Exercises for Legs and Core – Don’t Neglect These Key Muscles


If you’re like many guys, you’ve got your routine down. Your chest, biceps, and triceps are so well sculpted they look like Michelangelo chiseled them, although they’re the result of your sweat and, maybe, tears. You get the credit; you made the sacrifices. You didn’t hone your craft while an object in a crowded group exercise class, or while a subject in a series of personal training sessions, but as the author of your own story. You worked your way up to using a 350 pound barbell to bench press. Each of your shoulders also now will take nothing less than 30 pounds of weight when you do lateral raises. Anything less feels like you’re lifting a pair of plastic dumbbells. Triceps dips? Kids play. Losing that 25 pounds makes your own bodyweight too light to do the trick. You need real weight now. Pat yourself on the back. High five!

But what are those? You last worked your legs when? They aren’t much bigger than mine, and I’m a 51-year-old arthritic female having a bad hair day. And I’m only 5’2 (5’1 and a half, really). And I can actually squat more weight than you. I don’t mean to burst your bubble, but your body has a bottom half and a core as well. I’ve noticed that from time to time you do a few knee-ins or sit-ups at the end of your routine, but don’t you think your core deserves more? That your legs deserve a little bit of attention?

The muscles in our cores – hips, backs, and abs – are responsible for our posture, balance, stability, and mobility. Without a strong core, we often experience pain when we twist or bend or walk. Not all skeletal muscle is connected to bone. Many core muscles aren’t. That is one of the reasons why the core muscles can be a problem. Many are connected only within the soft tissues of the abdomen. So a weak or injured core makes balancing difficult, partly by interfering with movement, which includes the kind of movement that allows us to strengthen our bodies – squatting, kneeling or lunging, going up and down stairs, twisting, and crunching.

Once a major injury occurs to our cores, it is often too late to strengthen the muscles that would have prevented that injury, because exercise can place too much pressure on the injured area, such as that of the lower back or hip. That makes it difficult to get through everyday life. So the best medicine is prevention.

legs-press-workoutsNow pardon the pun, but some of you are what’s called in the bodybuilding world: hardgainers. Building muscle takes a whole lot of effort on your part. Hypertrophy (muscle enlargement) often eludes you. I’ve seen that over and over again when it comes to legs, especially. I have seen some of you with “bird legs” lift 800 to 1200 pounds. That calls into question the relationship between big muscles and strength and power. You have the legs of endurance runners. Maybe you’re one of those men. If you don’t know, then now is the time to find out. Rarely do we know what we are capable of until we have put in an honest effort. An effort that is likely to result in a positive outcome is often an educated one. When we don’t know what we are doing, we need to find out. To prepare ourselves, to look, but leap. Maybe in spite of your best efforts, you will find that you cannot build large leg muscles. What do you do?

Keep lifting. Change your goals, your priorities from gaining muscle to increasing muscular endurance, strength, and power, change your priorities to improving aspects of fitness that are associated with living a long, healthy life. Hypertrophy just looks good. However, it is not a barometer of fitness. The issue earlier was that “I can lift more weight than you”, not the size of your legs, but your lack of effort.

As a personal trainer, and as a human being who wants to live a long, healthy life, my take on exercise, diet, psychiatry, is biased. If the benefit outweighs the risk, then the risk is definitely worth it. If you’ve read my other articles, you’ve probably figured out by now that I’m big on effort and small on entitlement. Watching most of the animals in the kingdom struggle for survival each day, tells me that I’m only entitled to a higher power, that it’s not likely that I’ll find self-esteem on the beach in a bottle.

Yes, you can hurt your back while strengthening your core and leg muscles. But there is a better chance that you will eventually hurt your core muscles if you do nothing to strengthen them nor your leg muscles. Remember: Our muscles weaken as we age. That is why our heart rates fall, and it is partly responsible for why we lose balance, that and the fact that we also lose power in our legs. Power is equal to acceleration and strength, a factor of mass or weight.

To prevent injuries, including back injuries, injuries caused by falls, by twisting… with my clients, I use what I think of as four (4) essential leg exercises and three (3) essential core ones. (I’ve probably read somewhere that those are the four essential leg exercises. I just don’t remember where I read it.) The leg exercises are:

It might be easier to see the similarities and differences on a chart.

ExerciseQuadsHamstringsGlutesHipsLower BackUpper BackCalvesArms

Some of the exercises also involve other muscles to a lesser extent. I use a C to denote those muscles. You can find exercise guides here on ShapeFit. While you’re there, check out their interactive training map. Just click on the muscle group to get a list of exercises. And guys, don’t just click on the ones for the upper body. We’re talking about legs and core here.

As you can see, the deadlift actually works more muscles than the other leg exercises. Some say that it is the best all around non-power exercise. One of the things that’s interesting to note about the deadlift is that it is involved in all power exercises, the Hang Clean, the Clean and Jerk, the Snatch. Deadlifts prepare our bodies well for bending, especially our lower backs and hamstrings.

Lunges work many more muscles than I can cite on that chart. They are important because they resemble kneeling, something we often have to do. They also improve our dynamic mobility, our ability to change position in all planes of movement.

legs-squats-workoutsSquats allow us to practice stability, static balance, which is balance while we are not moving. Stability needs to precede mobility. So the squat is an exercise that should be mastered before lunges are introduced. They mimic, probably more so than any other leg exercise, the way we move the majority of the time. We squat (or kneel, lunge) when picking up things from the floor, when looking in a low cabinet, when running, when landing.

Not only does stair walking provide us with a good cardio interval workout, but when we walk up and down enough flights, within a day, we will feel it in your butts (glutes), quads, hamstrings, and calves. Recently, I read an article that discussed why stepping of any type could be difficult. I can recall some of it, because I teach jogging and have used the article to help encourage some clients.

The reason why stepping is often difficult is because of our bodyweight and the fact that we put many times our weight on our knees as we step. So when we walk, we place about one and one-half times our bodyweight on our knees. Going up and down stairs causes us to place three times our bodyweight on our knees, while squatting is about our weight times five worth of pressure. That is the reason why we need to make sure that we use proper form when we exercise. At the very least, look at some video before attempting an exercise. Better yet hire a personal trainer to help you with your form whenever you are unsure about how to do a series of exercises properly.

Since our core muscles also weaken as we age, if we do nothing to prevent it, and since they are instrumental in controlling both our upper and lower bodies, core exercises can be even more challenging than leg exercises for a lot of people. Many people do not have strong cores. Like with other resistance exercise, muscular endurance in the core has to be developed first. For doing this, I suggest:

  • Bird Dogs
  • Planks
  • Crunches

The ultimate goal for planks and the bird dog is to be able to hold the correct positions for 30 seconds, although I often begin clients with a 10 second goal. If we have to, we work our way up to sit-ups, leg raises, knee-ins… It just depends on where they are. And you should start where you are – no higher or lower to accomplish your goals and to avoid injury.

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About Author

Brenda Gaines Hunter

Brenda Gaines Hunter specializes in functional training for deconditioned populations, recreational athletes, senior citizens, people struggling with obesity, diabetes, asthma and arthritis. See my profile page for more information!

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