Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth yoga, fitness, & nutrition courses, when you sign up for Outside+.
Summertime sends us outside—walking, running, hiking, biking, or standing still trying to catch a breeze. What do these activities have in common? They require us to use the power of our legs. In fact, many of our recreational and mundane activities require strong lower limbs. And while summer shorts and swimsuits put our legs on display, that doesn’t mean we need to stop at simply healthy-looking legs. We want legs with power.
Exercises for leg strength
Here we offer yoga poses that focus on strengthening quads, hamstrings, calves, and shins. Your leg joints–hips, knees, and ankles—also play a part in the stability of your legs, so you want to practice in a way that protects them as well. Strong legs to help prevent falls and injury.
Many of these standing poses are weight bearing—they require you to rely on your legs to hold your body weight—and that helps build strength, especially if you are practicing hands-free variations. One-legged standing poses stretch one leg while employing the strength of the other, so you balance the contraction and extension of your legs. The result is lean and supple legs that get you where you want to go.
Before you begin these poses, warm up by standing in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) and rooting solidly through your feet. Practice coming up on your toes to build strength in your ankles and affirm your sense of balance.
Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
Standing tall and pressing your legs together to create a long, strong column before coming into Chair Pose will allow you to feel the stabilizing power of the Pose. Then, as you bend your knees toward a sitting position, you’ll feel your thighs activate to hold you up. Try squeezing a block between your legs to engage the adductor muscles in your inner thighs.
- Stand in Tadasana. Inhale and raise your arms overhead so that your biceps are just slightly in front of your ears. Either keep the arms parallel, palms facing inward, or join the palms.
- Exhale and bend your knees so that your thighs are as parallel to the floor as possible. Your knees will project out over your feet, and your trunk will lean slightly forward over your thighs until your front torso forms approximately a right angle with the tops of your thighs.
- Keep your inner thighs parallel to each other and press the heads of the thigh bones down toward your heels.
Firm your shoulder blades against your back. Direct your tailbone down toward the floor and in toward your pubis to keep your lower back long.
- Stay for 30 seconds to a minute. To come out of this pose, straighten your knees with an inhalation, lifting strongly through your arms. Exhale and release your arms to your sides into Tadasana.
Variation: Half Chair Pose (Standing Figure 4)
In this asana, you’re holding your body up with one leg so that one quad is doing the work of two.
- Begin in Tadasana, bend your knees to come into Chair pose.
- Shift your weight to your left foot. Slowly lift the right foot up and cross your right ankle over your left knee so that your ankle bone is to the left of your left thigh, and your shin is perpendicular to your thigh.
- Your hands can reach your arms up, be in Anjali mudra, or be placed on your hips. Keep your lower back long.
- Stay for 30 seconds or longer. To come out of this pose, straighten your leg with an inhalation. Release your right leg to the floor and release your arms to your sides into Tadasana.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
Parsvottanasana (Pyramid Pose | Intense Side Stretch Pose)
This posture engages your front thighs as it stretches your hamstrings. Holding yourself in the pose–especially if you aren’t supporting your weight with your hands on the mat–requires steady strength in your legs.
- Begin in Tadasana (Mountain Pose) at the top of the mat. Place your hands on your hips.
- Step your right foot back 2 to 4 feet. Line up heel to heel with your back foot at approximately a 30- to 45-degree angle. Draw your left hip back and in toward your right heel. Keep your hips facing forward and both sides of your waist elongated.
- On an inhalation, spread your arms out to the sides. On an exhalation, internally rotate your arms, bend your elbows, and bring your palms together behind your back. If this isn’t feasible, release your hands alongside your feet, on blocks, or on your shin.
- Inhale, lengthen your spine, and engage your quadriceps. Exhale, hinge at your hips, and begin to fold forward and toward your front thigh.
- Reach your sternum away from your navel and keep your collar bones broad to maintain openness in your front body and length in your back body. Release your forehead toward your shin.
- Draw the heads of your upper arms back and up away from the floor as you remain in the pose.
- To exit the pose, inhale and use the strength of your legs to come up. Release your arms and step your feet together, returning to Mountain Pose. Repeat on the opposite side.
Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose)
- From Tadasana, press into the big toe mounds, and level your pelvis and lengthen on the two sides of the torso.
- Firm your left leg, without hyperextending the left knee. Bend your right leg and clasp the big toe with the first two fingers of your right hand. Press your right foot forward.
- Lift the sternum up and restore some of the curve of the lower back. Notice if the right hip is higher than the left hip.
- Find an anterior tilt of the pelvis to deepen the work in the hamstrings.
- Descend the right hip down and in toward the left foot in order to bring symmetry back to the torso.
- Hold for anywhere from a few breaths to a couple of minutes, then use an exhale to recommit to the rootedness of the left foot. Release and repeat on the other side.
Vrksasana (Tree Pose)
This pose strengthens your legs, including your ankles and feet, one at a time. It also stretches your groin and inner thighs.
- Stand in Tadasana. Spread your toes, press your feet into the mat and firm your leg muscles. Raise your front hip points toward your lower ribs to gently lift in your lower belly.
- Inhale deeply, lifting your chest, and exhale as you draw your shoulder blades down your back. Look straight ahead at a steady gazing spot.
- Place your hands on your hips and raise your right foot high onto your left thigh or shin. Avoid making contact with the knee.
Press your right foot and left leg into each other.
- Check that your pelvis is level and squared to the front.
- When you feel steady, place your hands into Anjali Mudra at the heart or stretch your arms overhead like branches reaching into the sun. Hold for several breaths, then step back into Mountain Pose and repeat on the other side.
Holding this pose requires the engagement of both legs. The thigh of your bent leg is active in holding you up, while the back hamstring is stretching. Dipping the back knee toward the floor gives your legs more challenge.
- From Tadasana (Mountain Pose), inhale, and step your left foot back toward the back edge of your mat, with the ball of the foot on the floor.
- Reach your arms up, direct your tailbone toward the floor and, bending your right knee, lower your torso until your knee forms a right angle.
- Firm the left thigh and push it up toward the ceiling, holding the left knee straight. Stretch your left heel toward the floor.
- Hold for 60 seconds or more. To exit the pose, exhale and step your right foot back beside the left. Repeat on the opposite side.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III Pose)
The one-legged Warrior pose strengthens your ankles and knees, as well as your calves and thighs. You are supporting the weight of your body with the standing leg, but you are also lifting, holding, and stretching the extended leg. Ground down through the foot that you’re standing on, and don’t allow that knee to lock or hyperextend.
- Begin in Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I) with your right foot forward. Root down firmly with your right heel and draw the abdominals in and up.
- Straighten your left leg. Turn your left inner thigh toward the ceiling to roll your left outer hip forward, then pivot onto your back toes so your back leg is in a neutral position.
- Inhale to lengthen your spine. Exhale and tilt your torso forward, and reach your arms out ahead.
- Shift your weight into your front foot, and tilt forward as you lift your left leg until it is parallel to the floor. Your upper arms frame your ears, and your head, torso, pelvis, and lifted leg to form a straight line.
- Continue to engage your right outer hip to provide stability for your standing leg.
- Push back with your left heel while extending forward with your arms, the crown of your head, and your sternum. Tone your lower belly, and direct your tailbone toward your left heel to provide support for your lower back.
- Hold for 60 seconds or more, then carefully bend your right knee and step back with your left foot, returning to Virabhadrasana I, or bring the left foot to meet the right in Tadasana. Repeat on the other side.
Urdhva Prasarita Eka Padasana (Standing Split Pose)
Here’s another pose that uses a strong leg to stand on. Standing Split strengthen your thighs and calves, as well as your knees and ankle joints. The back of the lifted leg gets a strong stretch from the hip to the foot. The further you reach with your lifted foot, the more stretch you will find in the back of your standing leg, and if you hold your ankle with your hands, your legs bear weight.
- Practice Virabhadrasana II (Warrior II Pose), right leg forward. Inhale and cartwheel your left arm up and over your head, creating a nice opening in the left ribs.
- With an exhale, twist your torso to the right, pivoting on the ball of the left foot to lift the heel off the floor. Then lean forward, lay your front torso onto the right thigh, and set your hands on the floor on either side of the right foot (if your hands don’t rest comfortably on the floor, support each one on a block).
- Walk your hands slightly ahead of, and shift your weight onto, the right foot. Then, inhale and slowly straighten your right leg, simultaneously lifting the left leg parallel to the floor.
- The proper balance of external and internal rotation in each leg is important, especially for the standing leg. Lift your hip away from the floor and angle the pelvis to the right. Try to keep the front pelvis parallel to the floor by internally rotating the left thigh.
- Pay close attention to your knee on the standing leg. Be sure to rotate the thigh outwardly and turn the knee so the kneecap faces straight ahead.
- Work toward directing equal energy into both legs. You can hold the raised leg more or less parallel to the floor, or try to raise it slightly higher; ideally your torso should descend as the leg ascends. If you’re flexible, you can grasp the back of the standing-leg ankle with your hand.
- Stay for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Then lower the raised leg with an exhale and repeat on the other side for the same length of time.
Setu Bandha Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)
- Lie on your back in the center of your mat with your knees bent, your legs and feet parallel and hip-distance apart.
- Move your feet closer to your buttocks. Press down firmly through both of your feet and inhale to raise your hips, lifting from the pubic bone rather than the navel.
- Clasp your hands under your back on the floor. Broaden your collarbones and get on top of your shoulders.
- Firm the outer shins and roll your upper thighs inward. Press down firmly through your heels and lift the back of your thighs and the bottom of your buttocks even higher while keeping the thighs parallel.
- To finish, exhale, release your hands, and lower to the floor. Allow your back to rest in a neutral state as you observe the spaciousness within your chest.
If you wish to make this pose more challenging, lift your right knee into your torso, then inhale and extend the leg perpendicular to the floor, keeping your hips lifted. Hold for 30 seconds, then release your foot to the floor with an exhalation.
Hanumanasana (Monkey Pose | Splits)
After all the strengthening poses, this one–named after the deity Hanuman—gives you the opportunity to stretch both legs entirely. When performed dynamically, it is a lower-body strengthener.
- Begin in Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose). Step your right foot forward between your hands so your toes are in line with your fingertips. Drop your left knee to the mat, and point your toes. Square your hips toward the front of the mat.
- Maintaining this alignment, shift your hips back so they stack over your left knee, then adjust your right foot forward to straighten your leg, keeping your hips over your left knee and facing straight forward.
- Pause here with your fingertips on either side of your right knee; press into your right big toe mound, and extend straight back with your left big toe.
- Start to slide your right foot forward while continuing to pin your right hip back and in.
- As your legs open, release your buttocks away from your back waist, and gently tone your abdomen to find a lift in the front of your pelvis.
- Keep descending your pelvis until the back of your right thigh and the front of your left thigh come to the floor. If your back thigh tends to externally rotate, keep lifting your inner thigh.
- Descend your tailbone and soften your front ribs, then take your arms to the ceiling with your upper arms framing your ears.
- Stay for 30 seconds, then retrace the entrance, returning to Downward-Facing Dog Pose. Repeat on the other side.
Viparita Karani (Legs up the Wall)
After a yoga session that focuses on strengthening your legs, you may enjoy this restorative pose that takes all weight off your legs.
- Sit on the floor with your left hip against a wall. Lean away from the wall, lowering your body to the floor until you are lying on your side.
- Roll onto your back and swing your legs up the wall. Adjust your position by scooting your tailbone toward the wall. It doesn’t need to touch the wall.
- Relax your legs against the wall. Position your feet hip-distance apart or whatever distance feels comfortable. You might feel your femurs sink into your hip sockets.
- Find a comfortable position for your arms at your side, with palms turned up; relax your arms and shoulders. Feel the spine lengthening.
- Settle into the pose and breathe for at least 10 minutes.
- To come out of the pose, bend your knees and roll to your side. Remain here for a few breaths before using the strength of your arms to slowly push yourself back up to a seated position.