5 Best Exercises for Thighs

Exercises for thighs are a common request as a trainer. To be clear, by “thigh” most people are talking about upper leg. Before I get into the list, I should point out that the best “thigh” exercises work the entire leg including the glutes (butt muscles). None of the best exercises isolate only the thigh muscles. Isolating exercises i.e. Leg extensions, leg lifts, etc. aren’t the best. They are far inferior to functional movements in every way and some can be harmful to your knees. That being said, if when reading this list, you think of one of these exercises as a butt exercise, you’re right. It works that, too.

1. Squats

When done right, squatting motions are awesome exercises for the thighs. The thigh muscles (four muscles on the front of your upper legs) AKA: quads, are one of the prime movers in this motion. There are many variations of this exercise. A few of them are:

  • Holding on to something while squatting up and down
  • Holding dumbbells for more resistance
  • Holding a weighted bar on your back

2. Step Ups

I’m surprised that step ups are not performed in gyms more often. They are definitely one of the best exercises for the thighs. And, they are extremely functional and all you have to do is find a step and go to work. When done properly, they are harder than they look. Done in everyday life, we rely heavily on momentum to get us up stairs. But for an exercise, I recommend removing momentum as much as possible and keeping tension on the thigh muscles throughout the exercise until fatigued.

You may need to hold onto something to help you up until your strength improves. The eventual goal should be to hold weights (probably dumbbells) while stepping up.

3. Suspension Lunges

These are utilizing cables attached overhead. There are a few brands on the market. This is the newest exercise to my list simply because exercising with suspension cables is newer than the others. I like them because, like all suspension exercises, it’s so easy to adjust the intensity. This exercise is good because it allows you to get a greater range of motion at the knees than most any other lunges. The great range of motion allows you to develop other muscle fibers than typical lunges and enhancing the development of the thighs (quads).

4. Lunges

Like squats, lunges can be performed several ways. Unfortunately, the type I see most is the one that I like least: lunging forward and then backward. I’m fine with lunging forward, it’s lunging backwards that I don’t like. I think it places too much strain on the knee. My favorite lunges are:

  • Step Back Lunges
  • Travelling (walking) lunges

Step back lunges are especially good if you’re learning and/or still developing the strength for other lunges. If necessary, you can start out by holding onto something to assist you. The eventual goal should be to hold weights while performing this exercise.

5. Hamstring Presses on Ball

I don’t think there are any better exercises for the back of the thighs (hamstrings). Variation on this exercises include performing it with different angles of the knee. If you don’t have an exercise ball, you can do the same exercise on a chair or bench.

In addition to these exercises, I need to emphasize that if what you really want is leaner legs, these exercises will help accomplish that, but you need to make sure you’re doing the exercises as a part of a well-rounded exercise program that emphasizes fat loss and/or weight loss. Because let’s be honest, the best exercises in the world can make your thigh muscles look good, but won’t help them look much better if there is too much fat on them. So, make sure you also have a good program that also focuses on fat loss.