15 Effective Exercises for Trimming & Strengthening Your Thighs

By , SparkPeople Blogger
When standing naked in front of a mirror, each of us has that area (or areas) where our gaze naturally rests, as we silently ponder how to reduce, tone, strengthen or otherwise improve it. For some, it’s the belly or the butt. For others, it might be a "muffin top" or the flabby "bat wings" under the arms.
And for many, the top trouble spot is the thighs.
"At a basic level, we can divide the thigh into two different segments: the front (aka the quads) and the back (aka the hamstrings)," explains trainer Dani Singer. "If you want to tone the front of your thighs, you'll want to focus on exercises like machine leg extensions, concentrating on squeezing your front thighs throughout for maximum contraction. To tone the back of your thighs, you'll want to focus on exercises like the machine leg curl, concentrating on squeezing the back of your thighs while pulling your heels toward your butt."
Everyone's body is different. An exercise routine that works for one person might prove futile for another, largely influenced by genetics and eating habits. And, of course, it's not possible to "spot reduce" certain areas of the body. Just as you can't crunch your way to a six-pack, all the leg lifts in the world won't make your thighs smaller or eradicate cellulite. Exercise is just one piece of the puzzle, as is a sensible, nutritious diet.
“Although you can target specific parts of the body to gain muscle and strength (like when you do a chest press that works your chest muscles), the same isn’t true for fat loss,” says personal trainer Jen Mueller. “Your body decides for itself where and when it wants to take the fat off…so leg lifts won’t make your thighs smaller.

Eventually, through a healthy diet and regular exercise, you’ll lose fat in the areas where you carry excess. You just have to be patient, because it might not happen in the places you want at the rate you’d expect.”
That's not to say you should start skipping leg day in the gym. Although you can’t exercise away a bad diet with targeted moves, there are some things you can do to help strengthen those underlying muscles, so that over time, fat loss will reveal strong, sculpted thighs.

A Trainer's 6 Tips for Trimming the Thighs

Do more weight, fewer reps.

“Volume is what builds size in muscle,” says trainer Brandon Mentore. “The common belief to avoid bulk is to do less weight and more reps, but this is often a recipe for high volume. The accumulation of repetitions in a training session and the aggregate in multiple sessions is a determining factor for volume, which in turn determines size and mass. Go with heavier weights to build strength and do fewer reps to keep the volume low and trim the thighs.”

Don’t sit for too long.

“The body and legs are designed to move, and when you sit for too long, rigidity begins to set into the muscles, joints, tendons and vascular system,” warns Mentore. “Over time, this becomes the state of your lower body, which makes it more difficult to get results from exercises, because the sitting-induced rigidity gets settled in.”

Use variation and multiple angles.

The leg muscles are big, dense movers and can exhibit motion in multiple planes, notes Mentore. To get the most structural balance and shaping, he recommends training your legs from multiple angles and mixing up the selection of exercises to keep the muscles stimulated.

Sneak legs into other exercises.

A good way to trim and strengthen the legs is to get them involved with more exercises. For example, instead of doing a seated shoulder press, do it standing, suggests Mentore. Or, in between bicep curls, do walking lunges using the same dumbbells.

Do full-range reps.

“Partial reps is when you perform the exercise in a very narrow range of motion, missing out on the full range of motion,” explains Mentore. “The problem with partial reps is that they add to the compressive nature of certain exercises and concentrate the load in the muscle belly of the tissue, which over time can increase in size. Unless you have an injury, full-range reps are the way to go.”

Don’t overload the quad.

Mentore notes that the majority of people overdevelop or overemphasize the quad muscles, which can lead to imbalances in the hamstrings, glutes, calves or even the lower back. “Make sure to spread the muscle work across the entire leg to ensure its strength,” he suggests.

15 Thigh-Strengthening Exercises

Glute Raises
Muscles worked: Hamstrings, glutes
From Laura Arndt with Matriarc, a health and wellness company for postpartum women

  • Start on all fours on your hands and knees.
  • With your back straight and your abdomen tight, keeping your right knee bent, begin to lift your right leg up toward the ceiling as if you were stamping your heel on the ceiling.
  • Continue for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat on opposite side.
  • Perform 10-12 reps.
Muscles worked: Quads, glutes

  • Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed forward.
  • Slowly lower your body and bend slightly at your hips. Keep your weight back on your heels and your back as upright as possible. Make sure your knees don’t cross the plane of your toes. Don't go past 90 degrees at the bend in your knees, because this puts additional stress on your joints.
  • Straighten your legs and come up to the starting position to complete one rep. 
Note: If you have difficulty performing this exercise, you can also use a chair or wall to help with balance and the movement until you build sufficient strength.
Forward Lunges
Muscles worked: Quads, glutes 

  • Stand with your feet about six inches apart from each other, with toes pointed forward.
  • Step forward with one leg and lower your body to 90 degrees at both knees. Don’t step out too far. There should be about two feet between your feet at this point. Keep your weight on your heels and don’t allow your knees to cross the plane of your toes. The further you step, the more you work the glutes (buttocks) and hamstrings. The closer you step, the more you work the quadriceps muscles on the top of your thighs.
  • Push up and back to the starting position to complete one rep. Repeat all reps on one leg, then switch to complete one set.
  • Repeat for 10-12 sets. 
Note: Place your hand on a chair or wall to balance if necessary.
Inner Thigh Squat Stretch
Muscles worked: Inner thighs, hips

  • Stand tall with back straight, feet wider than the hips, toes turned out, abs engaged and arms at your sides.
  • Slowly bend the knees, squatting straight down, hands supported on your thighs, until you feel a stretch through the inner thighs. Stretch to the point of "mild discomfort," not to the point of pain.
  • Breathe deeply and hold for 10-30 seconds. Never bounce. Keep your shoulders relaxed and your back straight. Don’t allow your knees to move past your toes.
Squat Jumps
Muscles worked: Quads, glutes
From Jason Karp, PhD, Owner, Run-Fit

  • Begin in a squat position with thighs parallel to the ground and hands on your hips. Jump straight up as high as you can.
  • Land with soft knees, lowering yourself back into the squat position in one smooth motion, and immediately jump up again.
  • Repeat 10-12 times. 
Lying Single-Leg Raises
Muscles worked: Quads 

  • Lie on your back with your right leg straight and left leg bent so your foot is flat on the ground. Relax your head and neck on the mat or ground. Arms should be placed to your side.
  • Lift your right leg to the top of your left knee, keeping the right leg straight. Hold for two seconds and return to starting position. Perform in a slow, smooth motion.
  • Complete 10-12 reps and alternate with the other leg. 
Pilates Thigh Stretch (see video)
Muscles worked: Hamstrings, glutes, quads
From Pilates instructor Lesley Logan
  • Kneeling on the mat with your legs and feet a fist’s distance apart, press the tops of your feet into the mat, shift your hips over your knees and postition your shoulders directly over your hips.
  • If you feel like you are about to fall forward, that is a good spot. You want to feel your hamstrings and seat "catch" you.
  • Lift your arms to the sky. Lean back as you lower your arms to the level of your chest. Go only as far as you can hold your body together (no back bending or sitting back).
  • Press your shins to the mat and lift yourself back up over your knees as you reach your arms to the ceiling.
  • Repeat three to five times. 
Single-Leg Hamstring Curls With Band
Muscles Worked: Hamstrings 

  • Make a loop at one end of the band and place it around your right ankle. Hold the other handle in your left hand. Stand with your left foot on the band with back straight, abs engaged, hands on hips and legs together.
  • Keeping your thighs and knees squeezed together, bend your right knee to curl your heel toward your buttocks. Keep your abs in and the knee soft on your balancing leg. To maintain balance, keep your gaze fixed on a focal point.
  • Slowly return to the starting position to complete one rep. Repeat 10-12 times.
Wall Squats
Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, hamstrings

  • Stand facing away from a wall, with your back against the wall. Plant your feet 12 inches in front of your body with a shoulder-width stance, toes pointing forward.
  • Leaning against the wall, lower your body until your knees are flexed at a 90-degree angle. Hold this position for two seconds. Your weight should be on your heels, not your toes, and your knees should not cross the plane of your toes. Keep your head in a neutral position, looking straight ahead.
  • Extend your legs to elevate your body back to the starting position, without locking your knees.
  • Repeat 10-12 times.
Wide-Leg Wall Sit With Calf Raises
Muscles worked: Quads, glutes, inner thigh, calves

  • Stand with your back against a wall, feet twice shoulder-width apart, toes turned out.
  • Slowly slide your butt down the wall until your thighs are parallel to floor. Stay in this wall squat while you perform the exercise.
  • Rise on your toes for two counts. Lower for two counts to complete one rep.
  • After one set is complete, straighten legs to come out of the squat.
  • Repeat 10-12 times.
Side Leg Raises
Muscles worked: Hips, Thighs
Helps work on your balance, tones your hips and can be done anywhere with no equipment.
From Laura Arndt with Matriarc

  • Start in the standing position.
  • Begin to lift your right leg out to the side and back down with control.
  • Continue for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat on opposite side for 10-12 repetitions.
Seated Leg Extensions
Muscles worked: Quads 

  • Begin seated in a chair, feet flat in front of you, palms grasping the chair edge at sides or front.
  • Keeping your left foot planted and upper body still, extend your right leg (bending from the knee) until it is parallel with the floor. Hold here for two counts and then (optional) pulse up and down for three counts (not shown). Concentrate on flexing the leg muscles.
  • Bend your knee to lower your right leg back to floor to complete one rep. Complete all reps on one side and switch.
  • Repeat for 10-12 reps.
Lying Leg Curls
Muscles worked: Hamstrings 

  • Lie face-down with legs extended. Place a towel or pillow under your hips or use your palms to cushion your hip bones. Keep hips on ground.
  • Bend knees and curl heels toward your butt. Hold for 1-2 counts.
  • Release slowly and with control to starting position. Keep feet flexed through entire movement, leading with the heels. 
One Leg Bridge
Muscles worked: Lower Back, Core, Glutes, Hamstrings
From Laura Arndt with Matriarc 

  • Start on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat.
  • Raise your right foot to the ceiling. Pushing through your left foot, begin to raise your hips up and down off the mat.
  • Continue for 30 seconds.
  • Repeat on opposite side for 10-12 repetitions.
Single-Leg Squats With Ball
Muscles worked: Quads

  • Place an exercise ball between your lower back and a wall. Lean against the ball with your feet firmly planted about 12 inches in front of you.
  • Lift one leg out in front of you. Slowly lower your body on one leg, bending at the hip. Come down a little bit at first to get used to the motion. Slowly lower yourself to a comfortable position. Don’t let your knees extend over the plane of your toes.
  • Return back to the starting position without bringing your raised leg down to the floor. Keep your back as upright as possible.
  • Start out with only one set, working your way back up to two sets, 10-12 repetitions for each leg.
Note: When first learning this exercise, you can try going part way down, using a second wall (near a corner) or using your other foot as an aid when necessary.