Our legs aren’t just the foundation of our body — they’re the foundation for total-body fitness. “Our largest muscles are in our legs,” says Gold’s Gym National Manager of Coaching Carlisle Price, “so if you’re looking to maintain weight or gain lean muscle mass, then you’re doing yourself a disservice by not trying to use and grow them.”
Plus, not working out our legs from top to bottom — including the hips, glutes, quads, hamstrings, thighs and calves — puts the rest of our body at a marked disadvantage. “Without strength and stability through the legs,” Price says, “everything else up the chain, even into the spine and shoulders, could be potentially out of alignment, putting you at greater risk for injury.”
This leg workout provides a solid base for you to build the strength, stability, range of motion, and balance crucial to an active, healthy lifestyle. Price suggests doing this regimen twice a week, with two to three rest days in between.
These steps will properly prepare your body for the workout and help you burn more calories.
1. Incline treadmill
Warm up at a moderate speed with a gentle incline — a 2.5 speed with an incline of 5 degrees would be a good start. Each minute over the next five, increase the incline by 2 to 3 degrees. Even if only for one minute, try to reach an incline of 15 degrees. Walking on an incline forces you to heighten your step and activates the posterior chain — especially the calves, hamstrings and glutes, which play a critical role in the stability we need in everyday movements such as climbing stairs. The farther we step away from our center of gravity, the more we need to stabilize the posterior chain.
The goal: Walk for 5 minutes to elevate your heart rate, open your hips and knees and get the fluids around your joints moving.
2. Lunge and reach
Stand with feet hip-width apart. Take a large step forward with your left foot, slowly lowering your right knee to the floor. Don’t let your left knee extend past your left foot; if needed, slide your foot forward a few inches. As you lunge, reach your arms toward the ceiling while squeezing your glutes. Hold there for 2 to 3 seconds. Then, lower your arms and drive through your left foot back to standing. Repeat with the other leg.
The goal: Do one set of 12 reps (six on each side) to warm up quads and glutes, activate adductors and abductors (inner and outer thighs) and open the hip flexors, a commonly tight area.
Price recommends doing three to five sets of this four-part workout.
1. Lateral lunge
From standing, take a large step to the right. Let your hips sink toward your right foot, maintaining knee-to-toe alignment — that is, your toes should be pointing in the same direction as your knee. Extend arms in front of the body, keeping chest up, core engaged and left leg straight. At the bottom of the lunge, push through the right foot to return to standing. Repeat with the other leg.
If the knee of your trail leg bends, you’ve stepped too far. Torqueing the knee prevents you from reaping the movement’s maximum benefit.
The goal: Do 10 reps (five on each side) to feel the burn in your quads and inner thighs.
2. Kettlebell deadlift
For this move, technique trumps weight, so use the heaviest kettlebell you can lift without compromising a neutral spine. Stand with the weight between your feet. Keeping back flat and shoulders back, hinge at the hips until your chest faces the floor at slightly above hip-level. With hips back, bend your knees, reaching down with both hands to grasp the kettlebell. Next, push through the heels to lift it, and then contract your glutes and drive your hips forward to return to standing. Slowly push hips back to lower the weight to the floor.
“You should feel almost all the pressure in your glutes and hamstrings,” Price says. “If you feel pressure in your thighs, you’re probably squatting instead of deadlifting.”
The goal: Do 10 deadlifts to spark fire in your hips, hamstrings and glutes.
3. Seated leg extensions
You’ll use a leg-extension machine for this. First, find the right position — align your knee with the machine’s pivot point, and ensure the leg pad is just above your ankle. Straighten your legs by pushing up against the pad. Then, slowly and with control, bring the legs back down.
Your knees provide the only movement; anchor your back against the chair to keep the rest of the body still. “When you’re on a machine, the idea is that you’re locked in place so you’re not able to gain momentum or advantage against the weight,” Price says. “Keeping your back stable helps you isolate the muscle group you’re targeting.”
The goal: Do 15 reps to work the quads.
4. Seated leg curls
Again, ensure your knee is in line with the machine’s pivot point. This time, the leg pad should be above the back of your ankle, at the Achilles tendon. Bend your knees, pulling heels toward hamstrings as far as comfortably possible. Then return to starting position with control.
The goal: Do 15 reps to isolate and activate the hamstrings.
The cool down
Besides easing your body back to a steady resting state, stretching prevents next-day stiffness by ridding the muscles of lactic acid, Price says.
1. Downward-facing dog
From a plank position, push through the hands to raise your hips toward the ceiling. Imagine your body forming a triangle with the floor. Maintain a straight line from your wrists up to your hips, and another from your hips down to your heels. Don’t lock your knees; a gentle bend is best. If needed, allow your heels to float slightly off the floor, planting the toes.
The goal: Hold for 15 seconds and repeat 2 to 3 times to reverse spinal pressure and stretch the shoulders, hamstrings and calves.
2. Standing quad stretch
From standing, bend the right knee, raising your right heel toward your glutes. With your right hand, grasp the top of your foot, hinging at the hips if needed. Holding the foot behind you, stand tall with knee pointed down. Brace yourself against a wall for balance if necessary. Repeat on opposite side.
The goal: Hold for 15 seconds and repeat 2 to 3 times to release tension in the quads.
Check back again for intermediate-level leg exercises and more workout tips from our fitness experts.