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Squat Exercise

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  • Squats are phenomenal for increasing your leg strength while also promoting whole body muscle strengthening
  • Multiple squat variations, including super slow and using acceleration training, are included to challenge your legs
  • Leg curls, leg extensions, calf raises, lunges, and other leg-building exercises are featured to round out your lower-body workout

How to Grow Your Legs: Challenging Exercises for Your Leg Muscles

November 29, 2013 | 116,869 views
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By Dr. Mercola

In the realm of fitness, the abs, glutes, and arms typically receive much more devotion than the legs. It’s common for many people to spend entire workouts devoted to their upper body or core, yet many neglect to adequately train their legs.

This is a mistake, as your legs help form the foundation of your body and are essential for many functional daily movements. Building your leg strength is therefore key to improving your athletic fitness and retaining your independence as you age.

Strong legs provide added stability to your body, helping reduce your risk of falls and injury. Plus, many of the exercises that target your legs actually have body-wide fitness benefits, which means strengthening your legs will help you to grow stronger overall.

Harnessing the Power of Squats for Stronger, Toned Legs

Squats are phenomenal for increasing leg strength (including your quadriceps, hamstrings, and calves), but they also create an anabolic environment, which promotes overall muscle strengthening.

In fact, when done properly, squats are so intense that they trigger the release of testosterone and human growth hormone in your body, which are vital for muscle growth and will also help to improve muscle mass when you train other areas of your body aside from your legs.

So squats can actually help you improve both your upper and lower body strength. If you’re worried about squats making your legs look bulky (a common concern for some women), don’t be.

Squats will primarily help to strengthen and define muscles in women’s legs without adding bulk (as women lack the testosterone to expand their muscles as much as men).1 For an added challenge, you can add weights (such as dumbbells) while doing your squats. The weight should be heavy enough that it’s difficult to complete your last repetitions, and your muscles are too fatigued to continue further.

By aggressively working your muscle to fatigue, you're stimulating muscular adaptation that will improve the metabolic capability of your muscle and cause them to grow.

Try These Phenomenal Leg-Building Squat Exercises

In the video above, personal trainer and coach Darin Steen demonstrates safe squat techniques for beginner, intermediate, and advanced. A basic squat is performed as follows:

  1. Warm up
  2. Stand with your feet just over shoulder width apart
  3. Keep your back in a neutral position, and keep your knees centered over your feet
  4. Slowly bend your knees, hips, and ankles, lowering until you reach a 90-degree angle
  5. Return to starting position -- repeat 15-20 times, for 2-3 sets for beginners (do this two or three times a week)
  6. Breathe in as you lower, breathe out as you return to starting position

To grow your legs while giving them a more toned look, specifically, Voxxi shared four squat variations from physiologist Brad Schoenfeld, who created the “Love Your Legs” workout.2 Each exercise is designed for two to three sets of 15-20 repetitions.

  1. Split squat: Place your left foot on a chair positioned behind you, hands on hips. Squat until your right knee reaches 90 degrees. Switch legs. Add dumbbells for more challenge.
  2. Sissy squat: Using a chair for stability, stand with feet hip-width apart and rise onto your toes. Simultaneously bend your knees and lean your torso back until your knees reach 90 degrees. Maintain a straight line between knees and shoulders.
  3. Pistol squat: With feet hip-width apart, lift your right foot a few inches off the ground, toes pointed up. Squat until your left knee reaches 90 degrees, keeping your right heel off the ground.
  4. Goblet squat: Stand with feet farther than shoulder-width apart, turning your toes out. With your hands, hold a dumbbell near your chest (like a goblet), keeping elbows out to the sides. Squat until your knees reach 90 degrees. Jump slightly as you rise.

Over time, consider performing your squats (one or two-leg) on an unstable surface such as a BOSU ball, to further increase the difficulty and complexity of the exercise. For example, try “triple squats” using a BOSU. With the platform side down, stand to the side of the BOSU with your right foot on top. Squat down, then step onto the dome with your left foot and lower into another squat. Next, step to the opposite side of the BOSU and squat. Repeat the sequence for about a minute. Or, try adding hand weights.

Slow Down Your Squats for the Best Results

By slowing down your movement, you’re actually turning the squats into a high-intensity exercise. This is called high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, and the latest science confirms that it provides far greater benefits than low-intensity workouts in a fraction of the time—typically 12 to 20 minutes for an entire HIIT routine. The super-slow movement allows your muscle, at the microscopic level, to access the maximum number of cross-bridges between the protein filaments that produce movement in the muscle.

To reap maximum results from your exercise program, it is wise to work out at maximum intensity for about 30 seconds, followed by a 90-second recovery period. Your goal for HIIT is to get your heart rate up to your calculated maximum heart rate. The most common formula for this is to subtract your age from 220.

You can incorporate squats, plus a few other compound movements (such as pull-downs, chest presses, compound rows, or overhead presses) as part of a super-slow high-intensity routine, as I demonstrate in the video above. For more about super-slow, high-intensity workouts, refer to our previous article, where you can also find out how to do barbell squats, considered by some to be the “king” of strength training exercises. Now that you have an understanding of the mechanics and value of squats for building your legs, let’s take a look at the ultimate squat: squats combined with whole body vibration training.

Try Squats on a Power Plate for the Ultimate Leg-Building Workout

Whole Body Vibrational Training (WBVT), also known as Acceleration Training, employs a vibrating platform like the Power Plate that forces your muscles to accommodate, resulting in dramatic improvement in strength, power, flexibility, balance, tone, and leanness.

You can do almost any exercise while standing on the Power Plate and double your results with less effort, because the machine does much of the work “for you.” The vibrational component essentially doubles the energetic demands of the exercise—squats included! You need not necessarily add hand weights to your squats when you combine them with Acceleration Training. If you do add weights, you can use half the weight you ordinarily use, for equal results.

A study at Florida International University3 examined the energy people expended with squats on a Power Plate with the energy they expended doing conventional squats. They concluded that you can get the same metabolic bang for your buck on the Power Plate, using significantly lighter weights, less risk of injury, and possibly faster recovery time. The Power Plate offers the additional advantage of activating more muscles.

Another great thing about the Power Plate is that it can be used safely by nearly everyone, including the elderly, injured, or disabled, because there is benefit to even passively standing or sitting on it. This makes it ideal for helping to strengthen your legs even if you’re unable to perform traditional leg-strengthening exercises. If you want to see the Power Plate in action, I invite you to visit my Power Plate Video page.

How to Perform Proper Leg Curls and Leg Extensions

The leg curl, which is one of the exercises I demonstrate in the video in the section above, accentuates your hamstrings, which are the large muscles running down the backs of your legs, above your knees. They are an important muscle group that acts as both a hip extensor and knee flexor. Keeping them strong can literally help keep you on your feet as you age. Coupled with strong quadriceps, having strong hamstrings can also help prevent hip and knee injuries that often lead to surgery.

The objective of the slow repetition leg curl is to perform 10 to 12 repetitions with one set to failure, meaning doing the exercise with the maximum weight you can handle in 10-12 repetitions, all in one set.

The "failure" part of the exercise is the point at which you can no longer maintain good form and still lift the weights. Calculate your resistance to be 80 percent of your 10-rep max. When using the weight machine, take care to not grip the handlebars too tightly. The grips are only there to help you maintain balance. Holding the grips loosely helps ensure the exercise targets your hamstrings rather than "borrowing" strength from a strong grip. Another leg exercise, the leg extension, focuses on the four muscles on your upper leg and thigh -- your quadriceps.

These are the other set of muscles that work with your hamstrings. These are also important for maintaining good leg, hip, and knee strength. Make sure to keep your muscles engaged the entire time, with only a quick pause at the top and no rest at the bottom. You'll notice that your stomach muscles work with your legs on this exercise, but be careful not to allow your back to do the work -- not only will it NOT build up the muscles you're targeting, but it could strain your back, causing problems that may need medical attention.

5 Additional Exercises to Build Your Legs

There’s more to a comprehensive lower-body workout than squats, curls and extensions! The following five exercises, again from Voxxi and the “Love Your Legs” workout,4 will help to round out your leg definition and strength:

  1. Three-way lunge: Place feet hip-width apart and hold your hands together in front of your chest. Do three lunges, each with your knee reaching 90 degrees: one toward the front, one toward the side, and one to the back.
  2. Good Morning: Put feet shoulder-width apart and hold the ends of a dumbbell with your hands. Place the weight under your chin. Slowly bend forward from the waist to 90 degrees, keeping your legs straight and pressing your butt back backward.
  3. Single-leg dead lift: Stand with feet hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand. Bend at the hip, extending your right leg behind you and keeping your abs tight. Hinge forward until your body is parallel to the floor, arms hanging down.
  4. Bridges: Lie on the floor and place a small towel under your heels. With arms by your sides, lift your hips off the floor, pressing your heels into the ground and forming a straight line from knees to shoulders.
  5. Calf raise three ways: Stand on a box or stair, letting your heels hang back over the edge. Then turn your toes inward and lift your heels. When you’ve done 2 to 3 sets of that, repeat the exercise with toes turned outward and then with them pointed straight.

Building Your Legs: The Nutrition Component

Resistance exercises like squats promote muscle building, but just how much muscle mass you gain is highly variable, and depends on factors including your nutritional choices.

When doing intense strength training exercises like those described above, it’s typically important to eat within 30 minutes after your workout, and your meal should include fast-assimilating protein. Whey protein is a useful option here, as it will get to your muscles within 10-15 minutes of swallowing it, supplying your muscles with the right food at the right time.  It is generally believed that there is only a two-hour window after exercise that allows your body to fully use the proteins you ingest for optimizing muscle repair and growth, which is why your post-workout meal is so important.