Strong legs help with summer activities: walking, cycling, swimming and more

My favorite summer activities officially kick off as the calendar jumps to May. It’s the best time for open water swimming, running, biking, hiking, and anything else that gets me out and about. Still, my first step is to get my legs in shape.

“Legs are the foundation for most activities,” says Vijay Daryanani, a physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. “They are home to some of the body’s largest muscles, and building healthy legs can improve one’s performance, reduce injuries and increase endurance.”

Four leg muscle groups to build for summer activities

Four muscles do most of the leg work: quadriceps, gluteus maximus (glutes), hamstrings and calves. Here’s a look at each.

Quadriceps (quads). Also known as the thigh muscles, the quads are a group of four muscles (hence the prefix “quad”). They extend your leg at the knee and amplify every leg action: standing, walking, running, kicking and climbing.

glutes. The largest muscles in the body, the glutes (your glutes), keep you upright and help the hips and thighs propel your body forward.

hamstrings. The hamstrings are a group of three muscles that run along the back of your thighs from the hip to just below the knee. This allows you to extend your leg straight behind your body and support hip and knee movements.

calves. Three muscles make up the calf, which sits at the back of the lower leg, starting below the knee and extending to the ankle. They work together to move your foot and lower leg and push you forward as you walk or run.

Muscle strength and height in the spotlight

Strength and length are key focuses for building summer-ready legs, Daryanani says. “Strengthening the leg muscles increases strength and endurance, and lengthening them improves flexibility to protect against injury.”

If you are just starting to exercise or are returning to it after some time off, you should first get your legs used to the daily movement. “Just start by walking nonstop around your house for a few minutes each day, or going up and down stairs,” Daryanani says.

After that, apply a walking routine. Walk at a moderate pace for 20 to 30 minutes each day. You can focus on walking a certain distance (such as a mile or two) or taking a certain number of steps by tracking them on your smartphone or fitness tracker. Not only will you build leg strength — you’ll also reap a wide variety of health benefits.

There are many different leg muscle building exercises, some aimed at specific activities or sports. Below is a three-move routine that targets the four major leg muscles. Add them to your regular workout or do them several times a week as a routine for just your legs. (If you have mobility issues, especially knee or ankle problems, check with your doctor before starting.)

To lengthen your leg muscles and increase flexibility, try this daily stretch, which includes several lower body stretches.

dumbbell squats

Muscles Muscles: glutes and quads

representatives: 8-12

Sets: 1-2

Rest: 30-90 seconds between sets

Start position: Stand with your feet apart. Hold a weight in each hand with your arms at your sides and palms facing in.

Movement: Slowly bend your hips and knees, leaning forward no more than 45 degrees and lowering your buttocks down and back about eight inches. Pause. Slowly rise to an upright position.

Tips and techniques:

  • Don’t round or over-arch your back

Make it easier: Do the movement without holding any weights.

Make it harder: Lower yourself at a normal pace. Hold briefly. Get up quickly.

Backward lunge

Muscles Muscles: quads, glutes, hamstrings

representatives: 8-12

Sets: 1-3

Rest: 30-90 seconds between sets

Start position: Stand straight with your feet together and your arms at your sides, holding dumbbells.

Movement: Step back onto the ball of your left foot, bend your knees and lower into a lunge. Your right knee should be in line with your right ankle and your left knee should be pointing toward the floor (but not touching). Push your left foot off to stand and return to the starting position. Repeat, stepping back with your right foot to do the lunge on the other side. This is one representative.

Tips and techniques:

  • Keep your spine neutral as you lower into the lunge.
  • Do not lean forward or back.
  • As you bend your knees, lower the back knee directly to the floor with the thigh perpendicular to the floor.

Make it easier: Do lunges without weights.

Make it harder: Step forward into the lunges, or use heavier weights.

Calf raises

Muscles Muscles: calves

representatives: 8-12

Sets: 1-2

Rest: 30 seconds between sets

Start position: Stand with your feet flat on the floor. Hold onto the back of a chair for balance.

Movement: Stand as high as possible on the balls of your feet. Hold for a moment and then lower yourself.

Make it easier: Lift your heels less off the floor.

Make it harder: Do one leg calf raises. Put one foot behind the other calf before standing on the ball of your foot; do sets for each leg. Or try doing calf raises without holding on to a chair.

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