Leg Exercises

Definition

The two legs comprise the lower extremity of the human body. The leg muscles are used for standing, walking, running, jumping, and other physical activities. Because the legs are so important to the human body, they need to be exercised on a regular basis to stay fit and healthy.

Purpose

The leg muscles are important for the overall health of the entire body. When exercising the leg muscles, not only is the workout directly exercising the lower half of the body, but it also is (indirectly) exercising the upper half. It is doing so because such physical exercise increases the heartbeat and helps to pump blood more efficiently throughout the body. For instance, when a person pedals on a bicycle only the lower body does the work to propel the bike forward; however, the upper body, especially the heart, benefits from the workout provided by the leg muscles.

Exercising the legs assists in expending (burning) stored fat from the body that helps to improve its cardiovascular system. In addition, exercising the legs helps to maintain a fit body, one with a proper weight to height ratio, and provides for a symmetrical body, with a balance of size among all the muscles of the body. Proper alignment of the lower body with the upper body helps to reduce the chances of injury and promotes better overall health when compared to people who do not exercise.

In addition, strong leg muscles help in daily life because they allow for more strength in lifting, carrying, walking, and other such motions. Maintaining strong and flexible leg muscles also helps while performing in sporting events, such as track and field, and other physical activities, such as riding a bike to work or mowing the grass at home.

Demographics




Exercising the legs helps to maintain a fit body, with a proper weight to height ratio, and also helps provide balance among major muscle groups.

Research has shown that exercising the lower body can reduce the degree of activities of daily living (ADLs) disability in people with knee osteoarthritis. Further, people are much more likely to get deep vein thrombosis (DVT) if their legs are weak when compared to those with strong legs. In addition, exercising the legs provides good muscle tone, and helps to prevent varicose and spider veins.

Description

The main leg muscles consist of the gluteus (buttocks), quadriceps (front of the upper legs), ham-strings (back of the upper legs), and the calves (back of the lower leg). They are the primary muscles that are exercised.

The gluteus muscle is composed of three muscles. The gluteus maximus (commonly called the gluteus or the “glutes”) is the largest of the three gluteals. The broad and thick muscle forms the largest portion of the appearance and shape of the buttocks. The other smaller gluteal muscles are the gluteus medius and the gluteus minimus. Physical activities that work the gluteus muscle include bicycling, walking and running, rowing, climbing stairs, and aerobics. Specific exercises for this muscle include lunges, squats, deadlifts, and leg presses.

The quadriceps femoris (often called the quadriceps or quads) is a large muscle group that includes four muscles of the front of the thigh. These include the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. Covering the front and sides of the femur, the quadriceps are the strongest muscle in the human body. They are used to extend the knee joint and are needed for walking, running, and other such movements. The rectus femoris is used to flex the hip while walking or running. In addition, the vastus medialis is used to stabilize the patella (kneecap) and the knee joint during such activities.

The hamstring muscle refers to any one of three muscles and their associated tendons located on the posterior thigh (on either side of the back of the knee) of the human body. These three muscles are called the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and the biceps femoris. These muscles flex (bend) the knee and extend (straighten) the hip. Specifically, the semitendinosus and semimembranosus extend the hip while the body's trunk is stationary. The two also flex the knee and medially (inwardly) rotate the lower leg when the knee is bent. The biceps femoris extends the hip when a person begins to walk, along with flexing the knee and laterally (outwardly) rotating the lower leg when the knee is bent.

The triceps surae, commonly called the calf muscle, is a pair of muscles located at the calf. The pair of muscles is called the gastrocnemius and the soleus. They form the major part of the muscle within the back part of the lower leg. The gastrocnemius attaches to the base of the femur just above the knee, while the soleus attaches to the upper posterior area of the tibia. The triceps surae helps to stabilize the ankle, which is necessary for walking, running, and jumping.

There are different types of exercises that benefit the leg muscles. Some of the more common ones include:

KEY TERMS
Abduction—
To pull away.
Activities of daily living (ADLs)—
The daily self-care activities performed by an individual in his/her place of residence and in outdoor environments; people with disabilities and the elderly are often classified as to whether than can or cannot perform ADLs.
Deep vein thrombosis—
The formation of a blood clot in a deep vein.
Extend—
Straighten.
Flex—
Bend.
Laterally—
Outwardly.
Medially—
Inwardly.
Patella—
The medical term for the kneecap.
Spider veins—
Medically called telangiectasias, small dilated blood vessels near the surface of the skin or mucous membranes.
Varicose veins—
Veins that have become enlarged.

Preparation

The leg muscles should not be exercised on consecutive days. It is recommended that leg exercises be done no more than three times a week. A day of rest should be included between each day of exercising. In addition, it is recommended to seek professional help before starting any new exercise routine. Doctors will advise people as to whether they are physically fit and healthy enough to perform exercises such as those for the leg muscles. If one lacks the proper knowledge of these exercises, a personal trainer should be consulted as to the correct type of individualized program for leg exercises.

Many videos and instructional manuals are available to help in the learning process. Instructions provide the correct form and technique that individuals should use with these leg muscle exercises. Stretching should be performed before these exercises are performed to help to warm up these muscles. Most stretching, however, should be performed after an exercise workout.

Risks

QUESTIONS TO ASK YOUR DOCTOR
  • What are some good leg exercises for me to do?
  • How often should I exercise my leg muscles?
  • What leg exercises should I avoid?
  • Should I see an expert before trying exercises?
  • Whattypesof lifestyle changes will helpwith my exercises?

Risks from leg exercises can be minimized by first seeking medical advice from a trusted medical professional. Make sure the body is ready for leg exercises by gradually building up an exercise routine. If the exercise feels comfortable for the leg muscles, then it is appropriate for one's level. Never do too much and risk injuring the muscles in the leg. Never perform exercises if pain is present. Mild discomfort is natural when doing exercises, especially then the muscle is being stretched.

Results

Leg exercises help the body carry its weight much easier. Strong legs also place less stress on the joints of the lower body. Doing leg exercises helps to maintain a proper body weight because many calories are burned during the physical activity of exercising the leg muscles, especially the muscles in the thighs because they have greater muscle mass. A regular and proper set of leg exercises leads to a trim and fit figure for the same reason (they burn many calories). In addition, strong leg muscles allow people to perform better in sports and in the accomplishment of everyday activities such as climbing stairs and walking.

Health benefits are obtained when performing at least a moderate amount of physical exercise daily, such as leg exercises. Regular physical activity plays a beneficial role in preventing disease and improving overall health status. In older adults, strong leg muscles are important for maintaining balance and preventing falls.

See also Hamstring exercises .

Resources

BOOKS

Hall, John E. Guyton and Hall Textbook of Medical Physiology, 13th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders/Elsevier, 2015.

Katch, Victor L., William D. McArdle, and Frank I. Katch. Essentials of Exercise Physiology, 5th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins Health, 2016.

Moorman III, Claude T., and Donald T. Kirkendall, eds. Praeger Handbook of Sports Medicine and Athlete Health. Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2011.

Plowman, Sharon A., and Denise L. Smith. Exercise Physiology for Health, Fitness, and Performance, 4th ed. Philadelphia: Wolters Kluwer Health/Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.

Stone, Robert J., and Judith A. Stone. Atlas of Skeletal Muscles, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.

WEBSITES

Erickson, Rose. “Pool Exercises to Strengthen the Leg.” LiveStrong.com . December 13, 2015. http://www.livestrong.com/article/404831-pool-exercises-to-strengthen-the-legs/ (accessed January 17, 2017).

Faremouth, Lisa. “Leg Exercises.” Discovery Fit and Health. August 8, 2011. http://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/diet-fitness/exercise/leg-exercises.htm (accessed January 17, 2017).

“Thigh Exercises.” ExRx.net . http://exrx.net/Lists/ExList/ThighWt.html (accessed January 17, 2017).

Valeo, Tom. “Strength Training: Building Leg Muscles.” WebMD. http://www.webmd.com/men/features/strength-training-building-leg-muscles#1 (accessed January 18, 2017).

ORGANIZATIONS

American College of Sports Medicine, 401 W Michigan St., Indianapolis, IN, 46202-3233, (317) 637-9200, Fax: (317) 634-7817, http://www.acsm.org .

American Council on Exercise, 4851 Paramount Dr., San Diego, CA, 92123, (858) 576-6500, (888) 825-3636, Fax: (858) 576-6564, support@acefitness.org, http://www.fitness.gov .

National Coalition for Promoting Physical Activity, 1150 Connecticut Ave., NW, Ste. 300, Washington, DC, 20036, (202) 454-7521, ayanna@ncppa.org, http://www.ncppa.org .

President's Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, 1101 Wootton Pkwy., Ste. 560, Rockville, MD, 20852, (240) 276-9567, Fax: (240) 276-9860, fitness@hhs.gov, http://www.presidentschallenge.org .

SHAPE America, 1900 Association Dr., Reston, VA, 20191-1598, (800) 213-7193, Fax: (703) 476-9527, http://www.shapeamerica.org .

William A. Atkins, BB, BS, MBA

  This information is not a tool for self-diagnosis or a substitute for professional care.