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Larry's At-Home Exercise to Strengthen Weak Upper Legs

Updated on June 3, 2015
Handsome silverback gorilla
Handsome silverback gorilla | Source

But first, a childhood memory

An acquaintance of mine is 80 pounds overweight. Her upper legs are so weak that she cannot get up from the floor without holding onto the couch, and using her upper body muscles to assist in the maneuver. Her situation is reminiscent of an experience from my childhood.

When I was little, I came down with meningitis. It was quite painful, and I was laid up for several weeks.

After my body shook off the infection, I was well enough to go back to school. On the walk to school, there was a small hill, which was quite a challenge immediately after my recovery. Upon reaching the top, I really 'felt the burn' in my upper legs, and I was slightly wobbly. But with the walking mini-workouts five days a week, I gradually regained my upper leg strength.

Larry the Gorilla in his native habitat
Larry the Gorilla in his native habitat | Source

Gorilla Walking

I enjoy short Summertime day-hikes in the Northern Sierra, when I can get up that early on Saturdays. I continue to do lower body strength training, which contributes to my being a fairly strong uphill hiker -- even as a senior.

I have a suggestion for people who are either struggling with obesity, or have abnormally weak upper legs.

It's an exercise of my own invention that simulates the uphill walking that was so helpful to me as a child. I call it Gorilla Walking, but you can call it Larry Walking if you like. But first let's talk about the mechanics of ordinary walking.

There are several muscle groups that contribute to ordinary walking. A couple of the obvious ones: butt muscles -- aka glutes--and calf muscles.

Of course the quadriceps, the muscles in the front of your upper legs, also play a role in walking. However these large muscles don't get much of a workout from ordinary walking on level ground. Gorilla Walking, which we'll get to shortly, targets the quads.

A surprising fact about ordinary walking is that your lower back muscles also come into play. Here's an experiment to illustrate that observation. Try walking in the usual way, with a book balanced on top of your head. It's easier said than done. The book will probably fall forward. Why is that?

You usually lean forward slightly when transferring your body weight to the forward foot. Then you use your lower back muscles to straighten up a bit, later on in the stride. With Gorilla Walking, we want to maximize the quad work, and minimize the contributions made by the other large muscles -- glutes, calves, and lower back.

Here's how to do Gorilla Walking. First, let your arms hang loosely at your sides. Or you can even put your hands on top of your head, or in your pockets. The main point is that the arms do not come into play while Gorilla Walking.

Second, go slow, and take extremely short steps. I recommend 10 inches (25cm).

Third, keep your back rigidly straight and completely upright throughout the entire Gorilla Walking motion. If your form is correct, you'll notice a slight tightening of your abdominal muscles.

At first, Gorilla Walking feels awkward. If you watched me demonstrating Gorilla Walking, you'd understand why I chose that name for this indoor exercise. Hence the handsome gorilla in the photo. Unlike conventional walking, Gorilla Walking is not in our genetic blueprint. Approach Gorilla Walking in the same spirit that you would learn a new dance step.

After Gorilla Walking for a few minutes, half an hour, or whatever, your upper legs will feel like they've been hiking uphill. If you do Gorilla Walking regularly, your upper leg muscles will be stronger, and will have more endurance.

Of course, Gorilla Walking is not the only way to strengthen the upper legs. I wrote another article about exercises for hikers. A few of these exercises work the quadriceps.

The upper part of the picture shows the four muscles of the quadriceps.
The upper part of the picture shows the four muscles of the quadriceps. | Source


1. Is Gorilla Walking the most effective exercise for strengthening your upper legs? 

A: No. There are machines at your local gym that should be more time-efficient than Gorilla Walking for people in good health, whose body fat is in the normal range. Example: a leg press machine. 

But for people with weak upper legs, or with obesity problems, Gorilla Walking should be reasonably time-efficient.

2. Do you use Gorilla Walking as a part of your own regular exercise routine?

A: Sometimes. On most days, I get a faster workout doing (one-leg) Bulgarian Squats, The resistance level is higher.

The video below is an easier variation of what I do, for those who are curious. It is NOT the Gorilla Walking, which is the primary subject of this hub. And I am NOT advocating Bulgarian Squats for beginners.

3. Then what are the advantages of Gorilla Walking over other exercises for strengthening the upper legs? 

A: First, no special gear is needed; you can even do Gorilla Walking while wearing flip-flops.

Second, you can do Gorilla Walking almost anywhere. When you're on a business trip or on vacation, you don't need to search for the nearest gym. You can do Gorilla Walking in your hotel room.

Gorilla Walking also has an aerobic component. The closest comparison would be leisurely bicycling.

4. What are the best exercises to complement Gorilla Walking? 

A: My top pick is ordinary walking. Gorilla Walking isolates the quads. Ordinary walking works the calves and buttissimo muscles. Every day, you could set aside a block of time for exercise. On odd days, do ordinary walking outside. On even days and rainy days, do Gorilla Walking in your hallway.

Easier version of Bulgarian Squats

What do I get out of upper leg work?

I've doubled the strength of my thigh muscles. I'm not exaggerating. And because of that, I'm a stronger uphill hiker. Since strong quads also help to stabilize the knee joints, my fragile aging knees take less of a pounding on the long steep downhill parts of mountain hikes. In fact, that was my motivation for starting upper leg work in the first place.

I've continued for a couple of other reasons. I'm a bit leaner than before I started. Optimized one-leg squats makes my big appetite slightly less big. And increased lean muscle mass jacks up metabolism, which translates into more calories burned--even when we're resting.

Second, optimized daily quad work is helpful for my sense of well-being. For me, strength training is a technical issue, rather than a mortal one. If a given exercise does not have a positive payoff that I can feel, I don't do it. Virtue has absolutely nothing to do with my exercise priorities. And upper leg work is numero uno.

For some odd reason, I need a lot more quad work for my stronger leg than for the other one. Is an asymmetric quad workout best suited to other people? I do not know. Just sayin'.

Tips for ordinary walking

If it's cold and rainy outside, you may want to do your ordinary walking at the nearest shopping mall. But for some people with obesity problems, going out for a walk exacerbates lower back pain. My suggestion?

If it's not raining, drive to your nearest supermarket, get a shopping cart, and then do your ordinary walking workout in the parking lot. Leaning on the handle of the shopping cart should relieve some of the strain on your lower back muscles.

As you may have guessed, I'm a big fan of lower-body exercise. In terms of mobility and weight management, lower body work gives a bigger payoff than upper-body exercise.

In an earlier hub, I discussed the well-being payoff of aerobic exercise, and described how ABAB Testing can help you optimize that payoff.


If you already have a good quadriceps exercise,

you may want to consider ultra-low-impact aerobics. If you have the money, I recommend the Trikke. You make it go by turning the handlebars, and shifting your weight in the direction of the turn. Then do the same for the other side.

It was helpful to me eight years ago, when I had rheumatoid arthritis in my hip. Aerobic work releases endorphins, the body's natural pain medicine.

Since I am not particularly coordinated, It took about a month before I mastered the proper form, but that was not an issue. I got a good workout even with poor form.

Copyright 2011 and 2015 by Larry Fields

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