Beef up those legs

Beef up those legs

Just like broad shoulders and six-pack abs, great athletic legs come easier to some than others. That said, legs are relatively easy (and responsive) to work in the gym and elsewhere, so there’s no need for genetic envy! Great legs are a slow burn. Put another way, bulking up (or toning) legs is a process. There’s no shortcut, especially since some classic leg exercises involve substantial weight lifting.

Short cuts to injury are far easier to find, so be sensible in your approach to bulking up your pins. Rather than erratic bursts of heavy and dangerous squats to failure or jumping into the Comrades unprepared this year, here are five superb exercises that will beef up your thighs and calves.


Squats remain the single greatest exercise for overall leg mass. But risking injury by randomly packing weights on the bar and suddenly pushing the limit isn’t the way to do it. Such is the mechanical logic and end result of squatting beneath weights, that barbell squats remain the standard leg exercise in the modern gym, unchanged for decades. Squats work your quads (front of thigh), hamstrings (back of thigh) as well as the adductors (inner thigh) and calf muscles too.

For “pillar of strength” legs, squats are first choice. Ignore the macho guys with bending barbells yelling in front of the mirror, and rather ensure that squats are a staple component of your routine, and performed correctly. Keep the spine straight up, and drop until your bum is just slightly lower than the backs of your knees. The best (uninjured) results come with time, and correct form. Squat regularly in the gym - at least three times a week - and slowly push the weight upwards, trying for one heavier set of 8 - 10 reps in a total of three or four sets each time.

Hot tip: If knee injuries prevent squatting under weight, leg press is a lot less direct and might be a great alternative, geared for the same results. If absolutely any pressing motion plays on a knee or other injury, then leg extensions combined with leg curls are a great alternative.

Standing calf raise

Very much like squatting, calf raises are direct and targeted. While seated options are typical, standing calf raises are preferred for the best overall results. Since we walk about daily, it’s easy to imagine that exercising your calf muscles won’t produce much gain. On the contrary, and precisely to snap them out of their daily “holding pattern,” calf muscles should be habitually worked with weights in the gym. Go heavy and make sets around 12 or 15 reps, to push beyond your legs’ normal daily workload.

Yoga / Floor work

The value of static, “poised” exercises for legs overall cannot be overstated. To really get genuine strength and tone in your legs, aerobics that involve some floor work (with stretched legs), yoga or pilates can all really accentuate the size and tone of your leg muscles. Especially when you want to develop the full length of your calf muscle, the standing asanas of yoga (and a number of pilates exercises) will work legs down to the last millimeter.

Don’t scoff! Especially for elongating short calf muscles and getting that Grand Canyon definition in your quads, a mere six months of regular yoga will show you a musculature you never thought existed on your bones. Many kung fu, tai chi and other martial arts styles also insist on “low wide horse” or other static, legs-squatted poses. These martial arts regimes are also excellent for building strong, muscular legs.

Running / Spinning

Running is another overall exercise for legs, again with the calf muscles typically being the biggest winner. Regular jogging might seem like a lot of hassle to make time for, with little to show for it initially, but even a modest 30-minute, four kilometer jog two or three times a week will develop the athletic architecture of your legs. If knee or other injuries prevent you from pounding the pavements, cycling or spinning are great alternatives, and great fun. 

Lunges and/or front squatting, and leg extensions & curl

Mentioned above, leg extensions and leg curls are both great for definition. If they don’t appeal (and they don’t, for many), good ol’ lunges are an excellent substitute leg strengthener and toner. Either holding dumbbells in hand or with a modestly weighted barbell across your shoulders, step forward into a low lunge, then draw your back foot up in line with the forward foot. Alternating forward feet, proceed across the gym! Combined or alternated with front squats (where you hold the barbell across the front of your shoulders in a squat), lunges might look inconsequential. Just like squats, however, they remain a standard gym practice for a reason, and are excellent for toning the quads while also strengthening those hamstrings.

Remember to listen to your body, and never wilfully push your legs into injury. Always stretch for a few minutes before any leg exercise. Employ the exercises above in a comprehensive bulking regime - three sets of eight or ten reps, three times a week - alongside a regular jog or yoga class. In doing so, you can be supremely confident that you’re working all of the muscle groups in your legs. Very soon, “shorts in summer” will lose its scary connotations, and see you getting the right kind of attention!

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