How to really tone your legs: 4 key exercises

Want to get legs that look sexy and strong? Try these four key exercises, and find out which weight machine you should never use.
By James S. Fell, CSCS
How to really tone your legs: 4 key exercises Getty Images

Why do we gain weight on our legs?

Bad news first: the butt and thighs are the primary fat-storage sites for women. When you lose fat, this is usually the last place it comes from. The good news here is that most guys I know love curves — so rock what you got.

The leg machine to avoid at the gym

There is a piece of equipment in the gym called a seated leg press. If I had my way, we’d douse all of these leg-press machines in napalm and hurl them into an active volcano. They are more than just a crappy way to build leg muscles; they are ruptured lumbar discs waiting to happen.

Look at the image in the link above and see how she is bent at the waist. What happens in that position is that the lumbar vertebrae open up at the back and close together at the front. Then you add a tremendous amount of force pushing in exactly the wrong direction, and it can cause a posterior rupture in those lumbar discs.

I have two blown discs in my lower back (not from this machine — the tale is long and boring). I can tell you it’s no fun to have that happen to you, and it took a lot of rehab to get me functional again. Don’t ever, ever use this machine, for this reason alone.


Another reason not to use it is that it isn’t exactly a functional movement. Look again at what she’s doing. Can you imagine a real-life scenario where you need to use strength in that specific type of movement? I can’t.

The right way to tone your legs

Focus instead on movements that use a natural downward force of gravity, instead of some lousy machine that imitates it. Working with gravity that is driving straight down is called a “structural exercise,” and it actually helps build and support the structure of your entire body.

There's been question lately about whether or not this type of weightlifting can build bone density, but it still helps reduce the effects of osteoporosis and fractures as you age — just perhaps not for the reasons people originally believed. Instead, these types of exercises dramatically improve your physical capabilities and strength, so you’re far less likely to fall and a lot tougher if you do. These types of exercises are like a fountain of youth. You want to be tough and spry into your old age, don’t you?

One thing I’ll note is that what I’m about to recommend is pretty intense stuff, and it’s intense because it gets results. If you’re a rookie, you must get proper training. I don't recommend hiring a trainer at a commercial gym — I believe that many of them aren't well trained, and have sales quotas of training they have to sell. Instead, go through a university, a private studio, or a community centre — find someone with a degree in exercise physiology, and preferably someone certified by the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiologists.


The four exercises for awesome legs

With that motivation, here is what you need to do to build strong and sexy legs, in rank order of importance:

Squats: You knew I was going to write that, didn’t you? It’s almost become a cliché. The reason why is because they’re awesome. Look at the movement in this video — now that is a natural movement that you make all the time. Being able to do that well not only makes those legs look better, it makes your entire body more powerful from head to toe.

Dead lifts: This is old-school, hardcore, bad-ass kind of lifting I want you to do. This one and squats both really require proper technique to get the benefits and prevent injury, so remember what I wrote about qualified instruction. See a graphic here.

Lunges: There are lots of different ways to do these, and mixing them up is always good. Again, a good trainer can show you a variety of types of lunges. Here is one.


Calf raises: There are lots of different ways to doing these as well. You can stand in a machine, sit in a machine, stand on a step and just do one leg with your body weight while holding a railing, or do that last one with a dumbbell in the other hand for added weight. They’re all good.

A few machines that are okay

I think quad extension and hamstring curl machines have gotten a bad rap. Yes, they are machines, and yes, they manipulate the angle of gravity — but they’ve also been designed for use in rehab and can strengthen and improve the look of those leg muscles. I don’t believe in relying on them as a primary exercise for legs, but to finish things off they’re just fine. Another machine that isn’t bad is the hack squat.

What I mean by that is, say you’ve done all of the above and are feeling pretty wiped — but still have a little gas left in the tank and want to do just a bit more focused leg work. If that’s the case, using these machines is fine.

And finally, allow me to apologize for all the male models in the above links. It’s a great site for showing how to do various exercises, but apparently they don’t have any women there.


James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, AB. He writes the column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Los Angeles Times and consults with clients on strategic planning for fitness and health. Get a free metabolism report at Email James at

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