Trainer-Approved Tips to Strengthening Your Legs In No Time
Make sense? Yes. Still ready to put in the work? Hell yeah! Enter: these 30 trainer-approved tricks and tips to strengthen your legs, build lean muscle, and really define your hard-earned lower body ASAP.
Make Every Day Leg Day
Your lower body is the easiest and quickest place to build lean muscle. You have over 200 muscles below the belt, including the largest muscle in your body — your gluteus maximus. So get off your glutes and get your lower body going in everything you do.
While you could do the best exercises to get toned legs, it's so much simpler than that. Just start asking more of your lower body during every movement. For example, stand on one leg for shoulder presses or squat during biceps curls. The more you work your lower half, the faster you’ll see results. Just as important? Doing the moves correctly. So before you start dropping your tush, catch up on these common squat mistakes and how to fix 'em (hint: relax!).
Challenge Your Core
You’ve probably heard tons about core training and how important core strength is, but did you know that it’s impossible to work your middle without also engaging your legs? Skip standard crunches (*yawn*) and speed up your results with core training like this insanely hard obliques workout or 30-Day Plank Challenge created by Kira Stokes.
Pay Attention to Muscle Imbalances
“Work your weaker side first—which is the left side for many of us,” says Michele Olson, Ph.D., creator of the Perfect Legs, Glutes & Abs” DVD. “When you are fresh, you use better form and tend to do more reps. If you always work your weaker (or left side) last, such as with lunges, you may be unconsciously keeping your stronger side stronger and not giving your weaker side the extra attention it deserves.”
Lunge like a Ballerina
Lunges are some of the best exercises to "tone" your legs, but this ballet-inspired lunge will shape those legs in half the time, says Laurie Alfano, director of education for Xtend Barre in Boca Raton, Florida. To do it, put one leg forward and one back, making sure both heels are on the ground. Lift both heels up off the floor and then lunge down. Do 10 small pulses (raising up and down a few inches in each direction) before switching legs. Be sure to keep your chest lifted and abs in and if you need frontal support, grab a ballet barre or chair. “This short stance lunge ‘en releve’ (on the balls of the feet) will work the thighs, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.” (Related: The Legs and Butt Workout a Professional Ballerina Swears By)
Add Explosive Movements to Your Training
If it's toned legs your after, “get off the ground and let your results take flight,” says Alex Figueroa, a certified personal training consultant. Figueroa suggests taking your typical leg routine to the next level with plyometric (or power) moves like squat jumps or single leg lateral ski hops. “Get your form down first with a well-executed squat, and then progress up, literally, to the plyometric version of just about any leg exercise.” And if the child-like fun of jumping up and down hasn't sold you, plyometrics are pros at double duty, making you firmer and faster.
Combine Strength and Power
“To build lean and strong legs, you need a mix of strength and power, which will also help you to burn more calories faster,” says Marta Montenegro, an exercise physiologist in Miami, Florida. “Perform a lunge around the clock (starting at 6 and ending at 10, which is a side lunge), and do 3 sets of 12-15 reps and right after that, do split jumps (no weight, switching the leg position every time you land for 15 counts) to fully engage all the muscle fibers.” (On that note...did you know that EMS workouts can help you recruit more muscle fibers too?)
Go the Distance with Your Cardio
Love it or hate it, cardio is a key component to and workout regimen—whether toned legs is your goal or not. While HIIT has been reigning supreme for a while now, you shouldn't avoid steady-state cardio entirely. Steady-state aerobic activity maintains a continuous, steady effort (instead of mixing up intensities during, say, interval training) for a longer period of time (30-60 minutes). Not only is it a great way to keep your blood pumping on active rest days—especially if you’re frequently HIIT-ing it—but it’s also an effective wind-down post-training, as it aids in the regeneration and condition of muscles.
Someone who gets bored with all that, well, steadiness? Go ahead and add more of an incline on the treadmill or bike. Walking or jogging on a hill while still maintaining a moderate level of intensity will target your glutes and hamstrings in a way a light jog on flat road wouldn't.
Give Your Back of Your Legs the Burn
It’s time to call it quits on the c-word: cellulite, duh. Not only is it completely natural but it’s also seriously NBD. If you do, however, want to work on the appearance of cellulite (or as Iskra Lawrence calls it, #CelluLIT) “make sure to build muscle strategically,” as Wane Westcott, Ph.D., a professor of exercise science at Quincy College previously told Shape. Back leg exercises—moves that focus on your hamstrings, glutes, and abductors—are great for this. More specifically? Deadlifts, ladies, deadlifts. (Related: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Cellulite)
Skip the Ankle Weights
Before you strap on those ankle weights in hopes of stronger thighs and toned legs, consider this: They can potentially cause excess stress on your ankles, knee and hips joints, and strain your ligaments. If you want to strap up, then be sure you know exactly how to use ankle weights to reap the benefits (hint: keep them light). Or you can trade your ankle weights for a weighted vest or walking poles—both of which concentrate the extra weight where your body can support it better and do an A+ job at amping up the intensity of your walks.
Change Up Your Commute
Speed up your results, save money, and help the environment by using your legs to commute to work. If you live close enough, you can walk, run, rollerblade, or cycle (with these best commuter bikes). An easy 30-minute ‘active’ commute to and from work each day could add up to extra calories burned and more time toning your legs. Not to mention, you'll arrive at the office with endorphins flowing. Talk about an amazing way to take on the day. (Need some inspo? Here's how one woman run commutes to work.)
Stop Trying to Spot Reduce
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but you can't spot-reduce in an effort to "tone" your legs. What you can do, however, is try to develop lean muscle in a targeted area—in addition to, of course, a healthy diet. So next time you find yourself floating over to, say, the thigh master at the gym, switch it up with exercises that strengthen beyond just your thighs to your hamstrings, glutes, calves, and core too. And please remember: as for the thigh-gap? That b*tch is overrated.
Don’t Neglect Your Diet
Even the best workout routine can’t make up for a crummy diet. Make sure to supplement your hard work at the gym with a healthy, balanced diet that contains enough calories to lose (or maintain or gain) your weight depending on your goal. Eat whole, unprocessed foods and drink plenty of water to ensure your body has the nutrients it needs to stay energized and perform well during your training sessions.
Reconsider the Gym Machines
For the most part, those weight machines at the gym may look impressive, but you can get a more effective workout with functional training and free weights. You’ll burn more calories and work more muscles at once by doing a side lunge instead of using an isolation equipment piece like the adductor machine. “During a side lunge there is a lot of balance and stability required, thus meaning more work by the adductors (or inner thigh muscles). In addition to strengthening the ligaments of the knee, all the other muscles in the legs are being worked as well— quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. The more muscles being worked, the more energy being burned, which means leaner, stronger legs faster,” says Dominic Lucibello, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of Breakthrough Fitness in Orlando, Florida. (See also: 7 Exercises and Gym Machines to Skip)
Wear a Pedometer
Gone are the days of belt-hook pedometers. In their place? Your smartphone, of course. That bad boy can track pretty much everything, including your steps. In addition to your usual workout routine, try to walk 10,000 steps every day. Adding more daily activity can help you get results faster without having to log in extra time at the gym. Plus, walking more on the regular can improve blood sugar, blood pressure, mood, and sleep quality. So are you moving enough? Any time is a good time to step up your walking game.
Don't Forget About Rest
If you experience delayed onset muscle soreness be sure to allow your muscles to recover between 48-72 hours before hitting the weights hard again, recommends Rick Richey, a certified celebrity trainer and owner of R2Fitness in New York City. Delayed onset muscle soreness usually occurs after intense, high-level exertion workouts, and rest is necessary to allow your muscles time to recover and develop strength. But that doesn’t mean you can’t work out. You can do cardio or focus on another type of workout while you wait for your legs to recover. (Related: This Is What the Ultimate Recovery Day Should Look Like)
Try Out Sprint Training
“Sprints are cardio intervals, bringing the heart rate up fast and then letting it come down in between. This boosts metabolism and burns more calories than jogging at a steady rate and is a great way to get leaner legs,” says Tom Holland, star of the Supreme 90 Day DVD System. Start incorporating sprints into your next cardio workout by moving as fast as you can for 15 seconds (with plenty of recovery in between) up to three times during your session. (Before you pound the pavement, learn how to balance sprints and recovery for a killer interval workout.)
Be Kind to Your Knees
Knee pain is one of the most common injuries that can sideline you from a good leg workout. “Aerobic exercise lowers inflammation, thus reducing pain, and resistance training will help support the knees and the muscles surrounding them,” says Holland. Just be sure to take good care of your knees and prevent injury by doing exercises with proper form, and use good running technique if you are a runner.
Stand Up More Often During Your Day
Getting out of your chair more frequently during the day will not only help work your legs more, but it may also help shrink your waistline and improve your health (think: lower levels of blood sugar and bad cholesterol). Aim to stand up for at least 15 minutes out of every hour while on the job for faster results. Still, after all those years of sitting, that might be easier said than done. So consider investing in a standing desk or start small by simply standing during work phone calls.
Foam Roll Your Legs
Think about it this way: When your jeans first come out of the dryer, they are hard to move around in comfortably, right? Tight muscles feel the same way. Foam rolling acts like a deep tissue massage that can help release adhesions in your muscles that may be limiting your range of motion or performance during your workouts. ‘Iron’ out the kinks in your legs before your workout for better exercise performance and ultimately, better results. (See: The Best Foam Rollers for Muscle Recovery)
Opt for HIIT
“Rather than spend hours on the elliptical, cut your workout time down with high-intensity intervals," says Geoff Bagshaw, area group fitness manager for Equinox in Miami. "Intervals, short bursts of maximum effort cardio followed by rest periods, along with resistance training, will elevate the rate you burn calories, helping to torch fat, and increase lean muscle to give you the tone and definition you’re looking for." No equipment? No problem. That's right: By using your body weight, you can get a killer HIIT workout anytime, anywhere.
Train from All Angles
“Be sure to train from all angles," says Bagshaw. "Often we get stuck in a rut and use the same exercises over and over again. Mix up your leg training to target all those lower body muscles from different angles. At a loss for ideas? Book a session with a trainer to have them develop a program you can work with that has you lunging and squatting through all planes of movement."
Try Isometric Exercises
“At the end of every set, try to hold a contracted position (like the bottom of a squat) for as long as you can. This is called an isometric contraction and will help you get stronger through the toughest parts of range of motion,” says Jeff Dolgan, a clinical exercise physiologist at Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach, Florida. (See also: What You Should Know About Eccentric, Concentric, and Isometric Exercises)
“The lowering phase of leg exercises such as squats and lunges (the eccentric contraction) is the period when strength gains typically will occur. This is often referred to as a ‘negative’ load because although you are not ‘pushing’ weight, your muscle fibers are still contracting,” says Dolgan. “Many people make the mistake of moving through the eccentric phase too quickly. The maximum speed you should lower your body is 4 seconds from standing to full bend.” (Head’s up: eccentric moves will likely leave you sore, so bookmark these ways to relieve sore muscles for when the aches appear.)
Do Some Drop Sets
“Start your set with a weight that is approximately 30 percent more than you would normally lift," says Dolgan. "Complete 4-6 repetitions at this weight. Quickly drop the weight to 30 percent less than you would normally lift and finish your set with 8-10 more repetitions. This essentially pre-fatigues your muscles and makes them think that you have completed more work than you actually have." (And don't stop there. Here, how to use drop sets to upgrade your strength training program even further.)
Mix Up Your Range of Motion
“We don’t typically use our body in full range of motion (ROM) in everyday activities like we do in the gym. Try to complete one repetition with only 25 percent ROM, one repetition with 50 percent ROM, one repetition with 75 percent ROM and one set with full ROM. Vary these range of motions randomly within each set,” suggests Dolgan. Not only can they help you get over a fitness hump, but half or partial reps like these can also improve your form and help heal from an injury. (Pro tip: you can also speed up injury recovery by eating the right foods.)
Vary Your ‘Pushing Speed’
“The lowering speed should always be fairly slow; however, changing the speeds of your pushing phase will help you mimic real life," explains Dolgan. "Try one repetition slowly, one at a medium pace and one explosively fast. Randomly mix different speeds into your pushing phase." This is a great way to incorporate power training into your strength training routine and speed up your results.
Stretch Your Legs
...and you'll stretch your results. “Studies have shown that stretching can help decrease muscle soreness, limit imbalances, and even help maintain strength when resistance training is not an option," says Richey. "The bottom line is with less soreness and fewer imbalances, you can continue working out those legs and speed up your results." (Learn more: The Best Way to Stretch Before and After a Workout)
Activate Your Glutes Properly
“Squats are a great lower body exercise, but only if your glutes fully engage," says Richey. "Here's a great trick to make sure the butt is burning during your squats: Do a set of lying hip bridges before your squats to activate your rear. (Be sure to focus on squeezing your backside during the bridge)." Once your glutes are fully ‘activated,’ perform your set of squats for double the results!
‘Pre-Exhaust’ Weaker Muscles
Fatigue your stronger leg muscles with an isolated exercise before using the legs in a compound movement (one that uses the legs as a whole) to help improve the weaker muscles in your legs, says Adam Wegner, a certified personal trainer at Canyon Ranch in Miami Beach, Florida. “For example, if hamstrings are the weaker muscle group in your legs (vs. your quadriceps), you can do several sets of leg extensions and then immediately switch to a squat or a lunge. Your quadriceps will be so tired from the extensions, your body is forced to engage the fresher muscles, like your hamstrings.” (And if you’re doing this, you’re going to need these science-backed ways to push through workout fatigue.)
Ditch the ‘Toning Shoes’ and Try This Instead
If they’re not already lodged in the back of your closet, toss any toning shoes back there. Then, to add an extra challenge and fire up the balancing muscles in your lower body in a safer, natural, and effective way, try walking on an uneven surface such as sand at the beach. Leave near the mountains? Go hiking or really amp it up by trail running.