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The Best Leg Exercises For Women

Legs come in all shapes and sizes, and over the last few years we've seen a change in the fitness industry where leg workouts for women are no longer solely targeted at getting slimmer legs. Now, women are looking for ways to build muscle and strength -- and Personal Trainer Holly Kisby who is based at PureGym Lincoln, is here to help! Here, she looks at the benefits of training your legs, how often you should train, and what exercises to do to grow your legs.

Jump straight to Holly's leg day workout for women

The importance of training legs

Your legs contain some of the biggest muscle groups within the body. Training these muscles has so many benefits, including:

  • Increased muscle strength. Strength training stresses the muscles, which causes them to get stronger and grow. This has obvious benefits in the gym as it helps to progress your workouts, but it has so many benefits outside of the gym too -- from increased endurance to a better ability to carry out your daily activities.

  • Increased bone density. While strength training is predominantly seen as a way to strengthen your muscles, it helps to build up your bones too! Building strong bones is particularly important for women as hormonal changes such as menopause mean women are more likely to develop osteoporosis.

  • Improved balance and coordination. Balance might feel like its dependent on your vision but having strong muscles can help to improve your balance and coordination, and having strong legs in particular plays a massive role in supporting your balance.

  • Stronger joints. Lifting weights may not seem like it's good for your joints, but in actuality having good muscle function and balance helps to protect your joints from damage. The best way to ensure you stay free from injuries is to warm up and cool down before and after exercising and to keep good form -- only lift a weight you can maintain the correct movement pattern, and progress this each week.

  • Toned legs. The best workout for toned legs is one that helps to build your leg muscle, as it is muscle definition which gives a toned appearance. Historically, some women have thought that building muscle would lead to bigger legs, but it's difficult for women to gain big, bulky muscles -- it takes a lot of hard work and dedication to your diet and exercise to grow your legs. Focusing on increasing your strength and building your muscle will create lean, toned legs. If you do want noticeably bigger legs and glutes, you may want to consider bulking.

  • Burn lots of calories. As I mentioned earlier, your legs contain some of the biggest muscle groups in the body. The bigger the muscle, the more oxygen is needed during exercise, which means your heart has to work harder. This means your leg day workout can burn a significant number of calories during a strength session!

  • Improved posture. Long periods of sitting down, such as a 9-5 office job, can wreak havoc on your anatomy and lead to tight hamstrings, resulting in poor posture. Strengthening your leg muscles can combat imbalances caused by a sedentary lifestyle, which helps with your posture.

How often do women need to train legs?

While there is no single correct frequency when it comes to training your legs, the rule of thumb when it comes to building muscle strength is to work a muscle group twice per week, and to leave at least a day's rest between working the same muscle twice.

For beginners, two good options include doing full body workouts three times a week with a day rest in between or alternating two upper body and two lower body workouts so that there are two days between hitting the same muscle group twice.

The best leg exercises for women

When planning a leg day workout women should include a mixture of compound exercises and isolation exercises which work both the legs and glutes. Compound exercises involve multiple muscle groups, meaning they're super effective at building strength and burning calories. Isolation exercises target a single muscle, which means they're great for ironing out any imbalances and growing that specific muscle.

Some of the best compound leg exercises women can do are squats, deadlifts, lunges, split squats, and glute bridges. For isolation exercises, good options include calf raises, kickbacks, kneeling hip abduction or the abduction resistance machine, leg extension and leg curl.

Try this leg day workout for women

Don't fancy creating your own leg day plan? Try this workout next time you're at the gym.

For each exercise, do 3-4 sets of 12-15 reps. You can repeat this workout every week, making it harder by adding either weights or reps. For example, if for your first workout you can manage 12 reps with 5kg, you would increase the reps each week. Once you can do 15 reps, you might increase the weight and do 12 reps with 7kg, and then increase the reps again each week.

  1. Dumbbell Goblet Squat

    • Grab a dumbbell in both hands and hold it in front of your chest, with your elbows tucked in by your side.
    • Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width distance apart and your feet turned outwards.
    • Sink your hips back and down towards the floor, as if you were sitting down, making sure to your core is braced and your spine is straight.
    • Keep the dumbbell in front of your chest throughout the movement. As you lower yourself into the bottom part of the squat, allow your elbows to drop between your legs, and inside your knees.
    • When your hip sinks just below the knees, stay in this position for a brief pause, and then drive your hips back up towards the ceiling to return to standing position.

    Check out more squat variations here.

  2. Dumbbell Deadlift

    • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand with your palms facing inwards the body.
    • Lower the dumbbells towards the ground by hinging forward at the hips, making sure to keep your back straight and your knees slightly bent.
    • Hold the position for a few seconds when you feel a stretch the hamstrings.
    • Return to standing up straight by reversing the movement, making sure to squeeze your glutes and keeping your core tight.

    Once you can deadlift 20kg, you can move from dumbbells to a barbell deadlift.

  3. Walking Lunges

    These can be done with bodyweight only, or to make the exercise more challenging you can either hold a single dumbbell or kettlebell to your chest, or hold a dumbbell in each hand at your side.

    • Stand tall with your feet about shoulder-width apart. If you're using bodyweight, you can rest your hands on your hips.
    • Bracing your core, take a big step forward with your right leg, putting your weight forward into the heel.
    • Bend your right knee until your thigh is parallel with the floor and your back knee is lowered towards the floor.
    • Extend your front leg to come to standing. As you do this, take the back leg up and over into a forward lunge. 
    • Repeat for however many reps required.

    If you find walking lunges too hard, you can try alternative lunge variations here.

  4. Calf Raises

    Calf raises can be done without weights. Once you're comfortable with the movement and balance, hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand to add further resistance.

    • Stand with your feet flat on the floor facing forward, shoulder width apart, and hands by your sides.
    • Your back should be straight, with your shoulders in line with your hips.
    • Pushing your weight into the balls of your feet, slowly raise your heels off the ground until you are standing on your toes.
    • Pause for a few seconds before slowly lowering your heels to the floor.

    To make this even harder, you can stand on the edge of a step to allow a greater range of motion.

  5. Glute Bridges

    • Lie flat on your back with arms straight by your side. Your feet should be flat on the floor hip-width apart, and knees bent upwards.
    • Engaging your core and glutes, lift your hips up towards the ceiling so your shoulders, hips and knees are in a straight line. Your shin and thigh should roughly be at a 90 degree angle.
    • Hold for a couple of seconds squeezing your glutes before slowly returning to the start position.
    • Slowly return to starting position.

    You can make glute bridges more challenging by resting dumbbells, kettlebell, plate, or barbell on your hips.

  6. Banded Kneeling Hip Abduction

    • Start with your hands and knees on the floor shoulder width apart, with a short resistance band around the middle of both thighs.
    • Keeping your knee bent, raise one leg out to the side by rotating through the hip. The rest of your body should remain still.
    • Slowly lower your leg back to the floor, before repeating on the other side.

    If you're struggling to get the movement right for this, drop the resistance band and work on your form first.

  7. Banded Kneeling Kickback

    • Start on all fours, hands and knees shoulder width apart.
    • Wrap one end of a long resistance band around one foot, and hold the other end in your hands flat on the floor.
    • Slowly kick back your foot until your leg is straight out and up, making sure to push through your glutes.
    • Reverse the movement and draw your knee into your chest before repeating.
    • Once you have done all your reps, switch legs.

To build toned legs, you'll ideally work your legs twice a week. You can either repeat this workout twice a week for at least six weeks, making sure to add more weight or reps every week, or you can pair it with another leg workout each week -- we have plenty of lower body workouts here to choose from, and 10 of the best thigh exercises here.

We also have over more workouts on our free PureGym app, or if you want more tailored help to achieve your goals, why not work with a Personal Trainer like myself?

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