As a contest prep coach and someone passionate about fitness, it’s always great to see women willing to step off the treadmill and begin putting in consistent work in the weight room. Not falling victim to the old myth that weight training makes women “big and bulky,” these women understand the importance of resistance training in achieving their ideal physique.
Even though many women want to develop their lower body, it’s unfortunate to see so few women utilizing the exercises shown by research to be the most effective at gaining muscle and strength.
Instead, women tend to gravitate towards endless sets of the hip adductor machine, cable glute presses, and hours on the Stairmaster each workout - leaving much to be desired in terms of muscular adaption and improved body composition.
Although these exercises are beneficial in their own right, below are some aspects of leg training that should be considered in order to make the most of your efforts and get you closer to your goals.
Why Women Should Train Legs
Muscle Fiber Recruitment
The biggest issue with the exercises I listed above is that they stimulate far fewer muscle fibers than compound movements. By incorporating compound lifts into your workout program in place of some of the current isolation movements such as the glute press, you can benefit more from each exercise, and simultaneously cut down on the amount of time you need to spend training your legs.
Take the hip adductor machine for example. The majority of women perform this exercise religiously, but it is solely stimulating the adductors of the leg such as the adductor brevis, adductor longis, and gracilis.
You’ve never heard of these muscles? That’s because they are very small in comparison to other muscles of the leg like the rectus femoris that makes up part of the quadriceps. Training smaller muscles like the adductor group is helpful, but let’s compare this exercise to a barbell back squat.
The squat will activate muscle fibers within the quads, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, abductors, abs, lower back, and to a smaller extent the calves. So with just one set of squats, you can activate not only the muscles stimulated with the adductor machine, but many more to go along with it. Considering this point alone, it’s easy to see why focusing a program on an exercise such as squats could be beneficial for a female trying to improve her lower body.
Another very common mistake among gym members in general, but women new to the gym especially, is not using sufficient resistance to prompt the muscle to adapt and grow. It can be easy to go through the motions and to stop a set once any type of discomfort becomes apparent. However our bodies are extremely adaptive to their environment.
To go along with that, muscle tissue is very metabolically expensive to the body - meaning it takes a lot of fuel to build and maintain muscle tissue. This being the case, past the minimum required for everyday activity, your body will in a sense be very “stubborn” when prompted to add more muscle tissue it would then have to consistently fuel and maintain.
This is where you have to step in and give it a little encouragement! In order to add new muscle tissue, a trainee must provide enough resistance to force the body to adapt by adding new muscle tissue to keep up. For readers of this article, this means that being willing to push yourselves each workout to lift more weight, or more repetitions, is imperative for developing new muscle tissue and improving the appearance of your legs over time.
A second point to consider is that of muscle fiber recruitment. Above we discussed the effect of exercise complexity in recruiting more muscle fibers. Another determinant of muscle fiber recruitment is, you guessed it, sufficient overload.
Whether it’s through lifting a heavier load for low reps, or a lighter load for more reps, a variety of rep ranges has been shown to positively influence muscle growth if performed with adequate intensity1. However a common characteristic among essentially any training program is taking each set to absolute, or close to absolute, muscular failure.
As a muscle exerts near maximal effort, a greater percentage of its fibers will become active. However, as a muscle or muscle group adapts and gets stronger, it will actually begin recruiting fewer fibers to lift a given load. In the gym, this means if you typically squat 100lbs for 3 sets of 10 repetitions in your workout, the first couple of weeks your body will adapt by becoming stronger. After that initial adaption however, the subsequent sessions of 3x10 squats with 100lbs will result in less overall muscle activation.
At this point, a trainee would need to begin either adding weight to the bar or increasing volume by doing more repetitions, sets, or both over time. If you’ve started an exercise program and initially saw noticeable improvements, yet after the first few weeks you were left staring in the mirror wondering why things weren’t progressing, this is a very likely reason for the plateau.
Not only will focusing on compound movements prompt more muscle growth, but they will also help you burn more calories during your training sessions.
Compound exercises like the squat and leg press, when performed correctly and with the right intensity, are certainly not easy. They require whole body stabilization, greater cardiac output, and require more force to be exerted by multiple muscle groups. In addition to helping you make more consistent improvements in muscle strength and size, this also means expending a lot more calories.
By consistently performing big movements, you can gain more muscle, burn more calories, and achieve a greater cardiovascular benefit compared to focusing solely on isolation movements. Now that you’re burning more calories by performing compound movements regularly, you can more easily maintain a leaner, more athletic physique year round.
After reading the phrase “get bigger and stronger” several times already in this article, you may be left wondering how in the heck anyone expects you to train like this without getting big and bulky like most men when training like this. The concern is understandable, however one major difference between male and female athletes can put your mind at ease.
Not only are women from Venus and men from Mars, but they also have vastly different hormone profiles. In terms of gym performance and physical appearance, testosterone is one of the biggest focuses when determining muscle building capacity. Without sufficient levels of testosterone, a human’s muscle building potential can be quite limited.
For female readers, this can be a huge relief since females generally have much lower concentrations of testosterone than men. To give you an idea of how much of a difference it is, a reference chart provided by the Mayo Clinic lists the average male 19 years or older as having a total testosterone concentration of 240 to 950 ng/dL. In contrast, women of that same age range generally have concentrations of only 8-60 ng/dL. That’s a mere 3-6% testosterone concentration of their male counterparts.2
Of course these are ranges since hormone concentrations can change as we age and, to a smaller degree, based on lifestyle habits. For the concerned female though, since testosterone levels are a major factor in the potential for muscle growth, this means even if you lift as heavy as possible week after week, your muscle building potential is much lower than the average male.
The exceptions to this are those women who just so happen to be genetically more likely to gain muscle (which is pretty rare) or those who choose to use performance-enhancing drugs to alter their hormone profile for greater muscle growth.
Knowing this, female readers can rest assured that the old myth of weight training making women bulky is far from accurate. Know that the small increases in muscle size will serve to improve your physique. As long as your diet is in check, and body fat levels are kept within a reasonable range, becoming big and bulky is a fear best forgotten as you begin pushing yourself more in the weight room.
Anna McManamey on Strength Training
It can be difficult to take so much advice contrary to the common practice of most women in the gym when the advice comes strictly from a male writer. Understanding this, I reached out to fellow Team Wilson athlete, and phenomenal physique competitor, model, and coach Anna McManamey to get her opinion on the subject:
As a coach, I’ve definitely noticed a shift in the way women are training. In recent years it seems more women are starting to incorporate at least some form of strength work into their programs, which is great to see. But it’s the amount of weight they’re lifting and choice of exercises where I see the biggest mistakes being made.
Whenever I’m approached by a new female client, the main concern I hear is “I don’t want to look manly” or “I don’t want to look bulky, I just want to lean out and tone.” I even had one client whose husband was so concerned about her losing her femininity she actually kept it a secret from him that she had even contacted me! But my response is the same to all of them: in order for you to sculpt a shapely figure and have definition, you need to build muscle. And to do that you need to lift, and you need to lift heavy.
If the weight is only a few kilos/pounds to begin with, and that’s heavy for you, then that’s fine, but you need to be really struggling by those last few reps. Making your way around the machines casually busting out 15-20 repetitions and barely breaking a sweat is not going to cut it.
The point where my clients start seeing significant improvements to their physiques is when they increase the intensity of their training sessions. Their metabolism increases, so they start looking leaner and they begin building muscle which gives them that more defined and shapely look without losing their curves.
The truth is, women have to work extremely hard for every gram/ounce of muscle they put on their frame. You will not turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger overnight, it simply doesn’t happen. Furthermore, that “bulky” look is usually the result of gaining muscle without monitoring your diet. To achieve definition you need to be dropping fat as well as gaining muscle, so assessing your food intake is important too.
Another common mistake I see women make is in their choice of exercises. Again, there seems to be this endemic fear that performing heavy compound movements like squats and deadlifts are for “men only” and are going to somehow strip you of all femininity.
I think these misconceptions are largely driven by misinformation in the media: “Do a hundred crunches a day to shrink your waist,” “do bicep curls to tone your arms,” “glute kick backs for a tighter butt,” “tricep extensions to banish bingo wings.” As a result, I see so many ladies in the gym prioritizing only certain muscle groups – namely glutes, arms and abs – and completely neglecting others.
This is not only ineffective but over time is likely to lead to muscular imbalances and potential injury. I make a point of educating my clients that this kind of spot reduction is a myth, and the best results are achieved through a well-rounded and balanced program, incorporating larger, heavier compound movements that recruit more muscles and burn more calories.
Aesthetic benefits aside, some of the best and most rewarding results I have seen from my clients are the improvement in their mental strength. After all, there’s nothing like finishing a tough weight session to make you feel like you can take on the world. When many of the girls first come to me they feel down on themselves, unhappy with their appearance, and lack confidence.
After a few weeks of consistent training and monitoring their diet, the change in their self-esteem is mind-blowing. Many of them are not aware of the physical and mental strength they truly possess, and it’s not until they start hitting PRs, or busting out flawless push ups or chin ups that they become aware of their capabilities. This starts to carry over into other aspects of their lives – their careers, family life, how they manage stressful situations. It’s incredibly rewarding to see.
Leg Exercises for Women
If I were to pick just five exercises for a female client of mine to focus her lower body training around while completely maximizing each workout, I would easily choose:
These five movements are fantastic for hitting all of the muscles of the lower body, expending more calories in a workout, and even training movements that are applicable to real life such as squats helping with sitting down and standing up throughout the day, or lunges improving walking gait and activities like climbing stairs or running.
Once a program is built around these movements, other isolations movements like glute presses, calf raises, or step-ups can be added in to complement your training. Below are a few various workouts that can be used in different situations to help you get more out of each workout and achieve the show stopping legs you’ve been dreaming of.
Leg Workouts for Women
The Time Saver
The holidays, keeping up with those crazy kids, meeting the deadline for that big project you’re overseeing at work. Countless things can make for a hectic schedule - even with the best of time management skills. Being busy doesn’t have to be synonymous with being sedentary though. With a little ingenuity, great workout sessions can be knocked out with virtually any combination of supersets, circuit training, or short rest periods.
This template will allow you to still incorporate those beneficial compound movements mentioned earlier, while saving time to take care of other obligations during busy times of the year. Not to mention, this workout will be great for increasing metabolic stress and cellular swelling through high amounts of blood entering the muscle.
|2a. Walking Lunges||4||12-14 (each leg)||--|
|2b. Dumbbell Step Ups||4||12-14 (each leg)||1:00|
|3a. Romanian Deadlifts||3||12-15||--|
|3b. Leg Press||3||12-15||1:00|
On the opposite end of the spectrum, if you have a bit more time, devoting several weeks to a higher volume program with more total sets and reps can be great for spurring new growth and improving overall work capacity.
|2. Barbell Romanian Deadlifts||6||10||1:15-1:30|
|3. Leg Press||4||15||1:15-1:30|
|4. Dumbbell Walking Lunges||4||15/leg||2:00|
|5. Sealted Calf Raise||3||12-15||1:15|
|6. Glute Press||3||12-15/leg||1:00|
The Strength Builder
Getting stronger and seeing more and more weight collect on the bar is empowering in and of itself. But to sweeten the pot even more, focusing on lower rep schemes can improve myofibril hypertrophy, a type of muscle growth which occurs as muscle fibers themselves become larger through mechanical stress (like the stress that occurs while lifting heavy weight for few reps).
This is in contrast to sarcoplasmic hypertrophy that is believed by many to occur through higher rep schemes that induce cellular swelling and metabolic build-up to potentially increase the overall volume of muscle tissue - workouts similar to the time saver workout above for example.
As mentioned, this workout will focus on myofibril hypertrophy through the lower rep scheme that you will see below. In addition, as I’ve witnessed both in clients as well as in my own training, getting used to lifting heavier weight seems to have a carry over effect once athletes switch back to slightly lower weight and higher rep schemes. After lifting heavier weight, lifting lighter weights can be less mentally challenging, and training with a given weight for more reps and sets can feel easier.
|1. Barbell Squats||5||5||2:00|
|2. Leg Press||5||5||2:00|
|3. Barbell Front Squat||3||4-6||1:30|
|4. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts||3||4-6||1:30|
|5. Hip Adductor Machine||3||10-12||1:00|
|6. Hip Abductor Machine||3||10-12||1:00|
Get a Leg Up
If one of your goals is to achieve better looking legs, it’s time to take control of your own progress by implementing time and research proven exercises that can get you better, and more timely results than the mainstream training strategies pushed on most women by silly social norms and misinformation. Using the above workouts as a starting point and template, get a leg up on your goals and the other women in the gym and start attaining the physique you’ve always wanted.
- Schoenfeld, Brad J. "Is There a Minimum Intensity Threshold for Resistance Training-Induced Hypertrophic Adaptations?" Sports Med Sports Medicine (2013): 1279-288. Web. 22 Dec. 2015.
- "Test ID: TTFB." Mayo Clinic: Mayo Medical Laboratories. Web. 22 Dec. 2015. <http://www.mayomedicallaboratories.com/test-catalog/Clinical and Interpretive/83686>.