3 Moves to Strengthen and Tone Your Legs

Get leaner, stronger quads and hamstrings with these moves.

A smiling middle aged white man performs a body weight squat while exercising at home

Medically reviewed in October 2022

Updated on November 10, 2022

If you're motivated to improve the strength and appearance of your legs, you might be tempted to load up your workouts with leg moves in hopes that the targeted attention will pay off quickly. It is true that your legs contain some of the largest and most powerful muscles in your body—think glutes (aka your butt), quadriceps (thighs), and hamstrings. So it stands to reason that any good overall workout will lean heavily into leg moves.

But to burn fat throughout your body—including your legs—you need a holistic approach rather than isolating specific areas.

One of the most popular—and persistent—training myths is the concept of spot reduction. Proponents claim that you can reduce fat in a specific area by performing certain exercises with those body parts. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work this way.

As experts at the American Council of Exercise and the American College of Sports Medicine point out, your body doesn’t know that you want to eliminate fat in one area over another. Fat reduction is instead a system-wide process that happens everywhere in the body.

Managing your weight through exercise takes time. And it involves developing an overall fitness routine that includes at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous cardiovascular exercise (such as brisk walking, jogging, running, swimming, or bicycling). Add to that at least two days’ worth of resistance exercise (like weight lifting or working with elastic bands).

While your overall fitness routine can help you reduce the amount of body fat you have—including around your thighs and hips—there are a number of exercises you can try to further tone the muscle hiding beneath that fat.

Try these moves that hit your leg muscles from several key angles:

Lateral band walk
Start by placing an elastic band just above your ankles. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with the band taut. Bend your knees slightly and take a step to the side with one leg, then follow with the other. Do 8 to 10 repetitions in one direction, then switch sides and walk back the other way. If you have limited space, alternate steps to either side—one to the left, then back to the right—but be sure to do 8 to 10 repetitions on each side overall.

Fire hydrant
Like the lateral band walk, this move targets your outer thighs. Start on all fours, with knees on the floor and hands placed directly under your shoulders. With your core tightened, lift one bent leg out to the side and raise it as close to hip level as you can, hold for a beat, then return to the starting position. Do 8 to 10 repetitions, then switch legs.

Bodyweight squat
Perhaps the most effective and often-used exercise for developing all-around leg strength is the squat. Stand tall with your feet roughly hip-distance apart, then bend your knees while pushing your hips backward, almost like you are sitting down on a low stool. As your hips sink down, focus on keeping your weight in your heels with your chest up and eyes looking forward. Once you reach a point where your thighs are about parallel to the floor while maintaining a flat back, stand back up, driving through your heels and bringing your pelvis forward as you complete the move. Try not to lean into your toes, don’t let your knees collapse inward, and be sure not to let your knees extend out over your toes. Do 8 to 10 repetitions.

Remember to keep good form with all these moves. As you become more skilled at performing them, add more repetitions or sets. Your goal should be to do as many repetitions as possible while maintaining good form until your muscles begin to fatigue.

Article sources open article sources

Ramirez-Campillo R, Andrade D, Clemente F, Afonso J, Pérez-Castilla A, Gentil P. A proposed model to test the hypothesis of exercise induced localized fat reduction (spot reduction), including a systematic review with meta-analysis. Human Movement. 2022;23(3):1-14.
Chris McGrath. Myths and Misconceptions: Spot Reduction and Feeling the Burn. American Council on Exercise. November 25, 2013.
Peterson, James A. Ph.D., FACSM. Ten Common Mistakes Individuals Who Are Trying to Lose Weight Make. ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: November 2008 - Volume 12 - Issue 6 - p 52.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2018.
Duke Human Resources. Strengthen Your Legs. Accessed October 13, 2022.

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