For whatever reason (*cough, excuse, cough*), plenty of people skip leg day. But ignoring all of the muscles below your belt-line is a massive mistake; training your lower body not only guarantees you’ll never be the victim of a nasty ‘skips leg day’ meme, but also helps you reap a number of health and fitness benefits. Here, experts share six big reasons why you should start showing your bottom half more love at the gym.
1. You’ll Burn More Calories
Whether losing weight is your goal or not, training your legs revs your metabolism. Classic leg-day exercises like squats and deadlifts make your body work harder because they involve large muscle groups and multiple joints, explains Laura Miranda, D.P.T., M.S.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of PURSUIT group fitness training.
“The more muscles groups you use, the more calories you are going to burn,” she says. For example, consider a bicep curl versus a deadlift. While the bicep curl mostly isolates your bicep muscles, the deadlift activates and engages your hamstrings, glutes, core, and lats. “And, just like the deadlift, most leg-day exercises require more than one muscle group,” she adds.
If you’re trying to lose weight, leg day will help you get there—otherwise, it’ll give you an excuse to eat a little more. (And who’s going to argue with that?)
2. You’ll Boost Your Cardiovascular System
When it comes to heart health, we typically think of aerobic activities, like running and biking, as being the most beneficial. However, a recent study out of Appalachian State University found that resistance exercise (like lifting weights) also offers cardiovascular health benefits. According to the study, 45 minutes of moderate-intensity resistance training both improved participants’ blood flow and lowered their blood pressure.
“When your muscles contract, they help to push blood through your veins and back to your heart,” explains David Otey, C.S.C.S., Pn1. So though this study didn’t hone in on lower-body strength training, specifically, having more muscle there makes you better able to circulate blood to your lower extremities, he says.
3. You’ll Have A ‘Fitter’ Brain
Regular exercise has long been linked to a healthier brain, but according to research out of King’s College London, there’s a specific link between stronger legs and a stronger mind. The researchers followed older identical twins throughout a 10-year period and found that the twin who had greater leg power experienced less cognitive decline and that their brain generally aged better than the weaker-legged twin. Why? The researchers believe some of the benefit comes from the new cell production-stimulating hormones that muscles release during exercise—and since leg muscles are the largest in the body, they have the greatest potential for doing so.
4. You’ll Decrease Your Risk Of Injury
‘Use it or lose it’ might sound trite, but it’s definitely true for the joints in our lower body. “When you don’t use your joints, you set them up for breakdown,” says Miranda. By putting controlled stress on our muscles and joints during exercise, we signal them to adapt and grow stronger and more mobile, which is especially important as we age, says Marie Spano, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., C.S.C.S. If we don’t regularly move and challenge our lower bodies, though, we land with a higher risk of injury when we go for a hike or long walk.
Improving lower-body strength may even help reverse the rising need for hip and knee replacements in the U.S., suggests Miranda.
Plus, if you’re an athlete or a runner, consistent lower-body training and strength could make the difference between getting injured and staying in the game, she says. In fact, exercises like lunges and squats promote stability in the knee, and can help prevent ACL tears, according to The American Council of Exercise. Squats and deadlifts also help develop hip strength and mobility, which are both common sources of injury for runners and other cardio lovers, Miranda adds. (So even if you’re training for a marathon, leg day is still a good idea.)
5. You’ll Build A Stronger Upper Body
Yep, leg day can actually help your upper-body training. Not only are most leg day moves compound exercises (meaning that they work your whole body), but stronger legs also give you a stronger base for upper-body exercises, like the push press and bench press, where your feet are anchored to the floor and some energy is transferred through your legs, says Otey.
Plus, if you constantly skip leg day and only train your upper body, at some point your body won’t want to carry the extra weight of more upper-body muscles and your gains will plateau. “The body is a self-regulating machine,” says Otey. Basically, it wants to grow proportionally.
6. You’ll Run Faster (And Longer)
“When most people want to get into shape, they either go on a run or hop on the elliptical,” says Miranda. But strength training can actually help you develop your endurance faster, which will make you a better, faster runner, she says. In fact, a systematic review published in Sports Medicine confirms that resistance training improves runners’ efficiency and time trial performance.
How To Add Leg Day Back Into Your Workout Routine
Convinced yet? If you’ve been neglecting your legs for a long-time, start by incorporating bodyweight exercises such as air squats, lunges, and step-ups into your routine, suggests Miranda.
Build up to three sets of 10 to 15 reps for each move, two or three times a week. Once you’ve been comfortably performing these lower-body moves pain-free for three or four weeks, it’s time to start using additional weight, so add five to 10 pounds, she says. When you’re able to comfortably complete three sets of eight to 10 reps, up your weight by another five to 10 pounds.