How strong is your foundation? Just as building a house begins with a solid foundation, so it is with our bodies; we need to build that strong base of support. The lower body is home to the largest muscle groups in our bodies and they become very involved in every movement we make. They are muscles that we use the most in everyday living, such as squatting to pick things up off the floor, walking and even just standing. • While each muscle has a specific purpose, they all have to work together to create pain-free, smooth movement. • If the lower body muscles begin to atrophy, so does your confidence level for going for a walk, having to step up and down, even getting out of a chair. However, when lower body muscles are strong, your confidence level increases as your risk for falling and incurring bone fractures decreases. And for seniors, keeping those muscles strong is vitally important for maintaining independent living; knees, hips and ankle joint injuries are the most common lower body issues affecting seniors.
Major lower body muscles
Gluteals: three muscles that make up the buttocks. The gluteus maximus, nicknamed glutes, is the largest of our three gluteal muscles and covers the entire buttocks. Its primary function is to move the thigh to the back. The other two gluteal muscles enable you to move your legs out to the sides.
Hip Flexors: a muscle group located in the front of your hips. They connect legs to the torso and act as a stabilizer for hips and the lower body. Their main function is to help lift knees upward as in marching or walking up stairs.
Quadriceps: four muscles in the front of the thigh that allow you to extend your leg as if you were kicking a ball.
Hamstrings: a group of three posterior thigh muscles located behind the thigh bone. They enable you to bend your knees backward, bringing heels toward your buttocks.
Outer Thigh (abductors): muscles on the outside of the thigh that move your leg away from the midline of the body.
Inner Thigh (adductors): a group of five muscles located on the inside of your thigh that are responsible for bringing your legs toward the center of your body.
Calves: a group of muscles that extend from the back of knee to the Achilles tendon. The gastrocnemius, the upper part of the calf muscle, and the soleus, a smaller muscle that lies beneath the gastroc muscle, are responsible for flexing your foot downward as if you were standing on your toes.
Three common lower body exercise mistakes
Selecting Favorites: Avoid working one specific area because of cosmetic desires. You need balance in the workout. If you continually strengthen one lower body area to the neglect of its neighboring muscle groups, you can mess up your posture alignment.
Forget the Burn: It is better to focus on proper form than going for the much talked about "burn." Think of going slow and being in control.
Neglecting Stretch: When lower body muscles are tight, you could be dealing with back issues. Remember to strengthen weak muscles and stretch tight muscles.
Standing with feet shoulder-width apart and abdominals contracted, bend knees as though you were slowly sitting in a chair, keeping knees behind toes. Never lower thighs below parallel to floor. Slowly return to standing position. Tip: When ready to add intensity, hold weights.
Plie squat with heel raises
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing outward, abs contracted and back straight. Lower into a plie squat position, knees in alignment with toes. Lift heels of right foot six to eight times, repeating with left heel. Push through heels, returning to original position.
Hamstring on ball
Lying on a mat, place both heels on ball. Contracting abdominals, lift hips off floor so that your body is in a straight line, from head to toes. With feet flexed, press heels or calves into the ball, rolling ball in toward hips. Keeping hips lifted and abs tight, roll ball back to original position. Tip: You may decrease intensity by lowering hips to the floor after each "rollout."
Side leg lifts with resistance band
Wrap a resistance band around both ankles. You want to feel some tension on the band when you tie the ends together. Hold onto a support if needed. Without moving upper body, and while keeping hip, knee and ankle in alignment, flex foot while lifting leg to the side until you feel tension. Lower leg without touching the floor and repeat for desired repetitions. Tip: Contracting abdominals will help to give you stability.
Standing quadriceps stretch
Hold onto a sturdy support or balance with one arm extended to the side. Having a slight bend in the standing leg, hold other foot, raising it toward buttocks, slightly pushing pelvis forward. Hold for about 30 seconds. Tip: Contract abdominals and try to keep both knees close together.
Easy hamstring stretch
Hold onto a support, if needed. Extend leg on a step or low stool, relaxing supporting leg. Flex foot and bend slightly forward from hips; do not round lower back and do not lock knees. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds, then repeat with other leg.
If you are 50 or older and have not been exercising, check with your physician before beginning any exercise program. Trainer Sally Anderson is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.