Your legs have some of the largest and strongest muscles in your body. The top of your legs — more commonly known as your thighs — are home to the quadriceps femoris, which includes the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and vastus intermedius.
While it’s not a requirement to memorize the anatomical names of these powerhouse muscles, you do need to know that the thigh muscles aid in several critical movements, such as stabilizing the patella (kneecap), extending the knee and flexing the hip.
Why strong thighs are important
When you consider how much time you spend on your feet with your body in motion, it makes sense that your thigh muscles need to be strong.
Not only do they help you perform daily activities, such as walking and squatting, they’re also a key part of successful movements in athletics and exercise. Plus, strong thighs help you avoid common athletic injuries, such as quadricep strains and contusions.
Josh Cox, a certified personal trainer at Anytime Fitness, says consistent leg exercise including cardio and resistance training will also increase your energy, boost your body’s overall strength, improve your balance, tighten your midsection (not just your legs and butt), upgrade your endurance and can help alleviate and prevent lower back pain.
And of course, we can’t forget about the calorie burn. Certified trainers, sisters and founders of SISSFit, Lauren and Kelly Collins, point out that since the thighs contain some of the biggest muscles in the body, they also deliver the greatest calorie burn when strengthening them.
Exercises that help strengthen your thighs
Our experts put together a list of the best exercises that will strengthen and shape your thighs.
Cox calls this first set of leg exercises the “Mount Rushmore” of leg movements since they target every single leg muscle and are all infinitely upgradeable with various angles, equipment, weights and practice. Here, he lists his favorite foundation movements along with their function.
- Squats: Important for functionality and core strength.
- Front-to-back lunges: Important for balance, biomechanical variety and leg strength.
- Lateral lunges: Important for specific lateral movement focus, core integration and joint strength.
- Wall sit: Important for isometric conditioning and overall leg structure solidification.
This next set of thigh exercises will reinforce your foundation while introducing a bit more versatility for your body to strengthen itself with according to Cox.
- Leg press: Similar to squats, only the core component is less prevalent (but still existent), allowing you to isolate your leg muscles a bit more.
- Step-ups: A roundabout version of a lunge that puts more focus on the front leg and ties your lower back, core and glutes together. Be sure to push from your heel and toe equally so you don’t strain the front of your knee too much.
- Leg adduction: This will help combat the outside of your hips getting overly tight while bettering your balance and leg control.
On days when you’re looking to add a little extra to your leg workout, Cox says to give a few of these bonus exercises a try.
- Pistol hips: This is a pistol squat formation, only with your free leg positioned over your knee so that you not only do a one-legged squat on one side but a fantastic hip stretch on the other side. Make sure you use a TRX or something solid to hold on to so you can get a nice, deep range of motion out of it.
- Weighted bridges: With your shoulders on a weight bench or stability ball put a pad on a barbell and drape it over your lap. Dig your heels into the ground, raise your toes, and lift your hips while squeezing your glutes. Feel the stretch on the way back down and repeat.
- Slider disc side lunges: Keep one foot on the ground and another on a slider disc as you squat as low as possible with the anchor leg and slide your slider disc leg out as far as possible at the same time. Stand up, pull the leg back and repeat.
- Stability ball wall sit with band squeezes: Place a resistance band around your knees and hold a wall sit with a stability ball between your back and the wall. With your feet shoulder-width apart, bring your knees as far out as you can and then back to center. Repeat.
The SISSFit sisters recommend these three exercises that strengthen your thighs, hamstrings and glutes.
- Squat + calf raise: Beginning with your feet hip-width distance apart, squat down to a 90-degree angle, keeping your weight in your heels, a proud chest and your knees directly above your ankles. Drive through both heels as you return to a standing position and then press up onto your tiptoes. Slowly lower your heels back down and repeat.
- Alternating hamstring reaches: Begin standing on your right foot as you send your left foot back behind you and simultaneously reach your left hand to your right toes. Remember to keep a flat back, your hips square and a slight bend in your standing leg. With your body acting as one lever, drive through your right foot as you slowly come up to a standing position. Repeat on your left leg.
- Squat jacks: Begin in a standing position with your hands at your sides. Jump your feet out into a wide squat position, hovering your hands just above the ground with a proud chest. Jump your feet back together in a standing position and repeat.
Important note: When trying out these movements, make sure to pay attention to any unusual or persistent pain. If a particular exercise feels uncomfortable or hurts, skip it and try another one.