Without the guidance of a personal trainer, you may feel lost in today’s modern gyms with their myriad of equipment. Even if you only want to focus on toning your legs through weight training, your selection of machines and weights is vast. There is a reason for this variety of gym equipment, however: Each piece works your legs in a different way. Understanding what specific areas of the leg each targets will help you make an informed choice when hitting the gym for a leg workout.
Weights unattached to a fixed apparatus are called free weights. Free weights include barbells, dumbbells and weight plates. You use free weights for leg exercises by holding them while you perform leg movements, such as squats, lunges and step-ups. Free weights have the advantage of making your legs incorporate many different muscles in a single movement. This is because the “free” factor of free weights requires you to expend energy to control the correct path of the weight; other types of equipment control the weight’s path in a fixed manner. This means you will be using more stabilizer muscles, or muscles that contract, to help you hold your posture. If your goal is to incorporate as many muscles as possible in a single exercise, using free weights is your best choice.
Cable machines allow you to connect a part of your body, through an attachment or by gripping, to a set of weight plates that supply resistance as you move. In a leg exercise, you will often use a cable ankle attachment. Strapping the attachment to your ankle, you then move your leg in a desired manner, according to the muscles you want to work. While the cable gives you less freedom of movement in an exercise, it does offer one large advantage: constant resistance. The constant resistance aspect of a cable exercise will put more stress on a given muscle, leading to a harder workout on your legs. A noteworthy example is the cable leg curl. In this exercise, your lower legs move in an arc. On a cable machine, your legs must fight resistance throughout this arc movement. If you were to use a free weight, holding a dumbbell between your ankles for example, the resistance on your legs would change throughout the exercise, becoming easier at the end of the arc, and thereby leading to an uneven workout on your legs. If you want an even workout for a given area on your legs, choose a cable machine.
Levers fix the motion of an exercise to the greatest extent, allowing no freedom of movement. Lever machines that target leg muscles include leg curl machines, leg extension machines and leg press machines. These machines are similar to cables in that they provide constant resistance to your legs, but they differ from cables in that they restrain your motions. This can give the lever machines a notable advantage: Lever machines prevail at isolating certain muscles. If you have a specific muscle you want to train and want to avoid training other muscles close to it, levers tend to be the best choice, as these machines tend to focus on a specific muscle. Examples would include leg curl machines for hamstrings and leg press machines for your quads.
Smith machines look like barbells fixed on a rack -- and that is because they are barbells fixed on a rack. The Smith machine is essentially a barbell with a fixed movement. Being so, they can mimic the barbell exercises that move vertically. Therefore, you can use the Smith machine to perform barbell leg exercises, such as the split squat, deadlift and calf raise. The Smith machine leg exercises can often reduce the number of stabilizer muscles needed for an exercise, making the exercise less effective at targeting a general region. The Smith machine, however, has an advantage in that it is safer than barbells. This machine should suit weight lifters who want to use free weights but plan to test the waters first. Performing an exercise on the Smith machine before moving to a barbell is a safe practice.
Having obtained a Master of Science in psychology in East Asia, Damon Verial has been applying his knowledge to related topics since 2010. Having written professionally since 2001, he has been featured in financial publications such as SafeHaven and the McMillian Portfolio. He also runs a financial newsletter at Stock Barometer.