It's all very well and good having toned arms, sculpted shoulders and washboard abs, but no woman's physique is complete without a set of perfect pins. Your legs are half your physique, yet they're all too often neglected in favor of the more "showy" muscles, and when they are hit, most people stick to a basic three sets of 10 reps on the leg extension, leg curl and calf raise machine, with a token set of leg presses or lunges thrown in. As with everything in fitness, there's no absolute best leg workout, but you can certainly make your lower-body workout a good deal better than it is at the moment.
Deadlifts are far and away the best exercise to hit your glutes, hamstrings and lower-back muscles. Deadlifts are a truly functional movement that transfer to everyday activities, according to strength coach Nia Shanks. They're a fairly technical lift, so you may need to ask a trainer for some assistance with technique when starting out, but don't let that put you off -- the benefits far outweigh the time needed for the learning process. Begin each session with five sets of six to eight reps. If you're not comfortable with regular deadlifts, try the stiff-legged or wide-stance sumo varieties, or use a trap bar, advises Shanks.
Add squats into the mix and you've got all you need for the perfect lower body workout, notes powerlifter and trainer Julia Ladewski. Squats mainly target your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, but also hit your calves, lower back and core. As with deadlifts, you can switch between different styles of squats, so rotate between front squats, back squats and squats to a box each session. Make sure you go as low as you can while maintaining perfect form to work as many muscles as possible. Stick with five sets of six to eight on these, too.
In theory, squats and deadlifts are all you need to get good legs, but to get a great lower body, you could do with a little more. Include at least one single-leg exercise in each session such as forward or reverse lunges or split squats. Women are prone to knee injuries because of their narrow joint structure, writes corrective exercise specialist Mike Robertson in "Bulletproof Knees." Not only do single-leg exercises strengthen the joints and tendons, reducing injury risk, but also they build impressive quads and glutes. To target your hamstrings further, add glute bridges, hip thrusts or leg curls with a Swiss ball. Perform three sets of 12 to 15 reps on one of each of these types of exercise every session.
To ramp up your results, hit your legs twice a week, leaving three to four days between each workout to allow the muscles to recover. Each session you should aim to add a little extra weight or perform one or two more reps on each exercise. Don't be afraid to change things round if your progress is stalling. You can switch between squat and deadlift variations or add in new intensity techniques, such as drop sets, where you perform your final set to muscular failure, then immediately drop the weight 20 percent and go again, or supersets, which involve performing two exercises back to back to increase calorie burn and raise your metabolism.
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