The lower body has some of the largest and strongest muscles (we’re talkin’ about you, hamstrings and quadriceps) and, given that they hold up the rest of our body, they are the key to building overall strength. “Strong legs improve overall performance throughout your daily activities as well as allowing you to exercise more effectively, intensely, and prevent injury while doing so,” says Jillian Michaels, fitness expert, star trainer, and creator of The Fitness App.
Bree Branker Koegel, NASM-CPT, a FitOn app trainer, adds that thigh strength also supports the knee joint, which is important for folks who love high-impact exercises like running and jumping. “A strong quad will work together with a strong calf to help the knee maintain proper alignment,” she says. Oh, and did we mention thigh exercises also make butt workouts more effective? True story.
Ready to give some extra love to your thighs on leg day? Below, Michaels and Koegel share nine thigh exercises that will strengthen your upper legs. There’s a mix of equipment exercises that you can rock at the gym and bodyweight thigh exercise you can do at home or anywhere, really.
But first: How to warm up before thigh exercises
Instead of doing static stretches as a warm-up, Michaels recommends a dynamic stretch, which means you’re moving your body slowly through a full range of motion without any added weight. However, the more straightforward option, she says, is to do a three- to five-minute cardio warm-up, whether that’s jogging around the block, walking up the stairs in your apartment building, or jumping rope. Or, she also suggests doing a few no-equipment exercises like high knees, butt kicks, jumping jacks, arm circles, hip circles, or alternating punches to get your body nice and warmed up.
As with all workouts, form is key for preventing injuries. Make use of the videos in this article, and head to YouTube if you need more instruction. You can also modify the exercise and not add weight until you’ve mastered the movement pattern. “Make sure that if your form isn’t good, you modify the movement by any of the following: do fewer reps, use less weight, decrease the range of motion if 100 percent necessary,” Michaels says. Go slowly at first and listen to your body if something feels off.
9 thigh exercises to kick leg day up a notch
If you’re at the gym or have access to a couple of dumbbells, Michaels recommends doing deadlifts to work out your thighs. Start with your feet hip-width apart and a dumbbell in each hand. Make sure there’s a slight bend in your knees, and your tailbone is tucked. “From here, we rotate the palms with the weights to the front of the thighs, hinging forward at the hips keeping your back flat and belly button pulled in,” Michaels says. “Lower the weights and your torso, trying to bring your torso parallel to the ground.”
The key, Michaels adds, is to keep your back flat. And if you don’t have the hamstring flexibility, she recommends lowering as far as you can while maintaining good form and squeezing your glutes. Then, bring your body back up to the starting position. You can also make it harder by using heavier weights.
2. Romanian deadlifts
To do a Romanian deadlift, you’ll need a barbell. So unless you’ve got an epic home gym, you’ll likely need to do this thigh exercise at the gym. Like with dumbbell deadlifts, start by standing with your feet hip-width apart behind a barbell parallel to your body. With hands hip-width apart, grab the barbell with both hands while keeping a bend in your knees. Stand up tall while keeping your tailbone tucked. Keep the slight bend in the knee and hinge forward at the hips while pressing your tailbone back and keeping your back straight. Try to bring your torso as close to parallel with the ground as you can.
“If you don’t have enough flexibility in your hamstrings and you feel your back rounding, that is the limit of your range of motion,” Michaels says. “Only go as deep as you can manage into that stretch with a flat back. Remember, the knees don’t move. They remain in a soft bend throughout the exercise. When you hit that midpoint, exhale and press your hips forward, squeeze your glutes, and return to your starting position.”
Some good old squats will also do the trick. “Bring your feet hip-width apart, then sit backward and down as if you were sitting onto a park bench,” Michaels says. “Lower your hips as low as possible until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Then straighten your legs fully, drawing your tailbone in and tucking it while standing up tall and zipping up your abs.”
4. Bulgarian split squats
If you want to take your squats up a notch, try doing Bulgarian split squats. “Starting in a split squat stance, elevate the back leg on a low surface like a step or a chair, with the top of the foot resting on the surface,” Koegel says. “Grounding through the floor with the heel of the front foot, squat down on the front leg while maintaining balance. Press out of the squatting front foot to stand, then repeat on the other side.”
5. Jump squats
To get your heart pumping and give your thighs some love, Koegel recommends jump squats. “From the bottom of the bodyweight squat, power through the feet and swing the arms down to jump into the air, landing softly at the top of a squat to repeat,” she says. You’ll for sure be feeling the burn after a few of these babies.
Is it even leg day if you don’t do lunges? We think not. To do the OG thigh exercise, stand with your feet hip-width apart. Step forward with one leg while dropping the back knee an inch from the ground. Then return to the starting position and repeat with the other leg. The secret to a perfect lunge: “Always make sure the knee doesn’t go over the toe, the torso is perpendicular to the ground, the tailbone is tucked, and the core is engaged,” Michaels says.
7. Walking lunges
Spice up your lunges by adding a walking motion into the mix. “With every step forward, lunge the back knee towards the ground, hovering once the back shin is parallel with the ground,” Koegel says. “Press out of the floor with the front foot to stand, repeat on the other side.” If you don’t have much space, try a jump lunge for an extra cardio boost, shown in the video above.
8. Lateral lunge
The lunges continue. This time you’re doing them side to side to target the inner and outer thighs. “With shoulders, hips, knees, and toes all facing forward, lunge one leg parallel to the side, bringing the torso with you,” Koegel says. “Sit the hips back over the lunging leg. Press out of the floor with the lunging foot to stand, then repeat on the other side.”
9. Pelvic thrust
Michaels also recommends a pelvic thrust as another excellent thigh exercise, and you can do it while lying down on the floor, so it gets bonus points for that. To do a pelvic thrust, lay on your back with your knees bent and hip-width apart. Lift your hips up and squeeze your glutes as tight as possible at the top position.