Help me make my thighs as good as my calves
March 18, 2015 7:15 AM   Subscribe

I have great calves; they are strong, muscular, and well-defined. I have an okay butt. I do NOT have great thighs. What can I do to make my thighs stronger and, if possible, leaner?

I'd like my thighs to be toned, not bulky. I'm working on overall weight reduction, but I'd also like to make my thighs in particular more muscular.

I'm looking for three types of ideas:

1) Specific exercises I can do, ideally that aren't too hard on my knees (not just squats -- they make my knees kind of achy).

2) Anything I can do surreptitiously while sitting in a chair at work in a room with another person (flexing, lifting my legs a bit off the chair, whatever). The more specific the better for this -- "squeeze for x seconds y times" is more helpful to me than "flex your legs".

3) Miscellaneous helpful stuff, especially ways to work more thigh exercise into activities I already do. For example, I walk a lot -- if I lift my legs higher, will that help my thighs? Are there ways I can modify how I walk/climb stairs/stand up/whatever that will make my thighs tighter, even incrementally?

Thank you for any suggestions you might have!
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl to Health & Fitness (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Can you bike? That'll make a big difference pretty quick.
posted by something something at 7:25 AM on March 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have a similar lower-body build, and took up spinning for cardio reasons. After a couple weeks of going once a week, my thighs have become much, much stronger (though not leaner), and my butt is going from "okay" to "pretty damn awesome."
posted by joyceanmachine at 7:36 AM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Anecdotal, but adding uphill workouts has given me some hamstrings that I didn't know were there or possible, and helped elongated them (or at least look more elongated). Adding some hills to my running workouts, or walking uphill on the treadmill (I like to do intervals, and worked myself up to maxing it out for a few minutes). The trick is you can't hold on to anything or any railing, as it reduces the effort from your legs. If you feel the need to hold on to the treadmill, slow it down. Great low-impact workout, but continue to test your incline limits.
posted by raztaj at 7:50 AM on March 18, 2015 [2 favorites]

I know barre is all the rage around here right now, and anecdotal evidence from my coworkers says it's a good place to start. I would take a single teacher-led class to get started and see if you like it and whether your knees can handle it - I know a studio in Arlington offers it, and there's probably others closer to you. My most enthusiastic coworker does it at home now with a video and a chair, so you can definitely keep cost down. I took one class and decided against working it into my routine right now because I wanted a more upper-body focus, but it's definitely intense and more nuanced than just squats.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 8:23 AM on March 18, 2015

Interval cycling for sure. Check out the studies reviewed here, some of which found decreases in abdominal and thigh fat and increases of muscle mass in thighs (and increases in indicators of anabolic stuff, for shorter-term studies). Anecdotally, interval cycling, with increasing resistance, seems to be helping me out in those ways, too.

You could try leg raises, step-downs off a low step (eccentric emphasis may help quads), wall sits with a ball between your legs to strengthen the VMO, and partial squats to 45 degrees. Also, glute strength is important for knee health, so you may want to throw in some bridges and hip thrusts (which also call on quads a bit). Those are things I've been prescribed for my knees (patellofemoral syndrome); it is worth consulting a physio to see what yours need.

also: hip flexors support knee function too - have a google, but hip abductions, clams etc can help.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:54 AM on March 18, 2015

I'd like my thighs to be toned, not bulky.

I'm not a trainer but I hear this from women when this subject comes up. It could just be me. It's not that easy to bulk up unless you have the genetics for it. I'm a man, I used to bike to work every day, an hours a day, every day... and my thighs never got bulky whatsoever. Without doing specific types of heavy weightlifting you're unlikely to get a lot of muscle bulk.

So I too suggest cycling mostly because it's awesome but it will also work your quads, hams and butt pretty well. I do not suggest doing low-rep high-weight squats.
posted by GuyZero at 9:22 AM on March 18, 2015 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the suggestions so far everyone! I'm not in a position to take more classes or join another gym (I already take jiu jitsu classes two nights a week) so suggestions for specific activities I can do at home or work are especially appreciated.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 9:34 AM on March 18, 2015

Hamstring exercises will give you that curve to the back of your upper leg. An easy one is lying on your back with your knees bent and touching, with feet flat on the ground. Now lift your butt off the ground so that only your feet, shoulders, and limp arms are touching the ground, keeping your upper legs, stomach, and chest in a relatively straight line. Like this. Hold this for as long as you might hold a plank, flexing your hamstrings while you do it.

Quadriceps exercises will tone the complex of muscles on the front of your upper leg (or 'top' of your upper leg if you're seated). Sitting upright in a firm chair, gripping its sides, raise (or 'kick' but not quickly) one leg at a time straight our in front of you (alternating left, right, left, right, etc.) slowly, hold for one second at the top (where it's as straight out in front of you as you can get it), then lower it slowly (like a two- or three-count--i.e., don't just release and drop it down with a thud). Do sets of ten with each leg while you're just kickin' it at the computer. If you want to add some weights, you could try tying something 1-2 pounds around each ankle (if you don't have some purpose-bought or -made ankle-weights).

You can also do a similar exercise for your quadriceps while in that "bridge" floor position that works your hammies--when you're up in the position, extend your leg in a straight line with your upper body and hips, holding briefly, then alternating legs. But the exercise above doesn't require you to get down on the floor.
posted by resurrexit at 9:53 AM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also: be aware that musculature is genetic to a large extent, so your calves, glutes, abs, whatever, might fit what you find to be some ideal shape, but other muscle groups just don't shape up the same way no matter how well-conditioned. In other words, you may be fighting chromosomes and not just gravity in your exercise quest!
posted by resurrexit at 9:56 AM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

Agree very much with sio42, make sure you're doing squats correctly. Most people don't squat down low enough -- you need to be squatting at least to the point where your thighs are parallel to the ground, and ideally lower. Squat any higher than that and you'll be putting a TON of stress on your knees. Squat lower and it becomes a hips movement.
posted by darkchocolatepyramid at 11:30 AM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think what you are asking for is how to make your thighs appear more muscular. If that is the case, we have two factors here: the amount of muscle on your legs (probably plenty) and the amount of fat on your legs (probably enough to cover up the definition of your leg muscles).

I think what you really need to look at is where you body stores fat. For me, a woman, I can pretty easily get a 6-pack but still have jiggly thunder thighs. My body stores fat on the thighs and it is the last place to stick. I would need to be around 15% bodyfat to have much definition in my thighs, and it's about there that I would also stop having a period because my bodyfat would be too low.

You can do one of three things:
1. Increase the size of you thigh muscles, and hope you have a small enough level of fat that these bigger muscles will show through the fat. The typical route to hypertrophy is heavy weights, and it will take a year or more of heavy lifting to gain 1-3 pounds of muscle, and your thighs may end up larger than they are now, with a layer of fat on them.
2. Decrease your bodyfat percentage. Muscles will begin to show as you lose bodyfat. The reason bodybuilders show ever muscle is because there is no fat sitting between their skin and muscles. If you think about your thighs in parallel to a man attempting to have a 6 pack, it's the same thing. He would need to build gigantic ab muscles to show through the layer of fat. At some point it is just impossible to build muscles to show through a big beer belly. But even a man with a huge beer belly has a 6 pack under there, it just needs to be revealed by having a lower bodyfat percentage. The adage is that abs are built in the kitchen, and the route to a lowered bodyfat percentage is diet.
3. Decrease bodyfat and increase the size of your muscles. Now you are getting somewhere .

Heavy lifting is the usual route of muscle growth, and women that lift heavy end up calling each other "Quadzilla." You can do heavy squats, deadlifts, lunges, and endless variations of each.

If your knees are hurting in squats, it's often because of a mobility problem higher up in your body, maybe hips or back or even pelvic floor.

Not everyone has the same body, and for me, squatting lower than parallel is unsuccessful and probably dangerous because of the way my pelvis and femur are mated. There are 3 types of pelvis and endless ways for femurs, ligaments and muscles to attach, and not everyone has the same mobility so not everyone can or should move very low.

Bret Contreras is basically doing a PhD on women's legs and butts, and here is a great article about the different kinds of pelvis/femur/squat mobility.

Why People Must Squat Differently

And if anything hurts, stop until you have it resolved. You might want to start with looking for lower body mobility exercising and starting there and working on that for a few weeks.

I think the best answer for your situation is to lower your bodyfat percentage. You can do a lot of exercise, but if you still have a layer of fat over your muscles, you'll never see any definition.
posted by littlewater at 12:07 PM on March 18, 2015 [1 favorite]

you need to be squatting at least to the point where your thighs are parallel to the ground, and ideally lower. Squat any higher than that and you'll be putting a TON of stress on your knees. Squat lower and it becomes a hips movement.

This is not a good idea for those with certain knee conditions, which is why you should talk to a physio.
posted by cotton dress sock at 12:39 PM on March 18, 2015

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