It's time to pay attention to your quad, calf and hamstring muscles.
Sure your motivation may be to strut across the beach this summer in shorts, but there's even a more important reason: having strong and limber legs prevents injuries, such as "runner's knee," which afflicts one in four active people, according to the University of North Carolina School of Medicine.
"Many people want to get in shape so they can look better in the summer season," said Matt Bansch, director of the Bolger Fitness Center at the Ridgewood YMCA. "But you want to keep these muscles flexible and strong throughout the entire year."
As an ambassador for leg strength, Bansch offered to share some exercises that can be done at home. He lists seven below, but he recommends doing only about five at a time. Start with the beginning of the list, and as your strength increases add the remaining ones. Many of these drills are effective because they are compound movements — exercises that work multiple muscle groups as a team. "Your body has to work harder," said Bansch.
If you have any knee, leg or back pain, be sure to check with your doctor before starting this or any exercise routine.
Finally, don't forget to finish with stretches. "These are just as important as the exercises themselves," said Bansch.
1. LEG LIFTS
* Lie with your back on the floor and bend one knee at a 90-degree angle, but keep that foot on the floor. Lift the other leg until it's on a level with your bent knee.
* Hold the position for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat on both sides at least five times.
2. SQUAT WITH BALL
* Place an exercise ball between the wall and the curve of your lower back. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
* Bend your knees and lower 5 to 10 inches (no lower than 90 degrees), keeping your shoulders level and your hips square. Hold this position for two seconds and then stand back up.
* Start with eight reps and work up to 12. Rest for 30 seconds and do another set.
* Wall squats help prevent runner's knee.
3. OUTER/INNER THIGH KICK STRETCH
* Find a counter, wall or chair that is waist-high. Stand two feet away, holding it lightly and keeping your shoulders down. Rise onto the ball of your left foot and lift your right leg. Keep your abs engaged.
* Bring right leg across your body in front of your left leg. Swing right leg out to right side with your foot flexed and toes turned out. Use momentum to swing the leg. Keep hips straight.
* Do 10 reps; switch legs and repeat for two more sets
4. CALF RAISES
* Stand up straight. You can grasp a chair or wall for balance. Position your feet shoulder width apart. Slowly raise your heels until you're up on your tiptoes. Pause for five seconds, then slowly lower yourself.
* To increase difficulty, try doing them on the stairs (holding on to rail) with your feet halfway off. If you're not comfortable with stairs but wish to increase difficulty, avoid stairs completely and hold dumbbells in each hand.
5. STRAIGHT LEG BRIDGE WITH BALL
* Works your glutes, hamstrings and lower back. Lie face up on the floor, with your heels resting on an exercise ball. Place your arms flat on the floor with palms down, and slowly lift your buttocks off the floor. Your body should form a straight plank from your ankles to shoulders. Activate your core muscles. Perform 20 reps.
6. SPLIT SQUATS
* Stand in a split stance.
* Lower hips to the floor by bending the front knee without letting the back knee touch the ground
* Return to the starting position by pushing up with the front leg
* Try doing 8 reps on one leg before switching sides and doing another 8 reps on the other leg. Rest for 30 seconds. Repeat for 2 more sets.
* Do not let the front knee slide forward over the toes
* Do not let front knee collapse to the inside
* Keep chest up
* Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart and your toes pointing out.
* Bring your arms out straight in front of you and lower into a squat.
* Come back up and repeat. Go as low into the squat as you can without letting your knees move past your toes.
* Keep your abs tight, spine neutral and contract your glutes. Keep your torso tall.
* Do for 1 minute (after about 40 seconds, pulse at the bottom of the squat for 20 seconds).
Stand in front of a table or chair, and place one heel up on it. Keep your spine straight as you lean forward, until you feel a stretch in your hamstring. Be careful with this stretch, and don't push yourself past your limits since the hamstring is easy to tear. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. Switch and do the same on the other side.
Find a wall and lean on it with your palms or forearms. Bend one leg until the knee comes directly over the ankle. Keep the other leg straight and extend it backward as far as you can without lifting the heel off the floor. Lower your hips toward the floor and push into your extended heel; you should feel a strong stretch in the calf muscle. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds. Switch sides.