The Best Exercises for Toned Legs
By Myprotein Writer Sarah Curran
Training legs and the lower body can seem like a minefield, there are so many exercises that it can be hard to know which ones are worth doing. The lower body consists of quite a few muscle groups, and it is crucial that you train them all to ensure you achieve muscle balance to create toned legs and also avoid injuries at the same time.
The main muscles of the lower body include:
– The quads
– The hamstrings
– The calves.
There are also smaller muscles that get trained alongside these bigger muscles while doing legwork.
Compound exercises are the ultimate exercises that you can utilise to achieve shapely, toned legs. These are exercises that use multiple muscle groups simultaneously to carry out an exercise. Two exercises in particular that should be in any leg routine include both the squat and the deadlift.
It should be noted however, with particular reference to the deadlift, that good form should be prioritised at all times as this exercise, as although fantastic for training the legs and lower back, can result in injury if it is not performed properly. Likewise, if you already suffer from a lower back injury, consult with a doctor before performing these exercises to ensure they are suitable for you.
1. The Back Squat
The back squat has the well earned nickname of the king of all exercises. This exercise is often avoided by women out of fear of the unknown, especially when both a squat rack and an Olympic barbell are involved.
This is a shame as few exercises can match the benefits of this exercise, not just for shaping the legs and glutes, but also for its fat burning capabilities. Muscles across the whole body are utilised during this exercise, even the abdominals which are used to brace the body throughout the movement. Many ladies are afraid they will injure their spine while doing a squat, but this is highly unlikely if you pay attention to good form as the squat is one of the most natural movement patterns we can carry out as humans. Young babies learning to walk often squat down to pick up their toys off the ground, rather than leaning forward to bend down as many adults do when they need to pick something up, this way is much worse for the back and actually a bad habit most of us develop when we grow older.
The main points to observe when carrying out a back squat is to push your hips back towards the wall behind you, keep your chest up and drive the weight through your heels. If you follow this advice you won’t go far wrong. Try not to lean forward throughout the movement as this will cause your back to round and make you more susceptible to injuries. You can change things up in your routine by varying the type of squats you perform; other alternatives are front squats, sumo squats and even overhead squats.
2. The Deadlift
The deadlift is another excellent exercise to include in your lower body routine. This exercise is very simple as it involves reaching down, picking up a barbell and standing back up. As mentioned previously good form is crucial to the success of this exercise, not just for injury prevention but also for increasing the load lifted as a progression. It should be noted that this is also one of the best exercises for the glutes and when performed properly, strengthens the lower back too helping to reduce injury risk in day to day life.
Some useful tips for performing the deadlift safely include pushing the hips back and keeping the chest up like with the squat, and also keeping the barbell as close to the shins as possible. By doing this, you make your body much more effective at lifting the heavy load as it is closer to your centre of gravity. Keep all your muscles tight, especially the glutes.
Drive the weight through your heels and keep your back flat at all times. At the top of the movement, pull your shoulder blades together, this will lock out the deadlift in a safe position and provide you with a rest period before you reverse the movement. Never allow the shoulders to come forward, this will round your back and it is at that point an injury may happen.
3. Step ups
Step ups are another excellent exercise to include as they are a single leg exercise and so will help correct any potential imbalances that may occur in the lower body. It also improves balance and coordination and again is a excellent work out for the lower body, especially the glutes. Dumbbells tend to be safer with this exercise at the start as it is easier to simply drop them if you feel unsteady, but a barbell can also be used as a progression as you gain more confidence with the movement.
Make sure the bench that you use to step up onto is sturdy and wont slip or buckle under the extra weight, especially as you progress and use heavier weights.
Begin the exercise by standing close to a bench, holding either dumbbells in each hand or else a barbell on your back if you wish to make the exercise more difficult. Keeping your back straight, step one foot up on to the bench. Shift your weight to the opposite foot and squeeze your glutes and quads and straighten your leg to lift your body upwards while driving your weight downwards through your heel. Step your other foot up beside the foot on the bench. Reverse the action you just preformed so that you are back to the starting position with both feet on the ground. Make sure to carry out the same amount of repetitions on alternating legs to avoid training one more than the other.
4. The Barbell Lunge
The barbell lunge is another brilliant single leg exercise that creates toned legs. If you have never done a lunge before, it can be useful to start off with just bodyweight and then progress to either using a barbell or else dumbbells at a later stage. To perform this movement correctly, ensure that your back is vertical and that the knee that is in the lead does not move forward beyond your toes as this may cause an injury.
This exercise is also excellent for improving balance. Again as with the previous exercises it is important to keep the muscles tight and ensure you are being consistent with maintaining good form throughout the movement. You can add variation by performing lateral lunges, these involve a similar movement but to the side rather than the front, and you can also do reverse lunges where the movement is backwards instead of forwards.
5. Calf Raises
Calf raises are usually best preformed at the end of your workout. This is due to the fact they are small muscles that are used in some of the bigger exercises for stabilisation and so can be trained effectively also with isolation exercises such as calf raises when you are winding down your routine.
Calf raises are simple yet very effective to perform, and you can use either a machine in the gym or simply a low step with bodyweight or a barbell to slowly raise the foot up to tiptoe height extending the ankles and flexing the calf, then simply lower the feet back down again with control. This can be done off the edge of a low step for a greater range of motion.
A Take Home Message
By including the above exercises in your leg routine, you will not only develop toned legs, but you will also improve your overall strength and body composition as leg work burns a lot of calories and you also use muscles from your upper body too alongside your lower body, for example your arms in a deadlift and even your abdominals in a squat. The most important take home point is to focus on good form at all times, and progress to heavier weights when you are ready and not before that time to avoid any injuries and get the best results from your training regime.