September 22, 2021 10 min read

The biggest problem with most leg day routines is that people take a general approach - the exercises they use target the lower body broadly and maybe a few muscles specifically. Without a focus on the muscles and muscle groups that give us functional strength, leg day routines can lead to strength imbalances or flab on the inner thigh despite your best efforts.

Compound exercises like squats and deadlifts are great for the lower body. But you should also run through a few thigh exercises on leg day so that your hip adductors, hamstrings, and quads are specifically targeted. The moves in this guide will put the strain on these muscles particularly and move them in novel directions.

Add the thigh exercises in this guide to your leg day routine and you’ll increase your functional strength, round out your lower-body sculpting, and prevent injury in two of the most important joints.

Muscles In The Thighs

Generally speaking, you should focus on three muscles to sculpt your thighs and build up strength there:

Leg muscle anatomical structure, labeled front, side and back view diagrams

Hamstrings

The hamstrings are on the back of your thigh. They help bend the knee and lift your leg behind your body. Of all the muscle groups in your body, the hamstrings are some of the most susceptible to injury. Making them stronger is the best way to prevent such an outcome.

Your hamstrings consist of three muscles: the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus. The biceps femoris extends the hip and flexes and rotates the knee, while the semitendinosus rotates the tibia (shin bone), extends the thigh, and flexes the knee. The semimembranosus also helps with flexing the knee, rotating the tibia, and extending the thigh.

Quadriceps

Located on the front of your thigh, the quadriceps are actually four different muscles. The rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and vastus intermedius all share responsibility for stabilizing the kneecap, extending your lower leg, keeping a straight posture, taking steps, and jumping.

Whenever you straighten your leg, the quads are at work. Standing up, walking, running, cycling, kicking, and swimming are some of the main activities that require this muscle group.

Hip Adductors

Adduction of the hip occurs when your hips move toward the midline of your body. The word for the opposite movement is abduction.Adding stability and strength to your hips by targeting the hip adductor muscles is a great way to protect the hip joint and build up usable, functional strength. There are five hip adductor muscles, but it’s not too important to know their names. 

What’s more important is that they’re located on your inner thigh. If you pull your leg into your body as far as possible, you’ll feel them start to strain.In case you were curious about the hip abductors, they’re the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fasciae latae.

As you can probably tell from their names, they’re located mostly in your glutes and hips, so we won’t talk about them much in this guide. You can target them with bodyweight exercises such as clamshells, side lying leg raises, frog pumps, and resistance band side steps.

Thigh Warm-Ups For Leg Day

Before you get into the full-on thigh exercises below, try these quick workouts to prime your leg muscles and avoid injury. 

1. Standing Quad Stretch

You can use this stretch for the warm-up or the cooldown. If you need, you can hold onto a wall or the back of a chair to keep your balance.Start with your feet hip-width apart. Bend your right leg behind you and lift your right foot until you can grab it with your right hand. Pull the right foot toward your butt and hold it for thirty seconds. 

Make sure you don’t let your hips get out of alignment and keep your back straight so your pelvis doesn’t jut out. Once you complete the 30-second hold, drop your right leg and let it rest for a few seconds. Then do another stretch on the right side before you switch to the left.

2. Standing Hamstring Stretch

So that you can stay standing, we’ve included a stretch that primes the hamstrings the same way the standing quad stretch does for your quadriceps. Reduce the likelihood of hamstring strains with this stretch in your warm-up.

First, you need a slightly elevated surface. Depending on your flexibility, you might be able to use one a couple of feet off the ground. But all you need is one about one foot off the ground.

Place your left leg on the raised platform and bend your torso over while keeping your back straight. The right knee will need to bend to accommodate this movement. When you’ve bent over as far as you can go, hold the position for as long as possible up to 30 seconds. You should feel a stretch in your hamstrings.

Repeat two or three reps with the left leg raised before switching to the right leg for the same number of reps. This warm-up hamstring stretch also helps reduce pain in your lower back.

3. Standing Hip Adductor Stretch

This warm-up stretch is really simple but you need to be in a wide stance in the starting position. Don’t overdo it, just get your feet as wide apart as possible. Get them shoulder-width apart and then try to get them one step wider in each direction.

Once you’re in the wide stance, bend your left knee and straighten out your right leg. Your torso should be pushed to the left with this motion. To make the stretch even more effective, lean your body toward the right leg.

Again, you want to hold this position for a little while. 10 - 30 seconds again, then straighten up. You can either switch and straighten the left leg for the next rep or you can complete all your reps on one leg before switching sides. 2 - 3 reps on each side total.

10 Best Exercises For Thighs

Throw a few of these exercises in during your next leg workout to sculpt your inner and outer thigh muscles, build functional strength in your quadriceps and hamstrings, and even target your obliques and core muscles a bit.

1. Lateral Lunge

Greatly beneficial to your hamstrings and quads, this side lunge variation will also help develop your glutes and hip adductors as well. The starting position is similar to the standing hip adductor stretch we discussed above. In fact, the whole exercise is pretty similar. But instead of holding the stretch, you’re going to lunge repeatedly.

Start with your legs in a wide stance, about one step wider than shoulder-width. Bend the right knee and straighten the left leg. Lean your torso to the left as you go down. Straighten up to complete one rep. Do 10 - 12 total with the right knee bent before switching to the left knee.

2. Standing Leg Lifts

This is a single-leg exercise that makes for a great thigh workout. From a standing position, put your left foot out in front of you and angle the toe toward the outside. Put all your weight on the right foot.

Tighten your abs and core and then lift your left leg up. Some people can lift it until it’s almost parallel with the floor while others don’t raise it as high. As long as you feel a stretch in your inner thigh muscles, you’re doing fine.

Raise and lower the left leg for 10 - 12 repetitions before switching to the right side. Make sure you aren’t running through these reps too quickly or kicking your leg since that could cause you to pull a hamstring.

3. Plié Squat

Named after a ballet move, the Plié squat hits the inner thigh muscles more than a traditional squat position does thanks to the position of your feet. You can work your right and left side at the same time with this exercise, making it a good pairing with single-leg exercises like the standing leg lift.

Stand with your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width apart and angle both feet outward about 45°. Engage your core and hinge at your hips slightly while maintaining a straight back. Lower your torso until both of your thighs are parallel with the floor and then push through the soles of your feet to rise back to the starting position.

Depending on your squat ability, you should be able to do somewhere between 8 - 15 reps of this squat variation. If you want to make the exercise more challenging and get your upper body involved, you can hold dumbbells in each hand. You can also hold kettlebells and hinge forward at the hips to perform a sumo squat instead. Looping a  resistance band around your upper legs will also make this exercise more beneficial.

4. Step-Ups

A straightforward exercise, step-ups can be done anywhere you have a curb, step, or any kind of raised surface. They’re really good for your calves and ankles as well as your thighs, quads, and hamstrings if you pair them with a leg raise.

Woman doing step-up. Urban workout

For this version, try to find a platform slightly higher than a typical stair. A foot or two works better. Step up with your left leg and then bring your right leg up after it. Once your body is level, and without putting your right foot down, raise your right foot up until the right knee makes a 90-degree angle.

Reverse back to the starting position to complete one rep. Do 10 of these on the right leg before switching to the left side.

5. Squat Jumps

One of the best ways to improve your cardio while also building strong legs is this squat variation with a bit of a plyometric variation. If you’re already familiar with traditional squats then this version will come to you quickly.

Start with your feet shoulder-width apart. Engage your core and bend both knees to sink your butt back as if you were about to sit down in a chair. Stop when both thighs are parallel with the floor.

In a normal squat, you would simply push through your feet to return to the starting position. This time, explode upward instead of rising slowly. Push the floor away and jump up straight before landing softly on the ground. That’s one rep.

6. Speed Skaters

Another great cardio booster is the speed skater exercise. If you haven’t ever seen speed skating before, it’s a fast-paced sport where athletes use their upper body movement to propel and direct the explosive energy from their lower body. This exercise emulates that same exertion.

Start standing with your legs in a relaxed stance, knees slightly bent. Make sure you have room around you to jump from side to side. First, jump to the left and bring your right leg behind your body. Touch your left toe with your right hand.

Reverse the movement in the other direction, bringing the left leg behind your body and touching the right foot with the left hand. Count a jump in each direction as one repetition and continue for 10 - 15 reps.

7. Toy Soldier

Time for something on the front-to-back plane. Your hamstrings will get really strong over time with this exercise in your regular lineup.

Engage your core and stand with your feet hip-width apart. Kick your right leg up until it is parallel with the floor. At the same time, reach your left hand out and touch the toes of your right foot. Once your right foot is back on the ground, repeat the same procedure with your left foot kicking up.

If you have enough space, you can walk around the room like this. Just be ready for some curious and amused looks at first.

8. Kettlebell Swing

The kettlebell swing is one of the best exercises for your entire posterior chain, including your hamstrings. The quads and hip adductors will also get some attention.

 fit muscular man with big muscles holding heavy kettlebell for swing

Get a kettlebell and hold it between your legs with both hands. Make sure you’re in a wide stance, a bit wider than shoulder-width apart. Engage your core and lift the kettlebell up before letting it drop down between your legs. Its momentum will carry it behind you slightly.

Rebound off that momentum and pull the kettlebell up until it’s at about chest level. Repeat this process 10 - 15 times.

9. Single-Leg Circles

Get a yoga mat or something else soft to lie down on for this exercise. It’s great for the second half of your leg day routine because it lets most of your muscles rest while pushing your thigh muscles closer to complete exhaustion.

Lie down on your back and lift one leg up in the air. You can put your arms out to either side to stabilize yourself or just forget about them. Make a clockwise circle in the air with your raised foot and then a counter-clockwise one. Repeat until you feel the burn in your thigh and then switch to the other leg.

It sounds easy, but if you do this enough times you’ll start to feel it. Eventually, you’ll build enough strength to do a ton of circles. If your rep count gets higher than you feel like counting, try spelling out words or the alphabet to hold your attention while you work out.

10. Low Lunge With Adduction

Throw in this exercise for a bit of isometric benefit during your leg day routine. It hits your thigh muscles and a few others in the body and it’s also great combined with other lunges and lung variations.

First, stand with your feet together and your arms hanging at your sides. Step forward a bit bigger than you would for one normal stride. Lower into a deep lunge position - normally, you would stop when the front thigh was parallel with the floor but this time, go further.

Place both palms on the ground on the inside of the forward foot. Push your forward knee into your shoulder on that side of your body. Count to 10 while you hold this position to maximize the isometric benefit.

Now you can push back into the starting position. Repeat with the opposite leg forward to complete one rep. Aim for 5 reps if you can, but 3 is also fine.

Conclusion

Lifters tend to focus on their biceps, abs, and shoulders. Even people who focus on the lower body spend more time targeting their glutes and hips more than they think about their thighs.

But when fat or flab builds up on the thighs, it’s totally demotivating. Plus, the muscles in your thighs are really important for supporting the hip and knee joints. If you spend time strengthening your thigh muscles on leg day, you can build functional strength and seriously reduce the likelihood of injuries in the joints of your lower body.

Use the exercises in this thigh workout guide in tandem with glute and calf exercises to build strength evenly across your entire lower body on your next leg day.

You’ll look way better with sculpted thighs and the muscles in your lower body will work better, too.


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