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Beef up your chicken legs

By Stephen Kelly

After months of hard work and dedication, you've finally got the upper body thing going on. Biceps. Check. Pecs. Check. Lean, defined midsection. Yeah, baby. But your legs look they should be sealed in plastic and sold in the poultry section at the supermarket. Like many guys, you've been ignoring your legs in favor of the flashier upper body muscles, and what do you have to show for it? The chest and guns of a bodybuilder with the legs of Twiggy.

This is not a good look.

Not only that, it's not good for your overall physical health. Building and maintaining strong legs and a properly proportioned body shape will help you avoid injury, stabilizing and protecting the muscles of the knees and ankles. Better yet, building a stronger lower region will also strengthen your core region, protecting your lower back. And last but not least, your legs contain some of the largest muscles in the body, and strengthening them through weight lifting helps boost fat-burning metabolic rates.

Ready to put some funk in your trunk and get rid of those chicken legs forever? The basic but effective leg routine below hits the four key muscle groups of the legs: quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and qluteals. For each exercise, use moderate to heavy weights with lower reps to fully stimulate the muscle fibers. Do three to four sets of eight to 10 reps for each exercise to start, increasing weight as you get stronger.

Perform the exercises in the order they are presented below. Start with doing the routine once per week, and step up to twice per week if your muscles can handle it and you can schedule it in. If you do move up to two leg days per week, be sure to build in at least two and preferably three rest days in between, and try doing one day with lighter weights to give your legs enough time to recover.

The Exercises

  • Barbell Squats (see Photo 1): This classic leg exercise hits all four target leg areas, as well as the abdominals and adductors, making it one of the best overall strength training exercises on this green Earth. Squats are traditionally done with a weighted barbell, but can also be done with dumbbells or on the Smith machine. Proper form is important here, as a poorly performed squat can be murder on your back and knees. Keep your lower back slightly arched throughout. With a loaded bar resting comfortably across your traps and upper back (not your neck), stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and toes pointed slightly outward. Start by bending your knees and shifting your hips back, lowering yourself into a squat position to a point where your thighs are parallel to the floor (advanced squatters can go deeper). Stick your butt out far on descent, as if you're sitting back in a deep chair. Your knees should never push past your toes. Return to a standing position by pushing up through the heels, exhaling as you exert. Do not lock your knees at the top. Pause and go into your next rep. Injury alert: Those with lower back or knee problems should consult a doctor before attempting squats.
  • Machine leg extensions (see Photo 2): A fixture of every gym, the leg extension machine isolates the quadriceps. Sit in the machine, placing your ankles under the roller pads. Adjust the seat so your knees are aligned with the axis of the machine. Inhale and raise your legs until they are almost parallel to the floor. Hold for a second. Exhale and slowly drop your legs to the starting position. Keep the action slow and controlled. Make every rep count.
  • Lying leg curls (see Photo 3): The lying leg curl isolates the three muscles that make up the hamstring group. Lie face down on the padded surface of the lying leg curl machine with your ankles hooked under the roller pads. Inhale and bend your knees to lift your feet towards your buttocks, stopping just before the pad hits your butt. Exhale and slowly return to the starting position. Keep the chest and abs firmly pressed against the surface to further isolate the hamstrings. You'll probably feels these in the calves, too.
  • Dumbbell lunges (see Photo 4): A true butt blaster, lunges are the best exercise for directly hitting the gluteal muscles. Balance can become an issue with lunges (particularly as fatigue sets in), so be attentive to form and posture. Stand with a dumbbell in each hand, feet hip-width apart. Hold the dumbbells slightly out from your sides to help maintain your balance. Step forward with your right foot, allowing your hips to descend straight down until your front right thigh is parallel to the floor. Keep your back straight and your bodyweight concentrated on the right leg, stopping before your left knee hits the floor. Return to the starting position by pushing off your right leg, using the gluteal muscles to do most of the work. Repeat with your left leg in front; when you've done both your right and left leg, you've completed one set. Injury alert: If you have knee problems, consult with your doctor before attempting lunges.
  • Standing barbell calf raises (see Photo 5): This simple exercise is guaranteed to put size on those all-important but oft-neglected calf muscles. Rest a loaded barbell comfortably across your trapezius muscles and upper back. Stand on a low step or board, taking a few seconds to find your balance. Rise on the balls of your feet as high as you can go. Keep your torso straight and your knees slightly bent. Finish the action by lowering your heels past the starting location. Pause and go into your next rep.
Stephen Kelly is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and NPTI-certified personal trainer. He trains his clients at Gold's Gym in San Francisco's Castro district.