Legs, Legs and More Legs!

Besides curing the “underarm dilemma,” developing nicely toned and shapely legs always ranks a close second in my client’s quest for a better body. When asked what they want to concentrate on I get the same response: “legs, legs and more legs!” With buttock augmentations becoming the hype in Hollywood, there has to be a more natural way of developing a good set of legs. Unfortunately there is no magic pill to help and you have to work for it.

Basic Anatomy

The Glutes
Before you can appreciate what exercises are best suited to train the legs, I feel it’s important to briefly discuss the beautiful engineering of the largest muscle group in our body. I like to discuss the legs as a whole system of muscles including the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and calves (for simplicity sake, I only discuss these four major groups).

The gluteus maximus is the largest and strongest muscle in the body. The character Russell Crowe played in Gladiator was not named after our butt. Directly below the gluteus maximus lie the medius and minimus muscle groups. While the gluteus maximus’ primary function is hip extension (the movement you do when performing a butt kick), the medius’ and minimus’ primary role is abducting the hip, or moving the legs outward, away from the midline of the body. To effectively work the glutes you need to incorporate exercises such as step-ups, lunges, hip extension exercises along with inner thigh exercises on the floor, on machines along with outer thigh exercises on the floor and on machines.

Hamstrings and Quadriceps
A long and nicely shaped hamstring muscle group compliments and accentuates the curvature of the glutes (that’s a good thing). Defined quadriceps muscles add to the overall shape and strength of the leg. The hamstring muscle group consists of three separate muscles; bicep femoris, semitendinosus and semimembranosus. Primary function of the hamstring muscle group is knee flexion (bringing your heel towards your butt) and hip extension (similar to the gluteus maximus). Why is this important to know? Many exercises that promote hip extension work both the glutes and hamstring muscle groups, which mean one to two exercises can train different parts of the legs at the same time. Many exercises that do this include; walking lunges, modified hamstring dead lifts and static lunges. You can isolate the hamstrings by performing lying leg curls or seated leg curls.

The quadriceps muscle group consists of four main sections; rectus femoris, and the vastus group, including the medialis, intermedialis and the lateralis. The names are not important. I would rather you focus your attention on three known facts. First, the quadriceps are stronger than the hamstrings. Second, the quadriceps are usually overworked in comparison to hamstring training. Finally three, the hamstring/glute muscle groups really define the shape of the legs. The moral of the story is balance. Exercises that mainly work the quadriceps muscle groups include squats, leg press, and leg extension exercises. These exercises are fundamental to building strong and slender legs but should be balanced with exercises such as the ones listed above that are geared towards training the hamstring/glute muscle groups.

The Calves
Let me guess, you want strong thick calves, right? Fine I was way off. Most women want thin, slender calf muscles. Unfortunately, this is one of the most difficult muscles to train in women.

The calves consist of two main muscles; the gastrocnemius muscle which is visible from the outside and forms a diamond shape and the soleus muscle which lies directly underneath the gastrocnemius. I tend to use bodyweight exercises to train calves since most of my clients perform some form of weight bearing aerobic activity. I tend to incorporate calf work into leg exercises such as squats, lunges and modified hamstring deadlifts. A great way of stretching and strengthening the calf muscles is by performing calf raises on a step. Try this exercise with bodyweight alone or with dumbbells.

The Good News
It would be great if I could tell you exactly how many repetitions and how much weight should be used for every exercise in order to optimize the muscle fiber type of each individual muscle group. For instance, it is known that the hamstring muscle group is primarily fast-twitch which means it responds best to a medium repetition range (4 to 10 reps) and a higher load. However, this is not the case for all muscle groups. Every body is different (pun intended). High repetitions and low weight may work great to shape and tone Sandra’s legs while predominately low reps and higher weight work better for Lisa. The best approach is to cover all the bases by following a phase-based approach to training, which means you constantly alternate the main variables of training. When you plan your workout using a number of training phases, you challenge the adaptation of all fiber types and create an environment conducive to lean muscle growth and body sculpting.

The Bad News
It’s not all about the workout. Yes, reps and sets count along with exercises that specifically target the leg muscles. If you want to make a dramatic change to your body you are going to have to work for it. Training with weights 20 minutes a day, two to three times a week may not be enough to claim the changes you want. However, with that being said, 20 to 30 minute strength workouts, two to three days per week can cause a noticeable difference in the shape and size of your body. You have to keep in mind that training is probably 20% of the battle, with nutrition representing 80% of your success. Eating a diet low in fat and high in protein and fiber-rich carbohydrates is the best approach to monitor caloric intake and maintain adequate hormonal balance. Your nutrition profile has to meet your goals. A woman who wants to shape and tone her thighs without a substantial amount of weight loss will eat a different caloric range and percent allocation of proteins, carbohydrates and fats than a woman who wants to shape and tone and lose a substantial amount of fat. Both goals lead to the same outcome but must be approached from different angles.

Bottom line
There isn’t, to the best of my knowledge, a pill that will produce magic results of long, slender and nicely toned legs. However, sometimes infomercials make you feel like this “magic pill” does exist. Hard and consistent work is the key. Train the leg muscles using some of the exercises suggested above or try our 20-minute Ab, Butt and Thigh routines. The hardest thing an exercise guy like myself has to admit is that nutrition is just as important if not more important for achieving long-lasting results. You may not think that you are what you eat, but your body takes this cliché seriously. Modify your diet to suit your needs and hit the gym two to three times per week and begin to see your body change. Change is beautiful so accept it with open arms. Your body will thank you!