Lower body exercises are primarily for the legs, thighs, hips, and buttocks. They are designed to tone and strengthen the major lower body muscles: gluteus maximus and gluteus minimus, also called the glutes (butt); quadriceps, also called quads (front upper legs); hamstrings (rear upper legs); calves (rear lower legs); hips (abductors); and feet (plantar fascia).
Lower body exercise can tone or increase muscle mass, and contribute to overall health and fitness. Most fitness routines in North America and Europe incorporate lower body exercises as part of a whole-body workout. Fitness magazines regularly contain articles on lower body exercises, from mild yoga movements to violent karate kicks. Some people do lower body exercises to tone or strengthen muscles. A smaller number do it as part of a bodybuilding routine that greatly strengthens muscles, often to enter bodybuilding competitions, including ones for teenagers, women, and older adults (age 50 and above). Lower body exercises are important in many sports including football, soccer, track, cross-country running, cycling, and skiing. They are also important in dance, fencing, horseback riding, and equestrian events.
Regular exercise as a way of promoting health can be traced back at least 5,000 years to India, where yoga originated. Yoga includes many routines, called asanas, that work the upper body. In China, exercises involving martial arts, such as tai chi, qi gong, and kung fu, developed at least 1,500 years ago. The ancient Greeks also had exercise programs 2,500 years ago that led to the first Olympic games in 776 BCE Olympic sports geared towards the lower body include skiing, ice skating, bicycling, mountain biking, and triathlon. Nearly all general fitness programs have a lower body component. It only has been within the last 100 years that the scientific and medical communities have documented the benefits that even light but regular exercise has on physical and mental well being, including exercises that emphasize leg muscles, such as walking, jogging, running, and cycling.
Lower body exercises work the muscles that are below the waist, primarily legs, butt, and thighs. The types of exercise generally are stretching and weight-bearing (resistance) or nonweight-bearing resistance, such as standing calf raises for the lower leg muscles. Stretching is usually done for five to ten minutes before and after an exercise regimen. Specific lower body stretches include the hamstring stretch, lunge stretch, calf stretch, quad (quadriceps) stretch, and spine twist.
The primary lower body exercises using a machine include leg extension that works the quads in the upper legs; leg curl, for the hamstring muscles in the back of the legs; hip abduction, that works the inner thigh muscles (hip abductors); and the calf raise, for the gastrocnemius and soleus, the main two calf muscles. Nonmachine resistance lower body exercises include squats and lunges, using a barbell or dumbbells, that work the quads (front upper leg muscles), hamstrings (back of the upper legs), hip flexors, calf muscles, and gluteals or glutes (butt). Martial arts that incorporate lower body use, especially of the feet and legs, include kung fu, American kickboxing, muay thai, and tae kwon do.
Any lower body exercise or routine should start with a warm-up of five to ten minutes. Anyone considering regular exercise or physical activity should consult first with a physician. Persons with serious health problems such as heart disease, diabetes, acquired immuno-deficiency syndrome (AIDS), asthma, and arthritis should only begin an exercise regimen with their doctor's approval. When exercising at home or the gym, loose and comfortable clothes and athletic shoes are helpful. Any exercise program should end with at least five to ten minutes of stretching and cool-down exercises.
In most people, the main risk in doing lower body exercises is overdoing it. This can lead to muscle and tendon strains, sprains, tears, and other injuries. Lower body exercise does not need to be strenuous to be beneficial. People with certain chronic health problems should take special precautions. People with diabetes should closely monitor their glucose levels before and after lower body exercises. Heart disease patients should never exercise to the point of chest pain or angina. Lower body exercise can induce asthma. It is essential for people with asthma to get their doctor's permission before starting an exercise program.
The primary adverse side effect of lower body exercising can be sore muscles (especially in the legs) and stiff joints for a day or two after beginning an exercise routine and lasting for one or days. Other minor problems can include headaches, dizziness, muscle cramps, and nausea, usually indicating the exercise routine is too strenuous.
Over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammation drugs (NSAIDs) can be used for sore muscles and mild pain. These drugs include aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol). If the soreness or pain does not improve in a few days or worsens, seek prompt medical treatment.
Stretching plays a vital role in keeping lower body muscles and joints strong and pliable so they are less susceptible to injury. It is an important part of warming up before starting a lower body exercise routine and cooling down afterwards to prevent muscle strains. A stretching routine is beneficial even if no other exercise or physical activity is done.
Lower body exercise also promotes overall good health and well-being, especially when incorporated into a routine that includes exercises for the upper body, abdomen, and cardiovascular system (aerobic). Thousands of studies during the past several decades link regular exercise to reduced risks for heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, depression, hypertension (high blood pressure), high cholesterol, and osteoporosis.
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Ken R. Wells