Your thigh strength speaks volumes about your general fitness and functionality. As one of the main muscle groups in the body, the thighs are responsible for creating balance and harmony throughout. The more we work them, the more likely we'll have ease of daily movement in years to come.
An anatomy breakdown from NASM-certified MYXFitness trainer Lauren Sambataro explains: “The thigh is comprised of three muscle groups: quadriceps complex (anteriorly), hamstrings complex (posteriorly), and the adductor complex (medially), lovingly known as the inner thighs.” The stronger these muscles, the more balanced and stable your body.
The most efficient way to work the thighs requires no ritzy gym equipment. In fact, many thigh exercises can be performed with just your body weight, a dumbbell, or even creative use of objects around the home.
Not sure where to start? Read on for our expert tips and six thigh exercises you need to try in your next workout.
Meet the Expert
Safety and Precautions
Though thigh exercises are generally safe when performed with proper form, some, especially those which are weight-bearing, are less suitable if you are suffering from injuries of the lower back, shins, calves, and/or hips. It’s also important to dynamically warm up the body before working out to reduce areas of tightness and ensure the muscles and joints are limber enough to complete the workout without causing strain to the body.
There has also been much discussion on the subject of "spot treating" for those who want to change the appearance of a specific area, such as the thighs. This is, however, an unproven method. Instead, science points to cardio—such as high-intensity interval training—to strip unwanted fat across the entire body, and strength training or conditioning to build and tone muscle.
Another common belief is that if you're genetically predisposed to have "skinny" legs, you simply can't build muscle. Although it can be more of a challenge, it's very possible to create strength in the lower body with a tailored lifting program and perhaps a few diet swaps here and there.
Benefits of Thigh Exercises
In terms of functionality, thigh muscles are what get the leg moving at the knee. “The quads and hamstrings allow your leg to bend/flex and extend, whilst the adductors help pull the leg together,” says Noom coach Jenna Kilgore. In other words, the thighs play a crucial role in the efficiency of our day-to-day movement.
However, over-working specific muscles can cause imbalances between the right and left sides of the body. “Most commonly, we are quad dominant, which is why it’s important not to leave the hamstrings out of the equation,” cautions Sambataro. “Multi-joint exercises, rather than isolation exercises, are the best way to integrate the thigh muscles to keep us stable and strong, and to prevent injury.”
Speaking of injury prevention, Kilgore touches upon the reduced likelihood of “injury and/or fall risk, and also easier rehabilitation with existing injuries” when our thighs are worked equally. Adds Sambataro: "It's important not to isolate the thigh muscles as they work synergistically on joints and bones, and also as a team to flex, extend, and rotate the legs."
6 Thigh Exercises to Try
Targeting all the muscles of the thigh, the multi-directional lunge improves mobility in the lower body as well as enhancing your agility.
- Start with the right foot planted and walk or step the left foot back.
- Make sure to position the head and eyes forward and keep your pelvis and shoulders to the front.
- Sink the body down into a lunge before pushing on the front heel to return to the starting position.
- Next, step the left foot to the side in a lateral lunge, keeping the right leg straight and pushing through the right heel to bring yourself back to the center.
- Now, step the left leg forward and sink into a lunge before returning back.
- Finally, cross the left leg behind the right into a curtsey lunge, to work the quads and inner thighs.
- Switch legs and complete on the other side.
Sumo Squat Rotation
A sumo squat rotation is a go-to exercise for enhancing flexibility in the hamstrings and working the inner thighs.
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and turn your feet out, externally rotating your hips.
- With your hands clasped together at your chest or on your hips, squat down, keeping your back straight and your upper body lifted.
- From here, internally rotate one leg to reach a lunge position, then return to the center.
- Alternate from side to side.
Eccentric Jump Squats
The eccentric (lowering) phase of this exercise loads and lengthens the muscles of the thigh, before adding a plyometric element to increase your power.
- Maintaining a neutral spine, push your hips back and slowly descend into your squat for a count of three, ensuring the knees are not passing the toes.
- Sink down to the bottom of your squat.
- With power, push into your heels and squeeze your glutes as you leap into the air, landing softly with control and back into a squat.
- Repeat with a tempo of three counts down, one count up.
Narrow Stance Pulse Squat
This exercise is similar to a regular back squat, except your feet will remain closer than shoulder-width apart to target the quads and adductor muscles.
- With your feet positioned in a narrow stance, lower into a squat position as if you are going to sit down on a chair, and pause where comfortable.
- Pulse up a short distance—no more than halfway—and then back down.
- Continue the pulsing for a few rounds before returning to the starting position and repeating.
Kickstand Romanian Deadlift
This exercise works the posterior chain of the body, specifically the hamstrings and adductors, to increase power and lower body strength.
- Stand in a staggered stance, with the right leg forward and the majority of your weight balanced on the foot. The rear leg is used for support but shouldn't carry much of the weight.
- Either using your body weight or with a dumbbell/kettlebell, hinge at the hips, maintaining a neutral spine, while reaching towards the floor.
- Squeeze your glutes as you raise back up, keeping a neutral spine. You should feel the movement in the hamstring.
- Repeat for 8-12 repetitions and switch legs.
Shoulder Bridge and Squeeze
This is a classic Pilates move which engages your core, works the glutes and abs, and also stabilizes the shoulders. Adding a squeeze to the movement enlists the inner thighs.
- Lie on your back with both feet on the floor and place a ball between your knees to engage the inner thighs.
- Push through the heels into a bridge position, squeezing your glutes at the top.
- While maintaining this position, squeeze the ball between knees and hold for 10-20 seconds.
- Lower back down and repeat for a few rounds.
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Marchetti PH, Guiselini MA, da Silva JJ, Tucker R, Behm DG, Brown LE. Balance and Lower Limb Muscle Activation between In-Line and Traditional Lunge Exercises. J Hum Kinet. 2018;62:15-22. doi:10.1515/hukin-2017-0174