercises for various types of workouts, but the so-called Warrior poses have a particularly immediate power on transforming your legs for the good. Ask your trainer for more tips and don’t worry if you hear and see very different ways of doing a warrior pose: the move has so many variants that it’s hard for most yoga practitioners to agree on what the original version is. The good news for us is that any take on the warrior pose is equally beneficial for the leg muscles, so you feel free to experiment with any yoga pose within the warrior range.
Leg exercises for runners
People who already work out their legs by running or jogging may be inclined to think they don’t need any additional leg exercises since they already use those muscles a lot. While it’s true that they do build more power in their leg muscles than someone who doesn’t train at all, runners still need a few exercises designed to work those muscle areas usually left out from running, and to make their bodies more adapted to the strain of intense running as well. Such intense activity doesn’t come free from consequences if the body isn’t properly trained to take it; the same thing goes for habitual cyclists or dancers. Here are a few moves which are perfect for runners, cyclers and so on, because of the good impact on their overall power to sustain running, on their total stamina, breathing and ab effort capacity and so on.
Crunches:Just as the squats and lunges are common, but necessary parts of any total leg work-out, so is a crunch part of a non-negotiable routine for runners. Performing series of at least 20 crunches daily can help build strength and resistance when preparing for a marathon or simply when trying to cope with your general running or cycling routine. Remember to also drink plenty of water – since this kind of activity qualifies as a pretty intense cardio – and to warm up properly unless you want to strain an ankle and be confined to the bench for the rest of the term, metaphorically speaking.
Single weight deadlift: A well-weighted addition in one hand (a dumbbell, usually), a single-leg stance with the opposite leg as the supporting one, and a fast bend forward are what this exercise is all about. Its complete name is the single leg Romanian deadlift, and it works your buttock into a super-strong and enduring shape, as well as improving the overall coordination of your lower body and ab muscles.
Stability-increasing exercises: Stability exercises are among the most basic you can find: squats, lunges, leg curls with a Swiss ball, etc. Even if such moves are recommended for every category on our list, for runners or cyclists or amateurs preparing for a marathon, they can make the vital difference between stability and a lack of balance and resistance. As a plus, such exercises can also help a bit as remedies for the restless leg syndrome, since they increase the constant flow of blood and electrolytes in the legs’ muscles.
As a final note on the topic of leg exercises for everyone, you probably noticed that most of these can be performed at home without much fuss, and this is exactly the attitude which needs to be encouraged. Of course you can benefit greatly from a BOSU balance trainer and its professional rubber band working your glutes to perfection, but lacking the time to go to the gym doesn’t have to be an excuse not to work out anymore. There are plenty of perfectly convenient, free and effective exercises you can do at home in order to bring your legs closer to the shape you want for them; all it takes is patience and keeping up an almost daily routine. Remember to warm up before training, to drink enough water and to ask for medical advice if you get any bad cramps or intense pain during exercising. Good luck!