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When it comes to building a better lower body, you know that squats and lunges rule. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only exercises that will whip your quads, hams and glutes into shape. Switch your training focus to weight machines and you could find a better way to isolate your leg and butt muscles. Translation? A more sculpted physique for you.
If you’ve been strength training for some time, you know there are two types of strength exercises: isolation exercises, which target specific muscles (think biceps curls and leg extensions), and compound exercises, which work multiple joints and muscles. Squats, lunges and push-ups all fall into the latter category. But which type is best for you?
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As it turns out, they’re both necessary, and better yet, they actually complement one another. “A balanced fitness program will incorporate both types of exercises,” says Tim Bishop, MS, CSCS, owner of Perform Fit, a sports performance and fitness facility in Lutherville, Maryland, and author of Stronger Legs & Lower Body (Human Kinetics, 2011). “Muscles that get overlooked in compound exercises can be targeted with isolation exercises.”
Mix It Up
In recent years, compound exercises have stolen the spotlight, mainly because they can mean less time in the gym and a higher calorie burn. Bishop adds that these exercises “teach you to move as you do in your daily activities” and that their functional nature makes compound exercises the mainstay of most athletic programs.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room in your training program for isolation moves. For starters, they let you target individual muscles more effectively. Case in point: while squats and lunges are great for strengthening the majority of the muscles in your legs and butt, lower-body isolation exercises can emphasize certain stabilizers – like your deep hip muscles and leg adductors – more effectively, according to Bishop.
Also, isolation moves can be safer. “Because of technique, posture and balance, compound exercises have a little bit of a learning curve, which you don’t have with isolation exercises,” says Bishop.
This results-guaranteed workout starts with one compound move (to work your legs and glutes) and follows up with isolation moves (to further hone in on your hamstrings and quads). Do the moves in order, following the reps and sets for each, and resting for 45 seconds between sets.
And to maximize your results, do this routine one day per week, then focus on compound moves (think squats and lunges) in a second lower-body workout later in the week. Continue alternating the two, leaving at least 48 hours of rest in between.
Seated Leg Press
Sets: 3 | Reps: 8–10.
Target Muscles: quadriceps, gluteus maximus
Set Up: Sit at the leg press machine with your feet high on the footplate, back against the seat, grasping the handles lightly at your sides. Your knees should be bent to about a 90-degree angle.
Action: Press through your heels to move the footplate away from you; stop when your legs are straight but unlocked. Hold for one count, then slowly return to the start.
Tip: The other exercises target smaller muscles than the leg press, so push it right off the bat by doing fewer reps with a heavier weight.
Standing Leg Curl
Sets (each leg): 3 | Reps:10–12
Target Muscles: hamstrings
Set Up: Stand at the machine, positioning the leg padding behind one ankle. Hold the handles in front of you for support.
Action: Flex your knee to bring your heel toward your glutes. Hold for one count, then slowly lower back to the starting position. When your set is through, immediately switch to your opposite leg and repeat.
Standing Hip Flexion
Sets (each leg): 3–4 | Reps: 12–15
Target Muscles: iliopsoas, sartorius, leg adductors
Set Up: Adjust the leg padding to sit in front of your left thigh. Stand tall, holding the handles in front of you.
Action: Bend your leg to drive the leg pad up, then slowly lower. When you are done your set, repeat on your right leg.
Tip: To better target your hip flexors, increase your range of motion by setting the machine so that your leg is extended behind you when you start.
Seated Leg Extension
Sets: 3 | Reps: 12
Target Muscles: quadriceps
Set Up: Sit with your back against the seat and adjust the machine so that your knees align with the machine’s pivot point. Position your legs behind the lower padding so that it sits in front of your shins, just above your ankles.
Action: Slowly extend from your knees to straighten your legs, stopping just short of locking your knees. Using control, not speed, reverse to return to the start.
Tip: Don’t jump right into a hefty weight with this machine; try a few reps on a lower setting and work your way up until you feel challenged.
Note: Locking your legs at the top of an extension or press could cause injury. Instead, keep a slight bend in your knees.