Getting a Great Lower Body Workout

In general, work your large muscles before moving on to your small ones. So perform your lower body workouts in the following order:

1. Glutes

2. Quads

3. Hamstrings

4. Inner and outer thighs

5. Calves

6. Shins

The only exception to this rule is if you specifically want to target a smaller muscle that's lagging far behind in its strength and is creating a too noticeable weak link. If that's the case, it's a good idea to switch your exercise order around so you target the weakest muscle when it's fresh.

Do at least four or five lower body exercises on a regular basis for balanced muscle development and visible training results. Your workouts need to include two types of exercises:

  • Compound exercises, which involve several muscle groups at once
  • Isolation exercises, which hone in on a single muscle group

If you're starting out with bad knees or hips, you may want to take a few weeks to simply focus on the muscles surrounding those joints. If your knees are the problem, for example, start with exercises that isolate your quads (the thigh squeeze and the leg extension machine) and your hams (the leg curl machine) and wait a few weeks before graduating to compound exercises (the squat and the lunge).

Here are some tips for working specific lower body muscle groups:

  • Glutes: It's tough to isolate your butt muscles because nearly every butt exercise also involves the front and/or rear thigh muscles. However, you can maximize the emphasis on your maximus with a few simple technique tricks. For instance, when you're doing the leg press or the squat, keep your toes pointed straight ahead as much as possible and your weight shifted slightly back onto your heels, especially as you press back up into the straight-leg position. The more weight you shift onto your toes, the more your quadriceps become involved. Also, when you stand up, squeeze your cheeks to make sure your glutes are really working and aren't just going along for the ride.
  • Quadriceps: The leg extension — an exercise in which you straighten your legs from a bent position — may give you a twinge of pain in your kneecap as you near the fully extended position. In this case, stop just before your legs are straight. Many leg extension machines have a device that stops the lever of the machine from going past the point you set. The machine may also let you start from a higher position than normal if you feel pain when you're initiating the movement.
  • Hamstrings: The most popular way to work the hamstrings is with a leg curl machine; you start with your legs straight and curl your heels toward your butt. You typically find this machine in three varieties: lying, seated, and standing. With some leg curl machines, you lie flat on your stomach; others have a severe bend in the support pad. Still another has you lying at an angle with your hips above your head. Try all the hamstring machines available to you, and use any of the machines that feel comfortable.
  • Calves: When you perform the standing calf raise, experiment with the angle of your toes to find the position that's most comfortable. But don't angle your toes too much outward or inward or you'll place too much stress on your knees and ankles. And perform calf exercises slowly. Bouncing your heels up and down causes your calf muscles to tighten and uses momentum to power the movement instead of maximally challenging your muscles.

Expect to feel sore and walk a little stiffly for a day or two after your first few lower body workouts. Of course, any muscle that's new to weight training is likely to be sore after the first few sessions, but leg muscles seem particularly prone to this phenomenon. Start out with just your own body weight or light weights; otherwise, you may find yourself walking like Herman Munster or wincing in agony when you get up from the breakfast table.

Here are the most common pitfalls to watch out for when training your butt and legs:

  • Don't play favorites. In other words, don't work your butt muscles and neglect your thighs just because you want to fill out the back of your jeans. Strive for balance. If one lower body muscle group is monstrously strong compared to the others, it pulls your posture out of alignment and you may end up with an injury.
  • Don't put your knees in jeopardy. Avoid locking your knees when you're lifting a weight, and don't allow your knees to shoot out past your toes in the squat, lunge, or leg press. If you feel knee pain during an exercise, stop immediately. Try another exercise and return to the one that gave you trouble after you've been training for a few weeks. Or perform a simpler version of the exercise, restricting the distance you move the weight.
  • Don't perform more than 15 repetitions for any leg exercise for strength training. Some people, afraid of developing bulky legs, use extremely light weights and perform 40 repetitions. You're not going to build much strength this way, and you'll probably fall asleep in the middle of a set. You also increase your chance of injury from placing too much repetitive stress on your joints.
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