If you want to stay fit and healthy and live a longer, more mobile and enjoyable life, you must keep your lower body strong. That’s because “75% of the muscle in your body is below your waist,” explains Dan Daly, coach, trainer and co-creator of the Equinox Group Swim Program EQXH2O in New York City.
“Humans are bipedal, performing most tasks and sports on two legs, and many upper body movements are coordinated with and driven by the lower body,” he says.
Bianca Spicer, an exercise physiologist and owner of Spicer Fitness in Atlanta, agrees that the strong muscles of the lower body are super important for overall health and wellness because they support the hips and pelvis. “This is a huge supporter of your lower back and contributor to your core. Where your lower back joins the pelvis bone is where the weight of the upper body is transferred to your legs, which holds a lot of your body up.”
So, for every functional movement — walking, bending over, going up stairs, sitting or standing — you need a strong base to stabilize and support the rest of your body. “People often don’t think about the movements and effort it takes out of the body to be able to do simple things like step down off a small curb or walk 20 feet down a hallway until they themselves experience the inability to do that move,” Spicer says.
Health Benefits of a Strong Lower Body
Therefore, keeping your lower body strong and fit can contribute to:
— Improved circulation and cardiovascular health and fitness. “At a low level, moving these muscles is vital for circulation, and even more important for stimulating and creating cardiovascular health and fitness via the large muscles and rhythmic nature of various forms of cardio using our legs,” Daly says.
— Improved bone health. Exercises can support bone health and keep the large bones in the legs and hips strong and sturdy. “As people age, we want to make sure that they’re doing some weight-bearing exercise to help with bone mineral density,” says Dr. D. Harrison Youmans, a sports medicine physician with Orlando Health in Florida. This can help stave off osteoporosis, a condition that causes the bones to thin and become brittle with age.
— Improved sports performance. “For performance, most sports are performed primarily on our legs, usually one at a time. Having strength and aerobic capacity in these muscles is necessary to perform,” Daly says.
— Weight loss. “Training your legs burns more relative calories than smaller muscles in the body and may be the best type of training for weight loss,” Daly says.
— Mental health. “Mental health is also part of overall wellness,” Spicer notes. “When you’re not able to move well or not be a part of the activities you want to experience because of a lack of strength, endurance and/or balance, that can affect your mental health.”
— Injury reduction. When your lower body is strong and fit, that may help you avoid falls and other accidents that could lead to serious injury.
Daly also notes that many studies have shown “exclusive lower body training having carry-over effects to the rest of the body. Because most sports and activities are predominantly lower body, it makes a lot of sense to focus first on your lower body regardless of your training goal.”
Cardio and Strength Training
When establishing a workout routine to support and improve lower body strength and stability, you should check in with a fitness trainer or sports medicine physician first to make sure you’re cleared for the types of exercises you’re considering doing and to make sure you’re performing them in a safe and appropriate way.
Youmans says that when working with his patients, “I think of movement patterns and making sure that we are able to build flexibility, strength and muscle endurance.”
This is important, he says, “because when we think about it, it’s one thing if you can do three or four reps of an exercise, but to be able to walk properly and keep going all day long, we need to make sure those muscles don’t fatigue.”
To achieve this, he recommends using a mix of cardiovascular exercise for heart health and strength training. Cardiovascular exercise can include a wide range of activities, some lower-impact and gentler on the joints than others. “When I see people who have arthritis or injuries, I like to steer them toward lower-impact activities,” he says. These activities might include:
— In-water workouts. Whether you’re walking or running in the deep end, doing water aerobics or just straight swimming, working out in an aquatic environment can be very good for the lower body and the heart. “You don’t have a lot of weight going through the joints, but you also get good resistance from the water,” Youmans says.
— Rowing or cycling. If you can’t access the water, but you also need to be seated for a low-impact workout, try a rowing machine or a stationary bicycle. These movements take most of the weight off the joints but can give you a high-intensity cardiovascular workout that really works the lower body.
— An elliptical machine. “As we work up towards standing with low-impact, an elliptical machine and then transitioning into walking,” are good ways to continue progress on building strength and endurance in the lower body, Youmans says.
Higher-impact activities that are good for building lower-body strength and endurance include running, aerobics classes, dancing and other similar weight-bearing activities.
[Read: Best Exercises for Your Butt.]
At-Home Exercises for the Lower Body
If you’re unable to get to the gym, don’t worry — there’s still plenty of things you can do at home to stay strong, flexible and mobile using minimal or no equipment.
First off, going for a walk is a great way to get your blood moving and warm up the body for additional body-weight resistance or strength training exercises that use your own body weight as resistance.
In addition, Spicer and Daly recommend the following 10 exercises to promote strength and endurance in the lower body. Most of these can be done at home with little or no equipment needed.
Start out slowly with each exercise and aim to build up to 5 to 15 reps (on each side if it’s a bilateral movement) and take a short rest between sets. Aim to complete three to five sets of each exercise two or three times a week, or as much as you feel comfortable doing or as recommended by a trainer or your doctor.
Perhaps the quintessential lower body exercise, squats work the glutes (the big butt muscles), the hamstrings (the muscles at the back of the upper thighs) and can strengthen the lower back too. Stand with feet hip-width apart. Press down into your feet and sit into a squat, pushing your butt back and down, almost like you’re lowering yourself into a chair.
You can do this while holding a weight in front of you or one in either hand to up the challenge. You can also do single-leg squats in which one leg is lifted off the floor while you squat with the other leg. These moves are exceptional for building balance and stability.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor hip-width apart. Extend your arms straight up from the shoulder toward the ceiling. Squeeze your glutes and raise your hips off the floor a few inches. Pause for a moment and then lower your hips back to the floor.
For an extra challenge, raise your toes off the floor while pushing your heels into the ground.
Single Leg Hip Bridges
Similar to glute bridges, single leg hip bridges (or single leg hip raises) start with you lying on your back on the floor. One knee should be bent with the foot flat on the floor; the other should be straight out from the hip on the floor with the foot flexed.
Raise that straight leg until it’s in line with the other thigh, then push your hips up, keeping the leg elevated. Pause and slowly come back to your starting position.
Bird dogs are great for both the glutes and the core. Start on all fours, with knees under the hips and hands under the shoulders, while keeping the spine straight.
Gently raise and extend one leg straight out and behind you, lifting it as far up as comfortable, while keeping the leg straight. At the same time, raise the opposite arm straight out in front of you, reaching directly out from the shoulder. If that feels challenging enough, hold it there for a few seconds and then come back to the starting position.
If you want more challenge, bring the elbow of the extended arm to the knee of the extend leg in a crunching movement under your torso. Do several reps and then switch sides.
With a kettlebell or dumbbell, dead lifts strengthens the lower body and core in one move. Stand up straight with feet flat on floor, hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in either hand (or hold a kettlebell in front of your body) and engage your core, back and glutes.
Then fold forward at the hips until your torso is parallel to the floor. Don’t straighten the knees fully, rather keep them loose and slightly bent and keep your back straight with shoulders back and not rolled forward. Straighten the legs and come back to a full standing position.
Single Leg Dead Lifts
This variation on the dead lift uses the same basic starting point, standing with feet hip-width apart. Hold a kettlebell, barbell or another weight in either hand in front of you, with arms relaxed and weight down at the thigh level. Lean forward, flexing at the hip, and shift your weight onto one leg.
Engage the other leg and extend it straight behind you. Lift the leg until it’s parallel to the floor while keeping the back straight. Arms should be hanging straight down. Pause, then return to the starting position.
Lunges are a mainstay of lower-body workouts that work on the glutes, quads and core, as well as your ability to stay balanced. They can be done as forward lunges or lateral lunges. Both moves start with you standing up straight with feet together and flat on the floor with toes facing forward throughout the movement.
For a forward lunge, take a big step forward with one leg while keeping the other one firmly planted on the floor. Keep your chest up and shoulders back and down while keeping the core strong. Lower your body until your forward thigh is parallel to the floor and the back knee is bent at 90 degrees, a few inches above the floor. Hold for a moment, then reverse the movement and come back to the starting position. Alternate sides.
For a lateral lunge, use the same starting point for a forward lunge but take a big step to the right side (with the right leg) or to the left side (with the left leg) and hinge the hips forward keeping the chest lifted. Push off with the floor you moved and come back to the starting position. Alternate sides.
These lunges are the same as a forward lunge, just backwards. Start with feet together, flat on the floor, and take a step back while keeping your chest up and the core strong. Lower the body until the back knee is bent at 90 degrees and close to the floor and the forward thigh is parallel to the floor.
Pause, then reverse the movement to come back to the starting position.
To strengthen the calf muscles and ankles, stand up straight with feet together. Lift your heels off the floor and balance on the toes. Hold for a moment, then lower your heels back to the ground. You can do this while holding a weight in each hand for a little extra challenge. You can also do this while standing on the edge of a stair or other elevated surface so that you can stretch the calf by dropping the heel a little below parallel with the toes at the end of the rep.
Use any elevated platform, such as a step or stair, that will bring your knee to a 90-degree angle when you place your foot on it. Start by placing your foot onto the bench or step and press through your heel as you step up onto the platform. Bring your other foot up and into a marching position, with knee bent at 90 degrees and thigh parallel to the floor. Reverse the motion and step back down.
Spicer cautions that with all of these exercises, you should “be mindful of the way you do and think about your lower body workouts. Don’t forget about the quality of those movements and exercises, so you are able to do them for years to come.”
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