They say Rome was not built in a day. The same thing applies to a gorgeous set of leg muscles. When you first begin a leg exercise program, or when you get back to working out after injury, illness or not-enough-time syndrome, a progressive approach assures satisfying results. Basic leg-firming exercises create a stable framework for progressing to the harder stuff.
Some of the exercises seen on fitness websites provide effective leg firming. Others are so out there that they belong in the "stupid human trick" category. While challenging exercises have their appeal, there's something you should know about some of your leg and back muscles: They know how to cheat. Let's say an exercise supposedly targets your inner thighs, outer thighs or hamstrings. If they lack the strength to complete the task, your quads, hip flexors and lower back muscles step in and say "We can do that!" When setting up a basic leg-firming program, select exercises that put your body in an easy-to-maintain postural alignment.
Walking and Stair Climbing
Spot toning is a myth, just like Santa and the Easter Bunny. Leg firming requires aerobic exercise for fat reduction. Walking and hill and stair climbing provide effective entry-level aerobic activity. Begin with 20-minute walking sessions, and intersperse about three hills throughout your walk. Flatland residents can substitute stair climbing for hill training. Lateral stair climbing adds some inner thigh toning. Stand sideways, with your right hip facing the foot of the staircase. Cross your left foot in front of your right, and place it on the first step. Take your right foot off the floor, and place it on the second step. Scissor your way up the staircase, walk down in a normal manner, then repeat the sequence leading with your left leg.
Bearing the Weight
Don't wait till you're grandma's age to think about preventing osteoporosis. Weight bearing exercises firm your legs and help you maintain bone density. Exercises such as the squat -- the iconic weight-bearing exercise -- fall into the "compound exercise" category, meaning that they target multiple muscle groups simultaneously. The squat, however, poses problems for novices who are unsure of the proper alignment. The stability ball comes to the rescue. Position the stability ball between the wall and your lower back. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, bend your knees, lower your hips about 10 inches, then straighten your legs to return to the start. Give your inner thighs some extra love by widening your stance and performing the exercise with your legs in a turned-out position.
In contrast to the complex standing exercises, most floor routines isolate your leg muscles. Perform the standing routines first, then throw down the mat and tackle the floor work. If you reverse the order, you risk fatiguing the muscle groups used in the complex exercises. Fatigued muscle groups open the door to overcompensation by larger, stronger muscles. In women, that usually translates into overly developed quadriceps and sadly neglected hamstrings and inner thighs.
Supine and Prone Exercises
Exercises performed in the supine and prone positions benefit from the floor as a base of support. This factor makes it harder for your stronger muscles to dominate the exercises. Supine exercises include Pilates-evolved routines, such as the single-leg circle, along with one-legged bridges to target your hamstrings. For extra hamstring work, wrap a resistance band around your ankles, roll over onto your belly and slowly bend your knee, bringing your heel toward your buttocks.
During side-lying exercises, your top leg usually works your outer thigh, while your bottom leg works your inner thigh. The alignment on these exercises might get tricky. Avoid upper body and pelvic "rock 'n' roll" by positioning your back against the wall, and bringing your legs slightly forward. As you lift your leg, imagine that your pelvis has two eyes, which remain facing directly ahead. The knee of your working leg should also face straight ahead, like the headlights of an oncoming car.
In 1999, Lisa Mercer’s fitness, travel and skiing expertise inspired a writing career. Her books include "Open Your Heart with Winter Fitness" and "101 Women's Fitness Tips." Her articles have appeared in "Aspen Magazine," "HerSports," "32 Degrees," "Pregnancy Magazine" and "Wired." Mercer has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the City College of New York.