First of all, do more than “just squat”
The “just squat” or “she squats” memes we see all over fitness Facebook pages promote the squat as the exercise to be doing to shape up your bottom half. My advice – leave the memes to male entertainment (after all – isn’t that what they are really for?).
The truth is if you want lean legs and firm glutes you’ve got to do more than squat.
Don’t get me wrong, the squat is a useful exercise. The problem is that most training programs are built around the squat and, while this might work for men, women are missing out on some of the best exercises for shaping their legs and glutes.
Squats activate the quads more than hamstrings and glutes. So if you want to lift your glutes and get rid of cellulite from the back of your legs, you’ll need more than the squat.
Below I’ve set out some of the most common complains women have about their legs and how I’d address them. At the end of the article, I’ve given you a list of exercises you can do in addition to or possibly even instead of the squat depending on your body type.
Complaint #1: Flat, saggy bottoms
You may have a flat bottom or no bottom at all. This is common with women who are naturally leaner or women who choose endurance events or yoga as their main form of exercise instead of weight training. As you may well know, things also tend to sag after we have kids and as we get older.
If you have a hard time filling out a pair of jeans, some squats and direct quad training will probably look great on you. Adding muscle will give you the shape you are missing.
However, to pick up your bottom, you’ll need more than squats so be sure to include a variety of the glute building exercises listed at the end of this article. For you, I recommend doing some form of glute training at least two but preferably three times a week. You are going to need to lift heavy to build muscle on your backside. Some women worry about muscle making them look big – but muscle in the right place can make you look awesome – like when it perks up your bottom.
Complaint #2: Thick, muscular legs
If “thunder thighs” comes to mind when you describe your legs, this might be you. No joke. I remember being teased about my thunder thighs as a teenager. My legs weren’t overly big but they were muscular because I lived on a pair of skates year round.
As an adult, I’ve realized I have a mesomorph’s tendency to put on muscle. If even walk by the squat rack I can feel my legs growing.
Not all women are going to get big and bulky from lifting weights, but some women do put on muscle more easily and need to be more careful with the exercises they choose.
If you are a women who puts on muscle easily or if you already have big quads and thighs from the sports you do, then squats may make your legs look even bigger.
Case in point. Check out my photos. Pardon the crappy photo quality – when I took these years ago I never planned to share them with anyone.
When I first started training, my trainer had me doing heavy squats, lunges and leg presses, as well as leg extensions for the quads. You can see how my legs looked in the first photo.
Around the time of taking the first photo I decided my legs were too thick and lacked shape, so I changed how I trained legs. I quit squatting and I pretty much quit training my legs with weights at all except for the glutes.
The second photo shows how my legs looked nine months later. You can see they have better shape and definition, especially around the knee area.
Complaint #3: Too much fat and cellulite
If you’ve got some weight to lose or a genetic predisposition to holding fat in the legs, then this is your biggest complaint. Your upper body might look okay but you tend to hold your extra weight in your legs.
First thing you need to do is clean up your diet and make a plan to start losing weight. Clean diets can go a long way to reducing the appearance of cellulite. However, having lots of cellulite is associated with excess estrogen. So your plan needs to address estrogen through a combination of reducing your exposure to xenoestrogens, improving elimination of estrogen (ie. fiber), and possibly using some hormone balancing supplements.
My client pictured below dramatically changed her legs in only six months by cleaning up her diet, reducing xenoestrogens, and incorporating leg circuits into her program.
Leg fat is really stubborn and harder to mobilize than fat from other areas of your body. I like leg circuits for women who need to burn fat off the legs because they help increase blood flow to that area which helps mobilize fat. Leg circuits are made up of 3 to 4 exercises done with no rest in between. The goal is to feel those legs burn, burn, burn! All the exercises below will be helpful as well. As for cardio, you’ll find incline walking (without holding the rails) and stairclimbers (with an emphasis on pushing through your heels to activate the back of your legs) will help.
How to get leaner legs
Remember, everyone is different and it’s up to you to assess your progress regularly and adjust your workout program. For some women, squats are perfectly fine and add beautiful shape to the legs.
I use squats with my clients but for most ladies, we stick to light weights and higher repetitions, often using them as part of a fat burning circuit. That’s because most of my clients come to me to lose weight. They don’t want to add size to their legs.
Personally, I rarely squat these days unless I do bodyweight squats or box jumps. I also stay away from the stationary bike and the elliptical because all of these stimulate my quads too much. I tell my clients who like cycle classes to back off the tension on the wheel if they are worried about the size of their quads (ie. when the instructors calls out a mountain climb it’s okay to cheat a bit and go lighter).
I like stairclimber machines but I put my foot far forward on the pedal so I can focus on pushing through my heels which emphasizes the back of your legs more than your quads (but I still feel my quads working quite a bit so I only do one or two 20 minute sessions per week at the most).
If you are worried about making your legs bigger you may want to limit:
- Heavy squat and leg presses
- Weight lunges
- Weighted step ups
- Leg extensions
- Stationary bike
Regardless of your body type, you should do some form of glute training. All my clients work on progressing their weighted glute bridges each week.
To shape up your glutes and reduce the appearance of cellulite, incorporate these exercises into your training:
- Stiff leg dead lifts
- Glute bridges or hip thrusts (weighted, single leg or any variation)
- Cable kickbacks or donkey kicks on a machine
- Reverse or curtsy lunges
- Band walks
- Hip abduction on a machine
- Good mornings and pull throughs (more advanced exercises so work up to these)
For best results and to make a really visible change, I recommend incorporating glute training into your program three times a week. I like having one heavy glute day where I focus on progressing glute bridges, stiff leg deadlifts and heavy kickbacks, and then later in the week I’ll have another workout where I incorporate other exercises like hip thrusts, glute bridge variations, good mornings, and pull throughs. I’ll often throw in some leg circuits and burpee variations that target the legs into fat burning circuits to hit my legs once more on a cardio day.
For more leg training ideas check out this article: 5 Unique Exercises For Gorgeous Glutes [With Videos]
In the end, the best way to train your legs depends on your body type and your goals. Stop to assess your legs from time to time. If they are looking too thick, you can pull back on quad dominant and/or weighted exercises. If they need some shape, they you can hit the weights more.
Would you like me to sort it out for you?
I’ve put all this info into an 8 week training program that’s all about legs. All the exercises talked about in this post are in the program including tons of instructions and videos to help you do them properly, easier versions if you need them and a Home and Gym version depending on where you like to train. Check it out and feel free to contact me if you have any questions!