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Lower body exercises for men and women

 


Let’s face it: leg days are the toughest to get through in the gym, or the least favourite among most fitness enthusiasts, regardless of gender. Despite comprising the largest muscles in the body, legs are usually neglected because of two primary reasons: the pain that it causes the next day, as well as the relatively slower development, as compared to say the chest, back or arms. 

The third reason is purely cosmetic, at least for men. Arms and chest are more noticeable in public -  although this perception is slowly changing. While our arms perform important daily tasks every day of the week, our legs are constantly providing support as well. We just tend to take them for granted at times. Besides, leg workouts are necessary as they add the element of proportion to the body. 

The lower half of the body not only includes the legs but also the glutes, and one of the benefits of exercising the legs is that it has positive effects even on the glutes. This is why a single day is usually enough to train the entire lower half of the body. 

So whether you’re just a regular working professional wanting to stay fit, an aspiring sportsperson or someone who likes to only run or cycle, strengthening the lower half of the body is equally important.

Not only does it have cardiovascular benefits (the largest muscles in the body need adequate blood flow to keep functioning), strengthening the legs means improved performance while playing your respective sports, or even while running or cycling as they wouldn’t tire easily.

Here are some of the benefits of training your lower body and why you should dedicate extra time to it:

Better balance and stability: The entire weight of our bodies is propped up on our legs while standing, running, walking or any other activity. Load-bearing responsibilities aside, weaker legs also translate to poor overall posture as it affects the structural integrity of the back muscles as well. Strengthening leg muscles allow you to be able to kick, jump, pivot, turn, accelerate, slow down or run with more efficiency.

Increased metabolism: Strength training has known benefits in a bid to lose weight or during a fat loss programme, and training the lower body muscles is only going to add to it. Muscles require more energy consumption than fat, which speeds up the metabolism of the body as a result.

Reduced risk of injuries: Stronger muscles in the legs, i.e. the hamstrings, quads and calves get rusty due to the long hours of sitting in an office, and running long distance on those muscles can increase the chances of injury. Strengthening them means your leg muscles remain in good health for carrying out daily tasks, or even that 5k run over the weekend.

Boosts muscle growth: Compound exercises like squats and deadlifts ensure you build more muscle overall in the body thanks to the spurt of testosterone it results in. 

Compound movements: Most lower body exercises involve compound lifts, which alone help in building and strengthening other parts of the body, like the back, shoulders, arms, etc.

Improves bone density: The long hours of inactivity your legs experience while at work can make the joints weaker. Those experiencing pain in their knees early in their lives can benefit greatly by performing exercises focused on the lower half of the body.

Increased core strength: Core strength is involved in a lot of exercises, not only while training the ab muscles. Exercises like squats and deadlifts ensure your core is stronger, which increases the chances of you performing better in other exercises as well, or even while playing sports.

Leg strength is essential for a variety of daily tasks performed by both men and women, besides a higher level of endurance to last through the day. Here are a set of exercises for the lower body that can help you improve your overall functional strength:

Whether performed without weights or with a barbell behind your back, squats are an exceptional way to keep the lower half of your body in shape. The glutes and legs, as well as your calves, are worked in this intense exercise. As the squat is also a compound exercise, it also simulates real-world movements and activities while carrying out daily chores.

How to do them

  • Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. You can either hold a barbell behind your shoulders or do it without weights.
  • Now bend your knees and lower your body as if you’re about to sit on a chair. Keep your back straight, don’t bend forward as you do this.
  • Go low enough so your thighs are parallel to the floor (or work up to this if you can’t to begin with). Try that your knees do not go over the toe line.
  • Push your body up and straighten your knees to come back to your original position. This is one rep. Perform 15-20 reps in a set of three each.

While conventional squats focus more on the front thigh muscles (quadriceps), walking lunges spread the effect onto the hips and hamstrings besides the quads. The movement also works out your buttocks, the gluteus maximus - the largest muscle in the body. 

How to do them

  • Stand upright with dumbbells or kettlebells in either hand beside you, or just your hands at your waist.
  • Take a step forward with your right leg, lower your hips and bend both knees while keeping the back straight and looking ahead. 
  • Don’t let your back leg touch the ground. Get back up while bringing your left leg forward to get back to an upright position.
  • Repeat these movements to complete 10 reps on either leg.

For those who have trouble balancing themselves while performing a weighted squat, the leg press is an excellent alternative exercise. The bench press for the legs, this exercise allows you to work your quads, hamstrings and calves as well as hip muscles to ‘push’ the weight away from you, but without the added pressure on the back as it is performed while being seated.

How to do it

  • Sit down on the leg press bench and put your feet up on the plate in front of you. Load the machine with weights you’re comfortable with.
  • Grab the handles attached to the seat, flatten your back and head on the backrest, and push the weight plate out until your legs are fully straight.
  • Slowly recede and return to the resting position. This is one rep. Perform 10-15 reps each over three sets.

Mimicking the movement of climbing stairs, the step-up is a great way to increase strength in the legs along with improving cardiovascular performance. Often coupled with other cardio movements, the step-up is an excellent exercise even for beginners.

How to do it

  • Stand in front of a raised bench, stepper or a box. You can use a pair of dumbbells or a barbell for additional resistance, or do it without weights as well.
  • Step up with the right foot onto the platform with your heel, and bring the trailing foot up to stand up.
  • Come down with the left foot first, and bring the right foot down to meet it. Perform at least 15 reps of the movement with either foot over three sets.

The conventional deadlift remains a favourite among fitness enthusiasts. The deadlift is popular thanks largely to the range of muscles it employs in the lower half of your body – the lower back, hamstrings, quadriceps as well as the glutes, along with boosting core strength.

How to do it

  • Stand with your legs less than shoulder-width apart with the shins almost touching the bar.
  • Bend the legs slightly, keep the back straight and extend the hips further back. Grip the bar outside the legs, with both palms either facing inwards or one inward and the other outwards.
  • Push your heels down into the ground, look straight ahead while simultaneously lifting the bar off the floor.
  • Keep the spine straight through the movement and finish by standing erect, driving the hips into the bar.
  • Come back down slowly to the resting position. This is one rep. Repeat for 10-15 reps each over three sets.

Often performed as an afterthought in gym routines, calf raises are quite neglected, although strengthening them means staying away from cramps, especially faced by runners or those who spend a lot of time standing up on their feet. Stronger calves also lend an aesthetic to the legs, adding proportion to the thigh muscles and taking the pressure away from the knees as a result.

How to do them

  • Stand straight either on the floor, or on a raised platform with only your toes resting on it.
  • Stand up on the toes slowly and hold yourself at the top of the movement for a second or two.
  • Slowly return to the original position. Perform at least 15-20 reps each over three sets. You can hold a pair of dumbbells or a barbell across your shoulders for added resistance.

A full-body workout, kettlebell swings are exceptional for the core, back, glutes, legs and hips. The weight of the kettlebell has to be thrust forward with a drive from the hips, which moves onto the core, powering the arms holding the kettlebell. The exercise is excellent for improving mobility in the hips and lower back as well.

How to do it

  • Stand with your legs more than shoulder-width apart holding the kettlebell with both your hands.
  • Bend your knees slightly, keep the back straight, core braced, and in one swift motion, swing the kettlebell upwards in front of you to reach slightly above shoulder height and straighten your legs while doing so, tightening the glutes behind you.
  • Without stopping the motion, bring down the kettlebell while lowering your hips and bending the knees to finish, allowing the weight to flow under your legs. This is one rep. Repeat this movement 15-20 times each over three sets.

Adding a bit more explosive strength to the conventional squat, the ‘jump’ in the name means exactly that. The ‘extra’ in the movement allows you to add more to the original movement, as well as increased strength coming from the hips.

How to do them

  • Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Drop down to the squat position with the knees not extending the toe line.
  • Power yourself into a jump from the squat position, extending your back straight and straightening the legs all the way. The hands should be beside you for stability.
  • Return from the jump to the original squat position without stopping the motion (jump and jump back down to a squat without standing up). This is one rep. Perform 10-15 reps each in a set of three.

The dumbbell curl for the legs, the hamstring curl is a great exercise to isolate the movement and focus only on the large hamstring muscles behind your thighs. Strengthening the hamstrings helps in improved performance while running and jumping.

How to do it

  • Lie down on the hamstring curl bench, lodging the heels under the curl cushion. If you don’t have access to the hamstring curl bench, you can lie down on a flat, raised bench and put a weighted dumbbell between your feet.
  • Keep the upper body still, and bend your knees to curl the weight up. The knees will remain anchored to the bench. Squeeze at the top of the movement and hold for a second or two.
  • Slowly return to the original position. This is one rep. Repeat 10-15 times each over three sets.

Leg extensions are a great exercise performed to strengthen and develop the front thigh muscles (quadriceps) along with reinforcing the ligaments in the knees. It’s a solid isolated exercise meant for the legs and knees, without putting any pressure on any other muscle group.

How to do it

  • Sit down on the leg extension bench, loop your knees under the extension pad and lock your feet under the roller from the ankles.
  • Hold onto the handles on the side of the bench, and lift your feet up by moving the knees only. Lift till your legs are parallel to the ground.
  • Slowly return to the original position without letting the feet fall freely down. This is one rep. Repeat over 10-15 reps each for three sets.

Lower body workouts are essential for the body’s overall health and fitness levels. Working the larger muscles in the legs and buttocks are important for the overall mobility of the body as well as flexibility. Besides the added benefits of stronger legs, these exercises also strengthen the core muscles and aid higher levels of fat loss and metabolism. However, one must remember to warm-up before these exercises to prevent injuries as well as sustained levels of fitness.

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