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In addition to making you look hot in a pair of shorts, a well developed, strong lower body will protect your back and help keep you injury free when lifting heavy or awkward objects, such as a 40lb bag of kitty litter or a squirming child.

However, you must take care to develop all the muscles of your lower body equally to avoid postural imbalances that can place excessive strain on your knees and lead to chronic pain or disability.

Because the leg muscles in particular are quite large and are used regularly to move our bodies around, they need to be worked fairly hard so that enough demand is placed on the muscles to trigger adaptive growth. This demand can be in the form of either heavy weight or long sets (or both). In a home environment where you do not have the appropriate equipment to use heavy weights, for best results you will need to do extended sets of 20-30 reps or more. If you’re new to working out, you don’t want to start with this many reps; begin with 6-8 or maybe 10 reps and slowly build to the 20-30 rep level.

The main muscle groups you will need to train are as follows:

  • Gluteal (glutes) muscles of the butt
  • Iliopsoas (hip flexor) muscles of the hips
  • Quadriceps (quads) muscles of the front upper thigh
  • Hamstrings (hams) muscles of the back upper thigh
  • Adductor muscles of the inner thigh
  • Abductor muscles of the outer thigh
  • Calves muscles of the lower legs

Obviously there are many different exercises you can do to develop your lower body – many more than I can practically list here. Therefore, to keep this section manageable I will outline a limited selection of practical exercises and slowly add to this list on an ongoing basis.

If you’re new to working out, start at the basic level and progress from there at a realistic pace to avoid injury. It takes time to build a strong and healthy body, so don’t start with unreasonable expectations that within a few weeks you’ll be smoking hot. Understanding and accepting this will prevent you from becoming discouraged and allow you to actually enjoy your transformation process.

Lower Body Exercises You Can Do At Home
Leg Extensions
Leg Curls
Romanian Deadlifts
Leg Raises
Calf Raises
Step Ups
Split Squats (Stationary Lunges)
Lunges
Full Squats


IMPORTANT NOTE:

Always exercise in a safe and responsible manner. Please be aware that as with most physical activities, there is always a risk of injury associated with weight training and other exercise programs. While I have made every effort to describe how to perform the exercises outlined on this site in a safe manner, note that every body is different and so not all exercises can or should be peformed by all people. Therefore, if you feel pain or discomfort when attempting any of the exercises described on this site, please stop immediately.

It is always important to consult your physician before starting any exercise program, especially if you have been sedentary for an extended period of time. This is particularly true if any of the following apply to your current medical condition:
  • chest pain or pain in the neck and/or arm
  • shortness of breath
  • a diagnosed heart condition
  • joint and/or bone problems
  • currently taking cardiac and/or blood pressure medications
  • have not previously been physically active
  • dizziness
In addition, if you have any chronic medical conditions (such as diabetes or arthritis) or risk factors (such as smoking or being more than 20 pounds overweight), and have not discussed exercising with your doctor, you should do so before beginning. Exercise is often an important part of the treatment for such conditions, but you may have some limitations or special needs that your doctor can tell you about.

If none of these apply to you, start gradually and sensibly. However, if you feel any of the physical symptoms listed above when you start your exercise program, contact your physician right away.


Leg Extensions

Leg extensions work the 4 quadriceps muscles (quads) which are located in the front part of your upper thigh and used to extend the knee (i.e. straighten your leg). This exercise is generally done using a leg extension machine (available in virtually all commercial gyms), but you can do a modified version at home using your body weight for resistance. If you are fortunate enough to have a weight bench with a leg attachment (described in the “Nice to Have” part of my Basic Workout Equipment page), you can then increase resistance by adding weight. Both options are outlined below.

Here is the basic movement for the body weight version of leg extensions.

  1. Sit on a chair (or the end of a weight bench) that is high enough for your feet to clear the ground when you sit up straight and bend your knees to not quite 90°. (See “Helpful Tips” below to learn why you should not bend your knees the full 90°.) Your upper legs should extend far enough past the edge of the chair for your knees the bend freely. Grip the edge of the seat for balance, or alternatively, place your hands behind you for support.

    Start Position - Use your hands to support your back, lift your feet off the ground.
    Knees should be past the edge of the chair or bench so they can bend freely.

  2. Slowly extend your legs until your lower legs are almost straight. Do not extend your legs completely (which can happen if you bring them up too fast) or you risk damaging your knee joints.

    Finish Position -
    Knees almost fully extended, but not quite

  3. Bending your knees, lower the bottom half of your legs back to the start position.
  4. Breathe out as you raise your legs and breathe in as you lower them back to the starting position.
  5. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but as you tire don't get careless and use momentum and/or body torque to help get your legs up. Doing so may cause the lower legs to come up too far and hyperextend one or both your knees, resulting in serious injury with long term consequences.

Helpful Tips

  • If you find the chair is a bit low for your feet to clear the floor, try sitting on one or more pillows to raise your body up slightly.
  • Be sure to control your up and down movements that that they remain smooth and fluid. Bouncing or jerking at either the top or the bottom of the motion will create unwanted stress on your knee joints that over time could cause them to degenerate. The purpose of exercising is to improve your health, not turn yourself into a cripple in your old age! So please be careful - it’s all too easy to become distracted, particularly when your muscles start to tire.
  • As you raise your lower legs, keep your knees from touching each other. You may notice your body trying to push them together as you tire – that’s because your body knows when the knees touch they can leverage off each other to make the lifting easier. Try it and you’ll see what I mean.
  • Lifting one leg at a time creates less stress on your lower back as opposed to lifting both legs simultaneously. So if you feel any stress or pressure in your lower back area then try doing single leg extensions. As you lift one leg, keep your opposite foot flat on the ground to minimize stress on your lower back.
  • The degree of difficulty for this exercise can be progressed by adding ankle weights.
  • You can also use an exercise band to increase resistance (and thus degree of difficulty) by attaching one end behind your chair and the other end to one or both ankles, depending on whether you are doing a one legged or two legged exercise. You can attach the band to your ankle by looping the band through one of the handles and then slipping your foot into the "noose" this creates.
  • As your legs grow stronger, it would be better to turn this into an isometric strength building exercise by holding your legs out for an extended period (i.e. 30 seconds) as described in the front raise exercise below.
  • If at any point during the exercise you feel either of your knee joints clicking or grinding, stop immediately and evaluate the situation.
    • Your knees joints are meant to move freely, but only in a linear direction, and 4 main ligaments are used to limit the degree the knee can move from side to side. Therefore, you want to ensure your legs are lifting in a straight line by making sure your knee caps are pointing straight up and not either towards or away from each other at any point during the exercise. Otherwise you could strain or tear one of the ligaments.
    • Your knee joint is most unstable when it is bent at 90°. Therefore, if you begin a leg extension and your alignment is a little off, the supporting ligaments will be less effective at correcting the problem when your knee is bent at 90° than they would be at angles less than 90°. So the closer you drop your legs down to a 90° angle, the greater your risk of creating wear and tear damage over time during the leg extension exercise. Some professionals therefore recommend a person drops their legs down no further than 45° (see image below) during leg extensions. I personally feel this is a little conservative, but if you are concerned about the integrity of your knees for any reason then it may be sound advice.
      .
    • Past injuries, whether chronic (i.e. caused by ongoing wear and tear) or acute (i.e. caused by direct trauma from a specific incident such as a car accident), may have damaged your knees to the point where it is not comfortable to do leg extension exercises. If you believe this may be the case for your particular situation, I recommend you check with your health care provider before trying this exercise.

Body Weight Leg Extension

Start Position
Finish Position

Leg Extension using Leg Attachment for Weight Bench

If you are fortunate enough to have a weight bench with a leg attachment, you can further challenge yourself by adding weight to the exercise. All the same principles outlined for body weight leg extensions apply here, with the most important being:

  • Support your back by placing your hands behind you on the bench.
  • Ensure your knee caps are pointing straight up to the ceiling and that you lift your legs in a straight line so that proper knee alignment is maintained.
  • Control the speed of both up and down movements so that you don’t accidentally over or under extend your knee joints.
  • Do not fully extend your knees at the finish of the movement (this will prevent hyperextension of the knees).
  • Start each movement with knees bent at a less than 90° angle (this will minimize potential wear and tear on the knee joint if you do not lift in a straight line – see explanation in above “Helpful Tips” section). This principle is especially true if you are using heavy weights.
Start Position
Finish Position

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Leg Curls

Leg curls work the hamstrings, or the back part of your upper legs, as well as the core and gluteal butt muscles. Unfortunately, many people tend to focus more on their quads than their hamstrings (perhaps because the quads are more visible), but this unequal development can lead to knee injury in general, and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury for female athletes in particular.

A leg curl is any movement that bends your knees and pulls your feet back towards your butt. There are a number of leg curl exercises you can do at home; two are outlined below.

Leg Curls Using Stability Ball

  1. Lay down on a flat surface and place your arms out to your sides for support. Place both heels a little past centre on a stability ball and lift your hips off the floor so that your ankles, knees and shoulders are in line. (Your heels will need to rest a little past the centre point of the ball so that you are able to draw the ball closer to your body as per the next step.)

    Start Position

  2. Draw your heels as close as you can towards your butt. Keep your toes pointing upwards to better isolate the hamstring muscles and limit assistance from your calf muscles.

    Finish Position

  3. Extend your legs back to the starting position, keeping your hips up off the floor throughout the exercise.
  4. Breathe out as you roll your heels towards you and breathe in as you extend them back to the starting position.
  5. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner.

Helpful Tips

  • Keep your core muscles tight during the entire exercise to properly support your body and keep it in correct alignment.
  • Keeping your toes pointed upwards restricts the amount of help your calf muscles can provide, which more effectively isolates the muscles you are trying to work.
  • To make this exercise easier, do not lift your hips off the ground. Instead of digging your heels into the top of the ball, rest your lower legs on the side of the ball. Then bend your knees and pull them towards you.

    Start Position
    Finish Position

Leg Curls Using Weight Bench with Leg Attachment

If you are fortunate enough to have a weight bench with a leg attachment, you can add weight to the curl exercise to work your hamstrings harder.

  1. Place the appropriate amount of weight on the machine.
  2. Lie on your stomach, hook your ankles underneath the pad and grip the bench for support.

    Start Position

  3. Curl your heels as close to your butt as possible (or practical – while commercial machines will allow you to bring your heels right to your butt, some weight bench attachments do not allow for a full curl. That’s because they rely on gravity to pull the weight back down at the end of each rep. If you pull too far towards you, gravity forces the weight to fall forward onto your butt rather than behind you and back into the starting position.)

    Finish Position

  4. Slowly lower your legs back to the start position. Do not fully straighten your legs, as doing so will create stress on your knee joints and could cause a hyperextension injury, particularly if you are using heavier weights.
  5. Breathe out as you lift the weight up and breathe in as you lower it back to the starting position.
  6. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner.

Helpful Tips:

  • Keep a firm grasp the front or sides of the weight bench throughout the entire exercise.
  • Keep your hips on the bench and your core tight throughout the set to keep the tension on your hamstrings and avoid stressing your lower back.
  • To protect your knees, do not fully straighten your legs as you return to the start position. They should remain slightly bent, otherwise there will be excessive stress transferred to your knee joints.
  • Keep your movement smooth and controlled; avoid bouncing the weights up and down as this will unnecessarily stress your knee joints.
  • Depending on the type of attachment, you may be able to perform this exercise one leg at a time for added challenge.

Start Position
Finish Position

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Romanian Deadlifts

Romanian deadlifts specifically target the hamstrings, but also work the gluts (butt) and middle and lower back. They improve hamstring flexibility and help build a stronger core, which translates to reduced risk of injury to the lower back. However, if you have any lower back issues, please avoid this exercise.

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and grasp a set of dumbbells using an over hand grip (palm facing down, fingers and thumb towards your body).
  2. Keeping knees very slightly bent, your back straight and the dumbbells close to your body, lean forward from the hips and slowly lower yourself as far as you can go, which for most people will be at a point where your hands are just below your knees. (The only way they can go lower is by rounding their back, which is another form of deadlift, but a little more risky and so I don’t recommend it.)

    Start Position

  3. Again keeping the dumbbells close to your body, slowly lift your body upwards from the knees. Keep your arms extended as your legs push up. Pull your shoulders back as you reach the top of the lift, but do not bend backwards.

    Finish Position

  4. Slowly lower the dumbbells back to start position. Do not bounce or jerk the weights.
  5. Breathe out as you raise your body and in as you lower it.
  6. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. As you start to tire, you may inadvertently allow your back to round, which will transfer stress from your hamstrings to your spine.

Helpful Tips:

  • Practice with very light weights (or no weight) until you feel comfortable with the technique.
  • Keep your knees very slightly bent throughout the exercise to keep tension on the hamstrings. However, do not bend them too much or you remove tension from your hamstrings and the exercise becomes more of a squat than a deadlift.
  • Make sure you are lifting with your legs and not your arms and shoulders. Be careful not to raise the hips first so that the trunk moves forward and the back becomes rounded.
  • To ensure your back remains flat, try doing the exercise in front of a mirror. Keep your head up (but don’t hyperextend your neck). As long as you can see yourself, your back is flat. When you can’t see yourself, you’ve dropped your head and rounded either your upper back, lower back or both. If you feel any tension come off your hamstrings and onto your lower back, then you’ve probably rounded your back (and/or you may have bent your knees, which will also take tension off of the hamstrings).
  • As you lower the dumbbells, think about sticking your butt out, which will also help keep your back flat. Do not lower the dumbbells beyond a mild stretch - full range of motion will vary from person to person depending on their individual flexibility.
  • Your shoulder blades should be pulled back and your lats (upper back) flexed throughout the movement to improve low back stability.
  • Keep the dumbbells close to your body throughout the movement. They should basically skim the legs and knees.


Start Position
Finish Position

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Leg Raises

Leg raises are great strength builders for your upper leg. You can strengthen the quads (front of the leg), hamstrings (back of the leg), adductors (inner thigh muscles) or abductors (outer thigh muscles), depending on which direction you lift your leg.

Because most of these exercises employ body weight only (although ankle weights can be used for added resistance), you will develop much better muscle strength and tone if you lift and hold your leg for 30 seconds or longer as opposed to raising and immediately lowering your leg for a set of 10-20 reps. A key problem with lifting and lowering for 10-20 reps is the tendency to use momentum to swing the leg up and down, which greatly reduces the amount of work the leg muscles need to do. So even though it's much harder (and more painful) to hold for 30 seconds, I encourage you to do so if you want to get maximum benefit from leg raise exercises.

Think of each 30 second hold as one set and do as many sets as required for your program. (Use the Program Design Fundamentals section to help you determine the correct number of sets to complete.)

Front Leg Raises (Quads and Core Muscles)

Front leg lifts can be done from either a seated or standing position. The standing version has the added advantage of also working your core muscles, which must be actively engaged to keep you balanced on one foot.

  1. Stand with your back against the wall, but do not press up against it. The wall is there only to prevent you from leaning backwards during the exercise.

    Ready position
    (Do not touch the wall behind you)

  2. Tighten your core muscles and lift your left leg into the air as high as you can go, keeping your knee straight, but not locked.

    Standing Front Leg Raise

  3. Breathing normally, hold for 30 seconds.
  4. Repeat with the other leg.

Helpful Tips:

  • Remember to breathe normally throughout the exercise. Do not hold your breath.
  • If you can’t hold the position for 30 seconds, hold it for as long as you can and work up to 30 seconds.
  • Keep your leg as straight as possible during the lift. Bending your knee will allow you to lift your leg higher, but the benefit of the exercise will be lost. Don’t worry if you can only lift it a few inches to start, as you get stronger your leg will naturally lift higher.
  • Try to lift rather than swing the leg up, to better work the muscle.
  • Keep your spine straight and your core muscles tight. Standing with your back near the wall will alert you if you start to lean backwards. You also need to guard against leaning forward into the lift as you strain to hold your leg in place. You may catch yourself doing this as you start to tire. Focusing on a point on the wall directly ahead of you will help.
  • If you are having trouble balancing on one leg, try lightly holding the edge of a counter to keep you steady.
  • Beginners can start by doing this exercise sitting in a chair or on a stability ball and then progress to standing leg lifts as their quad muscles strengthen.

    Seated Front Leg Raise

  • The exercise can be progressed in terms of difficulty by increasing the length of time the leg is held in the air and/or by adding ankle weights.

Reverse Leg Raises (Hamstrings, Butt and Lower Back Muscles)

Reverse leg raises can be done using either a weight bench (or coffee table equivalent) or stability ball.

  1. Lie facing down on a bench or stability ball and position yourself so that your hips are at the very edge of the bench (or ball) and your legs can move freely. Grip the edge of the bench or steady your hands on the floor for support.

    Ready Position
    Weight Bench
    Ready Position
    Stability Ball

  2. Tighten your core muscles and slowly (you do not want to hyperextend your back) lift your legs off the ground and hold them up and in line with your body.

    Reverse Leg Raise
    Weight Bench
    Reverse Leg Raise
    Stability Ball

  3. Breathing normally, hold for 30 seconds.

Helpful Tips:

  • Remember to breathe normally throughout the exercise. Do not hold your breath.
  • If you can’t hold the position for 30 seconds, hold it for as long as you can and work up to it.
  • Keep your core muscles tight and your legs as straight as possible during the lift.
  • Keep your shoulders and neck relaxed.
  • Lift rather than swing the legs up, both to prevent hyper-extending your lower back and to better work the hamstring muscles.
  • Beginners can start a little more forward on the bench or ball so that not as much of your lower body is hanging over the end. A couple of inches can make a huge difference.
  • To progress this exercise, start with your body a little further off the end of the bench. You can also increase the length of time the legs are held in the air and/or add ankle weights.

Side Leg Raises (Abductor muscles)

These two side leg raise exercises work your outer hip and thigh muscles. One version is done standing and the other lying down.

Standing Side Leg Raises - Abductors - Body Weight Version

  1. Stand behind a chair and grip the top of it for support. Your feet should be about shoulder width apart.

    Ready position

  2. Tighten your core and slowly swing your left leg out to the side, keeping your leg straight and your toes pointed forwards. Lift your leg as high as you can.

    Standing Side Leg Raise - Abductors

  3. Breathing normally, hold for 30 seconds.
  4. Repeat with the other leg.

Helpful Tips:

  • Remember to breathe normally throughout the exercise. Do not hold your breath.
  • If you can’t hold the position for 30 seconds, hold it for as long as you can and work up to it.
  • Keep your leg as straight as possible during the lift. Don’t worry if you can only lift it a few inches to start, as you get stronger your leg will naturally lift higher.
  • Try to lift rather than swing the leg up, to better work the muscle.
  • Keep your spine straight and your core muscles tight. Your body may want to lean away from your lifting leg as this will help you get more height, particularly as you start to tire, so concentrate on keeping your body straight.

    Right Way
    Standing straight up
    Wrong Way
    Leaning to the Side

  • The exercise can be progressed in terms of difficulty by increasing the length of time the leg is held in the air and/or by adding ankle weights.

Standing Side Leg Raises - Abductors - With Resistance

You can also do the abductor leg raise with tubing. You will not be able to lift your leg as high as when you are doing the body weight version, but fighting the resistance on the tubing will definitely make your abductor muscles stronger.

Ready position
Standing Side Leg Raise (Abductors) - with tubing

Lying Side Leg Raises - Abductors

  1. Lie down on your right side with your body in a straight line. Rest your head in on your right arm.

    Ready Position

  2. Slowly lift your left leg up as far as it can go. Keep your leg straight and your toes pointed forward (not up).

    Lying Side Leg Raise (Abductors)

  3. Breathing normally, hold for 30 seconds. Alternatively, until you build up enough strength to hold the position for 30 seconds, hold it for as long as you comfortably can, then slowly lower your leg back to the start position (with control) and repeat for as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but do not go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire.
  4. Relax, recover and switch sides.
  5. Repeat for the required number of sets.

Helpful Tips:

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position.
  • Keep your head on your arm and your torso and shoulder stationary throughout the exercise. Remember to breathe normally - do not hold your breath.
  • If you are having trouble balancing your body, shift your legs slightly forward. But not too far forward or you will start to recruit different muscle groups.
  • Concentrate on using your core, butt and thigh muscles to lift the leg. Try to lift rather than swing the leg up, to better work the muscle.
  • Keep your leg as straight as possible and your toes pointing forward during the lift. Don’t worry if you can only lift it a few inches to start, as you get stronger your leg will naturally lift higher. If you are doing the exercise properly, you will feel the burn in your outer hip area.
  • The exercise can be progressed by holding the position longer than 30 seconds.
  • The exercise can also be progressed by doing it on a stability ball:

    Ready Position
    Lying Side Leg Raise on Stability Ball (Abductors)

Side Leg Raises (Adductor muscles)

Side leg raises that work your adductor (inner thigh) muscles can also be done standing or lying down. However, rather than lift your leg away from your body as with the abductor exercises, you will need to lift your leg across your body.

Standing Side Leg Raises - Adductors - With Exercise Band

The standing adductor exercise is not all that effective when done using body weight only, but beginners can certainly start out using body weight and then progress to the tubing version once they are comfortable with the exercise.

  1. Fasten one end of an exercise band to a solid object at ground level and the other end to your ankle.
  2. Position yourself so that your attached leg is closest to the cable and there is tension on the band. Feet should be about shoulder width apart. Lightly grip a chair back or equivalent. (But make sure the chair does not interfere with the leg movement.) Do not grip the chair back too tightly or you may end up using it as leverage to force your leg up higher. This will greatly reduce the effectiveness of the exercise.
  3. Ready Position

  4. Balancing on your free foot, swing your attached foot across your body in a sweeping motion. Keep your core tight and your back straight.

    Standing Side Leg Raise (Adductors)

  5. Complete 10-20 reps, until your muscle is really burning.
  6. Repeat with the other leg.

Helpful Tips:

  • Keep your leg as straight as possible and your toes pointing forward during the lift. Don’t worry if you can only lift it a few inches to start, as you get stronger your leg will naturally lift higher.
  • Concentrate on using your core, butt and thigh muscles to lift the leg. Do not throw your upper body into the exercise to help swing the leg up (known as “body torque”). Your upper body should remain straight and perfectly still so that you are isolating the adductor muscle to do the work.
  • The closer you stand to where the exercise band is secured, the easier the exercise. The further away you stand (i.e. the greater the tension on the band), the harder the exercise becomes.

Lying Side Leg Raises - Adductors

  1. Lie down on your left side. Cross your right leg over your left leg and then bend your knee so you can rest your foot on the floor for support. The toes of your right foot are facing forward.

    Ready Position

  2. Slowly lift your right leg up as far as it can go. Keep your leg straight and your toes pointed forward.

    Lying Side Leg Raise (Adductors)

  3. Breathing normally, hold for 30 seconds. Alternatively, until you build up enough strength to hold the position for 30 seconds, hold it for as long as you comfortably can, then slowly lower your leg back to the start position (with control) and repeat for as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but do not go to complete failure. Risk of injury always increases as your muscles start to tire.
  4. Relax, recover and switch sides.
  5. Repeat for the required number of sets.

Helpful Tips:

  • Using an exercise mat will provide a little extra cushioning so that you feel more comfortable doing the exercise. This will make it easier to focus on proper body position.
  • Keep your head on your arm and your torso and shoulder stationary throughout the exercise. Remember to breathe normally - do not hold your breath.
  • You can use your arms to support and balance yourself during this exercise. You can also change the degree to which your knee is bent on the non-lifting leg (i.e. if you are lying on your left side then your right leg is your non-lifting leg) and position this leg where your body feels the most stable.
  • Try to lift rather than swing the leg up, to better work the muscle. Lift from your hip - if you are doing the exercise properly, you will feel the burn in your inner hip area.
  • Keep your lifting leg as straight as possible and your toes pointing forward during the lift. Don’t worry if you can only lift it a few inches to start, as you get stronger your leg will naturally lift higher.
  • The exercise can be progressed in terms of difficulty by increasing the length of time the leg is held in the air and/or by adding ankle weights.

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Calf Raises

As the name implies, calf raises work the calf muscles of your lower leg. If you’re doing any compound exercises such as step ups, lunges or squats (either full or half), then you’re already working your calf muscles to some degree. However, if these exercises are not part of your regular exercise program then you should consider incorporating one or more exercises which specifically isolate and work your calf muscles. Your calf muscles flex the foot (i.e. raise the heel) during activities such as running or jumping, and weak calf muscles increase the risk of Achilles tendon injury during these and other activities.

Following are two options for calf raise exercises using stairs or a stability ball.

Calf Raises on Stairs

Calf raises can be done anywhere there is a set of stairs with a handrail that you can grip for support. However, the stairs should be carpeted or have a non slip tread on the edge to prevent you from slipping off the edge of a stair during the exercise.

  1. Stand facing a set of stairs. (I am using the back of my weight bench to demo this exercise because it would difficult to shoot the photo in my stairwell, but stairs definitely are preferable because you will have a much safer grip.) Grip the handrail for both balance and support and place the balls of your feet (the fleshy part at the base of the toes) on the edge of the stair. Position your feet so they are parallel to the floor (in other words, your heels are in a straight line with your toes).

    Start Position

  2. Slowly raise your heels as high as you can.

    Finish Position

  3. Lower your heels back to the start position.
  4. Repeat this movement for the desired number of reps and then switch legs.

Helpful Tips:

  • Before starting the exercise, be sure your feet are far enough forward on the stair so that you won’t slip off, but also far enough back to allow your heels to move up and down without interference.
  • Some trainers suggest you start with your heels below parallel, i.e. with your heels pointing down towards the floor. While this will indeed provide a better stretch and allow you to work the calf muscles through a greater range of motion, there is increased risk of either calf muscle tear or Achilles tendon injury, particularly if your calf muscles and/or Achilles tendons are tight. Tight calf muscles are common for women who regularly wear high heels, so exercise caution when determining the best starting position for you.
  • Because of the tendency for women to have tight calf muscles, do not do this exercise if you feel cold, because the cooler the body, the tighter the muscles. Also, do not do calf raises as your very first exercise; wait until you’ve already warmed your body and done at least one other leg exercise.
  • Keep your hand on the handrail at all times during the exercise. However, the function of the handrail is only to help keep you balanced so that you don’t fall backwards off the stair and hurt yourself. Therefore, be sure to grip it lightly and don’t use it to help with the exercise.
  • When you lift your heel, come as far up on your toes as possible.
  • This exercise can be progressed by doing one leg at a time. You can either let your free foot trail loosely behind you, or you can wrap it around your working leg by tucking your ankle against the leg.
  • This exercise can be progressed by holding a dumbbell in your free hand. (Never hold dumbbells in both hands, as you risk losing your balance and falling backwards off the stair.)

Calf Raises on Stability Ball

  1. Rest your shoulders and head on a stability ball large enough for your thighs to be horizontal to the floor with both feet flat on the floor. Lift your heels very slightly off the ground.

    Start Position

  2. Keeping your core straight and tight, raise both heels off the floor.

    Finish Position

  3. Lower your heels back to the start position.
  4. Repeat this movement for the desired number of reps and then switch legs.

Helpful Tips:

  • Remain conscious at all times of how well your body is positioned on the ball. You do not want it to roll out from underneath you during the exercise. Keeping your upper arms pressed lightly against it will help hold it in place. However, holding your arms out to the sides will further improve your balance and core strength.

    Arm Position to
    Help Stabilize Ball
    Arm Position to Build
    Stabilizing Core Muscles

  • The harder the exercise ball, the harder it will be to balance yourself on it. Therefore, if you are having difficulty, try using an exercise ball with a little less air in it.
  • This exercise can be progressed by doing the raises on one leg, with the other leg held out straight in front of you. However, this dramatically increases difficulty, so don’t try it until you are sure you are well balanced on the ball. Also, the further your legs are from your body, the harder the exercise will be.

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Step Ups

Step ups are a compound exercise that works the following major leg muscle groups –glutes, hip flexors, quads, hamstrings and calves. The beauty of the step up is that it is a simple but extremely effective exercise that allows you to vary the degree to which each muscle group is worked by slightly modifying how you perform the exercise.

Here are two variations of the Step Up.

Basic Step Up

  1. Optional: grasp a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Stand in front of a weight bench or similar solid surface strong enough to support your weight, with your feet approximately shoulder width apart and your toes pointing forwards. Now place your right foot on the bench at a 90° angle, knee bent and foot flat against the surface.

    Step One

  3. Driving through your right heel, lift your body up by standing straight up onto the bench. Your left leg remains straight as you come up, with toes pointing downwards so they avoid hitting the back of the bench.

    Step Two

  4. Lower yourself to the ground by bending your right leg back to the 90° angle and place your left foot flat on the ground.
  5. Repeat this movement for the desired number of reps and then switch legs.

Progressed Step Up

  1. Optional: grasp a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Place your body in the Basic Step Up start position (point #1 above).

    Step One

  3. As with the Basic Step Up, lift your body up by driving through your right heel to stand straight up onto the bench. However, this time you finish by placing your left foot flat on the bench about shoulder width distance from your right leg.

    Step Two

  4. Step back down to the ground with your right leg.

    Step Three

  5. Step back down to the ground with your left leg.

    Step Four

  6. Repeat this movement for the desired number of reps and then switch legs.

Helpful Tips:

  • As a safety precaution, make sure the surface you use to step on is wide enough to fit the length of your foot. The surface should not be too padded, as this may affect your balance.
  • When you first try this exercise, do it without dumbbells and keep the movement slow until you are certain your balance is good. Your ankles, knees and hips should remain in alignment as you are stepping either up or down from the bench. If you wobble a little sideways as you step, you could strain your ankle, knee, hips and/or back.
  • When stepping up, focus on lifting your body using the foot that is on the bench only. Try not to push off the ground with your trailing foot. As the trailing foot lifts up behind the bench (Basic Step Up) or rests on the bench (Progressed Step Up), it should be approximately shoulder width distance from your lifting leg.
  • When stepping up, keep your back straight rather than arched or rounded. Looking forward rather than down will help, but take care not to misstep and fall from the bench.
  • The height of the bench will affect the relative degree to which your quads and hamstrings are worked. The higher the bench, the greater the emphasis on your hamstrings. The lower the bench, the more the emphasis on your quads. The ideal height to work the muscles in correct proportion is where if you step up and bend your knee so that the quad is parallel to the ground (i.e. a 90° angle), the toes of the trailing foot should just skim the ground when they are pointed downwards (with the heel elevated).
  • The closer you are to the bench when you are doing this exercise, the more the quads are emphasized. The further you are from the bench, the greater the emphasis on your glutes.
  • Both the Basic and Progressed Step Ups can be progressed in a variety of ways, depending on your objective:
    • For cardio/endurance, progress both speed of execution and number of reps.
    • For hypertrophy (building size), hold moderately heavy dumbbells in your hands and perform a minimum of 20 reps on each leg.
    • For strength, hold heavier dumbbells in your hands and perform 8-12 reps on each leg.

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Split Squats (Stationary Lunges)

A split squat is essentially a stationary lunge. Lunges jointly work the quads (front upper leg), glutes (butt) and hamstrings (back upper leg) muscles. Lunges are therefore an excellent exercise to simultaneously work multiple leg muscle groups so that you can make more efficient use of your available exercise time.

However, a regular (non-stationary) lunge is a more complex exercise than it might look, requiring a fair degree of coordination and lower body strength. Doing this exercise incorrectly can place undue stress upon the knee joint. A split squat or stationary lunge is a much safer exercise to start with and can be progressed to a regular lunge once the stationary version has been mastered.

Like many of the leg exercises, a split squat can be done using body weight only and then progressed in terms of difficulty by adding dumbbells.

Here is the basic movement for the body weight version of split squats.

  1. With your hands on your hips, stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart and take one step forward with your right foot. The step should be slightly longer than your normal walking stance. You can step out to the side slightly (so that your stance is now a little wider than shoulder width) if a wider stance makes you feel more stable. As you step forward with your right foot, your left heel will automatically raise so that you are standing on the ball of your foot.

    Ready Position

  2. Keeping your back straight, slowly lower your hips towards the floor. Your right leg (the one in front of you) should bend until your upper leg is parallel to the floor and your knee is bent at approximately a 90° angle. Your back knee should drop so that it comes close to the ground but doesn’t actually touch. The toes of both feet should remain pointing forward.

    Split Squat

  3. Push up, driving through with your right heel to lift yourself back into the ready position.
  4. Breathe in as you lower your body and breathe out as you lift it back up to the starting position.
  5. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but as you tire don't get careless and lose your balance because by doing so you could strain or tear the ligaments in one or both knees.
  6. Switch your stance by stepping forward with your left foot and repeat the exercise so that both legs are worked equally.

Helpful Tips:

  • If you are having balance issues with this exercise, try standing near a solid surface such as a counter top or the arm of your couch so that you can grip it with one hand to help keep you stable. As you become more accustomed to the exercise, you can then try it solo.

  • As you lower your body, think about keeping your back straight and torso upright, which minimizes the stress on both your lower back and forward knee. This will be even more important as you progress to regular lunges, because you will not want your body to lean forward as you step forward. Leaning forward with your body will overload the forward knee.

    Right way:
    Torso straight
    Wrong way:
    Torso leaning forward

  • As you drop your back leg, be conscious about how close your knee comes to the floor. If possible, do this exercise in front of a mirror so that you can see how low the knee is dropping and stop before it crashes into the ground. If you’re at all concerned about that happening, you can place a pillow underneath your knee to protect it until you get the feel of the exercise. Alternatively, you can wear a knee pad.
  • To obtain maximum benefit from this exercise, your body should drop low enough so that the upper portion of your forward leg is parallel to the floor. However, if you are new to working out, your legs may not yet be strong enough for you to complete very many repetitions from this position. If this is the case, then I suggest you not lower your body quite so much until your legs are strong enough to handle it. However, do not progress to using dumbbells or to doing regular lunges (see next exercise below) until you are strong enough to do this exercise through the full range of motion, or you will obtain only limited benefit from this exercise. It’s those last couple of inches you drop that really matter.

    Full range of Motion:
    Upper leg parallel to floor
    Partial range of motion:
    Upper leg not fully
    bent to parallel

  • As you lift yourself back to the start position, focus on driving upwards with the heel of your forward foot.
  • The longer you lengthen your stance, the more the exercise is targeting your glutes (butt muscles). The shorter your stance, the greater the emphasis on your quads (front upper leg muscles).
  • As you bend your forward knee, be conscious about where it is positioned in relation to your toes. Many trainers will advise not to let your knee move forward past your toes. That’s because the further the knee moves past the toes, the greater the stress on the knee joint. While it is not wrong per se for the knee to pass the toes (if your stance is short because you are focusing on your quads then your knee may be forced to do so), I do not recommend it if you have knee problems.
  • Split squats can be progressed in terms of difficulty by holding a pair of dumbbells.

Body Weight Split Squat

Ready Position
Bodyweight Split Squat

Split Squat with Dumbbells

Ready Position
Split Squat with Dumbbells

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Lunges

Once you have mastered the split squat or stationary lunge, you can progress to regular lunges. There are two versions of the lunge, the reverse lunge where you step back and the forward lunge where you step forward. I recommend you begin with the step back version as it is a little easier to master in terms of balance and places less stress on the knees (because the knees can’t extend past the toes).

Reverse Lunge

  1. With your hands on your hips, stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart, or slightly wider if you feel more stable from this position.

    Ready Position

  2. Slide your left foot straight back until the ball of your foot touches the floor and then lower your hips until the forward thigh is parallel to the floor and your forward (right) knee is bent approximately 90°. Your back (left) knee should drop so that it comes close to the ground but doesn’t actually touch. The toes of both feet should remain pointing forward.

    Reverse Lunge

  3. Push up with your rear foot while straightening your forward leg and bring your rear leg back into the ready position.
  4. Breathe in as you lower your body and breathe out as you lift it back up to the start position.
  5. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but as you tire don't get careless and lose your balance because then you could strain or tear the ligaments in one or both knees.
  6. Repeat the exercise, this time stepping back with your right foot, so that both legs are equally worked.

Helpful Tips:

  • If you are having balance issues with this exercise, break the motion into 2 steps. First, slide your foot back and once the ball of your foot is positioned on the floor pause slightly to ensure your balance. Then when you’re ready, lower your body. As you become more comfortable with the movement you will develop the coordination to step back and lower your body in a single fluid motion.
  • As you lower your body, think about keeping your back straight and torso upright, which minimizes the stress on both your lower back and forward knee. This will be even more important as you progress to forward lunges, because you will not want your body to lean forward as you step forward. Leaning forward with your body will overload the forward knee.
  • Right way:
    Torso straight
    Wrong way:
    Torso leaning forward

  • As you drop your back leg, be conscious about how close your knee comes to the floor. If possible, do this exercise in front of a mirror so that you can see how low the knee is dropping and stop before it crashes into the ground. If you’re at all concerned about that happening, you can place a pillow underneath your knee to protect it until you get the feel of the exercise. Alternatively, you can wear a knee pad.
  • To obtain maximum benefit from this exercise, your body should drop low enough so that the upper portion of your forward leg is parallel to the floor. However, if you are new to working out, your legs may not yet be strong enough for you to complete very many repetitions from this position. If this is the case, then I suggest you not lower your body quite so much until your legs are strong enough to handle it. However, do not progress to using dumbbells until you are strong enough to do this exercise through the full range of motion, or you will obtain only limited benefit from this exercise. It’s those last couple of inches you drop that really matter.
  • Full range of Motion:
    Upper leg parallel to floor
    Partial range of motion:
    Upper leg not fully
    bent to parallel

  • As you lift yourself back to the start position, focus on pushing up with the ball of your rear foot as you straighten your forward leg.
  • The longer you lengthen your stance, the more the exercise is targeting your glutes (butt muscles). The shorter your stance, the greater the emphasis on your quads (front upper leg muscles).
  • Reverse lunges can be progressed in terms of difficulty by holding a pair of dumbbells.
  • You can do alternating reverse lunges by switching between right and left sides as you step back. This has the advantage of allowing you to work both legs equally at the same time, rather than having to do two separate sets.

Forward Lunge

  1. With your hands on your hips, stand with your feet approximately shoulder width apart, or slightly wider if you feel more stable from this position.

    Ready Position

  2. Take one step forward with your right foot. The step should be slightly longer than your normal walking stance. As you step forward with your right foot, your left heel will automatically raise so that you are standing on the ball of your foot.

    Step 1

  3. Keeping your back straight, slowly drop your hips towards the floor. Your right leg (the one in front of you) should bend until your upper leg is parallel to the floor and your knee is bent at a 90° angle. Your back knee should drop so that it comes close to the ground but doesn’t actually touch. The toes of both feet should remain pointing forward.

    Step 2

  4. Push off from your forward foot, driving through with your heel, and step back into the ready (finish) position.
  5. Breathe in as you lower your body and breathe out as you lift it back up to the ready position.
  6. Complete only as many repetitions as you can perform in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but as you tire don't get careless and lose your balance because then you could strain or tear the ligaments in one or both knees.
  7. Switch your stance by stepping forward with your left foot and repeating the exercise so that both legs are equally worked.

Helpful Tips:

  • If you are having balance issues with this exercise, separate Step 1 and Step 2 above into two distinct stages. However, as you become more accustomed to the exercise, these two steps should be combined into a single fluid motion.
  • As you lower your body, think about keeping your back straight and torso upright, which minimizes the stress on both your lower back and forward knee.

    Right way:
    Torso straight
    Wrong way:
    Torso leaning forward

  • As you drop your back leg, be conscious about how close your knee comes to the floor. If possible, do this exercise in front of a mirror so that you can see how low the knee is dropping and stop before it crashes into the ground. If you’re at all concerned about that happening, you can place a pillow underneath your knee to protect it until you get the feel of the exercise. Alternatively, you can wear a knee pad.
  • To obtain maximum benefit from this exercise, your body should drop low enough so that the upper portion of your forward leg is parallel to the floor. However, if you are new to working out, your legs may not yet be strong enough for you to complete very many repetitions from this position. If this is the case, then I suggest you not lower your body quite so much until your legs are strong enough to handle it. However, do not progress to using dumbbells until you are strong enough to do this exercise through the full range of motion, or you will obtain only limited benefit from this exercise. It’s those last couple of inches you drop that really matter.

    Full range of Motion:
    Upper leg parallel to floor
    Partial range of motion:
    Upper leg not fully
    bent to parallel

  • As you lift yourself back to the ready position, focus on driving upwards with the heel of your forward foot before bringing it back towards your body.
  • The longer you lengthen your stance, the more the exercise is targeting your glutes (butt muscles). The shorter your stance, the greater the emphasis on your quads (front upper leg muscles).
  • As you bend your forward knee, be conscious about where it is positioned in relation to your toes. Many trainers will advise not to let your knee move forward past your toes. That’s because the further the knee moves past the toes, the greater the stress on the knee joint. While it is not wrong per se for the knee to pass the toes (if your stance is short because you are focusing on your quads then your knee may be forced to do so), I do not recommend it if you have knee problems.
  • You can do alternating forward lunges by switching between right and left legs as you step forward. This has the advantage of allowing you to work both legs equally at the same time, rather than having to do two separate sets.
  • You can also modify forward lunges by stepping out at a 45° degree angle as opposed to directly in front of you. This will allow you to hit your muscles from a slightly different angle, which improves overall development.
  • Forward lunges can be progressed in terms of difficulty by holding a pair of dumbbells.
  • Although it may be difficult to do in a living room or basement due to space constraints, another type of progression is walking lunges. Instead of stepping forward into the lunge and then pushing off with your front foot to move back to the start position, you bring your rear foot up to your forward foot and then step forward. So it would be just like you are walking, but with your legs bent. The key to maximizing the effectiveness of this exercise is to keep your legs bent as you transition between steps. Think about keeping your head level as opposed to it bobbing up and down as you move forward. Done right, after 20 to 30 steps you will really feel it, especially if you are holding dumbbells!

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Full Squats

The squat is an advanced exercise, and therefore not recommended for beginners. However, because it is such a great exercise that works practically every leg muscle group (gluteal muscles of the butt, hip flexors, quadriceps, hamstrings, plus secondarily works upper and lower back and abs), I felt it would be an oversight not to include it.

Done properly, squats will develop great legs, but it is a high risk exercise in that when done incorrectly it can lead to injury. I will therefore explain in detail how to do squats correctly with a step by step progression for proper technique, but please DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS EXERCISE if you have any lower back issues or experience any sort of pain in your knees or ankles. Squats are not essential for great legs – there are many other effective leg exercises to choose from. For example, lunges work the same muscle groups, but using a different movement pattern.

Squats can be done using a barbell, dumbbells, or simply your own body weight. Here is a great way to safely learn how to do the squat exercise properly. I learned it from Kevin Weiss, a Natural* Bodybuilding Competitor and Performance Coach in Kelowna, B.C. (*Natural means no steroids.)

Step 1 - Getting the Feel

  1. Attach a pair of handled resistance training bands to something solid above your head. Grasp one handle in each hand and step backwards until the tubing is tight. Your feet should be approximately shoulder width apart.

    Ready Position

  2. Using the bands to help support you, slowly lower your butt towards the ground as far as you comfortably can, keeping your back straight as opposed to rounded.

    Full Squat with Tubing Support

  3. Again using the bands to support you and keep you balanced, lift your body back up to the ready position.
  4. Breathe in as you lower your body, breathe out as you raise it up.
  5. Do as many repetitions as you can in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but as you tire don't get careless and lose your balance because then you could strain or tear the ligaments in one or both knees.

Helpful Tips:

  • If you have never worked your lower body before, you will find Step 1 quite challenging and thus quite a good workout on its own. Therefore, don’t be in a rush to progress to Step 2 until you are quite comfortable with Step 1 and can complete 20-30 reps for 3-4 sets.
  • Do not do this exercise with your legs more than shoulder width apart, because a wider stance will develop a large butt and hips.
  • Now is the time to practice good form and not teach yourself bad habits, because once you graduate from Step 1 you will no longer have the bands to support you. So as you are doing this exercise:
    • Ensure you are keeping your back straight as you raise and lower your body, as opposed to rounding your back and leaning forward. Leaning forward makes it easier on your legs, which is not what you want to happen. Leaning forward also increases the stress on your lower back (particularly when you start squatting with weight), something you also want to avoid.
    • Keep your eyes facing forward and think about starting the movement from the head as opposed to from the hips. This will help you come up straight. Driving up from the hips is what will make you fall forward.
    • Do not allow your knees to push past your toes at any point during the exercise, as this can overload the knee joint. If you find your knees passing your toes, this is a sign that you are leaning forward as you drive up, so refer back to the previous point and visualize the movement starting from your head.
    • Do not allow your knees to wobble either towards or away from each other during the exercise, as this is indicative of poor stability and can lead to injury. Your knees should always point forward and remain in place.
  • Everyone has varying degrees of flexibility, and so some of you will be able to drop your butt much closer to the floor than others. For this exercise to be most effective, at bare minimum your upper legs should be at least parallel with the floor (like they would be if you were sitting in a chair.) The best ending position for you will be as low as you can go and still keep your balance plus have the strength to lift yourself back up again. You may find your flexibility improving as you practice this exercise, allowing you to drop progressively lower as time goes by.
    Minimum Start Position
    Deeper Start Position

  • Correct foot position is generally with your toes pointing straight forward, although everyone is built differently and so you might find that pointing them outwards slightly is more comfortable. However, never allow them to point inwards.
  • In all likelihood you will find you have one leg stronger than the other, and so as you tire your body may have a tendency to come up a little lopsided, with your stronger side lifting first and your weaker side kind of tagging behind a bit. You do not want this to happen, because then the weaker side will fall further behind the stronger side in terms of strength, which will lead to greater uneven muscle development and the related visual and postural imbalances that go along with it. Therefore, as you lift your body, concentrate on making both legs work equally as hard.

Step 2 - Mastering the Form

  1. Find yourself a lightweight pole such as a broomstick (minus the end of the broom). Anything will do, as long as it is fairly light and is longer than your shoulder width.
  2. Stand with feet shoulder width apart and place the pole across the top part of your arms as they are stretched out in front of you.

    Ready Position

  3. Lower your butt as far as you can, keeping your arms straight out in front of you and the pole balanced in place. Maintain balance and control during the movement.

    Full Squat with Balancing Pole

  4. Lift your body back up to the ready position, keeping the pole from rolling forward and down your arms onto the floor. Again, strive for balance and control.
  5. Breathe in as you lower your body, breathe out as you raise it up.
  6. Do as many repetitions as you can in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but as you tire don't get careless and lose your balance because then you could strain or tear the ligaments in one or both knees.

Helpful Tips:

  • Review all the helpful tips outlined in Step 1, since they all apply here.
  • Try an initial few squats without the pole at first (place your hands on your shoulders for balance), because now that you no longer have the bands to support you the dynamics of the exercise have changed and you will not feel as balanced. Therefore, it’s best to find out if you’re going to fall before you add the pole to the mix!
  • The pole is to ensure you are keeping your back straight and not falling forward as you rise from the floor. The pole will let you know if you are rounding your back and leaning forward too much, because it will roll forward if you do. The objective is to lift and lower yourself without the pole moving at all. This is a great tool for teaching yourself the correct “feel” of the exercise.
  • I highly recommend you do not skip Step 2. Using the pole will allow you to experience the difference between the right way and the wrong way, and experience is a much more effective teacher than simply watching yourself in the mirror.
  • Do not move on to Step 3 until you are quite comfortable you have Step 2 mastered.

Step 3 - Graduating to the Full Body Squat

  1. Stand with feet shoulder width apart and either place your hands on your shoulders or cross your arms in front of your chest.

    Ready Position
  2. In a controlled manner, drop your butt towards the floor as low as it can go.

    Full Squat

  3. Keeping the same level of control, raise your butt back up to the ready position.
  4. Breathe in as you lower your body, breathe out as you raise it up.
  5. Do as many repetitions as you can in a safe and controlled manner. Push yourself, but as you tire don't get careless and lose your balance because then you could strain or tear the ligaments in one or both knees.

Helpful Tips:

  • Review all the helpful tips outlined in Step 1, since they all apply here.

Full Body Squats with Dumbbells

Once you have the bodyweight full squat mastered, you can progress the difficulty by either holding dumbbells (or resting them on your shoulders) to increase the amount of weight your legs will have to lift. However, please be cautioned that once you start adding additional weight, exercising good form becomes even more critical. In particular, you need to keep your back straight and rise from the ground without leaning forward. If you lean forward as you rise with dumbbells on your shoulders, the additional weight could place too much stress on your lower back, resulting in strained or torn ligaments.

Ready Position
Squat Position

Full Body Squats with Bosu Ball

Another way to progress the bodyweight full squat is to challenge your stabilizing muscles by doing the squat on a Bosu ball (either with or without dumbbells).

Ready Position
Squat Position

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