If it's your first time in a fitness club, you will be definitely sent to a leg curl machine first. Women will also get to know the machines for inner thighs, squats to do on Smith's machine or leg press. However, none of the exercises above will bring any effects. Why?
The reason is that exercises done on machines (including those isolated ones) don't really engage muscles and nervous system. What is the reason why the “professional instructors” send beginners to the machines and recommend ineffective exercises? It is caused by their beliefs that complex multi-joint exercises are “complicated and cause injuries”. If you gain mass or strength slowly, and your thighs and buttock look still the same – say 'thank you' to your instructors.
“But I saw professionals who mostly train on machines!” The answer is simple – such films are made with reluctance, as nobody wants to reveal their training methods to the competition. It often happens that the things we watch are prepared without commitment during breaks between workout cycles. It is also common that such films often don't contain any exercises that each competitor does in his own training!
Having that on your mind, as the most important exercises, do:
Barbell squats (front thigh, buttocks, back). Attention: do not do this exercise on the Leg Press (it's a good way to get injuries of spine and knees), do not shorten range of motion – forget about “squats to 90 degrees angle” and “bodybuilders squats”! If you are doing squats, lower your upper thigh below the knees. The shorter the squats' movement, the larger load to your knees – this is a simple way to injury! Incomplete squats develop insignificantly the medial part of vastus medialis – one of the most important muscles stabilising and protecting knee joints. Squats engage quadriceps, buttocks and majority of hamstring. The work of abs and back is also very important. It is one of the best exercises for thighs, abs and buttocks. You shouldn't use a bodybuilding belt to do squats – it will cause weakening the key muscles protecting from injuries (among others abs and back muscles). Unless you break the records, don't use the belt!
Deadlift on slightly bent legs/RDL (hamstrings, back – spinal erector). It is another exercise dissuaded to beginners (unjustifiably), which is mostly aimed at the back of thighs. Once again, here's the tip for women – it is one of the best exercises shaping hamstrings and buttocks. Each kind of deadlift engages abs and back muscles. You shouldn't use the bodybuilders belt in this exercise. Such belt does not protect from injuries, and it weakens key muscles that you want to train.
“Good morning” - bend with a barbell (hamstrings, buttocks, spinal erectors). This exercise is also undervalued and rather not recommended. It develops back and hamstring excellently, the work of buttocks is also important (as the erectors of hip joints), many other muscles are also engaged in this exercise.
Barbell or dumbbell lunges (front thigh, adductors, buttocks). It's one of the best exercises complementing squats.
I also suggest using a PUSH PULL scheme for some time (each part 2x a week) or divided PUSH PULL LEGS (legs are done in another workout). FBW (Full Body Workout) – which is training for the whole body during one session – may be also interesting. The choice of scheme is complicated and depends on many factors.
Do I need to do 16-20 sets for thighs within one workout (like in the divided shoulders + legs scheme)? No, it's rather harmful. Leave large volume to the professionals who use pharmaceutical “support”. I suggest dividing leg training for the front (workout A) and back (workout B) of thighs. ATTENTION: start with the lowest load. It means that at the beginning you just need one exercise for the front of thighs and one exercise for calves – in workout A. Further sets, exercises and load should be added on the following workouts when you feel that your muscles are prepared to bigger load! Isolated exercises, as well as those done on machines, are complementary to the basic multi-joint exercises in the plan below!
Barbell squats 3-6 sets x 6-8 reps (75-85% max load)
Barbell or dumbbell lunges 3-4 sets x 10-12 reps (70-80% max load)
Leg press 3-4 sets x 10-15 reps (as a complement to squats)
Heel lift standing 3-4 sets x MAX reps
“Good morning” with barbell 3-4 sets x 8-10 reps (75-85% max load)
Deadlift on slightly bent knees 3-4 sets x 6-10 reps (75-85% max load)
Leg curl lying (as a complement to deadlift) 3 x 12-15 reps
ATTENTION: aesthetics, strength and appearance (firmness of thighs) depend in 80% on your diet, not training!
You do the biggest job in the kitchen by preparing proper meals matching your lifestyle (activity), metabolism, age, level of body fat, etc. To the strength training based on multi-joint exercises, you have ta add: aerobic and interval training. If you care about the appearance of your thighs, calves, abs, buttocks and the rest of your body – you have to run or do some other intensive training. I don't recommend treadmills, exercise bikes or steppers. The most efficient activity is running on various grounds.
How many times a week should I run? At first, 2-3 x a week 15-20 minutes. You can run on the days free from strength workouts (not necessarily in the morning on empty stomach) or right after finishing strength session. You should increase the volume and intensity of running training gradually – I mean, run for a longer time on the next session and increase the pace each time. If you didn't do any aerobic training before – you should start with marching, 3-4 x a week, 1-2 h each time. After getting used to such work – you can think about marching with running and finally, running.
Before starting any kind of activity, you should check your health condition – consult a doctor and obtain a permission to a particular training. If you have: high level of body fat, circulatory system diseases, posture disorders, high blood pressure, vision disorders, or e.g. spinal disorders, you should definitely see a doctor before starting training. Remember to start each physical effort with a thorough warm up of the whole body (e.g. running few hundred metres, jumps, burpees, push ups, squats, bends, bends with twists, joints circles, dynamic stretching, etc.). Doing exercises without warm-up may cause serious health consequences – pulled muscles, damaged joints and other injuries! Do the exercises with the help of a more advanced person after a good warm-up.