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Leg Workouts for Women

Form and Function Quad Workouts

Carve a pair of crush-worthy thighs with these teardrop-targeting moves.

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The vastus medialis oblique (VMO) is responsible for knee stability and also gives you that great teardrop shape. Use these two moves to load your VMO for aesthetics and injury prevention

Barbell Sissy Squat

Form: Bar Sissy Squat

  • You may have avoided traditional sissy squats in the past because of the added stress on the knee in a hyperflexed position. Using a fixed bar repositions your bodyweight so it is not directly over the patella while de-emphasizing the role of the glutes and hamstrings, placing more emphasis on the quads and vastus medialis oblique (VMO).
  • Position a barbell in a rack (or set the bar in a Smith machine) so it hits you just below your knees, lightly touching the backs of your calves. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, toes straight, knees aligned with your toes.
  • Lead with your hips and squat backward over the bar while keeping your torso as vertical as possible. Descend until your knees make a 90-degree angle over the bar and your hips make a 90-degree angle with your thighs. This 90/90 position places the primary tension on the quads without hyperflexing the knee under tension.
  • Keep your weight in your heels as you contract your quads, fully extending your knees to return to standing — without hyperextending them and moving away from the bar. The VMO is most responsible for those last 30 degrees of extension; anything beyond that range means the vastus lateralis takes over and you develop side-heavy quads. So stand up completely until vertical but not beyond.
  • Keep your knees moving over your toes throughout the entire move. To ensure proper tracking — or incite extra VMO activation — place a light medicine ball or yoga block between your knees: A recent study with 13 college-aged women showed that squeezing a physioball between your knees during the leg press helped increase the activity of the VMO.
  • If your feet slip forward as you squat down, place a heavy plate or even a small bench in front of you to lock in your foot position.
  • If this move is too challenging, hold lightly onto the machine or rack or hold a small plate with your arms extended in front of your chest for counterbalance. Conversely, if this is too easy, hold a heavy plate at your chest with both arms to increase resistance.

Sample Form Quadriceps Workout

Exercise Sets Resistance Rest Between Sets
Front Squat 4 moderate/heavy 3-4 minutes
Reverse Lunge 3 moderate 1-2 minutes
Leg Press 3 heavy 3-4 minutes
Bar Sissy squat 2-3 light-bodyweight 1-2 minutes
Box Squat

Function: Lateral Eccentric Touchdown

  • Bilateral movements like squats and lunges are prime ground for the stronger quad muscles, namely the vastus lateralis, to take over for the VMO. Working one side at a time amps the stability demands on the VMO and gluteus medius muscles, getting them to work together to prevent knee collapse and/or rotation: In a 2016 Canadian study, step-downs and single-legged squats proved most demanding on the glutes, quads and hamstrings, especially when it came to controlling and stabilizing hip and knee movement. A focus on the eccentric component here trains neuromuscular control, improving deceleration capacity while helping eliminate momentum and prevent injury.
  • Stand on a high box or bench with one leg planted completely on top and the other extended off the side. If you only have a short box and your nonworking foot touches down, no worries; just don’t put any weight on it. In fact, extending the nonworking leg in front of you rather than touching it down will increase the difficulty.
  • Lead with your hips and slowly bend your standing knee, allowing your nonworking leg to move passively down the side of the box. Descend slowly for four to six counts to increase the burn, challenge your central nervous system, and encourage your quads and glutes to work in concert, training stabilization and deceleration (which is when most injuries occur).
  • Make sure your hips stay square, your pelvis stays level, and your knee stays aligned with your hip and foot — don’t allow it to collapse inward or the VMO will disengage. Rotate the hip out by tightening the top of the glutes (gluteus medius) as you lower down into the squat.
  • Hold at the bottom for two counts, then drive through the whole foot to return to standing. This concentric phase (standing up) should only take one or two counts but should not be so fast that you lose your balance.
  • Because of the eccentric focus, this move should be done early in your workout to minimize fatigue. Holding a small weight plate in front of you will make it easier because the weight will help counterbalance and stabilize you.

Sample Function Quadriceps Workout

Exercise Sets Reps, Directions Resistance Rest Between Sets
Speedskater 2-3 10 each leg; hold each landing for 3-5 seconds bodyweight <1 minute
Lateral Eccentric Touchdown 3 6-8 each leg, 4-6 counts down, 1-2 counts up bodyweight <1 minute
Single-Arm Kettlebell Squat 3 10-12 each arm light/moderate 2-3 minutes
Three-Way Lunge 3 6-8 each leg light/moderate 2-3 minutes