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Leg training for women: The complete guide

Beintraining für Frauen: Der komplette Ratgeber

Personal trainer Andrew Pardue and fitness model Anna McManamey have teamed up to put things into perspective when it comes to leg training. After reading this guide, you'll never skip leg day again.

As a competition prep coach and someone who is passionate about fitness, it's always great to see women who are willing to get off the treadmill and start putting in consistent work in the weight room. These women, who don't believe that old myth that training with weights will make women bulky and beefy, understand the vital importance of resistance training when it comes to achieving the ideal body.

Although many women want to develop their lower body, it's sad to see how few of them use the exercises that have been shown in scientific research to be the most effective for gains in strength and muscle mass.

Instead, women tend to perform endless sets on the hip adductor machine and spend endless hours on the stepper during each training session - leaving much to be desired in terms of muscle adaptations and body composition improvement.

While these exercises can be useful in their own way, below are some aspects of leg training that you should consider if you want to get the most out of your efforts and get closer to your goals.

Why women should train their legs

Muscle fiber recruitment

The biggest problem with the exercises listed above is that they stimulate significantly fewer muscle fibers than multi-joint exercises. By incorporating multi-joint exercises into your training program instead of some of the isolation exercises you currently perform, you can get more benefit from each exercise while reducing the amount of time you have to spend training your legs.

Let's take the adductor machine as an example. The majority of women perform this exercise with almost religious fervor, but it only stimulates the adductor muscles of the leg such as the adductor brevis, adductor longis and gracilis.

You've never heard of these muscles? This is because they are very small compared to other muscles of the legs such as rectus femoris, which is part of the quadriceps. Training smaller muscles such as the adductor group is helpful, but let's compare this exercise to classic barbell squats.

Squats will activate muscle fibers in the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteus, adductors, abductors, abs, lower back and to a lesser extent the calves. So with just one set of squats, you can activate not only the muscles activated by the adductor machine, but also many more. Just by looking at this one point, it's easy to see why it can be helpful for a woman trying to improve the development of her lower body to focus on exercises like squats in her training program.

Progressive overload

Another very common mistake among exercisers in general - and women in particular - is not using sufficient resistance to force the muscle to adapt and grow. It can be easy to just go through the motions and stop a set as soon as it becomes a little uncomfortable or strenuous. However, our bodies are extremely adaptable to their environment.

In addition to this, muscle tissue is metabolically very costly to the body, meaning that it takes a lot of energy to build and maintain muscle tissue. For this reason, when it comes to more than the minimum required for daily activities, the body is very stubborn about building additional muscle tissue, which it then has to continuously supply and maintain with energy.

This is the point where you need to take action and give the body an extra incentive. To build new muscle tissue, an exerciser must provide enough resistance to force the body to adapt by building new muscle tissue to keep up with the new demands. For readers of this article, this means that being willing to push yourself to move more weight or perform more repetitions in each training session is imperative to building muscle tissue and improving the appearance of the legs over time.

A second point to consider is muscle fiber recruitment. Above we have already discussed the effects of exercise complexity on the recruitment of more muscle fibers. Another determining factor in muscle fiber recruitment is, as you've probably guessed correctly, sufficient overload.

Whether it is by moving a heavier weight with fewer repetitions or moving a lighter weight with more repetitions, the use of a range of repetitions has been shown to positively influence muscle growth when adequate intensity is used (1). A common trait of virtually all successful training programs is to perform each set to absolute muscle failure or near muscle failure.

When a muscle is performing near maximal effort, a greater percentage of muscle fibers will become active. And as a muscle or muscle group gets stronger, fewer fibers need to be recruited to move a given weight. In the gym, this means that if you typically perform 3 sets of squats at 50 kilos and 10 reps as part of your training program, your body will adapt during the first few weeks by getting stronger. However, after this initial adaptation, subsequent training sessions with 3 sets of squats of 50 kilos and 10 repetitions will only result in less overall muscle activation.

At this point, the trainee must either begin to increase the weight on the bar or increase the volume by performing more repetitions, more sets or both over time. If you started an exercise program and saw significant improvements initially, but after the first few weeks you look in the mirror and wonder why things aren't progressing any further, then this is very likely the reason for your plateau.

Calorie consumption

Focusing on multi-joint exercises will not only result in more muscle growth, but will also allow you to burn more calories during your training sessions.

Multi-joint exercises such as squats and leg presses, when performed correctly and with the right intensity, are certainly not easy. They require full body stabilization, increased cardiovascular output and a strong release of power through multiple muscle groups. In addition to helping you achieve consistent improvements in strength and muscle mass, you'll also burn a lot more calories.

By consistently performing heavy multi-joint exercises, you can build more muscle, burn more calories and see greater cardiovascular benefits than if you were to focus solely on isolation exercises. Now that you're burning more calories by regularly performing multi-joint exercises, you can more easily maintain a leaner and more athletic body all year long.

Hormonal differences

After reading the phrase "more muscular and stronger" several times in this article, you may be wondering how anyone could expect you to train this way without getting bulky and beefy like most men who train this way. These concerns are understandable, but one key difference between male and female athletes can ease your worries.

It's not just that women are descended from Venus and men from Mars - they also have very different hormonal profiles. When it comes to gym performance and physical appearance, testosterone is one of the most important factors in determining muscle building capacity. Without adequate testosterone levels, human muscle-building potential can be quite limited.

For women, however, this can also be a great relief as they generally have much lower testosterone levels than men. To give you an idea of how big this difference is, the average 19 year old or older man has a testosterone concentration of 240 to 950 ng/dL. In contrast, testosterone levels in women of the same age are generally in the range of only 8-60 ng/dL. This corresponds to a meagre 3 to 6% of the testosterone concentration of their male counterparts. (2)

Of course, this is a range, as hormone concentrations can change with age - and to a lesser extent based on lifestyle. For the concerned woman, however, since testosterone levels are a primary factor in muscle building potential, this means that even if she trains as hard as she can week after week, her muscle building potential will be much lower than the average man.

The exception to this is women who have a genetic predisposition to build more muscle (which is quite rare) or women who use performance enhancing substances to alter their hormonal profile to make it more conducive to muscle building.

Knowing this, you can be sure that the old myth that training with weights makes you bulky is far from true. You should realize that the small gains in muscle will serve to improve your body. As long as your diet is in the green and you keep your body fat levels low enough, getting big and bulky is a fear you'll quickly forget about when you start pushing yourself harder in the gym.

Anna McManamey on strength training

It can be difficult to take advice like this, which goes against the common practice of most women in the gym, when it comes from a male author. That's why I asked Anna McManamey - competitive figure athlete, fitness model and trainer - to give her opinion on the subject.

As a trainer, I've definitely noticed a change in the way women train. Over the last few years, more women seem to have started incorporating at least some form of strength training into their program, which is great to see. However, it's the amount of weight they move and the exercise selection where you see the most mistakes.

Whenever a new client contacts me, their biggest concern is something along the lines of "I don't want to look manly" or "I don't want to get bulky, I just want to get lean and improve my muscle tone." I even had a client whose husband was so worried about her losing her femininity that she kept it a secret from him that she had contacted me! My answer to all these women is always the same: to build a shapely body and to have good definition, you need to build muscle. And to achieve this, you need to train with weights - heavy weights!

If the weight is only a few kilos to start with and it's hard for you, that's fine - but you still have to struggle to do those last few reps. Just moving from machine to machine and doing a relaxed 15 to 20 reps without breaking a sweat is not going to be enough.

The point at which my clients start to see significant improvements in their bodies is when they increase the intensity of their workouts. Their metabolic rate increases, they start to look leaner and they start to build muscle, giving them a more defined and shapely appearance without losing their curves.

The truth is that women have to work extremely hard for every ounce of muscle they want to build. You're not going to turn into Arnold Schwarzenegger overnight - it's just not going to happen. What's more, that dreaded beefy look is usually the result of building muscle without controlling your diet. To achieve some definition, you need to lose fat as well as build muscle, so it's important that you watch your nutritional intake too.

Another common mistake I see women make is in their exercise choices. Again, there seems to be this widespread fear that performing heavy multi-joint exercises such as squats and deadlifts is only for men and will rob a woman of any femininity.

I think a lot of this misperception is fueled by the misinformation in the media: "do 100 crunches a day to slim your waist," "do bicep curls to sculpt your arms," "glute kickbacks for a tighter butt," "tricep presses to banish love handles," etc. As a result of this, I see many women using the wrong exercises in the gym, focusing only on certain muscle groups like butt, arms and abs, while completely neglecting other muscle groups.

Not only is this ineffective, but over time it can easily lead to muscular imbalances and potential injury. I teach my clients that this type of spot fat reduction is a myth and that they will get the best results from a well-rounded and balanced program that includes big and heavy multi-joint exercises that recruit more muscle and burn more calories.

Aesthetic benefits aside, some of the best and most rewarding results I've seen in my clients are the improvements they've seen in their mental toughness. There is nothing that will make you feel more like you can take on the rest of the world than successfully completing a tough workout session with weights. Many of the women who come to me initially feel weak, unhappy with themselves and their appearance and lack confidence.

After a few weeks of regular training and controlling their diet, the change in their self-esteem is simply breathtaking. Many of them are unaware of the physical and mental strength they possess and it is only when they surpass personal bests or can perform flawless push-ups or pull-ups that they realize their true capabilities. This spills over into other aspects of their lives - their career, their family life and how they deal with stressful situations. It is very rewarding to observe this.

Leg exercises for women

If I could choose just 5 exercises for one of my clients and her lower body training to help her maximize each of her workouts, I would choose the following exercises:

  1. Classic squats with a barbell
  2. Romanian deadlift
  3. Walking lunges
  4. Leg presses
  5. Barbell hip thrusts

These five exercises are perfect for working all the muscles of the lower body, burning more calories during a training session and even training movements that are used in daily life. For example, squats can help you sit down and stand up or lunges can improve your gait and make activities such as climbing stairs or running easier.

Once a program has been built around these exercises, other isolation exercises such as gluteus exercises, calf raises or step-ups can be added to round out your workout. Below are a few different workouts that you can use in different situations to get more out of each training session and develop the stunning legs you've always dreamed of.

Leg workouts for women

The time saver

Vacation time, busy kids, a deadline on a major project - there are countless things that can contribute to a hectic schedule. But being busy doesn't have to mean physical inactivity. With a little ingenuity, you can complete excellent workouts within a short period of time using supersets, circuit training or short rest intervals.

This template will allow you to continue using the important and beneficial multi-joint exercises while saving time that you can use for your other commitments. Not to mention, this workout is great for increasing metabolic stress and pump during your workout.

Exercise

Sets

Pause

1st squat

5

10-15

1:00

2a. Walking lunges

4

12-14 (per leg)

--

2b. Dumbbell step-ups

4

12-14 (per leg)

1:00

3a. Romanian deadlift

3

12-15

--

3b. Leg press

3

12-15

1:00

The Volumizer

On the opposite side of the spectrum is the following program. If you have a little more time to dedicate a few weeks to a program with higher volume, more sets and more reps, this can be a great way to stimulate new growth and improve your overall work capacity.

Exercise

Sets

Pause

1st squat

6

10

1:15-1:30

2. Romanian deadlift

6

10

1:15-1:30

3. leg press

4

15

1:15-1:30

4. walking lunges

4

15/leg

2:00

5. seated calf raises

3

12-15

1:15

6. gluteus press

3

12-15/leg

1:00

The strength program

Getting stronger and increasing the weights on the bar is a great thing in itself, which can boost self-confidence. In addition, focusing on lower repetition ranges can improve myofibrillar hypertrophy. This is muscle growth that occurs when the muscle fibers become larger due to mechanical stress (such as the stress that comes from moving heavy weights with few repetitions).

This is different from so-called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, which many believe is caused by higher repetition ranges that result in cellular swelling and an accumulation of metabolic products to potentially increase the overall volume of muscle tissue. This type of growth comes from training sessions similar to the training session in the last example.

As mentioned earlier, this workout focuses on myofibrillar hypertrophy through a repetition scheme with lower repetition ranges. In addition to this, I have observed in my clients and myself that moving heavy weights results in adaptations that will carry over to training with lower weights and higher repetitions. After training with heavy weights, training with lighter weights can be less mentally challenging and training with a given weight and more repetitions can feel easier.

Exercise

Sets

Rest

1st squat

5

5

2:00

2nd leg press

5

5

2:00

3. front squats

3

4-6

1:30

4. Romanian deadlift with dumbbells

3

4-6

1:30

5. hip adduction machine

3

10-12

1:00

6. hip abduction machine

3

10-12

1:00

Get started

If one of your goals is to get better looking legs, then it's time you take control of your progress by using proven exercises that can give you better and faster results than all those mainstream exercise strategies used by many women due to silly social norms and misinformation. Using the workouts described above is a great starting point to get one step closer to your goals and build the body you've always dreamed of.

https://www.muscleandstrength.com/articles/leg-training-women

References

  1. Schoenfeld, Brad J. "Is There a Minimum Intensity Threshold for Resistance Training-Induced Hypertrophic Adaptations?" Sports Med Sports Medicine (2013): 1279-288. web. 22 Dec. 2015.
  2. "Test ID: TTFB." Mayo Clinic: Mayo Medical Laboratories. Web. 22 Dec. 2015. .
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