Maximum Leg Room : In the '60s, Minis Were for Skinnies, but the '80s Version Demands Sexy, Well-Muscled Gams

After more than 10 years of elongated skirts, hemlines are on the rise, meaning that-- ready or not--calves, knees and, yes, even thighs will come out from hiding. According to fashion predictions, skirt length will no longer be a matter of choice. Minis are back. And piano legs, dimpled knees and thunder thighs will be shown no mercy.

Some over-the-knee skirts have already hit the stores, but the shortest versions probably won't appear on the streets until mid-September. The 12 intervening weeks allow plenty of time "to make a big difference in the look of your legs," according to Barbara Pearlman, director of exercise for Elizabeth Arden. She cautions, however, that legs don't respond to exercise as quickly as other parts of the body, such as the abdomen, "because the leg area involves larger muscle groups. But three months of aerobics and leg exercises will pay off."

Pearlman, who is based in New York City, says Manhattan is already in a mini-tizzy, with women flocking to exercise studios for emergency shape-ups. But experts agree that leg reform cannot happen overnight. Well-turned ankles and shapely calves are the result of reducing excess fat and defining muscle. And those changes can best be effected with regularly performed aerobic workouts such as swimming, walking, running, jogging and bicycling.

Of those, bicycling is probably the most beneficial for thighs, says Deborah Ellison, a physical therapist and director of education at the International Dance-Exercise Assn. Foundation in San Diego. "Bicycling not only helps burn fat all over the body, it also helps tone and strengthen the quadriceps (the large muscles at the front of the thighs)."

"Many women deceive themselves by doing 'spot-reducing' exercises," says Frank Cuva, a fitness trainer who operates the Forever Young workout center in Northridge. "You can't change the shape of your legs until you reduce body fat."

He cites such weight-training movements as leg extensions, lunges and deep knee bends as the most effective leg shapers. "After seven weeks of (weight) training, a client will see some change. And after 12 to 16 weeks, there will be noticeable muscle definition."

Another common problem is fatty deposits on the sides of the knees. Although many cosmetic surgeons say that liposuction, the surgical removal of fat cells, is the only solution, Pearlman says that aerobic activity, followed by floor exercises, can improve the appearance of what she calls "bulbous knees." Here are a few routines that she recommends:

To slim the outer thighs, Pearlman suggests leg lifts "performed lying on your side, with the upper leg straight, foot flexed and the knee pointing toward the floor. Lift the leg to head level and lower to hip level, never touching the floor. Start with 20 lifts on each side, and increase repetitions gradually."

To attack the inner thighs, Pearlman suggests leg swings. "Lie on your back with toes pointed and feet turned out. Keeping the leg low--with the little toe close to the floor--swing the right leg out to the side. Start with three sets of 16 repetitions on each side."

IDEA's Ellison explains that resistance exercises are the most effective for creating trim, curvaceous calves. She tells clients to stand on a stair with heels hanging over the edge. Then, slowly raise up on the toes and slowly lower the heels below the level of the toes, she says. Start by doing the movement 10 times and build to 30 repetitions.

"A short skirt brings attention to the entire leg, so you shouldn't overlook the ankle," Pearlman says. "Simple ankle rotations--20 clockwise and 20 counter-clockwise--will help strengthen the ankle region."

Exercise specialists emphasize that shaping the legs takes time and dedication. Says Ellison: "It has taken a long time to get people to understand that a life style that includes good nutrition and aerobic exercise is the only way to get body fat down. You can't see a shapely leg if it's covered with a layer of fat."

Pearlman points out that women with heavy legs are not the only ones concerned about the anticipated exposure. "Many women are afraid that their calves and thighs are too thin to look good in short skirts, so they are exercising to add shape," she says. The difference between the minis modeled by Twiggy in '67 and the ones expected to dominate fall fashion is that spindly legs just aren't in style anymore. The short skirts of '87 require a healthy-looking, well-defined, womanly pair of legs.

Models: Carole Valleskey, left, and Elizabeth Parkinson, of the Joffrey Ballet.

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