If your hips and thighs tend to be your toughest areas to target, blame nature; according to Vanderbilt University, women are predisposed to storing fat in the lower body, which makes tightening the area particularly challenging. While cardio is key for shedding fat all over your body, strengthening your hip and thigh muscles can give you a stronger and firmer lower body no matter your weight.
Also known as your butt muscles, shapely glutes do more than just help you fill out a pair of jeans; a strong backside can improve your posture, and prevent and ease back pain. There's no shortage of glute-targeting exercises out there, but some of the most effective are also the simplest; squats, lunges, step-ups and deadlifts will all help you build a better butt. If you're new to strength training, start with these simple moves and use only your body weight. As you grow stronger, you can add dumbbells to increase the challenge and try variations like rear lunges, walking lunges, split squats and stiff-legged deadlifts to keep your body guessing. When doing lower-body moves like these, keep in mind that your knees should always stay in alignment with your toes, recommends Bally Total Fitness.
While your glutes make up a big part of your hip area, there are several smaller muscles just as critical for strengthening and toning your hips. The abductors, which make up your inner thigh, are best targeted with hip abduction exercises; for variety, try seated, side-lying, weighted and cable hip abductions. And don't forget about your hip flexors, which move your hip forward when you walk or run; your body depends on these for everyday movements, as well as just about any exercise you choose. Keep them strong with jack knives on a Swiss ball, scissor kicks and leg raises of all types, including seated, lying, incline and vertical raises.
The quad muscles are what most people are thinking of when they refer to "thighs." Because the quads are a large muscle group -- and are located front and center on your upper legs -- strengthening them can make a major difference in the appearance of your lower half. Since many of the best quad-strengthening moves also target your glutes, you'll save time by including double-duty moves like squats and lunges in your workouts. You'll also feel serious burn in your quads with explosive moves like squat jumps, lateral jumps and leg push-offs; keep in mind, though, that power moves like these put you at a higher risk for injury, so enlist the help of a qualified trainer to help you perfect your form and give you safety pointers.
Hamstrings are often forgotten about, but if you care as much about how you look leaving a room as you do walking in, you need to include a few exercises in your routine that challenge these muscles. Straight-legged deadlifts, hamstring raises, good mornings, glute bridges and leg curls are all effective for targeting the hamstrings, and most have the added benefit of simultaneously working your glutes. Hamstrings tend to be strong muscles, so you may be able to lift more than you think, but it's critical that you use a spotter to help you avoid injury when hoisting those heavy weights.
- Yoga Journal: Glute Camp
- Richard Stockton College: Hip Flexor Strain
- ExRx.net: Hips
- eOrthoPod: Hip Anatomy
- ExRx.net: Thigh
- American Council on Exercise: Butt & Hip Exercises
- American Council on Exercise: Upper Leg Exercises
- Vanderbilt University: Nutrition 101
- Bally Total Fitness: BFIT® Weight Training Safety Tips
- Creatas Images/Creatas/Getty Images