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Target the Thighs

Strength & balancing exercises

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Target the Thighs

An imbalance between the quadriceps and the hamstring muscles can lead to knee injuries and strains. Thigh exercises are the key to preventing injury.

Our thighs are a muscle group that we frequently target in the gym, but do we really know why we are training them?

The quadriceps are a group of four muscles located on the front part of our thigh, called the vastus medialis, intermedius, and lateralis, plus the rectus femoris. They control the straightening of the knee and the tracking of the kneecap. The rectus femoris also acts as a hip flexor.

Quadriceps are an extremely important muscle group and are recruited for many of our everyday activities such as walking (especially uphill), going upstairs, stepping over obstacles, and running. Since these are common activities, this muscle group tends to be overtrained. The resulting muscle imbalance between the quadriceps and their opposing muscles along the back of the thigh (the hamstrings) can lead to knee injuries and hamstring strains if not properly addressed.

Tight Hams

Our hamstrings make up the back of the thigh, attaching behind the shinbone. The three muscles of the hamstrings are the semimembranosis, semitendinosus and the bicep femoris. This group is used to flex the knee and extend the leg from the hip, and is also recruited when we are pushing against something.

As previously mentioned, our hamstrings tend to be weaker than our quadriceps. An ideal quadriceps-to-hamstring strength ratio is 2:1.

Being weaker muscles, the hamstrings are also prone to muscle tightness, especially if we tend to sit a lot. This tightness makes us more susceptible to a hamstring tear when we need to stop ourselves suddenly–such as when decelerating in sports–and can cause lower back pain and discomfort by pulling our pelvis out of alignment.

Tight and shortened hamstrings cause the hips and pelvis to rotate back (called a posterior pelvic tilt), which in turn pulls on the lower back, causing it to flatten. Once our lower back flattens, we lose our natural lower lumbar curve and set ourselves up for chronic lower back pain.

A simple hamstring flexibility test is to bend over from a standing position and try to touch our toes. If we feel tightness behind the knees or just under the bum, then we have tight hamstrings.

Balanced Training

So what are the best exercises to target the thighs? I recommend the Big 3 lower body exercises: squats, lunges, and deadlifts. These exercises challenge the quadriceps and hamstrings, but they also work on your balance, core, and postural muscles. Try these two variations of the Big 3 at your next workout.

PJ’s Combo Lunge-Deadlift Drill

  • Hold a pair of light- to medium-weight dumbbells in each hand.
  • Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, shoulders pulled back and down and abdominals contracted.
  • Step back with your left foot and lunge. Make sure that your front knee is tracking with the toes and in line with your ankle.
  • Step forward again so that your feet are hip-width apart, and then position the dumbbells in front of the body. With slightly bent knees, perform a deadlift–hinge from the hips, bending forward and reaching with weights toward the floor. A deadlift is an extremely form-sensitive move, so make sure that your spine is neutral, that you only go down as far as your hamstrings will allow (if your back starts to round, you have gone too far), and that you can feel your hamstrings grab from the start of the movement.
  • Slowly come back up to a fully erect position, then step back with your right foot and perform a lunge.
  • Keep alternating a step-back lunge and a deadlift for a count of 10. Start with one set and work yourself up to two to three sets a workout.

Squat to Heel Raise with Medicine Ball

  • Stand with feet hip width apart, toes slightly splayed out, while holding onto a medicine ball with both arms extended in front of you.
  • Come down into a squat by pressing your bum rearward.
  • As you come out of the squat, swing the medicine ball upwards, while keeping your arms straight and lifting up onto your toes one leg at a time.
  • Aim for two to three sets of 25 to 50 reps per leg.

Tip: Make sure that you can see your toes as you squat down. Train your posture as well during this movement, and maintain a neutral spine by hinging forward from the hips.

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