Strength training - legs

We use our legs in almost every aspect of training. But by strengthening them we can improve several aspects of general fitness. Whatever your current levels of activity, a few simple exercises for your legs will help you to:

  • Improve the shape and definition of your legs
  • Burn calories and raise your metabolism
  • Reduce your risk of injuries
  • Improve their general function so all activities are easier

Three factors have a big influence on your training: repetitions (reps), sets, and weights. 'Reps' refers to the number of times you perform a movement. You may break down the number of reps you do into 'sets', and doing more reps at a heavier weight can lead to bigger improvements in the power you can generate. Men tend to 'bulk up' over a period of time.

Lifting heavier weights with your legs will also raise your metabolism and burn calories. As with all exercise, it's important to vary your reps, sets and weights - but focus on increasing one aspect at a time.

Legs - the basics

Don't forget the basics. It's important to do a full warm up and down before any strength training, and do any cardio training first. Training with a partner is a good idea, as you can rest between sets and 'spot' (check weights and technique) for the other person. Change the order you do your exercises, and remember to drink a little and often as you train. All training is more effective if you are properly hydrated.

Concentrate on your technique in every lift, as poor technique can result in injury and you won't get the full benefit of the exercise. Good control also helps improve co-ordination, core strength and posture. Don't forget to work each leg individually, as this prevents a stronger leg compensating for the weaker one. Do exactly the same exercises for each leg (these are based around a seated leg press machine).

Gym: leg extensions

What are we doing?

We're working on your quadriceps, the muscles on the front of your thighs, and strengthening your knees.

  • Make sure your knees bend at the same point as the machine's pivot point.
  • Put your ankles/lower leg beneath the pads with your knees at 90 degrees.
  • Sit up straight (use a back rest if there is one).
  • Slowly exhale and straighten your leg until it is fully extended but not locked. Keep your toes straight throughout, don't allow your feet to twist.
  • Pause for a moment, then inhale and return steadily to the start position.

Gym: leg curls

What are we doing?

We're working on the hamstrings, the muscles on the backs of your legs. Don't expect to be able to lift as much weight on this exercise as on the leg extension.

  • Lie face down on the bench, with your head aligned with your body and your knee aligned with the machine's pivot point.
  • Put your ankle/lower leg beneath the pad.
  • Slowly exhale and pull your heel up towards your buttock until your hamstrings are fully contracted.
  • Pause for a moment, then inhale and return steadily to the start position ready to repeat.

Gym: leg presses

What are we doing?

We're working on many leg muscles, including the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteus maximus, (the front and backs of the thighs and the buttocks).

  • Adjust the seat so your knees are bent to 90 degrees or less, and sit back against the back rest.
  • Place your feet on the plate in line with your knees.
  • Slowly exhale and push until your legs are extended, but don't lock your knees.
  • Keep your feet, knees and hips in line throughout the lift.
  • Pause for a moment, then inhale and return steadily to the start position.

Gym: Calf raises

What are we doing?

We're working on the calf muscle, the back of the lower leg and also the back of the upper leg.

  • Start in the same position as for the leg press but this time with your legs straight, and your knees not locked.
  • Place your feet on the plate in line with your knees. If possible, have your heels off the bottom of the plate and drop your heels past your toes.
  • Slowly exhale and push up on to the balls of your feet, keeping your feet, knees and hips in line throughout the lift.
  • Pause for a moment, then inhale and return steadily to the start position.

Anywhere: lunges

What are we doing?

We're working on the hamstrings, quadriceps and gluteals, the upper legs and buttocks. You can do this exercise anywhere, it's good for toning the upper legs, but build up the number of lunges you do steadily.

  • Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and pointing forwards. Keep your head up and back straight throughout the exercise.
  • Slowly inhale and take a step forwards with one foot, keeping your back straight and toe pointing forwards.
  • Shift forward until your front knee is at 90 degrees and above your front ankle (don't let it to go past your front foot).
  • Pause briefly, then exhale and push off your front foot to return to the starting position - and repeat with the opposite leg.

Now you've read up on strength training for legs, see how you can improve in other areas.

Find out more about Strength training - upper body.

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