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How To Achieve Athletic Legs?
With The Right Workout And Diet

Isaac Robertson
Published by Isaac Robertson
Fact checked by Donald Christman, BHSc FACT CHECKED
Last updated: September 27, 2021

As a certified personal trainer, one of the things I most often work on with new clients is building strong legs. See, so many people focus most of their bodybuilding efforts on the upper body.

And while that muscle growth looks great, you can end up with the lollipop effect - where you have a bulky chest, shoulders, and arms, all sitting on top of very slim legs.

So, for today’s post, I want to give you some background to planning leg exercises so that your lower body is in proportion with your upper body.

Summary of the Key Findings

  • Building athletic-looking legs require a combination of the right exercises and nutrition.
  • To achieve the right muscle and BMI balance, you’ll need to combine different weight loads for weight training with cardio and plyometrics. 
  • Remember to take regular rest days to allow your muscles to recover and build up more fibers.

5 Tips For Building Athletic Legs

man legs working out a gym and a woman warming up her legs

Here’s what I go through with all my clients when planning a lower body routine:

1. Vary Your Weight Training Loads

I know that it’s very tempting to exercise leg muscles by loading up the weight and reducing the reps to about six of them.

And that’s a great thing for a bulking phase, but every professional bodybuilder understands that you shouldn’t go through continuous bulking.

See, during the bulking phase, you need to eat a load of food. And while the workouts will build up more mass, the food will also increase your BMI.

To keep the fat in check, you need to carefully plan your weight loads and go through regular phases with a lighter load and higher reps to burn away that fat and gain more muscle definition.

It's the same for your pecs and biceps as for your glutes, hamstrings, and calves.

2. Don’t Ignore Cardio

man at the gym on a treadmill

In addition to varying the weight loads, you also need to regularly plan for a cutting phase.

This would be a week where you focus a lot more on maintaining muscle mass with weight lifting and burning fat with cardio.

Some of my clients also like to add a second workout on specific days of the week where they might do 30 to 40 minutes of running or rowing at high intensity.

It’s a great way to have constant control over your BMI and to improve your fitness levels as well.

3. Make Those Workouts Dynamic

What I mean here is that you should just be doing isolation exercises. That might work well for defined body shaping when you’re already in great shape. But that’s not how professional bodybuilders got there.

So, don’t aim to do workouts that only target your inner thighs or your glutes.

Instead, focus on compound exercises for larger muscle groups. And ideally, do so with routines with similar movement patterns as you would see in different sports.

And here’s how to do that.

4. Introduce Plenty of Plyometrics

man doing box jumps in a gym

Plyometrics are exercises that get your whole body moving, and they target multiple muscle groups at the same time.

They are also almost entirely dependent on your own body weight.

A great example for the lower body is box jumps.

  1. Set up a sturdy box about knee height and stand in front of it.
  2. Bend your knees and jump up onto the box.

It’s that simple!

Just make sure you pay attention to any possible knee pain you have, as some plyometric workouts have a higher impact on joints.

“Jumper's knee, also known as patellar tendonitis, is a condition characterized by inflammation of your patellar tendon.” - HopkinsMedicine.org.

5. Don’t Over Exercise Your Legs

man sitting down holding his leg in pain

Don’t get into the habit of making every day a leg day.

Even if you have a lot of catching up to do, it’s important to give your legs a rest.

Instead, focus on proper form on your leg day and gradually add weight to your exercise sets.

Not only will you have better results from your calves to your inner thigh and glutes, but your ankles, knees, and hips will thank you for the rest as well.

The Importance Of Nutrition For Athletic Legs

white background with plate and measuring tape

If you’re a regular reader or client of mine, then apologies if you’ve heard this about a thousand times before: You can't out-train a bad diet!

At least 70% of your body composition and physique is entirely down to what you eat. And when it comes to creating perfectly a shaped butt and thighs, it’s important to balance your diet.

Nutritional Tips For Bulking

A typical fitness and diet plan might go through 3 to 4 weeks of bulking and then one week of cutting.

And it’s absolutely vital that you take in a significant calorie surplus during those bulking weeks [1]. That means eating a lot more calories, so you get a surplus every single day.

If you don’t follow this approach, then your muscles will stop growing. There is no way around it. Even with heavy work at the gym, your body will go into preservation mode because there is a mismatch between energy in and energy out.

Nutritional Tips For Cutting

Once you head into a cutting phase, you have to do the exact opposite. See, during the bulking phase, you’ll be gaining muscle mass and fat from all the extra calories.

And the only way to get rid of fat is to burn more calories than you’re taking in. What you want to do here is carefully cut down on carbs in your diet, as those are the easiest macronutrients for the body to transform into fat.

At the same time, you’ll want to maintain a higher balance of protein in your diet so that your training doesn’t result in muscle wasting.

Sample Training Routine For Athletic Legs

leg view of men working out outdoors

OK, so you’ve got the basics of what your training plan should include and how to support your muscles with a good diet.

Now it’s time to look at a sample exercise routine.

Squats

woman doing weight squats in the gym

Even the most basic form as bodyweight squats are a great way to engage the thighs, hamstrings, and glutes.

But it gets even more interesting when you add weights and go for a few variations.

My personal favorite is the Bulgarian split squat.

It’s a single-leg squat where the starting position is one foot on the ground in front of a bench or a chair. The other foot rests on the bench, and you lower your body down by bending the forward leg.

Continue lowering your body as far as you can while still being able to push yourself up again. Try this without weights first to get your muscles used to the pressure and keeping balanced at the same time.

Then, pile on as much weight as you can to get to 8 to 12 reps in each set for each leg.

Leg Extensions

The standard leg extension uses a machine where you sit upright with the weight mechanism in front of your ankles. Your knees should be at a right angle to get started and then stretch or extend your legs out straight and feel the strain in the quads.

For good form, make sure you count to two on the extension part, hold it for a second, and then lower the weight back down again for a count of three. It’s by far one of the best workout movements to tone your quads.

Leg Press

This also requires a machine, and it creates a similar movement to the squats. Your butt is on a seat with a backrest, and you start with your knees bent. Then you push yourself up along with the weights and feel the burn gradually increase in your legs.

I find this causes less stress on the shoulders as you don’t have to balance a heavy barbell, and the result is very similar.

It’s a great way to target your glutes, quads, and thighs all in one go [2].

Calf Raises

man leg calves with muscles

This is another common problem where athletes end up with skinny calves.

Grab hold of some dumbbells or place a barbell on your shoulders.

Stand in a completely straight line with your feet hip-width apart. Now use explosive power to get onto your tip-toes and slowly lower yourself down again.

You’ll need to do about 15 or more reps to really feel the burn, and it’s also important to point your toes either in or outward across sets.

Walking Lunges

Lunges are a great way to target your inner thighs. And with some simple adjustments in your stance, you’ll be able to change the intensity without adding weight.

Stand with your feet hip-width apart, then take a step about two feet forward. Then bend the forward knee to a 90-degree angle and push yourself back up to a parallel standing position.

Repeat this for the next leg and a total of 15 reps.

Sprints

This is our first cardio option, and we prefer this to simple jogging. Not only does it get your heart rate up and burn some fat, but the intensity also strains the muscles enough to avoid losing mass.

Ladder Machine

And finally, there’s the ladder machine. It’s a fun way to end a training session and also adds some hip mobility into your routine [3]. You will need to rotate your hips a lot more than you would in the leg press or squats.

Are You Going To Take A Different Approach For Your Legs?

Even if you don't have ambitions to appear on the cover of Men’s Health, there are very good reasons to avoid the lollipop effect of skinny legs and bulky chest and arms.

With the above training and nutritional information, and the sample routine, you should be in a good position to achieve much more athletic-looking legs.

Try it out for a few weeks, and see how it works for you.


References:

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5786199/
  2. https://www.coachmag.co.uk/exercises/leg-exercises/3500/leg-press-versus-squats-which-should-you-do
  3. https://www.polar.com/blog/hip-mobility-exercises/

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