Strengthening your leg muscles will make it easier for you to climb stairs, ride a bicycle, and even walk. And because your legs, especially your thighs, have so much muscle mass, building leg muscles through resistance training will help you burn calories even when you’re sitting still.
“Muscle can really burn a lot of calories,” says Michael J. Joyner, MD, a physiologist at the Mayo Clinic who studies exercise and aging. “When you have more muscle mass, your resting muscles burn more calories.”
Exercises for building leg muscles
- Squats are the most common exercise for building the quadriceps and other large thigh muscles. But squats must be done carefully to avoid knee injury. The basic squat involves holding a barbell on your shoulders behind your neck and lowering your torso a few inches by bending your legs. Never go all the way down — that puts far too much strain on the knees.
- Squats can be done without weights simply by standing with your back against the wall. Just lower yourself a few inches by bending your legs and stand up again. Never go all the way down into a crouch.
- A safer way to do squats is with a squat machine that requires you to sit or lie with your feet against a platform connected to a stack of weights. When you push against the platform, you lift the weight. Never extend your legs so far that your knees lock because that could cause injury. Repeat this exercise 8 to 12 times, until your legs feel fatigued. When you can do more than 12 repetitions, increase the weight.
- A thigh machine builds your thigh muscles by having you sit with your knees bent, feet locked behind a bar attached to a stack of weights. When you pull forward with your calves, the motion works all your thigh muscles. A similar machine exercises your hamstring muscles, on the back of your thighs. Lie stomach down on the bench and hook your heels under a bar. When you bend your legs and pull the bar upwards, you exercise the back of your legs.
- The leg lunge is a safe and effective method of working the legs. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing toward your body. Step forward with your arms at your sides, parallel to your body, and bend the knee of the forward leg, forcing it to bear the weight of your body. Return to your starting position and repeat with the other leg. Do this 8 to12 times with each leg.
- To build your calf muscles, lift a barbell and hold it against your thighs, or hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms hanging straight down at your sides. Lift your heels off the floor 8 to 12 times. Increase the weight of the barbell or dumbbell as you get stronger.
Building leg muscles is vital to stability as we age
Not only will building leg muscles increase your resting metabolic rate, it also will increase the strength of a muscle group vital to stability.
“Data suggest that we have strength losses in our lower extremities that are greater than in our upper extremities,” says Chhanda Dutta, a scientist with the National Institute on Aging who studies the effect of exercise on older people. “From a functional standpoint, it’s important that anyone who does resistance training incorporate a variety of muscle groups, but especially in the lower extremities because leg and ankle strength are so important for balance and the prevention of falls.”
Everyone, no matter how sedentary or how old, can benefit from resistance training, according to Ben F. Hurley, PhD, professor of exercise physiology at the University of Maryland. “Within two months, we can reverse three to four decades of strength loss with strength training.”