When we think about working out our legs, we tend to think about the bigger muscles—quads, glutes, and hamstrings. After all, these are the muscles that power us through the big moves, like squats and deadlifts, that shape our lower-body.
It’s only at the end of a long, tough workout (if ever) that we think about the smaller muscles in our legs, so usually we plop down on the hip adductor machine and absentmindedly butterfly our legs in and out while we scroll through Instagram. But that’s a big mistake. If you want strong, defined legs, you need to show your inner thighs way more love than that. Comprised of six distinct muscles, the inner thigh or ‘hip adductor’ muscles are responsible for pulling your thigh bone (femur) toward the mid-line of your body and stabilizing your hip joint.
While strong, balanced hip adductors improve lower-body performance and reduce your risk of injury, neglected or imbalanced hip adductors can contribute to a range of lower-body injuries, especially in your knees, explains celebrity trainer Kyle Brown, C.S.C.S. One study published in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine linked imbalances in the hip adductors to lower-body injuries in runners—especially ligament strain and injury that leads to pain and stiffness in the outside of the knee.
The best way to strengthen your inner thighs isn’t with the hip adductor machine, but with functional movements that’ll get you up off your butt and get the rest of your legs in on the action, too, says Brown.
The following four moves emphasize your lower body’s natural movement patterns (squats, hip hinges, lunges, and step-ups) and fire up your inner thighs to strengthen your entire lower body—and even engage your core.
1. Sumo Squat
By using a wider stance than standard squats, sumo squats require your adductors to work double-time to pull your legs together as you rise up out of each rep, Brown says. Plus, they’ll still score you the butt and quad results you crave.
How to do it: Stand tall with your feet about twice shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed out diagonally away from your body. Grab one end of a dumbbell with both hands and hold it in front of your pelvis with your spine neutral, chest up, and core braced. This is your starting position. From here, push your hips back and bend your knees to lower your body until your elbows are inside of your knees. Pause, then slowly push through your heels to return to start. That’s one rep. Perform three to five sets of three to five reps.
2. Sumo Deadlift
A trainer favorite, this deadlift variation recruits your hip adductors in the same way that the sumo squat does. While the sumo squat prioritizes your quads, though, the sumo deadlift prioritizes your hamstrings and lights up your back.
How to do it: Stand with your feet about twice shoulder-width apart and a barbell or pair of dumbbells at your feet. Push your hips back and slightly bend your knees to grab the bar or dumbbells with an overhand grip. Maintain a flat back and brace your core. Your hips should be higher than your knees and shoulders higher than your hips. This is your starting position. From here, push through your heels and squeeze your glutes to thrust your hips forward and stand up. That’s one rep. Perform three to five sets of three to five reps.
3. Lateral Lunge
Think regular lunges are hard? Get ready to take things to the next level with this side-to-side variation. Lateral lunges train the adductors and quads and improve hip mobility all at the same time, says Baltimore-based coach Erica Suter, C.S.C.S.
How to do it: Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart and hold a pair of dumbbells at your sides with a neutral grip. This is your starting position. From here, take an exaggerated step to the right with your right leg, simultaneously pushing your hips back and bending your right knee to lower your body as far as you can as you the ground. Pause, then press through your right foot to push your body back up to standing. That’s one rep. Perform two to three sets of eight to 10 reps per side.
4. Lateral Step-Up
This single-leg exercise builds total-body strength and stability (adductors included!) in a big way. Choose a higher or lower step to make the move more or less challenging for your quads and glutes.
How to do it: Grab a pair of dumbbells and hold them at your sides with a neutral grip. Stand with a bench or step to your right, and place your right foot firmly on the step. Drive through your right foot to straighten your right leg, lifting your left foot up off the ground. Without resting your left food on the bench, pause and then slowly bend your right leg to lower back to start. That’s one rep. Perform two to three sets of eight to 10 reps on each side.