Trouble walking up stairs… stumbling on uneven ground… creaky knees and ankles – there are lots of simple activities that can let you know your legs aren’t the best they can be. While you can try to ignore the signs, you don’t want to risk a trip or fall that could have been avoided. So if you’ve come to the decision to get in the gym and work on your leg muscles, well, congratulations!
The hardest part about exercising is getting to the gym, so here are some exercises you can do anywhere. The second hardest part would be the exercises themselves. But building leg strength helps you retain your mobility and independence, so it’s well worth it.
Legs Aren’t Just Quads
Your quadriceps, more commonly known as the thigh muscle, are one of the biggest muscle sets in your body, second only to your behind. (The gluteus maximus is the largest.) The quads make up a band of hard workers that get you from point A to point B every day. But that’s not all that’s working to keep you moving. The leg has 39 different muscles that all work together to ensure you can walk, dance, sit down, and even stand.1
While the list is extensive, most people commonly know the leg muscle basics: the quads, the hamstrings, the abductors, glutes, and calves. Making sure to target these basic muscle groups is just the start to building healthy legs.2
Furthermore, knowing that there’s more than just one major muscle in your legs can help you to understand the way different exercises benefit your lower body as a whole, as well as how to grow your strength based on the different muscles. Yes, building leg strength is key, but to truly maximize that strength, you need an overall healthy body.
Before We Talk Exercise …
Before any kind of exercise is even attempted, it’s important to remember what every gym teacher and personal trainer has ever told you: Stretch! Give these stretches a try, and be sure to go slowly and hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds before switching sides.
Prone Quad Stretch
The most common stretch for legs is be the prone quadriceps stretch, also known as a static quad stretch. This stretch involves grabbing the foot and lifting it up and behind the butt. While this stretch does benefit the quads, most people let the knee sway forward and with the bad form, the quad isn’t fully stretched correctly. The knee of the stretched quad should align with the straightened knee, and for an even deeper stretch, the hips can be tilted backwards slightly.3
A basic hamstring stretch can mean the difference between a hard workout or a workout that’s a breeze. Simply sitting down, extending your legs in front of you, and reaching towards your toes, gives you a great, deep hamstring stretch.4
Standing close to a wall, lean on it, and then bend one leg while extending the other behind you. Moving the hips toward the wall and the keeping the lower back flat should allow for an amazing calf stretch before any weight training or cardio session.5
Leg Exercises That Build Strength
There are tons of leg exercises to build strength. Some of the hardest ones don’t even involve weights!
Even the most basic exercises build leg strength – activities such as walking, running, biking, climbing stairs, and swimming all build leg strength because they all actively utilize the lower body. These cardio-intense exercises are helpful to the entire body, but isolating the lower body can help to strengthen the muscles even further.
Squats literally use almost every – if not all – muscles in the leg, making this the perfect and ideal exercise to build leg strength. You can perform basic squats or try out the many variations, including sumo squats, pop squats, wall squats, plie squats, split leg squats, etc. And you can do while you’re watching TV. Either way, you’re getting a full lower body workout just with one exercise.6
To keep your squats successful, remember to plant your feet, keep your back straight, and your chest up. If you need extra balance, grab a chair and put it in front of you for stability. The deeper the squat, the better for your knees, as it gives them more power and strengthens the muscles around the joint.7
While lunges work one leg at a time, they too provide a build up of leg strength over time. They target the hamstrings the best, but they work the entire leg as well. Lunges are also another exercise with a ton of variations. Besides the regular lunge, try switching things up with walking lunges, lateral lunges, lunges with kicks, and more.8
When lunging, keep the knee you’re lunging with parallel to the foot. To keep the lunge true to form, the torso should be straight and tight. Again, if you need extra balance, place two chairs on either side of you and hold one while you lunge. Just avoid lunging too deep. Take it slow and build up to deeper lunges.
Knee-High Step Ups
High knee step ups are similar to lunges, but you have more control over the range of movement during the exercise. The higher the step with the more movement, the harder the exercise.
To get the best results from high knees, try to use a step up platform as often as possible. Alternate sides as well to give each leg a break, and maintain control of your movements as much as possible. Simply slamming your legs up and down can lead to muscle and joint issues.9
All of these exercises can easily be modified with weights to make them even more challenging, and to build even more leg strength. The important thing to remember when adding weights into the mix is to start off light, gradually increasing the weight amount as you progress.10
If you can’t complete 12 reps without muscle failure, the weight is too heavy, but if you don’t feel tired after 12 reps, the weight is too light. Eight to twelve reps are recommended by the American College of Rheumatology and American Council on Exercise. The muscle should be at the point of fatigue by the last few reps of each set.11
Getting a Leg Up!
Building up your leg strength may take time, but it’s important to remember that slow and steady wins the race. Start out slowly, gradually increasing reps as you go. These stretches and exercises will help you gain muscle, which will, in turn, improve your overall fitness level and endurance.
For more tips on having a healthy, well-balanced life, keep reading here:
1.”Muscle Atlas Entries Archive – UW Radiology.” UW Radiology. N.p., 2017. Web. 22 July 2017.
2.”Muscle Atlas Entries Archive – UW Radiology.” UW Radiology. N.p., 2017. Web. 22 July 2017.
3.”Warm Up, Cool Down And Be Flexible-Orthoinfo – AAOS.” Orthoinfo.aaos.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 22 July 2017.
4.”Warm Up, Cool Down And Be Flexible-Orthoinfo – AAOS.” Orthoinfo.aaos.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 22 July 2017.
5.”Warm Up, Cool Down And Be Flexible-Orthoinfo – AAOS.” Orthoinfo.aaos.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 22 July 2017.
6. Robertson DG, et al. “Lower Extremity Muscle Functions During Full Squats. – Pubmed – NCBI.” Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2008. Web. 22 July 2017.
7. Robertson DG, et al. “Lower Extremity Muscle Functions During Full Squats. – Pubmed – NCBI.” Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2008. Web. 22 July 2017.
8. Jönhagen S, et al. “Forward Lunge: A Training Study Of Eccentric Exercises Of The Lower Limbs. – Pubmed – NCBI.” Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2017. Web. 22 July 2017.
9. Myer, Gregory D et al. “High Knee Abduction Moments Are Common Risk Factors For Patellofemoral Pain (PFP) And Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injury In Girls: Is PFP Itself A Predictor For Subsequent ACL Injury?.” N.p., 2017. Print.
10.”Weight Lifting For Beginners | Weight Training 101.” Arthritis.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 22 July 2017.
11.”Weight Lifting For Beginners | Weight Training 101.” Arthritis.org. N.p., 2017. Web. 22 July 2017.