Leg Muscles: Anatomy and Function (2022)

Overview

What are the leg muscles?

You have many different muscles in your upper and lower leg. Together, these muscles help you walk, run, jump, stand on your toes and flex your feet (lift your toes up toward your knee). Your leg muscles work with your bones, tendons and ligaments to stabilize your body, support your weight and help you move.

Muscle strains (tearing or stretching a muscle too far) in the legs are common injuries. They often result from strenuous exercise or overuse. To keep your leg muscles strong, you should warm up before physical activity. By maintaining a healthy weight and focusing on staying healthy overall, you can keep your leg muscles working properly.

Function

What is the purpose of the leg muscles?

Your leg muscles help you move, carry the weight of your body and support you when you stand. You have several muscles in your upper and lower legs. They work together to enable you to walk, run, jump and flex and point your feet.

What is the purpose of the lower leg muscles?

Your lower leg muscles have many important jobs. They include:

Anterior muscles: These muscles help you lift and lower your foot and extend your toes. They are in the front (anterior) part of the lower leg.

Lateral muscles: Running along the outside of your lower leg, these muscles stabilize your foot when you’re walking or running. They also allow you to move your foot from side to side.

Posterior muscles: These muscles are in the back of your lower leg. Some are superficial (close to the surface of your skin) and some sit deeper inside your leg. They help you:

  • Flex and point your toes.
  • Jump, run and push off into a sprint.
  • Lock and unlock your knee.
  • Maintain good posture by stabilizing your legs.
  • Stand up straight by supporting the arch of your foot.

What is the purpose of the upper leg muscles?

The muscles of the upper leg are very strong. They support your weight and help you move your hips and legs. Their jobs include:

Anterior muscles: These muscles stabilize your body and help with balance. They also allow you to:

  • Bend and extend your knees.
  • Flex your thigh at your hip joints.
  • Rotate your legs at your hips.

Medial muscles: These muscles help with hip adduction (moving your leg toward the center of your body). They also allow you to flex, extend and rotate your thigh.

Posterior muscles: Providers also call these the hamstring muscles. They help you move your leg from front to back and rotate it at the hip socket.

Anatomy

Where are the lower leg muscles located?

Your lower leg muscle anatomy includes:

Anterior muscles: You have four muscles in the anterior (front) part of the lower leg. They extend from your knee down to your foot. They are:

  • Extensor digitorum longus.
  • Extensor halluces longus.
  • Fibularis tertius.
  • Tibialis anterior.

Lateral muscles: The fibularis longus and fibularis brevis run along the outside (lateral part) of your lower leg. They start just below your knee and go down to your ankle.

Posterior: The muscles in the posterior (back) of your lower leg are:

  • Calf muscles, which include the gastrocnemius and the soleus.
  • Flexor digitorum longus.
  • Flexor halluces longus.
  • Popliteus, which sits deeper in your leg just behind your knee joints.
  • Tibialis posterior.

Where are the upper leg muscles located?

The muscles in your upper leg (your thigh muscles) run from your hips to your knee. Your upper leg muscle anatomy includes:

Anterior: You have three main muscles in your upper leg. You also have another muscle, the iliopsoas, that starts in your lower spine and attaches to your femur (thighbone). The main upper leg muscles are:

  • Pectineus.
  • Quadriceps femoris (quads), which actually includes four muscles that start in your upper leg and end at your knees.
  • Sartorius.

Medial: Providers also call the medial part of the thigh, the hip adductors. You have five medial thigh muscles (on the inner part of your thigh). They are:

  • Adductor brevis.
  • Adductor longus.
  • Adductor magnus.
  • Gracilis.
  • Obturator externus.

Posterior: The most common name for these muscles is the hamstrings. They start under your buttocks, run down the back of your leg and extend to the inside and outside of your knee. These muscles include:

  • Biceps femoris.
  • Semimembranosus.
  • Semitendinosus.

What do the leg muscles look like?

Part of your musculoskeletal system, your leg muscles are skeletal muscles. Many individual fibers make up skeletal muscles. These fibers bundle together to create a striated, or striped, appearance.

Conditions and Disorders

What conditions and disorders affect the leg muscles?

Conditions that affect the leg muscles include:

  • Foot drop: A condition that makes it difficult or impossible to lift your foot towards your knee. It may drag on the ground while walking. Foot drop results from health conditions like stroke or nerve injury.
  • Leg cramps: Muscle cramps and muscle spasms in the calves are very common. Leg cramps can result from pregnancy, dehydration and certain medications and health conditions. They can happen at night or during the day. People over 60 are more likely to get leg cramps, especially at night.
  • Muscle strain: The most common leg muscle injury is a strain. It happens when the muscle fibers stretch too far or tear. This can affect any part of your leg, resulting in a torn calf muscle or hamstring injury. These injuries usually result from overuse or strenuous exercise, especially from activities that require quick starts and stops.
  • Tennis leg: This type of muscle strain injury causes calf pain. It can happen in any sport, but providers call it tennis leg because it commonly happens when the leg extends and the foot flexes. This is the foot position tennis players use when they serve a tennis ball and “push off” into motion.

What are some common signs or symptoms of conditions affecting the leg muscles?

Problems in the leg muscles can cause:

  • Muscle pain, tightness and stiffness. The pain may be sharp or dull. It may start out as mild pain and slowly worsen.
  • Muscle weakness or decreased range of motion.
  • Pain, tenderness or bruising.

What are some common tests to check the health of the leg muscles?

Providers can usually diagnose muscle strains during a physical examination. Your provider will look for swelling and tenderness. In order to test function, they may ask you to move your foot or leg in certain positions during the exam.

To check for damage to the muscle, tendons or other soft tissues, your provider may order an imaging study, such as ultrasound or MRI. These imaging studies help your provider make an accurate diagnosis.

What are some common treatments for leg muscle injuries?

Depending on the location and severity of the injury, your provider may recommend:

  • Massage therapy: Massage can help you recover from an injury while increasing flexibility and range of motion. People who have leg cramps may be able to relieve pain and relax tense muscles by massaging the cramped muscle with their hands or a roller.
  • Medications: Your provider may recommend over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or prescription pain-relief medications. Other medications can relax muscles and prevent leg cramps at night.
  • RICE method: You may be able to treat minor muscle strains and tears with rest. Ask your provider about the RICE method (rest, ice, compression and elevation). Apply ice or a cold compress within intervals of 20 minutes. Always protect your skin to avoid skin burns.
  • Physical therapy: After a muscle strain or tear, a physical therapy (PT) program can strengthen your leg muscles. Your provider will tell you when you’re ready to start a PT program after an injury. Physical therapists may use modalities such as dry needling and cupping to address muscle conditions.
  • Stretching: Gentle stretches can relieve pain and tightness from a leg cramp or a pulled leg muscle. Ask your provider if they recommend stretches.
  • Surgery: If you have severe muscle tear, your provider may recommend surgery. Your provider repairs the tear and sews it closed with stitches so it can heal.

Care

How can I keep my leg muscles healthy?

To avoid problems with your leg muscles, you should:

  • Maintain a healthy weight: People who carry extra weight are more likely to pull a muscle. Excess pounds put pressure on your legs and put you at a higher risk of an injury, such as a strain. If you’re obese or overweight, talk to your provider about the most appropriate weight for you.
  • Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water and other fluids decreases your chance of getting a leg cramp.
  • Stretch and warm up before exercising: Warm muscles are less likely to stretch too far or tear. Before doing physical activity, be sure to do a warm-up program to stretch your leg muscles and increase flexibility. When exercising, increase the intensity gradually.
  • Watch your medications: Certain medications can cause leg cramps. Talk to your provider about taking another drug that does not cause this side effect.

Frequently Asked Questions

When should I call my doctor about my leg muscles?

If you have severe or sudden calf pain that doesn’t improve after a day or two of rest, call your provider. Calf pain and other symptoms of a muscle strain may actually be signs of a serious medical condition, such as a blood clot, deep vein thrombosis (DVT), nerve damage or Achilles tendonitis.

Get help right away if you have:

  • Edema (swelling), warmth, redness or tenderness in the calf.
  • Numbness or tingling.
  • Severe muscle weakness or trouble moving your lower leg.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

The muscles in your upper and lower legs work together to help you move, support your body’s weight and allow you to have good posture. They enable you to do big movements, like running and jumping. They also help you with small movements, like wiggling your toes. Leg muscle strains are common, especially in the hamstrings, quads and groin. To keep your leg muscles working as they should, avoid carrying excess weight. Warm up before exercise, stop if you feel pain and see your provider if you have leg muscle problems that don’t improve in a few days.

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