When you're working toward lower-body gains, you often have an idea of what you'd like to see in the mirror. But there's so much more to a strong lower body than how it looks.
It helps to picture your bottom half in two parts: Your "anterior chain" includes all of the muscles on the front (like your quads), while your "posterior chain" covers the muscles on the back (like your calves, hamstrings and glutes). You're going to need to work them all if you really want to build lower-body strength.
But there are different ways to do that: You can tackle a butt workout one day and leg exercises another, or you can build a program with compound exercises that challenge your entire lower body at once.
To help you decide where to start, we've asked experts to unpack all the details you need to build the perfect lower-body workout for you.
Why Lower-Body Strength Is So Important
Considering you use your legs every day for any number of tasks, it's not hard to see why building up your lower-body strength is beneficial — critical, even.
Lower-body strength helps you maintain functional movement patterns, such as picking something up off the ground (think: deadlifts) or sitting down on a chair (squats). Without a strong lower body, it would be a struggle just to get yourself up off the floor.
More surprising: Strengthening your lower body has even been linked to a longer, healthier life, according to a June 2014 study in the American Journal of Medicine.
The perks of building lower-body strength go way beyond how your legs look in that #gymselfie.
What to Do on Leg Day
Your legs are home to some of the biggest muscles in your body: the quadriceps or quads (the front of your thighs) and your hamstrings (the back of your thighs). Those muscles power you through your most active moments, both for exercise — like running or swimming — as well as daily life — like climbing stairs or commuting by bike.
Adding a couple of targeted leg-strengthening days to your fitness routine can help you perform all those activities (and more!) with ease for years to come — and with a lower risk of hurting yourself. And you don't need a gym membership to make it happen: Some of the best leg exercises can be done with dumbbells or your own body weight.
Discover the five top leg-day exercises and how often to do them.
Build a Stronger Butt
Speaking of the largest muscles in your body: Glutes take the cake. Your butt is actually made up of three muscles: the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius and gluteus minimus.
When your glutes are weak, you risk overcompensating with other muscles, which "increases the likelihood of injury to areas like your lower back, groin, hamstrings and even your knees," says Nicholas Rizzo, exercise biologist and director of fitness research at RunRepeat.
Of course, strengthening your glutes also supports your progress in the gym (hello, new deadlift personal record!). Combine body-weight and barbell exercises for a well-rounded (pun totally intended) glute day.
Learn how to do the six best butt exercises for the ultimate glute workout.
Strengthen Your Hips
Think of your hip muscles as a protective sheath around the inner workings of your hip joint. By strengthening your hip muscles, you can protect those tendons, ligaments and bones from injury and everyday wear-and-tear from movements like swinging your legs out of bed in the morning, shuffling sideways or crouching down to pick something up.
Those muscles help you squeeze your legs inward, spread them away from the midline of your body and lift them in front of you — so you'll need to strengthen them in every direction with moves like single-leg glute bridges and side-lying leg raises.
Use the best hip exercises to build a hip-strengthening workout that improves mobility and eases pain.
Put It All Together
Make leg day even more efficient by working all the muscles in your lower body at once. A push-pull approach can be a big help here: Pair moves that require pushing (which use your quads) with moves that require pulling (which tax your hamstrings and glutes).
Plan to do exercises like deadlifts and squats and take the time to learn perfect form before you add weights.
Try this full lower-body workout that's perfect when you're short on time.