When people think about getting fit, they often focus on great abs and a slimmer waist line. It’s true that getting rid of belly fat and having a strong core is essential to optimize health and physical performance. But building a strong lower body is just as important.
Studies show that the two the strongest predictors of longevity are strength and muscle mass in the lower body. For example, a 2005 study found that there was a close association between the degree of strength in the quadriceps and risk of mortality—that is, in a population of elderly men and women, those with the strongest legs had the lowest risk of dying over a 6-year period. Conversely, those with the weakest legs had the highest mortality risk.
The amount of muscle you have appears to be particularly important. Not only is muscle mass in the lower body linked with having less belly fat (the dangerous kind that is inflammatory and raises risk of heart disease), but it is also associated with longevity, especially in people with cancer and other diseases.
In a new study, patients with kidney disease (who suffer from nutritional problems that can impede the maintenance of muscle mass), there was a consistent association between quantity of muscle mass in the quadriceps and risk of death over a 4-year period.
What are some other benefits of training legs?
One study found that lower body training can reduce blood pressure and lower your stress response during a tough day at work. Researchers found that professionals with high-stress jobs who did 20 minutes of circuit-style lower body training first thing in the morning had lower blood pressure for the subsequent seven hours of their work day.
Lower body training is also great for boosting the metabolism because it trains the biggest, most powerful muscles in the body.
Lower body exercises, especially those done using free weights, engage the entire musculature of the core, engaging the abdominals, making squats, deadlifts, and step-ups your first line of defense for building a strong core and flat abs.
Lower body lifts also activate all the muscles that protect the lower back, making them a great tool for preventing or treating low back pain that plagues millions of people who suffer from sedentary lifestyles and long hours sitting.
Strengthening the muscles throughout the lower body helps correct muscle imbalances so you avoid pain and dysfunction in daily movements.
Lower body training pays off for runners, cyclists, and other endurance athletes by improving your muscles’ ability to store and use energy to power continuous exercise. Lifting heavier loads also targets the most powerful fast-twitch muscle fibers that give you that unbeatable kick at the end of a tough race.
What Lower Body Exercises Should You Be Doing?
Squatting is a great place to start because it engages all the muscles in the core and lower body. Plus, squatting is a fundamental movement that you need for everyday life. Start with split squats in which you take lunge position with your front foot elevated on a box or step. Progress to bilateral squats using dumbbells or a barbell—and don’t forget to squat low to the point where the hips are below the knees.
Deadlifts are another big bang for your buck exercise, and they train a movement that you need in every day life. Novices can start with hex bar deadlifts that allow you to grab the bar on the sides of your body with a neutral grip, distributing the weight more evenly over your center of mass than with the barbell deadlift.
Step-ups are a great way to ensure you are developing equal strength on both sides of the body, while training you to maximize function when going up and down the stairs.
Machine-based exercises can also be trained to target weak links or if you have imbalances that restrict you from free weight exercises:
Leg curls are great for the hamstrings.
Back extension is a good single-joint exercise that targets the glutes and the lower back musculature.
Calf raises help to avoid imbalances in the two muscles that make up the calves and regulate ankle function and walking ability.
Leg press mimics the squatting motion, while hitting the big prime mover muscles in the lower body.
Final Words: With these exercise suggestions you should be well on your way to achieving peak levels of strength in the lower body. Be sure to include upper body exercises in order to maximize total body muscle mass and strength for a long and healthy life.
Fukasawa, H., et al. Lower thigh muscle mass is associated with all-cause and cardiovascular mortality in elderly hemodialysis patients. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2017. 71, 64-69.
Newman, A., et al. Strength, But Not Muscle Mass, Is Associated With Mortality in the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study Cohort. Journal of Gerontology. 2006. 61A(1), 72-77.
Ruiz, J., et al. Association between muscular strength and mortality in men: prospective cohort study. British Medical Journal. 2008. 337:a439