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You squat. You deadlift. You lunge. You work your quads, hammies and glutes every leg day because you know that symmetry and balance are key, plus you want to fill out your jeans just so. But in your quest for gorgeous gams, make sure you remember the little guys who help streamline your shape and give you sleek definition: your inner and outer thighs. But don’t worry, those embarrassing gynecological contraptions at the gym are not necessary to develop strong, sexy stems. In fact, we’ve come up with some far more practical (and less exposing) moves that do the trick even better.
Want shapelier thighs? Then surrender your millions of leg lifts to the myth gods — spot reduction and localized fat loss has been dispelled hundreds of times, most recently in a study in which subjects performed an endurance-focused resistance-training program on one leg, which called for hundreds of reps on the leg press. At the end of 12 weeks, the fat mass was unchanged in either leg — but surprisingly participants had lost fat on their upper bodies and trunks!
So what does this mean? Apparently, fat loss depends solely on caloric balance and not on the area being worked, once again rebuking the idea of spot reduction.
On the flip side, however, muscle definition is affected by movement patterns such as those done in the above study, but in a different way. Resistance training induces muscular adaptations for specific parts, and training only in one plane limits development to only the fibers activated to perform that motion. So for the best, shapeliest legs possible include movements in different planes that hit your muscles from all angles and give them the greatest challenges.
“Inner” and “outer” thigh are pretty generic terms, so let’s get a little more specific: The only muscle that’s located on the outside of your hip is your tensor fascia lata (TFL), which originates just underneath your hip bone and feeds into a long tendon that runs down the side of your thigh called the iliotibial — or IT — band. It is primarily responsible for hip abduction (moving the leg away from the body) and is assisted by your glutes. These “outer thigh” muscles assist with linear movements like squats and lunges by helping align your femur correctly, and weakness here will make both your hip and knee unstable, which could lead to injuries.
Your inner thigh is composed of three main muscles: the adductor magnus, the adductor longus, and the gracilis. These muscles originate in the pelvic area and run down toward your knee along the inside of your thigh. These “inner thigh” muscles work as a unit to perform hip adduction (moving the leg inward) and help stabilize the hip when you’re walking and running.
Your inner and outer thighs are rarely the primary movers in an exercise, so you have to tweak your moves a little to best target them. Moving laterally, aka side-to-side, is a surefire way to hit them, as well as changing the leg and foot positions of a standard lift, such as turning your feet out for a sumo squat.
Setup: Hold a heavy dumbbell in front of you with both hands. Step your feet about double-shoulder-width apart, with your toes turned out between 45 and 90 degrees.
Move: Keeping your spine neutral, drop your hips straight down, lowering until your upper thighs are parallel with the floor. Your knees should stay directly above your ankles. Squeeze your glutes as you extend your legs to return to the start.
Tip: Don’t press your hips backward as in a standard squat. Instead, keep your torso erect throughout and press your thighs outward to maintain knee alignment.
Slider Curtsy Lunge
Setup: Stand with your feet hip-width apart and place your non-working toe in the center of the slider. Hold dumbbells in both hands at your sides.
Move: Squat down on the working leg as you slide the non-working leg behind and across your body into a curtsy position, keeping your hips square. Maintain an erect torso and neutral spine throughout. Drive through the working heel and hip, and draw your rear foot back to the start. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: If you lack the flexibility to slide the non-working leg across the body, direct it backward at about 45 degrees to activate the abductors on the working hip.
Setup: Choose a plyo box or bench that comes to about knee height. Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand slightly behind the bench.
Move: Cross your outside leg over and in front, placing the foot firmly on the bench, toes pointing forward. Keeping your knee aligned over your foot, drive through the hip to step up onto the bench. Then step down with your other foot. Continue, alternating sides.
Tip: Do this move in front of a mirror so that you can watch your knee closely. If it starts to cave in or out, practice the step until you can maintain the knee alignment.
Setup: Secure a medium-weight band around your ankles and stand in a quarter-squat position — or “athletic” stance — with your feet a little wider than shoulder-width apart, toes forward or slightly turned out.
Move: Step to one side, keeping your torso stable (no leaning), knees bent in a squat position. Repeat in the same direction for reps, then reverse directions to target the opposite leg.
Tip: Stand as erect as possible throughout. If you lean to one side, you will be using momentum to stretch the band instead of challenging your muscles. You can also try moving the band over your thighs or going forward and backward at a 45-degree angle to change things up.
Lateral Switch Jumps
Setup: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, arms at your sides, and bend your knees slightly in a ready position (not shown).
Move: Hop and extend one leg out to the side, landing on the opposite foot and bending your knee deeply. Touch the ground with your fingers while keeping your back flat. Quickly extend your leg and jump up in the air, landing on the other foot and extending your leg out to the other side. Continue, alternating sides, at a smooth, even pace.
Tip: Always land softly, bending your knees and hips so your muscles — not your joints — absorb the shock.
Stability Ball Double Leg Raise
Setup: Lie on your side with your head cradled on your arm and your body forming a straight line from your shoulders to your ankles. Hold a small stability ball between your ankles and squeeze your legs together to keep it in place.
Move: Lift both legs and the ball up as high as you can, then slowly return to the starting position. Do all reps on one side before switching.
Tip: Squeeze inward against the ball to activate your adductors (inner thighs) as you perform the lift.