by Jari Love
Your thighs, no matter their size, are beautiful. But keeping them strong and toned is vital for everything from walking around every day to maintaining a healthy weight without killing yourself over every damn calorie.
“The more you work large muscle groups like the legs, the more calories you burn and the more you get your metabolism going,” explains licensed master sports nutritionist and function fitness trainer Natalie Jill, creator of Natalie Jill Fitness. “Plus, strong thighs and quads are a foundation of strength for the body. Working your legs is a win-win situation.”
These trainer favorites will ignite your metabolism and build lean, compact muscle.
How to do it: Aim to do at least four of these moves a minimum of twice a week for best results.
- Plyo Lunge Jump
Why: The plyo lunge jump is extremely effective, as it works not only your quads but also your hamstrings and calves simultaneously, explains celebrity trainer Autumn Calabrese, creator of the 21 Day Fix and 21 Day Fix Extreme programs.
How: Start with feet in a hip-width parallel position, arms extended in front of your chest. Step straight back with one foot, bending both knees to 90 degrees, and then push off the floor, straightening both legs in the air. Keep the chest lifted and the core engaged. Land safely with both knees bent and repeat. To modify, assume the same position but either slowly lunge and don’t jump or don’t jump as high. Both modifications work the same muscles. Do 2 sets of 10 reps with each leg.
- Plié Squat Pulse
Why: Isometric holds—holding a position for several seconds—are super-effective in working the all-important thigh muscles. They require just your body weight to make your thigh muscles burn, says Jill.
How: Stand with feet past hip width, toes and knees pointed out. Lower into a low plié squat position, and hold for 20 seconds. Then, add tiny little pulses—moving your butt up and down—for 20 seconds. That’s 1 set. Do 3 sets total.
- Double Cloth Lunges
Why: Lunges are one of the most effective exercises for targeting your entire thigh, front and back. But to really engage the muscles, consider using exercise sliders, a towel, or even paper plates on a smooth surface to perform this exercise by celebrity trainer Reggie Chambers.
How: On a smooth surface, stand with feet in a hip-width position with one foot on a cloth. Slowly slide the foot with the towel forward and slowly lower into a front lunge. Hold for 5 seconds. Slowly slide the foot back up to a standing position. Slowly slide the foot with the towel backwards and slowly lower into a back lunge. Hold for 5 seconds. Return to standing position. One rep includes a front and a back lunge. Do 2 or 3 sets of 12 reps on each leg.
- Wall Squat With Ball Squeeze
Why: This simple move can be made even more effective by incorporating a small yoga or exercise ball. The idea is that by squeezing the ball between your legs while performing a wall squat, you will further engage the thigh muscles resulting in stronger quadriceps—and more calories burned, explains Scott Weiss, a board certified athletic trainer and a registered exercise physiologist, strength and conditioning specialist, and advanced personal trainer.
How: Stand with your back and shoulders against a smooth surface. Place ball between knees. Slowly lower into a wall squat where knees are in a 90-degree angle. Continue squeezing the ball. Slowly return to standing. To modify, try quarter squats by starting with 45- to 90-degree squats. Do 3 sets of 10 reps.
- Curtsy Lunge
Why: There’s a reason ballet dancers have some of the strongest legs in all of sports. The moves they perform on a consistent basis not only hit multiple muscles at once, but they also target muscles on varying planes of motion, which is exactly why the curtsy lunge is so effective, says Weiss.
How: Stand with hands on your waist, feet shoulder-width apart. In one move, step back and across so your legs are crossed, and then sit into a lunge position. Come up and step back to the starting position with feet shoulder width apart. Do 3 sets of 10 reps.
- Squat Jump
Why: You know that the plyo lunge is great at strengthening your thigh muscles. Well, this move is just as effective in that it hits the whole legs while also incorporating some cardio via the jumping so you get more bang for your exercise buck, says Calabrese.
How: Begin with feet in a hip-width parallel position, bend your knees, lowering the glutes back and down until your hamstrings are parallel to the ground. Keep your chest and eyes up, your knees behind your toes, and your weight in your heels. Next, extend your legs and explode off of the ground, raising your arms overhead and then land safely with bent knees. Repeat. To modify, start with a regular squat and bend knees between 45 and 90 degrees. Slowly progress to a small jump. Do 2 sets of 15 reps.
- Reclined Heel Bend
Why: Some of the best exercises for your thighs are often the most simple. This move from Shannon Fable, certified professional trainer and director of exercise programming at Anytime Fitness, is just that. It hits your outer thigh while also forcing you to engage your core.
How: Lie on your back and extend legs straight up to the ceiling, directly in line with hips. Begin with feet parallel and flex the toes back towards you. With heels together, open the toes out to the side (externally rotate the thighs from the hips, like 1st position from ballet). Keep the heels together and bend the knees to make a diamond shape. Hold for 2 to 3 seconds, then push the heels towards the ceiling and straighten the knees. Be sure to keep the core engaged and back flat on the floor. Use hands for support. Do 2 or 3 sets of 15 reps.
- Leg Curl
Why: Like our back muscles, sometimes our hamstrings inadvertently get ignored because they’re less visible than our quad muscles. But keeping your hamstring strong is important in preventing knee injuries. (When your quadriceps are stronger than your hamstrings, your body tends to overcompensate leading to injury.) This move targets the hamstrings directly, and helps give great shape to the leg, says Nick Clayton, personal training program manager for the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
How: Lie flat on your back with your calves on the top of an exercise ball. Squeeze your abs and glutes and lift your body off the floor, keeping your head and feet in a straight line. Slowly bend your knees, pressing your feet into the ball and pull the ball towards your body. Raise your hips as you pull the ball toward your body. Hold for 5 seconds and slowly extend your legs back out to starting position. Do 3 sets of 10 reps.
Jari Love – original creator of Get RIPPED! DVD series and group exercise classes. The hot-selling and critically acclaimed Get RIPPED! series enables individuals of any fitness level to burn up to three times more calories than the traditional weight-training program, and has received rave reviews from fitness critics throughout North America since the first title debuted in late 2005.