Forget the thigh gap — I’ll take strong legs over skinny any day! The power of strong legs lies in the ability to simply move better. Think about how much you walk around, trek up and down stairs, and go from sitting to standing all day. Every single one of those movements will become easier the more you work out your legs, particularly your thighs or what would include your quads (the muscles on the front of the upper leg), abductors (outer thighs), adductors (inner thighs), and even your hamstrings (back of the upper leg).
“If you want to live for a long time, you have to be strength training. There is no substitute for strength,” says Danielle Barry, a certified personal trainer, a CrossFit coach at Solace New York. Plus, the more you move and the smarter you train, the better your movement patterns, making everything from running, walking, and jumping smoother too. To get you to peak performance in and out of the gym, check out the best types of exercises that build up strength in your thighs.
1 Combine strength and cardio
“People get fearful of putting on too much muscle and having big legs, so they turn to cardio for the solution to that issue,” says Barry. “But I like to make it known that if you’re looking to change the composition of your legs—more muscle and less fat—you have to do a combo of both strength and endurance training.”
In other words, while you can run around town as much as you want, or hit the elliptical too, you still have to pick up some weights if you want to strengthen your thighs.
READ MORE: These Explosive Leg-Day Moves Will Reshape Your Calves And Thighs!
2 Squat, squat, and squat again
Focusing on functional movement patterns — think squat, lunge, push, pull — is the smartest way to train your legs. And squats are a top-notch way to specifically target your thighs, working 360-degrees of your upper leg. Even better, squats mimic that stand-up and sit-down pattern you move through during the day. Plus, you can easily scale them to your fitness level, says Barry.
Begin with bodyweight squats: Start standing with feet hip-width apart. Send the hips down and back and bend the knees, keeping weight in your heels. When you’ve mastered that, move up to a goblet squat, holding a kettlebell or dumbbell held at your chest.
Next up, graduate to squatting with a barbell or dumbbells held in a racked position (weights at the shoulders). The key is to keep your torso vertical and spine neutral—the more upright you are, the more quad dominant the exercise.
3 Learn to love lunges
Lunges copy the movement pattern you take when you go for a walk, shifting weight from one foot to the other. And they seriously tone your thighs, while strengthening most muscles of your leg. Start this exercise out bodyweight style, just like a squat, until you’ve built up the confidence and form to take it up a notch.
Begin standing with feet together and then step one foot back about two feet (depending on how tall you are), and lower down so both knees bend 90 degrees. Then press back up to the top. Aim for 10 reps on each leg for three rounds, Barry suggests.
To up the ante on your lunge, add weight, holding a dumbbell or kettlebell at your chest, or one on each side, with arms straight down by your sides. You can also place the back foot on a box or bench behind you to turn your lunge into a Bulgarian split squat, which ups the stability challenge. (See above for example.)
4 Do more single-side moves
Speaking of lunges — along with moves like pistol squats, staggered deadlifts, or split squats — these types of single-side exercises help you pay better attention to the differences in strength between your left and right sides.
“I tell people: Our limbs are sisters; they are not twins,” says Barry. “You have a dominant and non-dominant side, so when you’re running or biking or lifting or doing Pilates, you’re going to find one side works harder than the other… Your goal should be to try your best to get your non-dominant side as strong as your dominant side, or as close as possible.”
Next time you do any of single-side exercise, really focus to how each side feels and spend a little more time on that weaker side to help fix the imbalance. This will make you less injury-prone, and can increase overall health and body composition, Barry says.
READ MORE: “This 5-Move Pilates Leg Series Set My Inner Thighs On Fire”
5 Step on a machine
Almost any cardio machine — the treadmill, elliptical, stair climber, and rower — will help you build stronger thighs. Your legs do a lot of the work after all. (Yes, even on the rower — push off that board!)
Barry recommends opting for intervals on any of this equipment, working at an all-out effort for 30 seconds, then resting for another 30. Try to hit 10 rounds.
“If you’re constantly working then resting, your body will burn fat to keep up with the work put into each interval,” she says. To really make your legs feel like Jell-O, she suggests opting for the bike or Stairmaster.
6 HIIT it big
Of course, you don’t have to do interval training only on a machine. You can take your HIIT workout anywhere. If you’re running outside, simply add sprints into your typical jogging pace. “Running is a fantastic way to develop those thigh muscles,” Barry says.
Or if you’re in your living room, add plyometrics to your routine. Squat jumps and jumping lunges, along with burpees or skaters, require powerful legs to propel you to the top.
READ MORE: The 15 Inner Thigh Exercises Your Workout Needs
7 Grab a booty band
Follow almost any trainer on IG and you’ll probably see a band wrapped around her thighs at some point, especially if she’s a runner. And that’s because that band strengthens the abductors of the hip, or your glutes and tensor fasciae latae (TFL) — a muscle of the thigh that helps to move the leg away from your midline (aka abduction).
With the band placed around your thighs, you can easily turn moves like squats and leg lifts into a serious leg-burning sequence.
Barry’s favourite move to do with the band to target the thighs and glutes is a lateral step: Holding a shallow squat position and keeping your legs hip-width apart and feet parallel, take 10 to 15 steps to one side and then back in the other direction. Embrace the burn on your backside.
8 Squeeze something soft
Don’t forget about those inner thighs! Your adductor muscles pull your legs in toward each other and to strengthen all of them, you should grab a squishy ball or a foam yoga block, Barry says.
Take the block between your legs and squeeze, holding for a second, then release. Do 10 to 15 reps.
You can do this standing, while holding a wall sit, as you maintain a plank position, or in a glute bridge exercise (seen above). The harder you squeeze, the more you burn out those inner thighs.
This article was originally published on www.womenshealthsa.co.za
Image credit: iStock