The experts swear by these workouts for stronger, leaner legs
A good number of us know the drill when it comes to exercising to tone our biceps or work our abs (bicep curls and planks ahoy), but if targeting your inner thighs, strengthening your knee joints or quite simply building long and lean muscle in the leg department is your goal, it’s not always obvious where to begin. From the revival of the ‘thighmaster’ to the moves you might be doing already that will quite literally give your workout a leg up, here are the problem-solving leg workouts that get results, whether you’ve got speed, stamina, strength building or weight loss in mind.
I want to tone my thighs
Along with your stomach, thighs are notoriously one of the most tricky areas to target and strengthen. If the leg press machine isn’t having the desired effect, try honing in on thighs more precisely. A very retro piece of home kit can help you get there- the thighmaster. The thigh sculpting fitness tool made famous in the early 90s is seeing a comeback, with the likes of Gymbox launching entire class programmes that big up the benefits of the hinged tube device. Thunder is fresh on the gym’s timetable and capitalises on the resistance created by the thighmaster to build “thighs of steel”, alongside other quad and glute toning moves to get your lower body burning over a 45 minute period. Wondering where the glutes come into thigh whittling? Personal trainer and body transformation coach Tanya Niedzwiecki explains why toned thighs start from the bottom, so to speak:
“Always start any leg workout with glute activation exercises. Our butt muscles (the glutes) are generally extremely lazy, since our modern day lives see us sitting on them for a lot of the time, but they're also one of the strongest muscles in the body and need to be ‘switched on’ to power the lower body exercises that create strong legs, such as squats, lunges and deadlifts. If we don’t engage out glutes we can end up using our quadriceps more and becoming imbalanced. Basically, you can’t have toned legs and thighs without putting work in where your bum is concerned.”
Tanya’s top moves for firing up glutes and working on your thighs at the same time are glute bridges, hip thrusts, side steps using a resistance band and ‘clamshell’ moves. If you’re in the dark concerning that particular exercise, a Barre or pilates class will shed some light on the manoeuvre- it’s a slow, side-lying exercise whereby you rest your legs at a 45 degree angle and lift one leg while keeping your bottom leg planted on the ground, taking legs to a ‘clam shell’ position and back together. Tricky to visualise, so this GIF might clear things up, or better still, give your inner thighs the bootcamp treatment with a Barrecore ‘thigh focus’ video , incorporating clam shells and other slow thigh and bum burners that will have muscles working in tiny movements but to a point of maximum fatigue. For a taster of the Barre based thigh magic, here’s three inner thigh exercises to try at home:
Step your feet wide, with toes on the diagonal. Keep a neutral spine and lower the tail bone between the thighs. Perform small lower and upwards lifts in this position, varying the range and tempo - remember to find stillness after each small movement so you that focus on the isometric contraction (your muscle firing). Squeeze the glutes to maintain your external rotation and to activate the back of the body.
Using a table or chair in place of a barre, stand and face your prop with your feet in parallel, hip distance apart. Lift the heels one inch off the floor and lower yourself down a few inches. Lower yourself to the floor and back to the start, keeping the spine in neutral (straight). This will work your thighs eccentrically (lengthening muscles under load) . Repeat ten times and then hold stillness at the top for 30 seconds. Repeat three times until your thighs are burning!
After the thigh shakes, don’t forget to stretch to aid repair- pull your right heel to your right glutes, knees together and tip the tailbone forwards to stretch the hip flexors and quads. Repeat on the left. Effective stretching will allow your muscles to recover quicker, allowing you to get back to the thigh master sooner. The joy.
The vertical v works the thighs and, as the dominant muscle group, it’s key for getting the heart rate up and getting into that calorie burning zone. The vertical v is a really versatile position allowing you to do both isometric and full range movements. Tiny isometric moves will help to strengthen your muscles and burn fat for up to four days afterwards whilst full range movements will get your heart rate up. See Barrecore’s video below to master it:
I want lean legs
If long, lean leg muscles are your overall goal, there’s one move that trainers agree on for toning and sculpting: the squat. It’s Barry’s Bootcamp Master Trainer Anya Lahiri’ s leg burner of choice, as it uses your largest muscle groups and gets heaps of muscle fibres engaged, helping you to both burn more calories and build strength at the same time. Here’s how to nail it according to Anya:
“Stand feet hip-width apart, slowly lower butt towards your heels, keeping your weight in your heels and chest up. Exhale as you return to standing.”
Once you’ve perfected the move, you can add weights for greater load on your legs, try a single legged squat that has the added benefit of improving posture or even try a ‘pray it’s all over’ position , combining squatting and lunging for the ultimate leg test. Just don’t rush it- it turns out that taking the tortoise approach will get you there faster according to Virgin Active PT Stephen Whittle:
“When doing your squats, lunges and other leg exercises, start slowing down your reps to at least five seconds each. If you cannot do both ‘up and down’ motions at that pace, at least execute the negative as slowly as you can. So, if you’re doing a squat, make the squatting down part five seconds long. This will boost your progress very quickly.”
Now you’ve got strength and muscle tone down, let’s move swiftly onto speed...
I want to be a better runner
It’s likely that everyday is ‘leg day’ if you’re a runner, but whether you’re a beginner or Mo Farah, we’ve all had those jelly leg moments. Master Trainer and co-owner of Barry’s Bootcamp London Sandy Macaskill emphasises that the key to powerful legs is in varied training:
“Mixes of speed, endurance and hill runs improve your overall running capability. Mixing up your training, alongside steadily building distance in your legs by working up to longer acclimatisation runs, will help to develop cardiovascular capacity to give you stamina, and stronger muscles mean better running form and control.”
This is where structured weight training and cardio bursts come in- classes like Barry’s combine both to push you to a place you probably wouldn’t go otherwise (believe me, those red lit studios don’t just look hellish), but the endorphin rush and all-over gains are worth it, plus there are different workout focuses to keep things balanced and interesting. Leg day will clearly challenge lower body, but following it up with abs and arms will give legs a chance to recover without you having to stay off games due to pains (ideally you we’re talking aches, not actual pains). If you’re afraid, we don’t blame you, but Sandy stresses that Barry’s is for everyone, and that instructors are specialists in turning non-runners into runners. If you are already a dedicated pacer, swapping roads for a studio every now and again could also have benefits in terms of keeping you moving:
“By training in this balanced manner you’ll be cutting down on your chances of picking up injuries, and by notching up runs on a cushioned treadmill (Barry’s use ‘creme de la creme’ Woodway treadmills) rather than pounding the pavements also cuts down on the risk of impact injuries.”
Up for even more of a leggy challenge? Steven prescribes a simple but highly effective (and exhausting) workout:
“Hill sprints are one of the hardest forms of exercise you can do. They work your whole lower body very efficiently- incorporate hill sprints into your routine on a regular basis and you will see amazing leg toning results and faster weight loss.”
See you at the summit.
I want to protect my joints
Whether you’ve got clicky joints , soreness or want to protect your bones for the future ( women are more at risk of osteoporosis than men ), strengthening the muscles around your leg joints, and knees in particular, can help you to prevent niggles or injury down the line, and looking after your bones is especially vital if you partake in high impact exercise such as running, as founder of Heartcore , PT and pilates specialist Jess Schuring explains:
“Our knee joints are most challenged during running. It's important to look after them to avoid injuries by strengthening the major and equally important supporting smaller muscle groups around that joint. The focus is on the correct alignment of the knee joint throughout the movement on the concentric and eccentric phase (contracting and extending). Moving through the full range of motion at a controlled pace creates added flexibility and strength at the same time. My perfect move for this is the lunge on the CoreFormer (reformer pilates machine). The slow, controlled full range movement highlights any weaknesses and imbalances and helps to correct these without putting any further stress on the joint.”
Book a reformer pilates taster at Heartcore, or enquire at your local pilates studio or Virgin Active for reformer pilates tuition nationwide. Given that your knees absorb five time your body weight in terms of impact after you land from running or jumping, it pays to look after them in a low-impact manner alongside your jogs and HIIT classes . You might not get quite as sweaty, but the small yet tough low impact movements associated with barre, pilates and more powerful styles of yoga aren’t for wimps. Plus, the more variety in your workout routine, the more challenged and well honed your legs will be.
I want to avoid #legday DOMS
Post leg day muscle ache and fatigue can be trickier to manage than throbbing arms or a slightly tender set of abs- if you can’t waddle up the stairs or sit down in your chair at work, you’ve got problems on your hands (legs). Incorporating thigh, hamstring and calf stretches after every session is crucial (try stretching towards your toes , without fussing about whether you actually make it or not). For truly long, lean leg muscles, you need to ease out tightness and improve flexibility as well as pushing muscle fibres to the limit during workouts. Plus, as above, thorough stretching should lead to faster recovery, meaning that you’re physically able to fit in more workouts. If you’re a spinning fan, give Psycle’s The Fix: Legs & Hips class a go to enhance lower body strength, improve leg muscle tone and thoroughly wring out any remaining after-cycle lactic acid (the source of much mid and post workout muscle soreness). Most gyms offer stretch focused yoga and rehab classes, but to get the blood pumping to sore muscles, striding through the pain is also a free and effective option- Tanya urges us never to underestimate the benefits of a nice long stroll:
“Walking is such an underrated activity. It's low impact, burns energy, increases metabolic rate, doesn't raise stress (cortisol) levels as some high impact workouts can, and it’s good for your mental health . For these reasons, there's no limit to how much walking you can do.”
With that, I’m lacing up for the commute. Or at least to amble past a few of my usual bus stops. Leg day comes in many guises.
Follow Anna on Instagram