At every fitness level -- from elite athlete to nervous newbie -- boosting leg strength improves performance and helps prevent injury. The leg muscles -- including the quadriceps, hamstrings and calves -- propel you forward, power your jumps and help stabilize your hips, knees and ankles. Whether you're gearing up for your first 10K, prepping for a statewide gymnastics competition or just eager to survive your first step class, a sensible resistance program can help you beef up your legs and go the distance.
To build leg muscle quickly and efficiently, work your lower body two or three times a week on non-consecutive days and make your legs the focus of those workouts. You can have lower-body only days, when you perform two or three exercises for each of the three major leg-muscle groups. If you prefer to combine upper- and lower-body workouts on the same day, perform leg exercises first -- before your leg muscles fatigue -- and then tackle your chest, shoulders, back, arms and abs.
When you work your legs, perform quad and hamstring exercises before calf exercises. If you work your calves first, they'll likely begin trembling when you work the larger muscles of your thighs, which can adversely affect your stability and performance.
Start every leg workout with a warmup, designed to raise your core body temperature, stimulate blood flow to your muscles and loosen your joints. Begin with three to five minutes of light cardio exercise, such as brisk walking, light jogging, high-knee marching or prancing. When you break a light sweat, do a series of dynamic stretches to further prepare your legs for intense activity. Leg swings to the front and back, butt kicks and slow ankle circles are excellent for loosening the quads, hamstrings and calves.
If you're new to weight training, start with basic body-weight exercises -- such as lunges, squats, straight-leg deadlifts and calf raises -- so you can learn the movements. Then, begin to add weight. In order to increase mass, you need to train with resistance. According to the American Council on Exercise, one set of eight to 12 repetitions, in which you work to muscle failure, is sufficient. Once you can perform 12 reps with excellent form, add weight. ACE recommends incrementally increasing resistance by 5 to 10 percent to continue making strength and size gains in a safe manner.
There are steps you can take to get faster and more effective results. Be sure to rest for 48 hours between leg workouts. Resting the muscles you worked between sessions allows for healing and growth. Never compromise on safety. Pushing yourself too hard, skimping on your warmup, adding weight too quickly or using poor form can lead to injury and sidetrack your efforts. Before and after workouts, eat a mix of protein and carbs to help provide your muscles with the nutrients they need for growth and recovery.
- The Strength Training Anatomy Workout; Frederic Delavier
- American College of Sports Medicine: The Basics of Starting and Progressing a Strength-Training Program
- NSCA's Guide to Program Design; Jay R. Hoffman, ed.
- IDEA Health and Fitness Association: Strength Training Class Warm-Ups
- American Council on Exercise: Flexibility Benefits
- American Council on Exericise: Strength Training 101
- IDEA Health and Fitness Association: Gaining Weight the Right Way