Now here’s a great topic! And it’s one that is tossed around as much as any…in fact I think I’ve seen more ads for training the upper leg than for any other part of the human body…and it’s only “4 Easy Payments of $19.95!”….but call now!

Okay, here’s the skinny on the training. Our lower extremities…our legs…are built to provide locomotion (walking, running, etc.). They also allow us to lower ourselves down toward the ground, jump, and climb.

All of these activities are normal, needed movements. They assist us in moving about and dealing with the activities of daily life. Think back to our caveman ancestors.


They didn’t have the Bun & Thigh-O-Matic or whatever piece of equipment being peddled. So it simply makes sense to know that mimicking the above mentioned normal movements makes sense. We just have to add some resistance in order to see physical improvements here. That goes for men and women alike.

It also applies equally to different body types. Short people have shorter (thigh) femur length so leg movements may be easier or more powerful for them…but nevertheless all body types have the same bones and muscles, so the actual exercises themselves are the same.

Other factors like amount of resistance, etc are the differing factors.

Countless studies have confirmed that good old basic leg exercises will best activate the muscles of the upper leg. Beyond that, some newer movements with equipment can be added for a good finish.

Lets simplify the body part by identifying the front of the thigh (quadriceps) and back of the thigh (hamstrings).

We also have to include the buttocks as part of the overall synergy we see in normal function of the legs…in other words the upper leg and the hip area mostly work together. For purposes of this discussion, we’ll limit our review of the upper leg/thigh.

As these studies have shown, movements like squatting down, standing back up, extending the leg backward and to the side will properly and safely train the muscles involved.

So let’s see what works best…


Squats: an old stand-by for sure but they work! They can be done with simple body weight, or, if you want to add amounts of extra resistance, just use a barbell across the shoulders. I personally like using a “Smith Cage” with a sliding bar (promotes great form!) A question here is just how far down to squat.

Maximum knee pressure occurs around 60 degrees of flexion. Descend downward toward that degree. If the weight is light you can descend further. If heavier, just be careful with the range of motion. Also, as you descend, allow the buttocks to move backward slightly, like you’re sitting down in a chair.

This will keep the knees from traveling too far forward. Make sure your knees don’t pass your toes.

Stationary Lunges:

The best movement for the human leg! Also a great candidate for the “Smith Cage”. Start by standing directly over both feet, each under it’s own hip.

Move one foot forward approx 12”. Now move the other foot back onto its toe, also approx 12” back. People have different shoe sizes but the end footing should have the forward flat foot approx two shoe lengths ahead of the back foot up on its toe. Descend only 30-45 degrees and use a “bobbing” motion for your reps.

Repeat for each foot, switching back/forward positions. That’s one set. Make sure to push from the FRONT foot…and from the heel, not the ball of the foot.

best thigh exercises2


Stiff-Leg Deadlifts: (aka Romanian Deadlifts): Go ahead and use the same “Smith Cage” for this too. Start by standing right up against the sliding bar, holding it in your hands (wide grip) down at your thighs, shoulders back, chest up high for good posture. Start by moving hips backward while keeping good, stiff posture.

As your hips move back you’ll be sort of hanging off the bar. Keep the hips moving back until you feel a slight tug in the back of the thigh. At that point reverse back to start. Posture is very important here. If you feel it much in the lower back then correct that posture!


(note: training the abductors will maintain hip stability for the other thigh exercises, particularly lunges…..prevents us from “sitting” onto one hip or the other during flexion)

Standing Side Leg Reach: Stand straight up holding onto a stationary object or preferably hanging your armpit over a stationary barbell like you’re using it like a crutch.

Maintain upright posture. Slowly move one foot out directly to the side, allowing the leg to swing out to the side. Be careful not to allow the foot to point outward.

To help keep the foot straight, try to point it slightly inward. That will keep you in good form. Work up to a bit higher number of reps (20) on this one.

Now….gyms obviously have quite a bit of equipment and machinery, particularly for leg exercises.

Those are fine, however the above listed exercises have been well-studied and they produce the best results. If one wants to add some “finishing”, then those machines are fine (ex: leg extensions for the quadriceps) but I would recommend these basic movements first.

You will find that you get great thigh development and your knees will thank you for the safety in these movements. Good luck!

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