Our legs are anatomically suited to producing both high levels of force and for walking and running long distances.
This means we need to develop both functions – strength and stability through full range of motion along with the endurance to be able to walk and/or run for distance.
You can build strong legs using expensive gym machines, time tested free weights, with your body weight or using a combination of all three.
Lots can go wrong with your legs:
- Ankle sprains are the most common lower limb injury (1)
- Knee injuries are common in athletes and ACL tears are one of the most debilitating sports injuries you can suffer, with females especially susceptible (2)
- Additionally both the patellar and Achilles tendons are common sites for tendinopathies
- The knee and hip are most common sites for osteoarthritis (3)
Strength training can be used to both prevent and manage all of these conditions, but done improperly can be a cause of injury itself.
Benefits of Strong Legs
Some of the specific benefits of developing strong legs include:
- You live longer (4)
- Greater independence as you age (4)
- Decreased lower limb injury risk (5)
- Decreased risk of falls (6)
- Improved endurance performance (7)
- Improved speed and power
- Increased lean body mass – decreased risk of metabolic diseases (8)
- Improved rehabilitation outcomes after injury (9)
- Strong legs look good
The 3 Stances
Before we go into how to build strong legs, it helps to understand the different ways we can load the lower body, and the different effects each has.
As humans, we can essentially adopt 3 foot positions.
Most people will favour one side when standing, accelerating, jumping and landing, or just getting through the household chores, which can develop functional asymmetries.
Functional asymmetries are side to side differences in mobility or stability that are not associated with your body’s structure. Functional asymmetries are a modifiable risk factor for future injury (10).
To minimise functional asymmetries and develop strong, well balance legs, requires working in each of the 3 stances.
Bilateral stance involves both feet being on the ground in the same horizontal plane, without movement. It is the most stable, and hence strongest position, and we can lift the heaviest loads in bilateral stance.
In a split stance, both our feet are on the ground, but in a different horizontal plane. Split stance requires the leading leg to be stable through the hip and knee while the trailing leg must display mobility at those joints. You see a split stance being adopted when we need a blend of stability and mobility, for example, if you were chopping wood or throwing a ball.
Single Leg Stance
Single leg stance is displayed when we have one foot completely off the ground. This can be for a moment, as in when we are running, or when we need increased mobility, like when we reach for something on the ground.
Single leg stance requires high levels of stability in the stance leg and trunk to allow you to express the mobility it facilitates.
Use Single Leg Exercises First
Before undertaking a strengthening program for your legs, it’s wise to have an assessment with a qualified and experienced professional.
A good assessment acts like a road map – showing you where you currently are and where you need to go to improve your function and strength.
Most people will tend towards either being stiffer and more stable or flexible and less stable. Typically, we will see the most benefit from developing what you lack – so a stiff person will benefit from developing flexibility and mobility and vice versa.
If the assessment reveals you have a functional asymmetry, then a good place to start your leg strength program is with single leg exercises.
Single leg exercises are a great way to develop the required flexibility and stability at the same time, and help balance out differences between each leg that may have developed over time.
It’s best to start with a split stance, which gives you a nice blend between stability and mobility, versus true single leg stance, which requires stability levels beyond what most possess without training.
Examples of split stance exercises are:
- Split squats (where the feet remain in contact with the ground throughout)
- Lunges (where one foot leaves the ground momentarily)
- Step ups
You can build tremendous strength with single leg exercises alone, but it is still important to develop strength in a bilateral stance as well, in particular with the squat pattern, which is a fundamental human movement.
Squats For Total Body Strength
The squat is simply the best lower body exercise you can do, if you can do it properly.
Squatting demonstrates ankle, knee, hip and spine mobility and trunk stability in the most fundamental human movement pattern – it’s how we first get up from the ground to be able to walk.
It is well worth the time and energy to develop your ability to squat well through a full range of motion.
For rehab patients, I like to teach the squat from the bottom up, which is after all, how we first learnt it. I find that by getting someone into the bottom position of a squat comfortably, the rest takes care of itself.
Surprisingly, my older patients do really well with this method as well, as they are already close to the ground, the risk (and fear) of falling is much lower. Once they are familiar with the bottom position, it is a matter of getting strong enough to stand up.
The most common issues with the squat tend to be at the ankles, followed by the hips.
To work around this, you can begin squatting with your heels elevated while you work towards an unassisted squat.
Strong legs are for more than just fitness fanatics, they are crucial to living a healthy and active life.
It’s important to not only build strong legs, but develop balance and mobility that allows you to move freely.
To do this, it’s important to have an assessment and develop a plan that meets you where you are at, and takes you where you need to go.
While structured exercise is not essential for health, when it comes to developing strong legs, the simple truth is that the majority of Australians are not physically active enough to develop and maintain adequate leg strength throughout their lifetime, and so need a structured program to make up for it.
Not all programs are designed equally though, so for the sake of safety, efficiency and effectiveness, it pays to seek out qualified professionals to help guide you, especially in the early stages of building leg strength.
This blog post was written by Dr Nick Efthimiou (Osteopath), founder of Integrative Osteopathy.
This blog post is meant as an educational tool only. It is not a replacement for medical advice from a qualified and registered health professional.