Training Articles

Five Exercises for Strong Legs

calf

How about a walk down memory lane? Remember those bearded men singing, "She’s got legs, she knows how to use them?" I used to pay close attention to those words, admiring the fish-netted, leather-skirted, pump-wearing legs in the video all the while..

Although my fondness for ZZ Top has abated, I am still a huge fan of nice legs. Hopefully, if you are reading this article, you share the sentiment. Lean, defined legs speak volumes about your fitness level and dedication to health. There are few physical traits more admirable than healthy legs—a fact that is exploited by the myriad products, potions and creams promising "miracle" solutions to unsightly legs.

When it comes down to it, good, old-fashioned hard work is the key ingredient in building yourself a fabulous, strong pair of legs. The following exercises are designed to help you reach that goal quickly and efficiently. They utilize a great deal of balance and stability, forcing your legs—and entire body—to work much harder than many typical exercises, thereby delivering superior results.

The workout

Start your workout by warming up with five to 10 minutes of cardio activity.
Because these exercises are difficult, form is of the utmost importance. Pay careful attention to the directions, and watch yourself practice these moves in a mirror until you are sure you are doing them properly.

Since all of these exercises, except deadlifts, use only your body weight, work on gradually increasing the number of repetitions you are able to do until you can complete about 20 of each.

For single-leg exercises, do one side, immediately followed by the other side, to complete a full set. Concentrate on quality, not quantity. If you can only do eight repetitions with perfect form to start with, that is fine!

You can mix and match these exercises in many ways. Here are some ideas: If you are only doing a leg workout, try one set of each in the order they appear, rest for a few minutes, then repeat all exercises. Work your way up to four sets. If you are using these exercises as part of a full-body workout, choose two and alternate them. For instance, combine single-leg touchdowns with deadlifts, one-leg wall squats with stability ball draw-ins, etc. Do two to three of these sets, resting 30 seconds to one minute in between each—you will feel it!

Remember to concentrate on your form and, most of all, have fun!

Exercises

Single-leg touchdowns
This is one of my favorite leg exercises. It can be done anywhere, and is always a challenge.

Starting position: Stand balanced on one leg. Make sure your posture is neutral—your back should be neither overly arched or rounded—and tighten your torso.

The exercise: Slowly, bending at the hips, knee and ankle, reach down and touch the outside of your supporting leg’s foot with the opposite hand. Return to starting position, keeping your torso tight. Repeat. Do this exercise s-l-o-w-l-y to keep constant tension on your leg muscles and to keep your balance!

Tip: If you are initially unable to reach all the way down to your toe without falling over, try reaching to mid-shin (or as far as you comfortably can) instead.


Stability ball draw-ins
Draw-ins will put your hamstrings—and core—to the test. If using only one leg proves too difficult at first, try it with both and progress accordingly.

Starting position: Lie on your back with your heels and the bottom halves of your calves on a ball, toes pointing toward the ceiling. Place your arms straight out to your sides, palms on floor.

The exercise: Squeeze your glutes and press your hips up toward the ceiling so your body is in a straight line from chest to ankles. Keeping a tight torso, slowly exhale while bringing the ball in toward your body by bending your knees. Draw the ball in as far as you can, then slowly return to starting position. Repeat.

Tip: Keep your knees lined up with your ankles and do not let your hips sink or hike up at all during this exercise—they should stay level the whole time.


Balance lunges
Lunges are one of the best exercises for legs, and should be a staple of any leg workout. This exercise takes them to the next level.

Starting position: Stand with legs shoulder-width apart, hands on hips. Take a big step forward and lower your hips toward the floor until both knees are at 90-degree angles. Do not let the knee of your front leg travel over your toes, and make sure your back knee does not hit the ground. Your upper body should be straight, torso tight.

The exercise: From the lunge position, exhale as you forcefully push back off of your front leg. Push through your heel, back up to a standing position, but don’t let your foot touch the ground. Instead, lift your knee by flexing your hip to 90 degrees, toe pointing straight ahead. Balance for four seconds, return to the lunge position, and repeat.

Tip: When you initially lunge forward, do not let your body propel you so much that your knee reaches out past your toes. Instead, think of the lunge action as taking a step, then letting your body gently sink down (not forward) into position.


Deadlifts
Deadlifts remain one of my favorite exercises for hamstrings, glutes and low back. The key to doing them is to use proper form—watch yourself in the mirror when you first do these.

Starting position: Stand holding a dumbbell in each hand with arms shoulder-width apart, hanging straight down. Position legs shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent. Squeeze your shoulder blades together in back and keep your chest high. It is very important to keep your upper body in this position throughout the entire exercise.

The exercise: Tighten your torso and—inhaling—slowly bend forward from the hips, pushing your rear-end back, keeping your shoulder blades retracted, and chin tucked. Slide the dumbbells down your legs and bend down as far as you can—but no further than mid-shin—until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings. Pause for a second at the bottom, then, exhaling, squeeze your glutes and return to starting position. As you rise, visualize the hinging motion of your glutes powering your lift. Repeat.

Tip: Protect your back in the following was: 1) Go slow—deadlifts should not be done quickly. 2) Do not let your back round—keep it arched throughout this exercise. If you are unable to keep your shoulders back and chest high, you may be going down too far.


One-leg wall squats
This exercise is challenging, but well worth it.

Starting position: Standing, position yourself against a stability ball so the small of your back is centered on the ball. Lift one leg up slightly off the ground. You may have to experiment with proper leg placement, but you should be able to balance on one leg, with your foot slightly out in front of (not under) your knee. Place your hands on your hips.

The exercise: Draw your belly button in toward your spine, keep your chest up, and slowly bend the knee of your supporting leg. As you lower your body, visualize rolling your glutes back under the ball toward the wall. Go down only as far as you comfortably can, but do not go past the point where your thighs are parallel to the floor. Exhaling, squeeze your glutes, pressing back against the ball, to return to starting position. Repeat. Do not let your knee travel out over your toes during this exercise.

Tip: Do not let your pelvis come forward as you push up from the squat. Keep your hips at a 90-degree angle as you lower and return to starting position.

Want to work your calves? Keep in mind that your calves get a great workout doing many types of cardio exercise, including jumping rope, stair climbing, the stairstepper, running on sand, hiking, etc.