How to Tone and Strengthen Your Thigh Muscles
Alongside the tummy and butt, thighs are often cited as a “problem area” for females, driving scads of women to perform endless thigh exercises to very little effect. This is because most of the thigh exercises out there are incompatible with most women’s goals of visibly toning, slimming, and firming their thighs. It may surprise you to learn that many thigh isolation exercises actually cause your thighs to appear bigger by building muscle while failing to burn fat.
Most thigh exercises and thigh-slimming products are at best a waste of your time and at worst a marketing scheme attempting to cheat you out of your hard-earned cash. The best thigh exercises for women will indeed work the thighs, but also target the butt and other large muscle groups to burn as many calories as possible. When multiple muscle groups are activated by strength training exercises, fat loss throughout the body is accelerated, revealing your emerging muscle tone beneath the vanishing adipose tissue.
Keep reading to learn the essential information you need to know to get the strong, toned thighs you want, including basic thigh anatomy, how fat loss actually works, exercise tips and guidelines for thigh exercises, and the best thigh exercises every woman should be doing for the thighs and the whole lower body.
Jump to the Videos of the Best Thigh Exercises for Women or continue reading to learn more.
Basic Thigh Anatomy
Thigh anatomy is fairly complex, since we are talking about two of the main joints in the human body: the hip and the knee. I will simplify thigh anatomy for the purposes of our discussion, only telling you about the main muscle groups and their functions that you should know about when performing the best thigh exercises for women.
The hip joint is the site of many types of movement, including flexion, extension, adduction, abduction, and rotation. The knee joint moves in three ways, flexing, extending, and rotating slightly from side to side.
The thigh itself consists of three main muscle groups: the quadriceps, the hamstrings, and the adductors.
The strongest muscle in the body, the quadriceps is a massive muscle located on the front of the thigh. The quads flex the leg at the hip (lifting the leg toward the belly) and extend the knee (straightening the leg from a bent knee position). The quads actually consist of four different muscle bodies which originate at different places on the front of the hip and femur, converging to insert below the knee joint via a large common tendon. The patella (knee cap) is housed inside the quadriceps tendon, buffering the tendon from the constant joint action at the knee and protecting the knee joint itself from outside impact. The four muscle bodies making up the quadriceps are called rectus femoris, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, and vastus lateralis.
On the back of the thigh, we have the hamstrings, a powerful muscle group made up of three different muscles: biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus. Like the quads, the hamstrings cross the hip and knee, thus acting on both joints. The hamstring muscles work together to extend the thigh (pull the upper leg backwards) and flex the knee (bring the calf toward the back of the thigh). In contrast to the quads, the hamstrings share a common origin point and then diverge to insert into various places below the back and sides of the knee joint.
The adductors are a complex of five muscles which adduct the thigh (pull the thigh inward toward the midline of the body): adductor magnus, adductor longus, adductor brevis, pectineus, and gracilis. The adductors all originate from the lower pubic bone on the pelvis and insert all along the inner surface of the femur. The bodies of the muscles shape the inner thigh.
Other Muscles Affecting the Hip and Knee Joints
It’s definitely worth mentioning that there are a great many other muscles in and near the thigh area which affect the joint motion of the hip and knee.
One group that you should know about are the abductors (mainly gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, and tensor fascia lata), which oppose the adductors by pulling the thigh out sideways away from the midline of the body. The abductors are located on the side of the hip.
Spot Reduction and Thigh Exercises
Before you start these exercises with any false hopes that they will slim your thighs or reduce the appearance of cellulite, you need to thoroughly understand the following: even the best thigh exercises WILL NOT burn fat from your thigh area, giving you slimmer, smoother thighs.
If anything, the best thigh exercises performed alone may make your thighs MORE bulky, due to increased muscle mass under the fat. Spot reduction (the idea that exercising a certain area will burn fat from that spot specifically) is a lie used to fluff out the pages of women’s magazines. It’s not how fat loss actually works. The only way to actually burn fat from your thighs and anywhere else on your body is through an integrated fat-burning exercise program, combining cardio exercise with strength training and of course proper nutrition.
If you have lower body fat percentage, these exercises will visibly tone and define your thighs. If you have a higher body fat percentage, you will need to focus on fat loss in order to see the results of your efforts at strength training.
However, the best thigh exercises for women activate large muscle groups which burn up lots of calories as they function, so these exercises are definitely helpful for overall fat burning.
Exercises Tips and Guidelines for the Best Thigh Exercises
Before doing any exercises, including stretches, warm up with 5-10 minutes of light cardio exercise such as brisk walking, jogging, or biking.
To maintain flexibility and prevent injury as you strengthen you thigh muscles, it’s essential that you stretch the lower body (after warming up, of course). Read our page on leg stretches to learn ways to stretch your leg muscles before and after exercising.
The best thigh exercises for women include motions that activate many muscle groups at once. This results in maximum calories burned while encouraging the muscles to develop in a balanced way. Exercises which isolate hamstrings or quads are a great big waste of your time and may exacerbate current muscle imbalances. Examples of these time-wasters are basically any weight machines you find in the gym, such as knee extension, hamstring curl, thigh adduction, and thigh abduction machines. To strengthen your thighs more safely and effectively, stay away from the machines and focus on body weight and free weight exercises.
The best thigh exercises for women also work out the butt. It’s a good idea to combine all of your lower body work into one day, waiting at least 48 hours in between sessions, to avoid overworking the lower body. Muscles need time and rest in order to repair themselves and become stronger.
It’s a little tough to give you recommendations for weight training volume when performing thigh exercises, since everyone’s fitness level is different. Try sets of 20 squats or lunges and 6-12 deadlifts see if that is effective for you. An effective set is one which causes your muscles to burn out in the desired rep range. Read up on Sets and Repetitions as well as Weight Training Set Structure to learn more about how to structure workouts.
Rest for 30 seconds to one minute (or do a set of an exercise working different muscles if you’re doing a full-body workout) before doing another set of any of the best thigh exercises for women.
You only need three main types of exercises to get a killer thigh workout: lunges, squats and deadlifts. An additional benefit of doing these types of exercises instead of isolation exercises for specific muscles is that they burn many more calories, leading to accelerated fat loss throughout the whole body, including but not limited to the thighs.
You must remember to keep your core tight and stable at all times when doing these exercises, since you will be supporting your own body weight and sometimes added resistance. Unlike many time- and energy- wasting isolation gym machines, you are not relying on a machine to support your weight for you. When doing any of the best thigh exercises for women, stabilize your core while exercising by using your core muscles to draw your bellybutton in toward your spine.
Lunges are the #1 best thigh exercise for women, allowing you to work your hamstrings, quads, and butt all in one exercise. We have dedicated a whole page to the lunge because it’s such an excellent way to work out your lower body. There are so many variations of the lunge that it’s impossible include them all in this article, so we will just talk about three of the best lunges you can do.
During any lunge exercise, keep your upper body as straight up and down as possible. The movement is all in the lower body. Tightening your core muscles will help keep your upper body upright.
Perform enough reps of any of the following bodyweight lunges to fatigue your muscles, then rest and do another set if desired. If you would like to add resistance, you can do so by holding dumbbells or kettlebells either at your sides or up at your shoulders, but added resistance really isn’t necessary to get massive benefits from the lunge exercise.
Here is the most basic and yet highly effective lunge: the Walking Lunge. To perform Walking Lunges, step a few feet forward with one foot and sink toward the ground, keeping your front knee directly aligned over your ankle. Sink down until your front leg forms a 90 degree angle and your back knee is just an inch above the floor. This requires that you have lunged out far enough with the front foot. Keep your core tight and your upper body straight up and down. Rise up and bring the back foot up to meet the front foot, pushing your hips forward and contracting your butt. Repeat on the other side, moving across the room, turning around to come back the way you came if needed to complete your set.
Push Back Lunges
Push Back Lunges have all the benefits of a Walking Lunge, with the added benefit of helping you develop explosive power in your lower body. To perform a Push Back Lunge, lunge forward and sink down just like you were doing a Walking Lunge, but instead of bringing the back foot forward to meet the front foot, bring the front foot back to meet the back foot by pushing explosively backward off the front foot. Push through the whole foot, not just the toes. Since you’re not traveling, Push Back Lunges are perfect if you have limited space. Watch the video to get a sense for form and tempo during the Push Back Lunge exercise.
Inner/Outer Thigh Lunges
Also known as 10 o’clock/2 o’clock Lunges, Inner/Outer Thigh Lunges work the whole thigh, placing special emphasis on the inner and outer thigh.
To perform Inner/Outer Thigh Lunges, the movement is essentially the same as a walking lunge, but you will lunge out at a diagonal as if you were going back and forth to the 10 or 2 position on a clock face. You must lunge far enough forward that your front knee forms a 90 degree angle, otherwise you are working only the quads. As you come up from the lunge, squeeze your inner and outer thigh muscles to emphasize them. Watch the video for a demonstration of Inner/Outer Thigh Lunges.
Squats are another amazing exercise for your whole lower body, including your thighs. Like the lunge, there are myriad variations of the squat, so we will just focus on perfecting our Bodyweight Squat in this article. Body weight is plenty of resistance for most purposes as long as you do high enough reps that your muscles become fatigued.
To do a basic Bodyweight Squat, stand with feet shoulder width apart with toes straight ahead. Tilt your pelvis slightly forward as you sit your butt backward like you are going to sit into a low stool. Your lower back will arch slightly, but keep your core tight to avoid excessive arching or rounding. Keeping your knees stacked directly above your ankles at all times, sink into the squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor, or even lower if your strength and range of motion allow. Keep all four corners of the foot pressed into the floor, favoring neither the heel nor the toes. As you rise, squeeze your glutes firmly as you return to a full standing position.
Aim for a set of 20-30 Bodyweight Squats. Rest for 30-60 seconds before doing another set.
If you struggle to keep your heels grounded during squats, your calves are likely excessively tight. Add calf stretches to your workout routine, including static stretching and self-myofascial release.
If you would like to add resistance to your squat exercise, you can add a barbell held on your upper back behind your head. Watch the video carefully and make sure you have mastered proper squat form before attempting any kind of weighted squats.
When properly performed, the Deadlift is a tremendous exercise for working a great many muscle groups, including the quads, hamstrings, butt, lower back, and upper back. Deadlifts are a great addition to any fat loss program since they activate so many large muscle groups.
Contrary to the beliefs of some, deadlifts are a safe exercise when performed with proper form and technique. It is vital that you understand proper form and technique before attempting the Deadlift exercise.
In a Deadlift, you are lifting the weight with your legs by straightening your knees; you are NEVER lifting with your back. You absolutely must keep your back and core stabilized while doing Deadlifts. Your back is kept in a slightly arched position, NEVER rounded. To avoid rounding the back, keep your lower back muscles and your abdominal muscles contracted. Keep your shoulders activated as well by sticking out your chest slightly and pinching your shoulder blades toward each other, drawing your shoulders back and down.
To perform a basic Deadlift, stand with feet shoulder width apart as close in to the barbell as possible. Bend your knees until you can grasp the bar, never letting your knees go out further than your toes. Point your toes straight ahead. Grasp the bar and stand up by straightening your knees, locking out your hips at the top by strongly contracting the glutes. During the whole movement, keep the barbell as close in to your body as possible so the added weight stays close to your own center of gravity. Remember to keep your core and lower back engaged and your shoulder blades retracted toward each other. Hold for a beat, and then carefully lower the bar back down to the ground just like you lifted it up.
As with any weight-bearing exercise, start with lower weight and add on gradually to prevent overdoing it. Watch the video carefully to observe proper Deadlift form.
If you would like to emphasize your inner thighs, try Sumo Deadlifts.
The main difference between a Sumo Deadlift and a regular Deadlift is that in a Sumo Deadlift, your feet are very wide and your toes are pointing out at an angle instead of straight ahead.
When doing Sumo Deadlifts, make sure your knees stay stacked directly above your ankles; don’t let them deviate outward, inward, forward, or backward.