How to build & strengthen your legs
Keeping your legs toned has big benefits because leg exercises work for your largest muscle group. Leg strength improves balance and coordination, protects your joints from injury, and boosts your metabolism. As you age, leg exercises can become even more important for keeping your ankles, knees, and hips in good shape. Though walking is a great exercise to get your heart rate up, it doesn’t build as much muscle tone as focused leg exercises.
Try adding leg exercises to your strength training routine twice a week. Your goal should be 10 to 15 repetitions per set and two to three sets per workout. Because leg muscles are large, you should notice improved muscle tone quickly. If you have any joint problems, talk to your doctor before you add a leg workout to your fitness routine.
- Alternating Knee Lifts
It’s a good idea to start each strength-training session with aerobic and muscle-building activities. Alternating knee lifts work your hamstrings, quads, and glutes while also raising your heart rate and improving your balance. Another advantage is that they are straightforward to implement. Standing with your feet hip-width apart is a good idea. Raise your right knee to the level of your hips. Lower your right knee and repeat the motion with your left. For one to three minutes, repeat the sequence. You may get a similar result by performing step-ups on your stairwell.
- Walking Lunges
Rest your hands on your hips, then take one large step forward with your right leg, keeping your torso upright. Bend the knees and lower your body into the lunge position, stopping when your legs are forming 90-degree angles. Press through the right foot and step forward again so that you land in the same position with your left side, as if you are “walking.” (Pro tip: Amp up the effort by adding dumbbells into the mix.)
On your mat, support yourself on your arms and legs. Keeping your right knee bent at a 90 degree angle, lift your right left into the air until your leg forms a straight line with your shoulders and back, your right toe pointing upward. Reverse the movement to return to start, and switch legs after completing one set on your right side.
Squats are a classic leg strengthener that targets hips, thighs, and glutes. Beginners may want to start with chair squats and graduate into standing squats. For chair squats, stand in front of a sturdy chair as you’re about to sit in it. Place feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Focus your weight in your heels and bend your knees to slowly lower your buttocks towards the chair. When you get close to the chair, quickly press back up to standing. Standing squats use exactly the same movement, without the chair. Aim for 10 to 15 squats per set.
- Calf Raises
Your calves may not be as big as your other leg muscles, but they still need toning, so they can support your ankles and help you balance. Calf raises are simple but effective. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. It’s easiest if you stand near a chair, counter, railing, or wall for support. Push up onto the balls of your feet, like you’re standing tippy-toe, and hold for three seconds. Then slowly lower your heels back down to the floor. Do two or three sets of 15 raises.
- Side Lying Plank
Lie on one side with your legs stacked on top of one another. Place your forearm on the floor with your elbow below your shoulder and forearm parallel to your mat. Pushing off your elbow, engage your core, glutes, and legs to lift your body weight off the mat.
- Broad Jump
With your knees hip-length apart, bend at the glutes and hips, then launch your body forward in a controlled jump movement. Land on your feet as far as you (comfortably) can from your initial starting point. “Maintain a soft bend through your knees to land like you’re a ninja trying to not make a noise,” Earnest adds. “This will help keep your knees safe and your jump fluid.”
- Side Hip Raises
For this exercise, you can use the same chair you’ve been using for squats and calf raises. The side hip raise strengthens your hips, thighs, and glutes. The movement also helps keep your hip joints flexible. Stand behind a sturdy chair with feet planted and toes facing forward. Keep your legs straight, but don’t lock your knees. Slowly lift your right leg to the side. Then return to the starting position. The slower you do this movement, the better.
- Knee Extensions
Knee extensions target the quadriceps and strengthen the knees. You can do this with or without ankle weights. If you don’t have ankle weights, try draping a bag of rice over your foot. Sit all the way back in a chair with your feet almost touching the ground. Lift your feet with a rolled towel if you need to. Flex your right foot and slowly lift your toes up towards the sky until your leg is completely extended. Then slowly bend your leg to lower it. Remember to keep your foot flexed and move slowly.
- Knee Curls
This exercise works the hamstrings in the back of the upper leg and makes walking and climbing easier. You can do this with or without ankle weights. Stand behind a sturdy chair for support and place feet almost shoulder-width apart. Flex your foot and slowly bend your right leg, so your heel moves toward your buttock. Then slowly, lower your leg back to starting position. Repeat with your left leg. Do this 10 to 20 times for each leg.
- Goblet Squat
Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a weight in front of your chest, elbows pointing toward the floor. Push hips back and bend knees to lower into a squat. Push yourself back to start. That’s one rep.
- Leg Balance
This final exercise tones your legs, but is also an opportunity to rest and recover. Stand with your knees slightly bent. Keep your chest up and back straight with hands on the hips. Slowly lift your knee up, as you did with knee raises, but hold it there for 15 to 60 seconds. You should feel your opposite leg working to keep your balance.
- Single-Leg Deadlift
Holding a weight in either hand, stand on left leg with palms facing toward thighs. Keep the left leg slightly bent while hinging forward at the hips, extending the right leg straight behind you, until torso is parallel to the floor. Weights should be lowered straight down as you move until they’re almost touching the floor. Drive into left heel to return to standing.
- Stability Ball Bridge
Start lying on your back with arms by sides, legs bent at 90 degrees (shins parallel to the mat), and feet on a stability ball. Push down into soles, upper back, and arms to lift hips off ground a few inches. Return to start. That’s one rep.
- Squat with Heel Raise
Stand with feet hip-width apart, hands at sides. Take a big step to the right, then push your hips back, bending the right knee and lowering until the right knee is bent to 90 degrees. Push back to an upright position, lifting your knee and pulling it into the chest with your arms.
- Leg Press
Adjust the seat of the machine so that you can sit comfortably with your hips beneath your knees and your knees in line with your feet. Remove the safeties and lower your knees toward your chest until they’re bent 90 degrees and then press back up.
Be careful not to go too low or you risk your lower back coming off the seat (which can cause injury).
Some important things to know are:
- Pause and hold
When you do leg exercises, pause and contract your muscles. This contraction further engages the muscles, which helps maintain strength. You can do this with many types of moves, including squats and bridges.
- Rest your legs
Don’t overwork your legs. This can slow down recovery and weaken muscles. Instead, let your legs rest. This will allow time for your muscles to repair and get stronger.
- Use your non-dominant leg
Occasionally, lead with your non-dominant side. This is good to do when you walk or climb stairs. Otherwise, if you always lead with your dominant leg, you might develop muscular imbalances.
- Use a foam roller
For optimal recovery, do foam roller exercises for the legs. It can loosen tight muscles and realign tissue. Using a foam roller also improves overall exercise performance.
- Stay hydrated
The body stores carbohydrates as glycogen. During exercise, it uses glycogen as energy. Poor hydration also speeds up glycogen use. Low glycogen can lead to muscle fatigue and impaired performance trusted Source.
To get the most out of your leg workout, stay hydrated. This is especially important on hot days.
- Eat enough calories
Eating enough calories is key for building muscle. It provides energy and maintains strength in your legs and body. Your caloric intake depends on your activity level and specific needs. You can talk to a dietitian or nutritionist to determine your recommended intake.
- Eat a well-rounded diet
For maximum leg and body strength, eat a well-rounded diet. This includes adequate hydration and macronutrient intake. After exercise, focus on carbohydrates and protein. Carbohydrates replenish muscle glycogen, while protein supports muscle repair.
- Avoid added sugars
Foods with added sugar provide low-quality calories. This may contribute to unwanted weight gain in the legs. Limit or avoid foods with added sugar. This includes sugar-sweetened drinks, breakfast cereals, and packaged snacks. Eat more unprocessed, whole foods instead.
- Wear compression leggings
In between workouts, wear compression leggings. Doing so can improve circulation for some people by applying pressure on their legs. This promotes blood flow and supports muscle repair after doing exercises that tone the legs.
- Stand up often
Sitting all day can contribute to muscle loss and weakness in the legs.
To keep your legs strong, stand up every 20 to 40 minutes. You can also stretch or do exercises every 60 to 90 minutes.
- Get enough sleep
Sleep is a major part of muscle recovery. During deep sleep, the body releases hormones that repair cells and tissue. Getting enough rest also supports optimal performance during leg workouts.
Home workouts vs. gym workouts
Some of the recommended exercises suggest using dumbbells or other gym equipment. If you’re working out at home and don’t have any dumbbells, there are plenty of alternatives to try. You can fill a milk jug with water or sand or use some soup cans or water bottles to use as weights. You can also use resistance bands or a bucket filled with sand.
Before you start, warm-up!
When working out with weights, you should always warm-up before your workout and cool down after. This can help to avoid injuries. Warm-ups can include things like jogging, stretching, and body-weight exercises. Cooldowns should include plenty of stretching.
Wear shoes with a good grip to keep you in position during your exercises. Make sure to keep your back straight during exercises, especially ones where you are bending over like the deadlift.
If you feel pain during your workout, stop doing that exercise. If your pain doesn’t go away after a few days, contact your doctor.
Wrapping up the discussion on strengthening your legs
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