Building the Foundation: Use These 5 Leg Exercises to Strengthen & Tone

by Premier Personal Trainer Damon Marable

Whether summer, fall, winter, or spring, an aesthetically balanced and functional physique will always be in season. This time of year, we hear a lot of talk and applause regarding physical appearances as many people make their way to the beach or the pool. Though everyone deserves to feel proud of their body, it can be easy to forget that aesthetics and function often go hand-in-hand. Your legs are literally half of your body. From a functional perspective, a strong pair of legs will carry you through the most basic of tasks as well as activities that depend heavily on leg functionality, mobility, and stability! In this workout, we will go over a few exercises that can be done on the main fitness floor that will help your foundation of legs become stronger over time.

1. Hip Thrusters

If you are going to have functionally strong legs, you also have to make sure that you have strong glutes as well! From an aesthetics standpoint, let’s keep it real: most people (yes, male AND female) do find a nice pair of glutes appealing. However, the importance of glutes goes much deeper than that. Glutes fill functional roles as the hip extensors of the body aiding in abduction, adduction, internal/external rotation, pelvic alignment, and extension of the thigh. They help you stand up and move forward whether walking or running. A strong pair of glutes (along with a strong core) will also functionally aid your lower back from injury during any kind of lift.

2. Squats

Squats are considered one of the two “meat and potatoes” of lower body exercises for a reason. Squats are widely considered a go-to exercise to help strengthen legs overall. There are several variations that can be done with squats, however we will put the focus into squats that can be done with kettlebells or dumbbells, such as Goblet squats. From the time that we were able to walk as children, having the full flexibility to squat to sit or pick things up has always been a part of that full body functionality. However, as we have gotten older and life happens, that functionality often becomes neglected. So practice, practice, practice!

3. Cossack Squats

This exercise can help target the legs in a different way from traditional squats. Cossack squats help increase lower body flexibility and joint mobility while also strengthening the glutes, quads, hamstrings, and adductors (inner thighs) with benefits to your core as well. The common mistake that I often see people make in this movement is leading with their knees. Joints’ are primarily for providing flexibility and stability, not force production. So, remember, lead with your hips.

4. Lunges

While squats may be one of the best movements that you can do for your legs, when you are either walking or running, you are doing so one leg at a time. So, lunges are a great exercise that will aid in strength training but also help develop your understanding of the role that balance has to play in your functional movements. Forward standing lunges or walking lunges are a great way to make the movement a bit more quad dominant; reverse lunges functionally shift some of the strengthening benefits to the glutes.

5. Deadlifts

If squats are one of the “meat and potatoes” of lower body functional movement, deadlifts are the second. This exercise truly involves total body functional movement and engages the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, lower back). Performed right, it will strengthen your entire body from the ground on up quite literally. There are variations that can be done with deadlifts as well from traditional deadlifting to even single legged (which I also recommend for its benefits of improved core control, balance, mobility, and stability). And keep in mind, in our daily lives, we are picking things up all the time. Doesn’t matter if it’s bags, luggage, laundry, weights, buckets or whatever! The benefits of deadlifting for the functional day to day quality of life cannot be understated.

Lower body training is and will always be more about function over aesthetics. Not to say that people won’t find aesthetics important to some degree, but the functional strength training that they require to stay strong will always be priority, especially if you want your body to stay strong throughout the years. And one more thing, form will always matter! The better your form in the gym, the better quality of movement and quality of life outside the gym.

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