Getting Great Legs: Strong, Lean and Limber

woman on a beachIt’s summertime and that means wearing less clothes overall—in the season for sundresses, swimsuits, and shorts instead of long pants, we’re all more exposed!

Legs matter in more than summer fashion, too. During the increase of outdoor activities and sports, you might wonder if you’ve been focusing enough on your leg workouts.

Getting a Leg Up on Your Lower Body

A total body approach to your fitness is always a great idea, but sometimes, you have some special needs based on an upcoming competition, the season, your health or your activities. If you are a walker or runner for example, you might feel your legs get enough work. But if you want to improve your performance, it’s likely that simply running or walking is not enough. Strength exercises for your lower body will benefit you too.

If you’re a regular in the strength training area, or in group fitness, you might not think much about further work for your lower body. Strong muscles and a lot of endurance might signal to you that that’s all you need. But there is more to your legs than your muscles. What about your joints, for example—ankles, knees and hips all benefit from extra attention your routine might not be providing.

Take a look at this list of some classic exercises that almost everyone can benefit from adding to their workouts. A strength workout for your lower body twice a week is an excellent idea for all of us, as is a regular arsenal of stretches we can do to help our legs recover after exercise. And you’ll feel even better in your board shorts and tennis skirts this summer!

couple doing weighted squats

Body Weight Squats

A truly universal core exercise, the squat is an important addition to anyone’s weekly routine. You can work your way up to using a machine, dumbbells or a barbell for more resistance, but your body weight, with good form, will do just fine for starters.

Set Up: Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Be sure to check your alignment: hips, thighs, knees, toes… everything should be facing forward and be vertically stacked.

Instructions: Imagine you are sitting back in a chair placed behind you. Bend your knees to lower your hips back into the imaginary seat, keeping your knees behind your toes. You should feel your glutes (rear end muscles), as well as your quads (front of leg) and hamstrings (back of leg) at work. Make your goal to reach a 90 degree angle with your knees and hips, so your thighs are parallel to the floor. Rise back up to straight legs. Do up to 12 repetitions. You can add weights in your hands when 12 is no trouble.

Body Weight Lunges

Like squats, you can work your way up to using dumbbells or a barbell for more resistance, once you can perform a set of 12 lunges on each leg with good form, without trouble. Even bodyweight lunges can set your thigh muscles on fire, and another benefit is the lower leg stretch for your shins and ankles.

Set Up: Stand with your feet hip-width apart. You might want to place your hands on your hips for extra balance – your hips should stay level when you lunge.

Instructions: Take a long step forward with your right leg, toes pointing forward, then bend your right knee and extend your left leg behind you. Then bend your left knee, lowering it toward the floor without touching the floor. Be sure to keep your torso up tall and your head in line with your spine. Your body weight should be equal between both legs, and your front knee should align straight up from your front ankle. For beginners, stay in this leg position straightening and bending the back knee several times, before switching to lunge on the other side. When you can perform about 30 seconds of lunges on each leg, you can progress to alternating legs for each lunge.

Calf Raises

Again, as with squats, calf raises can be done with just the body weight for resistance, or you can use a machine, dumbbells or a barbell as you advance your workouts. This is a stretching and strengthening motion in one exercise, and you will need a raised platform (like a stair or aerobic step) to perform them on.

Set Up: Stand on the balls of your feet, with your feet a few inches apart, on your stair or your step. Your heels will be off the back end of the step behind you. You might want to hold onto a wall or railing if your balance could be compromised.

Instructions: Slowly drop your heels toward the floor. Your toes are likely to lift slightly off the front of the platform. Rise back up to “tip-toe” to engage your calf muscles, then lower yourself again, repeating a smooth fluid motion. Be careful with how deep you drop your heels behind you—your Achilles tendon behind your ankle does not like to be overstretched. You can repeat this motion several times with both heels dropping at once, or alternate between your legs lowering left then right heel with control.

Hip & Glute Stretch

After a lower body workout that hits all your leg muscles and taxes your joints, a careful stretch can help you recover with more gains and fewer pain. Since so many muscles and tendons connect up into the pelvis, it’s important to balance your strong hips with some flexibility work. This simple exercise opens your hip and stretches the glutes that wrap around your leg bone to the side.

Set Up: Lie down on your back on a mat on the floor, bend both knees and place your feet flat on the mat.

Instructions: Cross your right leg over your left thigh, opening the knee out to the side. If you can, press gently with your right hand inside the right thigh near your knee to deepen the stretch. Hold for at least 15 seconds, and then switch to the other side.

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