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30 Tips to Get Lean, Strong Legs Faster

Work Your Lower Half In Every Move

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Your lower body is the easiest and quickest place to build calorie-torching 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. 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. Need more ideas? Try this total body routine.

Get to the (True) Core

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You’ve probably heard tons about core training and how important it is, but did you know that it’s impossible to work your core without also engaging your legs? Skip standard crunches and speed up your results with core training. Try this routine to work your core and legs.

Start Left!

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“Work your weaker side first — which is the left side for many of us,” says Michele Olson, PhD, 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

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Lunges is one of the best leg toning exercises, 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.”

Get Off the Ground

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“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.”

Combine Strength and Power

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“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.”

Go the Distance With Your Cardio

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“Women may need to incorporate more long, low-moderate cardio activities since the fat in the hips (pear shape) is harder to melt than around the abdominal area (apple shape). If you need to focus on your legs more than the waist, don’t forget to do 45 to 60 minutes cardiovascular exercise,” explains Montenegro.

Toss Those “Cellulite Creams”

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Sorry ladies— no miracle cream exists that will banish cellulite. Caffeine, often a main ingredient in those pricey creams, can help minimize the appearance of cellulite. Before you put on the short shorts this summer, try this recipe for “See-ya Cellulite Wrap”: take the warm grounds from your morning coffee, and mix them together with one tbsp. of olive oil. Next, rub the mixture over your thighs (also a great exfoliator) and then wrap the grounds-covered area of your thighs in plastic wrap. Let it sit for about 10 minutes, then rinse. (We recommend doing this in the shower, since it can get quite messy!)

Skip the Ankle Weights

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Before you strap on those ankle weights in hopes of slimmer thighs, consider this: they may cause excess stress on your ankles, knee and hips joints, strain your ligaments or even cause muscular imbalances. Bottom line— the risks of wearing ankle weights outweigh the benefits. Save walking for cardio, and focus on your strength training with weights another time.If you want to add intensity to your walks, try using walking poles or a weighted vest (which concentrates the extra weight where your body can support it better).

Put Your Legs to Work to Get to Work

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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, bike, rollerblade or even use a "Street Rider" to get work. A 30-minute ‘active’ commute to and from work each day could add up to an extra 500 calories burned each day. That's about 3 pounds lost in a month!

Stop Trying to Spot Reduce

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Sorry, the thigh master alone will not get rid of inner thigh bulges no matter how many squeezes you give it. To rid your body of excess fat in certain spots, like around the hips and thighs, you’ll need to reduce your overall body fat with a total-body strength and cardio routine and a balanced diet. Remember that you may see results last in the areas you are hoping to get rid of first (inner thighs) and first in the areas you want to keep (like your breasts).

Don’t Neglect Your Diet

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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) your weight. 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.

Photo: Shutterstock

Get Off the Machines at the Gym

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Those weight machines at the gym may look impressive, but they aren’t helping you build an impressive physique. 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.

Wear a Pedometer

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In addition to your workouts, try wearing a pedometer and setting a daily goal of 10,000 steps. Adding in more daily activity can help you burn more calories and gets results faster without having to log in extra time at the gym.

Be Sure to Rest Your Legs

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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.

Sprint for Lean Legs

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“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.

Be Kind to Your Knees

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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

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Getting out of your chair more frequently during the day will not only help work your legs more, it may also help shrink your waistline and improve your health. A recent study from the University of Queensland, Australia found that out of 5,000 office workers, those who stood more often during their work day had a waist size that was 4.1 cm smaller and lower levels of bad cholesterol and blood glucose than those who stayed seated. Aim to stand up for at least 15 minutes out of every hour while on the job for faster results.

Foam Roll Your Legs

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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.

Hit Up Some High Intensity Intervals

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“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."

Train From All Angles

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“Be sure to train from all angles. 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," says Bagshaw. "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."

Hold It

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“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.

Slow Down

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“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.”

Drop Set

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“Start your set with a weight that is approximately 30% more than you would normally lift. Complete 4-6 repetitions at this weight. Quickly drop the weight to 30% less than you would normally lift and finish your set with 8-10 more repetitions", says Dolgan. "This essentially pre-fatigues your muscles and makes them think that you have completed more work than you actually have."

Mix Up Your Range of Motion on Moves

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“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.

Vary Your ‘Pushing Speed’

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“The lowering speed should always be fairly slow; however, changing the speeds of your pushing phase will help you mimic real life. Try one repetition slowly, one at a medium pace and one explosively fast. Randomly mix different speeds into your pushing phase,” recommends Dolgan. This is a great way to incorporate power training into your strength training routine and speed up your results.

Stretch Your Legs – and Your Results

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“Studies have shown that stretching can help decrease muscle soreness, limit imbalances, and even help maintain strength when resistance training is not an option. The bottom line is with less soreness and fewer imbalances, you can continue working out those legs and speed up your results,” says Richey.

Fire Up Your Glutes Properly

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“Squats are a great lower body exercise, but only if your glutes fully engage. 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),” says Richey. Once your glutes are fully ‘activated’ perform your set of squats for double the results!

‘Pre-exhaust’ Weaker Muscles

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Fatigue your stronger leg muscles with an isolated exercise before using the legs in a compound movement (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.”

Ditch the ‘Toning Shoes’ and Try This Instead

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Unfortunately, those toning shoes that are supposed to shape up your legs without the need for a gym haven’t proven their effectiveness and many are actually causing injuries. Instead, try walking on an uneven surface, such as sand at the beach, to add an extra challenge and fire up the balancing muscles in your lower body in a more safe, natural and effective way.


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