Getting great legs and killer glutes is fairly simple as long as you follow a few training rules and put in the hard work. Amazing legs require three things:
• Fairly low body fat levels.
• Muscular development in the calves, hamstrings, quadriceps, and glute muscles to provide shape.
• A strong lower back and core, allowing you to handle heavy weights when doing the best lifts for building the lower body.
This article will give you eight training rules for reaching those three goals and developing lean, strong, and lovely legs.
#1: Lift heavy.
To get lean and improve the shape and “tone” of your lower body you’ll get both better and faster results by lifting weights that you’re not accustomed to. This can burn a lot of energy and produce a fat burning hormone response so that you lose fat. It also overloads the muscles so that you get stronger and more athletic.
A general rule for choosing weights is to use between 65 and 85 percent of the maximal amount you can lift. In simplest terms, it means that you should do between 8 and 15 reps, lifting to failure or nearly to failure. For example, if you can squat 100 pounds one time, then you need to use a weight that is at least 65 pounds when doing squats for reps.
There are exceptions to the “lift heavy” rule when training specific muscles in the lower body, which will be covered in depth below. For instance, your calves are made up of two muscles, the gastrocnemius, which is mostly fast-twitch and best trained with heavy weights and low reps, and the soleus, which is composed of more slow-twitch fibers and responds to lower weights and higher reps.
#2: Vary your lifting speed & always count tempo.
Tempo refers to the speed with which you perform the up and down phases of any lift. A general principal for losing fat and developing muscle is to use a slower “down” or eccentric motion (lasting 3 to 6 seconds) and faster “up” or concentric tempos.
Training this way enhances the eccentric phase, which is associated with greater muscle growth. Eccentric-enhanced lifts are an efficient way to develop strength in squats, deadlifts, and lower back exercises, and a must for getting maximum shape in the hamstrings—always favor longer eccentric phases with exercises such as Nordic hamstring curls and glute-ham raises that will be highlighted below.
In certain cases, more advanced female trainees will benefit from fast tempos that recruit distinct type II fibers that aren’t used during slower tempos. For example, the calves respond well to explosive motions, which is one reason athletes who play sports that require a lot of jumping often have great calves.
#3: Train for metabolic stress with high volume and short rest.
Training in a way that creates a lot of metabolic stress has three key benefits for women:
1) It allows you to burn a lot of fat because your body requires a lot of oxygen to recover, which correlates with a high calorie burn.
2) It produces hormones that promote fat burning and energy use.
3) It is a driving force behind muscle growth and it often leads to greater muscle damage, which triggers protein synthesis.
High volume, short rest weight workouts (commonly known as high-intensity or HIT) will produce a lot of metabolic stress, as will sprints and strongman exercises (see #4). For HIT workouts, use rest periods between zero and 60 seconds and don’t be scared to do a lot of sets. One study found that compared to training 1 or 4 sets of squats, 8 sets allowed trainees to get much stronger faster.
#4: Do sprints or strongman instead of endurance-style cardio.
Endurance-style cardio trains efficiency, which is the opposite of what needs to happen if you want to build muscle or lose body fat for lovely legs. It’s also catabolic in nature, leading to the loss of muscle mass.
Sprint training or strongman exercises such as sled pushes help you build muscle and this type of training preferentially increases the size and strength of the powerful, fast-twitch fibers. You have a few sprinting options that serve the purpose of building leaner, stronger legs:
Try interval cycle sprints—8-second resisted sprints followed by 12 seconds of low-intensity cycling, repeated 60 times for a total of 20 minutes. This workout led normal-weight women to lose an average 2.5 kg body fat, with most of the fat coming from the thighs, hips, and trunk, which is often considered a “tricky” area for women.
Try a Wingate protocol in which you do six 30-second sprints with 4 minutes rest. It can be done with resistance on a bike or on a track. A recent study found that women who did running Wingate sprints lost 1.4 kg of body fat and gained 1.3 percent lean muscle by the end of the study.
#5: Prioritize multi-joint lifts.
The multi-joint lifts of squats, deadlifts, and step-ups are the biggest “bang for your buck” exercises because they usually require the body to use a large number of muscles. This makes them both metabolically challenging and effective for developing muscle.
They’re also highly functional and improve running and jumping ability, while simultaneously reducing injury risk and pain. Plus, a strong, lean lower body will allow you to move with greater ease and grace.
Here are the key multi-joint lower body exercises to use to anchor your workout:
Deadlifts: Deadlifts are one your best bets to get great legs because they hit the entire posterior chain (calves, hamstrings, glutes, and lower back) as well as the quads, and abs.
If you’re new to deadlifting, or haven’t made it a habit, start with hex bar deadlifts in which you grab the bar on the sides of your body with a neutral grip, allowing the weight to be distributed more uniformly over your center of mass than with the barbell deadlift. Other valuable variations include single-leg deadlifts, and both the Romanian (use only a slight bend in the knee) and conventional bent-leg (knees bent about 75 degrees) deadlifts.
Squats: Full-range squats are essential because they’ve been found to lead to greater muscle development in the hamstrings and quads, and they activate the glutes much more than partial squats.
However, novices often need to develop strength and flexibility with split squats before training regular bilateral squats effectively. Do these over the full-range as well for greater glute and quad development, while also improving range-of motion in the hip and ankle so that you can go deep once you start barbell squatting.
Lunges & Step-Ups: Single-leg training develops equal strength on both sides of the body. These exercises also improve strength ratios between the different muscles within the prime movers that do most of the work.
Further, unilateral training allows you to target specific muscles in the lower body musculature. For example, a study of college track athletes found that single-leg squat training produced higher glute muscle activity compared to bilateral squats.
#6: Include single-joint lifts for the greatest exercise variety.
Although the “classic” free weight lifts tend to be more beneficial for changing your body, adding certain single-joint lower body exercises to your workout can make a big difference for a few reasons.
First, there are fast- and slow-twitch motor units scattered throughout individual muscles, so a single exercise, even if it’s multi-joint, won’t maximally develop your legs and glutes.
Second, using movements at different joint angles and planes of motion will allow you to target certain muscles by causing greater muscle damage or applying more tension to the muscle. Here are some of the best single-joint exercises to include for developing great legs:
Leg Curls: A must for lovely hamstrings, do lying leg curls with feet in neutral and turned inward and outward. The different foot positions create different lines of pull on the muscles that make up the hamstring for greater development and shape.
Good Mornings: A powerhouse lift for the posterior chain, it hits the hamstrings, glutes, and lower back, making it an excellent “core” exercise.
Back Extensions: A useful lower intensity exercise that allows you to achieve proper form in the “big” lifts like squats and deadlifts. Turning the feet outward will hit the glutes more.
#7: Do glute builders for a great booty.
All the best athletes have one thing in common: Strong and well developed glutes. The rest of us who spend most of our time sitting or moving incorrectly? Not so much.
Unless you’re a committed trainee are top athlete, chances are your glutes could use some work. Weak glutes often lead to lower back or hip pain and poor posture, and they’re rather unsightly.
But, a lean, shapely backside can do wonders for most women’s overall physique. Perhaps because it’s the biggest, most powerful muscle in the body, great looking glutes tend to give a lot of women confidence as well as ammunition to protect their optimal body composition with ideal nutrition and training.
Here are a few exercises that effectively build the glutes:
Glute-Ham Raises: A lesser known but super valuable booty builder for women, the glute-ham raise allows you to work the lower back, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and even the abs a little bit.
Glute Bridges: Glute bridges or hip thrusts isolate the glutes to build shape and strength. They’re a must for if you want to grow your glutes because you can load them heavy and train a fairly high volume to get results faster.
Additionally, glute bridges are useful when you don’t want to grow your quads and hamstrings as much as you want your glutes to pop. Squatting, deadlifting, and lunging will grow all the muscles in your legs and backside, which is great for athleticism and a must for novices, but if you’re already strong and just want to target your glutes for a training phase, try glute bridges.
Progress them by going from body weight bridges to hip thrusts against resistance bands or weight plates and then to barbells.
Donkey Kick/Step-Up Superset: Pairing donkey kicks and step-ups in a superset is a great way for novices to target the posterior without involving the quad much. Be sure to concentrate on form, because donkey kicks are notorious for eliciting poor technique.
A recent study of 8 “glute” exercises found that donkey kicks and step-ups activated both the glutes and hamstrings the most. Squats also performed well and researchers note that because you can use a lot of weight with squats they may “have the greatest butt-beautifying potential.”
Once you master the technique, progress to cable-resisted donkey kicks and dumbbell step-ups, progressively adding weight as you get stronger.
#8: Build lovely calves with both seated and standing raises.
Great calves will get you a lot of attention, especially when paired with killer glutes. Calf training can seem complicated because you have to train both the gastrocnemius, which is mostly fast-twitch and best activated when standing, and the soleus, which sits under the gastrocnemius and is composed of more slow-twitch fibers. The soleus is used more when the knee is bent, making seated calf raises ideal.
Besides the super aesthetic benefits of shapely calves, studies show untrained women tend to have a strength imbalance within the calf muscles that puts them at greater risk of falling. Top that with high heels and other uncomfortable shoes that force certain muscles to work harder than others, and women often develop poor flexibility in the ankle that leads to pain in the knees and hips, or at the least, messes up their squat form.
Here’s how to get the most of calf training in the least time:
Start with single-leg calf raises with a dumbbell held on the same side as the working leg because this recruits both the gastrocnemius and soleus. Go for higher weights and lower reps.
Add seated calf raises that work the soleus through a full range-of-motion to promote flexibility in the ankle, which is essential for women who wear high heels and often have a tight soleus and muscle imbalances within the calf.
Do bottom-range reps to promote flexibility. Done in the regular standing calf machine, they are the range from the bottom stretched position to where the feet are parallel to the floor. First do a set of normal full-range calf raises in which you go all the way up and down. Then increase the weight, and do 12 bottom-range reps in which you pause in the bottom stretched position for a count of 5.