Lower Body – Hip and Leg Exercises

Glutes and Hamstrings

Barbell Squat

If you are trying squats for the first time (or the first time in a long time), start with the dumbbell squat which is an excellent primer for this squat.

The squat is one of the most important exercises to build power and overall leg and core strength. The squat works the quads, glutes, hamstrings, hip muscles, low back and upper back to mention a few, and requires good back and hamstring flexibility.

It is an advanced exercise which requires practice and attention to form, as well as a spotter for all heavy lifting. Incorrect posture or unmonitored heavy lifting could result in serious injury. There are many different types of squats appropriate for various sports or goals: we will describe the back squat.

  1. Step into squat rack with barbell placed on rack slightly lower than shoulder height. It is important that the barbell not be positioned too high on the rack, as you do not want to extend up on your toes to get the barbell on your back.
  2. Duck under rack, and using a lunge stance, or half squat, lift up until bar rests on upper back musculature, place hands on barbell at a comfortable grip and squeeze shoulder blades together.
  3. Holding abs tight, straighten up to a standing position with feet hip width apart and find balance.
  4. Keeping chest up, head up, inhale and sit buttocks back as you lower down into the squat position, thighs parallel to floor if possible, keeping back slightly arched and feet pointed straight ahead.
  5. Exhale hard as you then press up through the heels (rather than having the body weight into the toes) and squeeze buttocks as you reach FULL standing position.

Tip: Lifting portion of exercise can be performed faster than lowering portion.

Variation: Variations of this exercise include:

  • a narrow squat, which may not be comfortable for many women because of wider hips
  • a wider squat which may help target the inner aspect of the thighs
  • a front squat, where barbell is placed on the upper chest with various holding positions

Deadlift – Barbells

The deadlift is an excellent exercise for strengthening the hamstrings for sports enhancement as well as the glutes and low back.

It is quite advanced and should not be attempted by anyone with a history of low back problems without first checking with your MD.

Always begin the exercise using very low weight, perfecting form prior to lifting any heavy weight. The deadlift can be performed with a barbell or dumbbells. We will describe the lift using a barbell.

  1. For initial back safety, place a light barbell on a low bench rather than on the floor, and grab the barbell with abs tight, palms facing body, and stand up carefully with a straight back so the barbell hangs from straight arms at thigh height.
  2. Keep the chest up, the head up, and the abdominals engaged, knees bent slightly to accommodate your hamstring flexibility. Feet are slightly narrower than hip width.
  3. Keeping barbell next to the body, lower the barbell down as you bend at hips, sticking buttocks out and keeping the back PERFECTLY straight, not rounded. If you cannot maintain a straight spine, then you should NOT be doing this exercise.
  4. Lower barbell slowly until you feel a stretch in the hamstrings, without rounding your back at all, and then exhale as you straighten back up, hip hinging using gluteals and hamstrings, rather than low back. Press hips forward until you stand in neutral.

Tip: Lift portion of exercise can be performed faster than lowering portion.

Steps 1 and 2

Steps 1 and 2

Step 3

Step 3

Variation: A challenging variation of a deadlift is a Single Leg Dead Lift. It requires good hip strength and balance, but will also increase these all important athletic qualities. One dumbbell can also be used, and often, the dumbbell is held in the opposite hand of the standing leg. This increase balance challenge and cross body stability. As in deadlift described above, back MUST remain straight at all times during exercise.

Deadlift Exercise

Single Leg Deadlift

Dumbbell Squat

A dumbbell squat is performed with the same form as the barbell squat, but is an excellent first step for preparation for the barbell squat.

If you are unsure of whether you are ready to try a squat, practice the squat without weights by standing with a chair behind you, and try to sit buttocks back until it just touches the chair, and then press back up.

  1. Dumbbells can be held at side, or resting on shoulders for a greater challenge.
  2. Holding dumbbells at your side, keep your chest and head up and inhale as you slowly lower into the squat, buttocks out behind you, back arched slightly, weight shifting back so that strain is not put on the knees.
  3. Lower until thighs are parallel to floor, no lower.
  4. Exhale and press back up to full standing position, making sure buttocks is squeezed tightly at top of exercise.
Dumbbell Squat

Step 1

Dumbbell Squat

Step 2 and 3

Dumbbell Squat

Side view of Steps 2 – 3

Forward Lunges

  1. Stand with your feet hip width apart, chest up and abdominals engaged.
  2. Step forward with your right leg, toes pointed straight ahead, about 2/3 of body length, striking the heel first, rolling to the toe.
  3. As you lunge forward, right knee will bend to 90 degrees, and right knee will stay over right foot. Left leg remains straight and left heel is up throughout lunge, toes pointed straight ahead.
  4. After you have absorbed foot strike, push back to start position and repeat with left leg.

Tip: Make sure that your spine remains straight and that you do not bend over towards the leading leg, as this can put too much weight into the front knee.

Forward Lunge

Variations: Once this becomes easy, increase intensity by:

  • Holding dumbbells at your side or a barbell on your upper back.
  • Traveling with the lunge; where each lunge is a step forward alternating legs as you lunge forward.

Other Variations:

Forward Lunges with Medicine Ball

These forward lunge variations use a medicine ball to further challenge the core. By holding weight either at your chest or overhead, you can create additional work for the core muscles as spinal stabilizers.

  1. Choose a medicine ball that can be held for extended periods of time. Women may want to start with a 3-5 pound ball (or dumbbell) and men can start with 5-8 lb medicine ball.
  2. In the first variation, start with medicine ball straight overhead.
  3. As you lunge forward, using straight arms, lower the ball carefully and with control to directly in front of your chest. Remember to keep back upright as you lunge, and keep weight into the heel of the front leg as you would in traditional forward lunge.
  4. Push back with front foot, moving ball back to overhead position.
  5. Repeat with other leg.
Forward Lunge with Medicine Ball - Overhead

Step 2

Forward Lunge with Medicine Ball - Chest Front

Step 3 – Forward View

Forward Lunge with Medicine Ball - Chest Side

Step 3 – Side View

Variation: In this easier variation,

  1. Start with the ball at chest at beginning of lunge.
  2. Push ball out in front of chest as you lunge forward.
  3. As you push back to start, pull medicine ball back into chest.
Forward Lunge - Medicine Ball Variation

Steps 1 and 3 with chest variation

Other variations:

Hip Extension – Cable Pulley

This exercise is excellent for working the glutes in a standing balance position.

  1. Position the cable pulley so that it is at the bottom of cable machine.
  2. Attach the ankle cuff to your ankle and lean forward slightly facing the stack, holding on to rail for stability.
  3. Keep abs tight and chest up as you bend slightly forward from hips.
  4. Supporting leg remains strong with knee slightly bent.
  5. Exhale as you lift entire leg behind you only as high as you can without arching back or letting the spine move too much.
  6. Lower slowly to start position and repeat.
  7. Switch legs and repeat 1- 6.

Variation: A variation of this exercise can be performed with elastic tubing secured at the bottom of a door or to a low bench, and tied around the ankle securely.

Jump Split Squats

If you are trying lunges for the first time (or the first time in a long time), start with the split squat (stationary lunge) which is an excellent primer for this exercise.

As in the jump squat, this is a plyometric exercise designed for athletes who participate in stop-and-go sports.

  1. Stand in a lunge position, with the back straight, chest up and knees over the laces of the shoe (the knee is at 90 degrees), not overshooting the toes.
  2. Using the arms for momentum, swing the arms upward as you jump upward keeping the back straight (rather than sitting the buttocks back as in the jump squat), and switch legs in the air so that you land opposite to the start position.
  3. Quickly jump upward again, and switch legs again as well.

Make sure you perform this exercise on a flat even surface, and stop exercise immediately if balance begins to falter.

Jump Squats

If you are trying squats for the first time (or the first time in a long time), start with the dumbbell squat which is an excellent primer for this squat.

Jump squats are a plyometric exercise that works the glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps and calves and is designed to enhance speed and power for the athlete who participates in stop-and-go sports like soccer, field hockey, basketball, volleyball.

This is an advanced exercise and should not be performed in a routine strength training regimen. A pre-requisite for this exercise is the ability to perform squats rapidly with perfect form.

  1. It is best to perform this exercise on a flat even surface to begin with, and can be progressed to the playing surface if you desire once you perfect it.
  2. Stand tall with chest up and feet hip width apart.
  3. Using arms for momentum, swing arms up into the air as you jump up into the air extending body upwards.
  4. Land on two feet, squatting back rapidly with buttocks extended as far back as possible and chest up and, once again, rapidly launch yourself up into the air.

Variation: This exercise can be performed without the use of the arms for momentum, as the arms can be crossed at the chest, but this variation will be much more difficult and puts more emphasis on the quad muscles. Using the arms is most appropriate for sports such as basketball and volleyball.

Kneeling Hip Extension with Ankle Weight

This is an excellent exercise to isolate the glutes and hamstring muscles while working on core stability.

  1. Attach an ankle weight to your ankle, starting with light weight until your form is perfect.
  2. Kneel on the floor on your hands and knees, with a straight back, abdominals in, hands under shoulders and knees under hips.
  3. Straighten the weighted leg out behind you and without moving the low back, lift the weighted leg to the level of the back, no higher, and lower slowly back to start position.
  4. Try not to lean to one side as you perform the exercise, but do not be surprised if the outer thigh muscles of the opposite leg feel the work too!

Tip: If you feel strain on the low back, pay more attention to whether your abdominals are engaged, and if you still experience discomfort, lower yourself onto your forearms and perform the exercise.

Variation: This exercise can be performed with no weight at all if desired.

Lateral Elastic Band Walk

This exercise works the muscles of the outer hips and the glutes. These muscles often become weak and underused if you spend a lot of time sitting for work or at home.

  1. Place a thick elastic band around the ankles, just above the ankle bones.
  2. Stand with feet hip width apart so that tension is on the elastic even prior to beginning the movement.
  3. Keeping chest up, abs tight, step to the side with knees slightly bent.
  4. Next, step together, but do not bring the legs together all the way as tension needs to stay on the elastic at all times.
  5. Step sideways one direction for 10-15 reps, and then return in the other direction for the same.
  6. Keep toes pointed straight ahead as you perform this exercise and try not to rock your body to create momentum. Do not drag the foot of the following leg.

Lateral Lunge

  1. Stand with your feet hip width apart, spine straight and chest up.
  2. Step to the right with your right leg, keeping left leg stationary, toes of both legs pointed straight ahead.
  3. As you step right, bend the right knee, keeping it over the right foot, and lower slightly towards the floor.
  4. Once you have absorbed footstrike, push back to start position, and lunge to the left with the left leg.
  5. As you lunge, you must sit back slightly to keep knee in a safe position (i.e. not jutting over the toes), but keep spine straight even if you must bend at the hip slightly.
Lateral Lunge

Step 1

Lateral Lunge

Steps 2 – 3

Lying Hamstring Curl with Ankle Weight

This exercise isolates the hamstring muscle in a safe, effective exercise designed for beginner exercisers.

  1. Attach an ankle weight to your ankle- beginning with light weight, or even no weight, if desired.
  2. Lie on your stomach with your legs straight out on the floor, keeping the front of the hips pressed into the ground throughout the exercise, and relax head onto the arms so as not to strain the neck.
  3. Curl the weighted leg up slowly towards the buttocks, again, keeping the hips pressed into the ground feeling work at the back of the thigh, and slowly return the weighted leg to the ground and repeat.
  4. Attach the ankle weight to your other ankle and repeat 1 – 3.

Reverse Lunges

This is a variation of a forward lunge, where the movement is backward instead of forward.

  1. As in forward lunge, stand with feet hip width apart, chest up and spine straight.
  2. Step back with your right foot, lowering knee slightly towards floor and keeping heel up.
  3. Maintain erect posture as you lunge backward, as it is very important not to lean forward and risk back injury.
  4. Left knee should be at 90 degrees at mid point of exercise.
  5. Once you have absorbed foot strike, step right leg back together with left leg, and repeat with left leg.

Variations:

Single Leg Squats

This exercise is superb to challenge the quadriceps and the knee joint and activate the gluteals and hamstrings, especially for athletes participating in stop-and-go sports.

Although it is an advanced exercise, it is perfect for general strength training as well.

  1. It is best to perform this on an even, flat surface to begin with, as this takes excellent balance to perfect.
  2. Stand on both legs, drawing core in and keeping good posture.
  3. Lift one leg off the floor, keeping it close, but not touching, to the other leg.
  4. Using arms for balance, either at the front of the body, or to the side, lower down into a squat, pressing the buttocks back and keeping the chest up as in a traditional squat.
  5. Do not try to lower too far when first attempting this exercise, just find your balance and work on form.
  6. Repeat with other leg.
  7. No weights are used with this exercise unless recommended by your trainer.
Single Leg Squats

Steps 1 – 3

Single Leg Squats

Steps 4 – 5

Variation: Vector Reach with Single Leg Squat

Split Squat

  1. Stand with feet hip width apart, chest up and abdominals engaged.
  2. Step forward with right leg about 2/3 of body length, and lift heel up of left leg so that you are on the ball of your foot of the left leg.
  3. Find your balance, adjusting lateral width of stance so that your feet are “on a train track” and toes are pointed straight ahead.
  4. Keeping spine straight, lower slowly towards floor as you bend both knees. You do not need to touch floor with the back knee. Push up through heel of right foot, rather than toe, and repeat.
  5. Switch legs to perform lunge with left leg forward.
Stationary Lunge

Step 4

Variation: This exercise can be done with dumbbells or a barbell once this becomes easy.

Supine Bridges

  1. Lie on floor on your back with knees bent and feet on floor, hip width apart, toes pointed straight ahead.
  2. Place arms next to your body with palms down.
  3. Lift buttocks up as body straightens completely by pressing through feet.
  4. Keep buttocks tight and thighs parallel to each other in this lifted
    position. Lifted position can be held for 20 seconds or more, or exercise can be repeated as you lift and lower 15 times.
Supine Bridge

Steps 1 – 2

Supine Bridge

Steps 3 – 4


Variations: This exercise can also be done with:

  1. One leg crossed over the other, ankle resting on opposite knee
  2. One leg stretched out straight, thighs parallel so that only one leg at a time is performing the exercise.
Supine Bridge

Variation using one leg

Triple Threat – Physio Ball

“Triple” threat has three parts.

Part 1:

  1. Lie on the floor with heels on top of the ball, arms at side with palms down, head and neck relaxed.
  2. Start first part of “Triple Threat” by lifting hips off the floor in a bridge position, tightening buttocks as you do so.
  3. Lower slowly back to floor and repeat 5-15 times.

Part 2:

Second part of exercise requires maintaining the lifted bridge position, with back straight and hips lifted.

  1. Keeping hips lifted, pull ball in towards your buttocks using your heels, and then push ball back out to start position. Repeat 5-15 times.

Part 3:

  1. Repeat Part 1 of exercise by lifting buttocks up and down without pull-in 5-15 times.
Triple Threat - Physio Ball

Step 1, Part 1

Triple Threat - Physio Ball

Step 2, Part 1

Triple Threat - Physio Ball

Step 1, Part 2

Variations:

  • The third part of triple threat can be made more difficult by pointing toes on ball rather than heels on top of ball.
  • Exercise can also be done unilaterally, but only after bilateral exercise becomes easy.

Vector Reach with Single Leg Squat

This is a variation of a single leg squat, and further challenges the knee joint for athletes participating in stop-and-go sports. It is felt that this exercise may be helpful to reduce the risk of ACL injuries, especially in women or girls who are more at risk than men.

  1. Perform a single leg squat as described in the single leg squat, but reach with the opposite hand towards the floor, touching it, or if this is too difficult, reach to a chair positioned close to you.
  2. Imagine a “clock” positioned on the floor, and as you work this exercise, touch the times on the clock, starting with noon, one o’clock, two o’clock and three o’clock, and then 11, 10 and 9.
  3. Each time you reach the floor, extend back up as straight as possible and repeat.
  4. Perform on both legs.
Vector Reach with Single Leg Squat

Starting position and step 3

Vector Reach with Single Leg Squat

Steps 1 – 2

Vector Reach with Single Leg Squat

Steps 1 – 2

Vector Reach with Single Leg Squat

Steps 1 – 2

Wall Sits

This is an isometric exercise excellent for beginner exercisers who want to build strength in the gluteals, hamstrings and quadriceps.

  1. Lean with your back against the wall, feet positioned 18 inches or more (depending on leg length) from the wall.
  2. Feet are hip width apart, and toes are straight ahead.
  3. Lower yourself down as if sitting in a chair, sliding the back and buttocks down the wall, until your knees are at 90 degrees, no lower.
  4. Continue to breath steadily while you hold this squat position for 15 seconds or more.

Variation: When you’ve mastered this, challenge yourself by performing the exercise standing on one leg, then switch to the other leg.

Wall Squats with Physio Ball

This exercise is a variation of a traditional squat and is performed with a physio ball held against the wall by your back. This exercise is excellent for balance and stability as well as the strength of the gluteals, hamstrings and quadriceps.

  1. Position a physio ball behind your back, against the wall, positioned from your low back upward.
  2. Feet hip width apart, toes pointed straight ahead. Step forward 10-12 inches so you can see the lacing on your shoes. You will be leaning against the ball slightly. This positioning is important so that the knee does not jut over the toes during the squat exercise.
  3. Keeping your chest up and shoulders back, lower your body straight down as if you are sitting in a chair, until the thighs are parallel to the ground, no lower. The physio ball will travel up your back to give your spine a nice massage.
  4. You should feel weight into your heels, not just your toes.
  5. Push up through your heels back to start position and repeat.

Variation: You can hold free weights at your side to increase the difficulty of this exercise. A more difficult variation is a single leg wall squat, where one leg is held off the floor, and the other leg is performing the exercise alone.

Hips

Hip Abduction – Cable Pulley

The cable pulley can be used with an ankle attachment to work some of the hip muscles for balance and stabilization. The outer thigh muscles, the abductors, are especially important to work to create stability of the hip and
to lessen the likelihood of knee injuries.

  1. Face sideways to the cable pulley station, and attach the ankle “bracelet” at your ankle.
  2. The leg farthest away from the stack will be working, so position yourself accordingly.
  3. Stand very tall, with your chest up, and your weight on the standing, non-working leg closest to the stack.
  4. Keep the non-working leg tall through the hip, with the knee slightly bent. The working leg should also have a slightly bent knee, with the toes and knees pointed in the same direction, straight ahead.
  5. Hold onto the rail with your inside hand if desired, and lift the outside leg away from the body without turning the knee up towards the ceiling. The range of motion of the abductors will not allow you to lift the leg very high, so do not bend at the waist or throw your leg up too high.
  6. Repeat with the other leg as well.

This exercise works the outer thighs. See the hip adduction cable pulley exercise to work the inner thighs.

Hip Adduction – Cable Pulley

The cable pulley can be used with an ankle attachment to work some of the hip muscles for balance and stabilization. The inner thigh muscles, the adductors, are an area which women in particular enjoy working, as we store fat in this area.

  1. Face sideways to the cable pulley station, and attach the ankle “bracelet” at your ankle.
  2. The leg closest to the stack will be working, so position yourself accordingly.
  3. Stand very tall, with your chest up, and your weight on the standing, non-working leg away from the stack.
  4. Keep the non-working leg tall through the hip, with the knee slightly bent. The working leg should also have a slightly bent knee, with the toes and knees pointed in the same direction, straight ahead.
  5. Hold onto the rail with your inside hand if desired, and step away from the stack until there is tension on the stack and the inside leg is pulled slightly away from the body.
  6. Bring the inside leg towards the outside leg without turning the knee up towards the ceiling. The working leg can move slightly in front of the non-working leg to get better range of motion, but do not bend at the waist or throw your leg up too high.
  7. Repeat with the other leg as well.

This exercise works the inner thighs. See the hip abduction cable pulley exercise to work the outer thighs.

Lateral Elastic Band Walk

This exercise works the muscles of the outer hips and the glutes. These muscles often become weak and underused if you spend a lot of time sitting for work or at home.

  1. Place a thick elastic band around the ankles, just above the ankle bones.
  2. Stand with feet hip width apart so that tension is on the elastic even prior to beginning the movement.
  3. Keeping chest up, abs tight, step to the side with knees slightly bent.
  4. Next, step together, but do not bring the legs together all the way as tension needs to stay on the elastic at all times.
  5. Step sideways one direction for 10-15 reps, and then return in the other direction for the same.
  6. Keep toes pointed straight ahead as you perform this exercise and try not to rock your body to create momentum. Do not drag the foot of the following leg.

Multi Hip – Elastic Tubing

By attaching an elastic tube to a railing or other fixed object, you can use it to work the various muscles of the hip such as the adductors(inner thigh), abductors(outer thigh), gluteals and hip flexors. These exercises are particularly beneficial for athletes performing sports which require single leg balancing such as skating and gymnastics.

  1. The tube should be attached low to the fixed object, and then to the ankle as well.
  2. Keeping perfect posture, chest up, shoulders back, knees bent slightly, the working leg can lift in all four directions- outward, frontward, backwards and inwards as long as you position your body so that the direction the leg is moving is opposite to the tension of the elastic.
  3. See hip abduction and hip adduction and hip extension with the cable pulley for additional description of these exercises.