Exercises for great-looking legs

Look in the mirror: your legs may need a bit of work.

Before you start though, Health24's FitnessDoc, Dr Ross Tucker, says it's important not to fall into the trap of only working specific areas, as this won't get you the desired results. "The mistake people make is that they try to target the muscle group, often at the expense of doing the whole-body exercise that is actually more effective. That's not to say that focus on a muscle group or area is bad, because you need it, but it's better to do whole-body exercise.

"The exercise is cardio training - this includes running, walking, cycling, swimming, tae bo, aerobics and so forth. Anything that is cardiovascular gets the heart pumping and energy burning is most effective. It is just a question of how you use these cardio sessions. I would suggest at least four days a week of cardio training, each session lasting about 30 to 45 minutes, at least. You have to build up this duration and then keep at it consistently in order to see change."

The dreaded 'C' word
When talking firm legs it's inevitable that the subject of cellulite crops up as this is one of the most common problems many women (and some men) face. According to Tucker, cellulite is caused by the fat stores beneath the surface of the skin, which are then "packaged" into compartments that create that orange-peel effect – "it's actually the connective tissue that packages the fat cells that does this".

He admits that unfortunately it is notoriously difficult to get rid of - and points out that despite what some adverts say, the solution does not actually lie in things like body brushing, creams etc.

"It really comes down to exercise and diet. Diet is crucial, and if you're not 100% on top of that, I'd suggest seeing a dietician and making sure about it. In terms of exercise, it is the cardio training, like cycling, running, stepping, aerobics, walking and so on, which is most helpful in losing weight. All these activities cause heart rate to go up, and are increasing your body's metabolic rate, which ultimately causes you to lose weight by burning more fat (again, assuming you are also eating well)," he says.

He says that the intensity you train at is also very important.

"Often people train a little too casually. I am not saying you should go out and push super-hard and exhaust yourself every day, but stepping up the intensity once or twice a week is certainly a good thing. You should aim for a total of 45 minutes or so (anything between 30 and 50 minutes is a good average), and you should finish each session feeling tired, but not exhausted. If you do that, and you eat well, then you should lose weight and, with luck, rid your legs of cellulite."

He also suggests you incorporate weight training, which has a different effect to cardio training in that it increases muscle mass, which means that your body's metabolic rate is lifted.

"The effect of this is that once you begin to lose weight, you keep it off more than you would by simply dieting. So it is important to do some resistance training, though one or two sessions a week is plenty for the goals of fitness and weight loss.

"So just keep it up, give it a few months to work - remember, you have to be consistent, one month of training, one month resting is not really that effective, it should be a steady training period over many months to really see great results," says FitnessDoc.

Toning exercises for your legs
So now you've planned your exercise routine and done your 20 – 30 minutes of cardio it's time to get those legs working.

One of the best exercises to work the legs is the lying down abduction with a theraband. Start by lying on your side with both legs extended together, the theraband around your ankles. Make sure you support your head with your hand and tighten the muscles of the front of the thigh (quadriceps) of both legs. Then lift your upper leg about 20cm from the floor and hold for five seconds. Lower this leg and repeat.

Aim for about three sets of 15 reps on each leg. This exercise will also work your buttocks muscles and keep them firm as well.

This exercise can also be done without a theraband if you just adjust it slightly by lying on your side with your lower leg bent and your upper leg extended in line with your hips. Rest on your upper arm to lift your upper torso off the ground and lift your upper leg from the floor.

While lying on the floor, you can work inner thighs as well with the lying down adduction exercise.

Begin by lying on your side, with your lower leg extended and the upper leg bent. Rest on your upper arm to lift your upper torso off the ground and tighten the muscles of the front of the thigh (quadriceps) of the lower leg. Then lift your lower leg about 20cm from the floor and hold for five seconds, feeling the tightness in the inner thigh (adductor) area. Then lower this leg and repeat. Again, aim for three sets of 15 reps on each leg.

Still on the upper legs, another effective exercise is the hamstring curl which can be done either with a theraband or on a hamstring curl machine at the gym.

With the theraband, begin by lying on the floor, head parallel to the ground with the theraband around the ankles. Then slowly raise the right leg backwards, towards your buttocks and hold for five seconds and lower. Make sure you're not arching your back and keep the stomach muscles contracted to stabilise the body. Aim for three sets of 15 reps.

On the hamstring curl machine, follow the instructions and lie face down on it with your legs fully extended. The pads should rest on the back of your ankles. Grip onto the handholds and bend your knees, lifting your feet as close to your hips as you can. Hold this 'curl' position for one second, then slowly lower the weight to the starting position and repeat the exercise.

One of the best leg exercises which works the whole leg and bottocks and strengthens the joints is the lunge.

This exercise can be done with or without dumbbells, depending on your level of fitness and can also be modified to a side lunge– which follows the same principles, but is just a lunge to the side rather than the front.

Begin by standing with your hips facing forwards and your arms extended at your sides. If you're using dumbbells, hold one in each hand. Place one foot forward, flat on the ground, about a stride length from the back leg. Then bend your front knee, and move into a slow lunge onto your front leg until your front thigh is parallel to the ground. Return to the starting position. Aim for three sets of 15 reps and ensure you keep your back as straight as possible and keep the movement slow and controlled.

Standing front leg raises is also relatively easy exercise which can be done at home with a theraband or at the gym. Stand with the theraband wrapped around ankles and keep your balance by holding onto an upright chair with your left hand. Slowly extend your right leg out directly in front of you and hold for five seconds and then lower. Three sets of 15 reps should have you feeling the burn in no time.

To work the outer thighs, modify this exercise to the standing side leg raises or the standing leg curl.

These exercises, together with a balanced diet and effective cardio routine, should help to give you shapely legs.

(Amy Henderson, Health24, updated July 2010)

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