Get a Leg Up
It's no surprise that fitness videos and gym classes with titles like "Yoga Buns and Legs" place a heavy emphasis on the classic standing postures. Unlike weightlifting, which isolates particular muscle groups, yoga's standing postures efficiently and effectively strengthen the leg as an entire unit. In addition, yoga often strengthens and stretches the muscles in your legs simultaneously. When you're doing Virabhadrasana II (Warrior Pose II) to the right, for example, the quadriceps muscles of the right leg contract powerfully, the left quads firm, both inner thighs lengthen, and, in tighter students, the left calf receives a moderate stretch.
When done correctly, standing poses also strengthen the muscles that protect the knee and ankle joints and help you build a better foundation for your whole body. "They teach the muscles in your legs to hold your joints in proper alignment," explains Dario Fredrick, an exercise physiologist and Iyengar Yoga instructor in San Anselmo, California. By teaching you to properly plant your feet and align your knees and hips, standing poses improve your posture and coordination in everyday activities, not just during your time on the mat. As you learn proper alignment, you'll activate and strengthen the smaller, less-used, and often weak muscles in your arches, lower legs, and inner and outer thighs rather than relying solely on the larger leg muscles.
Four Great Leg Strengtheners
The exercises featured in this article—the Utkatasana Vinyasa (Chair Pose Sequence), the Utkatasana Padangusthasana Vinyasa (Chair Pose Tiptoe Balance Sequence), Virabhadrasana II, and Trikonasana (Triangle Pose)—collectively condition the fronts of the thighs, the backs of the thighs, the hips and buttocks, the inner and outer thighs, the lower legs, and the feet. Each one of them, however, conditions the legs in its own unique way.
Utkatasana vinyasa. Much like that old weightlifting standby, the squat, Utkatasana firms your quads and buttocks muscles. If you're aligned properly, you'll also balance the effort between each of the four quads and work the muscles of the outer thighs and hips—not to mention the abdomen and upper body. Proper alignment is crucial to getting the full benefits. Your inner and outer thighs must work in a balanced way to stabilize your knees directly in line with your feet; if your knees tend to collapse in or splay out, it's a sign that one muscle group is predominating and the other is weak. By keeping your knees in proper alignment, you're automatically working to improve your weaknesses.
The more you bend your knees, the more you'll work your legs and stretch your calves and Achilles tendons. When you move into Ardha (Half) Utkatasana, bending your legs even deeper and bringing the torso more parallel to the floor, and then add the torso twist of Parivrtta (Revolved) Ardha Utkatasana, you make both legs work even harder.
Utkatasana Padangusthasana vinyasa. This sequence combines upper leg work like that of Utkatasana with a strong activation of the calves—and tosses in the element of balance for an added challenge. Rising onto the balls of your feet, you engage the muscles in your feet and calves and use muscles all through your legs and upper body to make the constant minute adjustments needed for balance. As you squat, you continue to strengthen your feet and calves while amping up the work of the upper legs and buttocks. Although the exercise looks a bit like the calf raises you might do at the gym, it works and stretches your feet and legs more thoroughly.
Virabhadrasana II. In this pose, your forward leg works much like it does in the lunges you might perform in a floor exercise class at a gym. As you bend the forward knee, you'll probably feel the work most strongly in your quadriceps. But to lengthen the inner thigh of this leg and keep your knee aligned over your ankle and pointed toward your second toe, your front outer thigh and hip muscles must also contract. The gluteal muscles and the hamstrings will also firm, both as you hold the posture and as you rise out of it. And all of that activity is just what's going on in the forward leg!
Not surprisingly, beginning students tend to focus on the forward leg in Virabhadrasana II, but Fredrick points out that the rear leg gets as much of a workout when the pose is done correctly. If you properly activate that leg, grounding through the outer edge and big-toe ball of the foot and firming all the muscles toward the bones, you'll feel your arch and the inner edge of your leg lift and stabilize. Then, says Fredrick, "you'll be able to hold the posture longer. In other words, you'll receive even more of the pose's conditioning benefits.
Trikonasana. This pose strongly works the quadriceps, the muscles at the sides of the lower legs, and the muscles of the inner and outer thighs and hips. In Trikonasana, the actions of the muscles in both legs are quite a bit like those of the back leg in Virabhadrasana II. The quads need to engage strongly. The lower leg muscles must work to ground the feet evenly. And, as in the Utkatasana variations and Virabhadrasana II, you should keep the kneecaps of each leg pointing in the same direction as that leg's toes; for most people, that means lots of hard work for the muscles that externally rotate the thighs.
As with all standing poses, the more attention you pay to alignment, the more the pose will help you condition not just the major leg muscles but also the smaller muscles that contribute so much to subtle movements, balance, and coordination.
Practice with Legs
Try incorporating the Utkatasana series, the Tiptoe Balance, Virabhadrasana II, and Trikonasana into Surya target="_blank"Namaskar (Sun Salutation). This flow sequence, developed by Karley York, a yoga instructor at Bally Total Fitness in Studio City, California, will slowly build your strength and endurance in each of the included standing postures.
Stand erect with your feet together in Tadasana (Mountain Pose). Exhaling, bend forward into Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend). Inhale, then exhale to step back into Plank Pose and lower to Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose). Inhale to come into Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose); exhale to come into Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Inhale to step your right foot forward between your hands, and come into Virabhadrasana II. Hold for 5 breaths.
As you exhale, move into Trikonasana. Hold for 5 breaths, inhale to return to Warrior II, and hold for 5 breaths. Then exhale to return to Downward-Facing Dog. Hold for 5 breaths and inhale to step your left foot forward, coming into Warrior II on the second side. Hold for 5 breaths and then, as you exhale, move into Triangle and hold for 5 breaths. Inhale to return to Warrior II, hold for 5 breaths, and then exhale into Downward Dog. On your next exhalation, step first one foot and then the other forward into Uttanasana.
As you inhale, move into Utkatasana: Bend your knees, lift your torso, and extend your arms overhead. Hold for 5 breaths, then exhale to come into Ardha Utkatasana for 5 breaths. Twist into the revolved version for 5 breaths, return to Ardha Utkatasana for 5 breaths, then twist to the other side for 5 breaths. Come back into Utkatasana, then lift your heels to come into Utkatasana Padangusthasana for 5 breaths. Inhale to straighten your legs, staying on tiptoe and bringing your arms overhead. Exhale to bring your heels back to the ground and your arms down to your sides. Repeat the whole sequence if you wish.
Alisa Bauman is a freelance writer and yoga instructor in Emmaus, Pennsylvania.