You want your legs to be strong and pain-free--and good looking wouldn't be bad, either. Sure, endurance activities like biking and running help. Biking primarily uses your quadriceps, while running incorporates your quads, hamstrings and calf muscles. But to get the high-performing, well-defined legs you're looking for--the kind that will set PRs and turn heads--you should hit the weight room.
Why weights? Your body is composed of different types of muscle fibers. Endurance activities primarily use slow-twitch fibers. At the other end of the continuum, fast-twitch fibers deliver power and strength. Although most runners and cyclists rely on the former, the latter are also important to athletes because increased strength improves your body's efficiency, helping you go harder or farther using less energy.
Strength training also can help you maintain proper muscle balance, which helps improve performance and prevent injury. "Often, with an activity such as biking, one set of muscles, the quadriceps, is used more than another, the hamstrings, which can lead to an unequal pull around a joint and thereby cause an injury," says Lynn Millar, professor of physical therapy at Andrews University in Michigan. Working out with weights can correct this imbalance and further reduce injury risk by strengthening the muscles so they provide better support around joints, explains Millar.
Don't worry about our twice-a-week sessions giving you big, burly muscles. You won't bulk up, but you will develop more defined leg muscles, creating a tighter, shapelier appearance. Weight training is also a good way to burn calories, which contributes to that lean, sculpted look.
The following exercises work all the lower body muscles you use in most sports, including the hip and glute muscles. Although some of these involve the same muscle groups, each exercise uses them differently, providing a balanced workout.
Always begin strength-training sessions with about five minutes of light cardiovascular work to prepare your heart, muscles and tendons for the demands to be placed upon them. Lift twice a week, with two days between workouts. Alternate between light days, using weight you can lift with some effort for three sets of 12 to 15 repetitions, and heavy days, with weight heavy enough to manage only six to eight reps for three sets.
If you want to run and lift on the same day, Andrea Hudy, associate director of strength and conditioning at the University of Kansas, suggests scheduling your heavy lifting on a long run day, and light lifting on the same day you do speed work. That way, she explains, you're training "opposing muscle systems (power and endurance) each workout and not focusing on one system exclusively." If you're doing workouts back to back, perform your endurance activity before you strength train; lifting beforehand will fatigue you too much for a quality run or bike ride afterward.
Works quads, glutes and hamstrings
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointed slightly out, holding dumbbells or a barbell behind your neck and across your shoulders. Keeping your head up, back straight and feet in full contact with the floor, bend at the hips and move your butt backward until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Don't allow your knees to extend in front of your toes. Maintaining that posture, bring your hips forward as you return to a standing position.