Everyone wants a great pair of legs, but few people are willing to put in the time to build them. The reason: “It’s hard work,” says Angelo Poli, owner of Whole Body Fitness in Chico, California. The body’s strongest, most powerful muscles — including your quads, glutes, and hamstrings — reside below your waist, and training them can be downright exhausting.
We get it, and we’re not letting you off the hook. Strengthening the muscles in your lower body not only helps you turn heads in a pair of jeans, but also puts you on the fast-track to a smaller waist and better health, according to Japanese researchers. In their study, people with the strongest legs had the least amount of visceral fat — the most dangerous kind that wraps around your organs and increases your risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer. Need another reason to target your legs? It can boost your brain function, especially as you age, according to a recent study by researchers at Kings College, in London.
Ready to start sculpting? Follow these three tips. In no time at all you’ll have a more powerful lower half and a leaner, stronger body for life.
Begin with the Basics
“Squats and deadlifts are potent muscle builders, but they also have a fairly shallow learning curve,” says Poli. In short, they’re difficult to master, and if your form is off, you risk straining your joints and back. If you’re a beginner, start with less advanced moves that hit the same muscle groups, such as lunges, ball squats (where you squat with a ball pressed between your back and a wall), step-ups, and bodyweight squats. Once you become proficient in those exercises, you can start weaving weighted squats and deadlifts into your routine. “But keep your form tight and your reps in the 8 to 12 range,” says Poli. “That’s the best rep range to improve the way your legs look.”
Don’t Isolate Muscle Groups
That means skipping the leg machines if you work out in a gym. “Leg machines have their place, but I use them mostly for injury rehab,” says Poli. Assuming you’re pain-free and healthy, don’t spend lot of time on leg extensions, leg curls, and other machine-based moves that work just one joint (and one muscle group) at a time, says Poli. Instead, focus on compound (multi-joint) moves like lunges and step-ups, which target multiple muscle groups at once. The more muscle you work, the more muscle you’ll build.
Your legs are used to carrying you around all day, so you may have to work harder to tire them out than you do the muscles of your upper body, says Poli, who often has his clients finish leg workouts by pairing a standard exercise with an explosive one. “Try 12 walking lunges per leg, followed immediately by 30 seconds of squat jumps [lower yourself into a full squat, then jump as high as you can],” he says. Other alternatives: bodyweight squats paired with jumping lunges, step-ups paired with sprints outdoors, or on a treadmill with a steep incline. “Three sets of any one of those combinations, resting minimally between moves, will have your legs screaming,” says Poli.