Strong legs help prevent injuries, boost athletic performance, and keep you moving easily. Here’s how to strengthen these key muscles.
Strong glute, quad, and hamstring muscles are foundational for good posture.
Sure, keeping the leg muscles strong makes you look toned, but they’re also really important for overall functioning. You need leg strength to move around effectively and support good posture standing up, says Rondel King, CSCS, a corrective exercise specialist and New York City-based personal trainer. “It’s your foundation.”
Consider the quadriceps, for example. These muscles, which are the most voluminous ones in the body, help you complete regular daily movements, such as climbing up the stairs, rising from a chair, and extending your knee, according to an April 2020 article in StatPearls.
The hamstrings, quadriceps, adductors, and calves are the major muscles of the leg, though you can also count the glutes, too, King says. Technically the glutes are part of the muscles of the butt, but they’re involved in pretty much all movements that utilize the lower extremities and are called on during most leg exercises (including the ones below).
“The glute is made up of three different muscles that assist with the abduction and medial rotation of the hip, as well as stabilizing the pelvis,” says Sarah Browning, an ACE-certified personal trainer and manager and master trainer at Shred415 in Boulder, Colorado. “Whether you are doing squats, deadlifts, or lunges, you are definitely activating your glutes.”
Strong leg and glute muscles will also help prevent injuries. “[Strong legs] do have a protective effect and make you more resilient and guard against injuries,” King says, particularly for athletes completing dynamic moves like jumping and cutting. By having strong legs, you have more control over your body and will be better able to recover if you lose your balance or fall in an awkward way, for instance. “Being weak in the lower extremities exposes you to various injuries and ailments,” King says.
Plus, the leg muscles are a major source of power for your body. A stronger lower body can improve athletic performance, too. “For athletes, strength is the foundation of athletic movement where speed and power are involved,” King says. “Having that baseline of strength will make you a better athlete.”
Finally, researchers have linked leg strength and healthy aging. According to a February 2016 study published in Gerontology, increased leg power (and greater muscular fitness overall) led to improved cognitive aging among study participants.
Which exercises are best for stronger legs? Here’s a 7-move workout designed by Browning to help you build lower-body strength. It’s adaptable whether you’re a regular exerciser or beginner.
7-Step Leg Workout for Stronger Glutes, Quads, and Hamstrings
Start with a solid warm-up to get the blood flowing, such as three to five minutes walking on the treadmill or on the elliptical or jogging in place, Browning suggests. Then, complete a few dynamic stretches, such as walking lunges, runner lunges, monster walks, or jumping jacks, before starting the workout. (Dynamic stretches are moves that lengthen the muscles as they’re in motion.)
Do the following moves as described below with little rest in between. That’s one round. Repeat for two to three rounds total, resting for one or two minutes in between each round.
Browning suggests doing this workout two to three times per week; it can be added to your current fitness routine. She notes, however, that these exercises are designed for people who are healthy and have no known injuries or health concerns. If that’s not you, it’s best to consult a personal trainer or physical therapist to help you build an individualized routine.
- Bodyweight Squats
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Lower your hips and butt downward, hinging from your hips and bending your knees into a squat position. Keep your weight shifting back in your heels (you should feel the sensation of sitting back in that imaginary chair to engage the glute muscles, too) and your chest lifted up (as if you were sitting up straight) throughout the movement. Pause at the bottom and then drive up through the heels to stand. Activate the quads and glutes the whole time. Complete 15 reps.
- Dumbbell Dead Lift
Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and hold 10- to 35-pound dumbbells in each hand in front of your thighs, with your palms facing your body (or, if you don’t have dumbbells, pick up something heavy from your home, such as bottles of laundry detergent or pet food). Hinge forward at the hips to lower your hands down the front of your legs, keeping the weights close to your body and tilting your back and upper body forward. Keep your back flat and maintain a slight bend in your knees. Squeeze through the backs of your legs and glutes as you rise into an upright position, pressing your hips forward as you return to standing (your hamstrings and glutes should be doing the work, not your back). Complete 15 reps, or 12 reps on each side if you’re doing the single-leg deadlift. (If you’re a beginner, complete the exercise without dumbbells.)
- Alternating Lateral Lunge
Start standing with feet together. Step your right leg wide out to your right side (with control), bending the right knee as your foot touches the ground and sitting back hinging at the hips (your weight should be over your right foot). Keep chest and eyes facing forward and your left leg straight. Squeeze your inner thighs together to push off of your right foot and return to standing. Repeat on the opposite side. That’s one rep. Repeat for 12 reps. For more of a challenge, hold dumbbells in each hand.
- Calf Raises
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing straight ahead. Use your calf muscles to lift your heels off the floor. Pause at the top and then lower to the ground. Complete 15 reps — do it slowly to keep the calf muscle fully engaged.
- Reverse Lunge
Start standing with feet together. Step your right foot directly behind you. Lower your hips and drop your right knee so it bends at a 90-degree angle and your right heel is lifted off the ground. (Take a big enough step back so that as your left knee bends it also forms a 90-degree angle and stays aligned directly above the left foot.) Keep your back upright and eyes looking straight ahead. Squeeze your glutes, quads, and calves as you press your left heel into the ground and bring your right leg forward to return to standing. Complete 15 reps on each side.
- Sumo Squats
Start by standing with your feet wider than hip-width apart and your toes pointed out at an angle of about 45 degrees. Bend your knees and lower your hips into a wide squat until your thighs are parallel to the ground, keeping chest lifted as you did for the bodyweight squat. Pause at the bottom and then push through your heels to return to standing. Complete 15 reps.
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. In one fluid motion, lower your body into a regular squat, place your hands on the ground in front of your feet, and jump your feet back so you land in a plank position (elbows should be slightly bent). Then, jump to return your feet so they are near your hands and complete a powerful jump straight into the air. To make it more challenging, add a push-up when you’re in the plank position. Complete as many reps as you can in 30 seconds.