June 12, 2020 9 min read

Training your legs is an essential part of your overall health, so it’s important to keep them as strong and agile as possible.

Bodyweight exercises and calisthenics have a long history of building a foundation of strength, even being used by Greek armies in order to prepare for battle.

Combine bodyweight exercises and leg day together, and you have a recipe for strong, powerful legs—with or without any fancy equipment. We’ll be looking at 5 of the most popular bodyweight leg exercises you can do whenever you have some space and some time.

The Benefits of Strong and Powerful Legs

The legs contain some of the largest muscles in the human body, and therefore share a large amount of importance when it comes to overall body health and fitness. Paired with the benefits of general strength training, working to make sure your legs aren’t chicken legs is a no-brainer. When it comes to your legs, there are five main areas to look at: 

Hamstrings: This flexor muscle group forms the back of the thigh and is used to flex your knee and aids in extending your hip.

Quadriceps: The quads are the muscles at the front of your thigh, the strongest and leanest in your body. It’s made up of four sections that work in unison in order to extend the knees.

Adductors: Known as the inner thigh muscles, it’s composed of a group of several muscles. While not focused on as much in training as the above muscles, the adductors help you when it comes to moving your thigh to the center of your body, as well as in rotating the femur.

Shins: Your shin muscle is a strip that makes up your shin and helps in flexing your ankle so your foot moves up towards your knee.

Calves: Made up of several muscles, they play a number of roles in the proper function of your leg. This includes giving your feet push-off power and stabilizing your foot. 

Training these muscle groups won’t just lead to a much greater increase in overall muscle mass, but you’ll also enjoy weight loss along with it. That’s because more muscles will ramp up your basal metabolic rate, which will burn more calories for muscle upkeep even if you’re not doing anything.

Furthermore, many of these leg exercises can be done either in supersets or until failure, which is a great way to improve your body’s conditioning. The cardiovascular benefits of an intense bodyweight workout, especially one targeting your legs, will be felt throughout your entire body. So remember, it’s not always necessary to hit up the “dreadmill” when you’re training the lower body, or even just going for weight loss.

These exercises are also beneficial when it comes to your functional strength. The power our legs exert is extremely functional a very wide variety of activities—from walking to running, sports, jumping, and more. Strong legs mean an increased ability in performing a range of tasks and sports to a much higher level. 

Finally, bodyweight leg exercises are also a boon for your core. They require a high amount of stability and core strength, just to perform. And if you’re finding things too easy, then there are always ways of making exercises more difficult in order to better activate your core. Not to mention that training your core will not only have far-reaching benefits for the rest of your body, but it’ll also burn more calories and aid in functional strength. So, without further ado, let’s get into our list of compiled bodyweight leg exercises.

A strong man doing lunges in a gym.

Lunges

Bodyweight lunges are fundamental when looking at both strength and functional physiology. They’re a mainstay in any gym class, and they require little room and absolutely no equipment. Furthermore, they’re highly customizable for your own experience level and depending on what your goals are.

A lunge is essentially a step forward while dipping your body to the ground and bending at the knees. Your back should be in a straight, neutral position the entire time, with eyes looking forward. The foot in front should be at a 90-degree angle at the knee, while the knee in the back should be almost touching the ground, balancing on the ball of the foot.

Lunges can either be performed “walking”, where you keep moving forward as you take big steps with alternating legs, or they can be done standing—when you bring your leg back each time. It really depends on how much space you have, since they don’t differ a whole lot. You can also do reverse lunges, where you take a few steps forward, and then reverse the movements until you get back to the starting position.

There’s also a number of variations you can employ in order to keep your muscles engaged in a variety of ways. While this is a post about bodyweight exercises, you can always carry something to the sides in order to add some extra tension. If you’re stuck in the house, that can be any object that you can grab well and hold onto it (without it breaking). For example, if you don’t have dumbbells, you can use two heavy books or filled plastics bottles in each hand.

It’ll also be beneficial to focus on your muscles during the eccentric motion and lengthen it out. The eccentric motion is the one in every exercise where you’re moving “down” in the movement, or to the starting position. For example, a bench press’s eccentric motion is once you’ve reached the top position and are now lowering the bar. 

Lengthening out the eccentric motion to 5-seconds, for example, breaks down more muscle and makes the exercise more difficult. The slowness of the movement also cultivates the mind-muscle link, which is also beneficial when it comes to building strength and power. 

Another way to spice up the humble lunge is to add a jump in between movements. Done enough times, it can really speed up your heart rate and give you some added cardiovascular benefits. 

Squats

One of the big three lifts, the squat is essential for anyone looking to gain strength or mass. It’s a terrific compound exercise that does so much more than just work your legs, also hammering in your core and glutes. And just like the lunge, it requires no equipment and even less space.

While we most often opt-in for the traditional squat with a barbell on your back-shoulders, the bodyweight squat can be just as effective if done correctly and done enough times. Furthermore, just like there are dozens (if not hundreds) of variations of the squat, the same can be said for the bodyweight squat. If you want to add some extra pizazz or difficulty when doing squats, we’ll throw in some variations you can try out as well.

Much like the traditional squat, you want your feet shoulder-width apart, with your toes slightly turned out. Look straight ahead, and keep your core engaged throughout the entire movement. Hold your arms out straight in front of you, which will help in keeping your eyes forward as well as counter-balance your weight.

Keeping your back straight and your hips pushed back, slowly bend your knees and drop your hips to lower your body. Your heels should remain flat on the floor. Once you get to the bottom of the position, pause for a moment. Then, push back up, driving through your hips and imagining the motion as more of a, “pushing the ground away”, than simply standing up. 

Just like the lunge, it’s a good idea to focus on the eccentric motion as you go down into the bottom of the squat. Focusing on the muscles that are being engaged, you’ll get a lot more out of the exercise then simply smashing out 10 reps in a few sets.

And of course, there’s a number of variations of the squat that you can choose from. Each of these will have subtly different activations of the leg muscles, but rest assured that they’ll put your lower body through the wringer anyway.

The Bulgarian split squat is a fantastic variation that necessitates a chair or a bench. You’ll want to stand about two feet in front of your choice of raised-surface, and choose a leg to bend back and place your toes on it. With one of your legs raised behind you, you’ll want to lower down into a lunge, making sure that your knee is tracking directly over your toes. Reverse the motion until you get back into the starting position. Switch legs and do the desired amount of reps.

With the Cossack squat, you’ll want to begin a very wide stance, and your toes pointing out at a 45-degree angle. Choose a side and shift a large portion of your weight onto it, and begin to squat down into the lower position. The goal with this is to sit as low as possible, and while your lighter side’s toes can rise, make sure that your heel is firmly on the ground.

This is similar to the sumo squat since the stance and foot position is the same. The difference is that you’ll be focusing on one side at a time with the Cossack squat, while the sumo squat’s goal is just to sit down as low as you can. 

One of the most difficult bodyweight squat variations is the pistol squat. An un-aided pistol squat will have you standing on one leg, with toes pointed forward. Your knee should be pointed the same way as your toes. Reach forwards with your hands in order to keep balance, and extend the foot not on the ground, in front of you. Your core and hip flexors will need to be engaged in order to raise your foot.

The next movement has you going down into the squat, on one leg. The other leg should be extended out in front of you as you reach the bottom of the movement. At the bottom, pause, and slowly push up while keeping your core engaged.

This is an extremely difficult exercise that can be made easier by putting a bench or chair behind you—the lower it is the more difficult it’ll be. But it’s a good way to get started with the pistol squat since it allows you to activate many of the same muscles and get used to the range of motion. It’s difficult to do a deep pistol squat, and you’ll probably have to work up to it. 

Fire Hydrant

This movement mostly trains the abductors and the glutes and is a good way to train your range of mobility and to warm-up before more complex movements.

The movement is started on your hands and knees, with your shoulders over your wrists and your knees under your hips. With one of your knees staying bent, raise it up and to the side until it reaches hip height. 

Not only will this help you feel like man’s best friend, but it’ll also be a good way to warm-up for other, more complex bodyweight exercises further into your workout. In order to add some more difficulty to this movement, focus on the eccentric motions as your leg comes back down into the starting position. Take at least 5 seconds to complete the movement, and you’ll be feeling the burn in no-time.

A man doing a hip thrust workout in a gym. 

Hip Thrusts

This exercise engages your glutes and hamstrings above all. It’s an easy exercise, which can make it excellent as a way to cool-down at the end of an intense workout.

Starting the position by lying on your back, your knees should be bent, and your feet should be flat on the floor. Engaging your lower body and your core, push your hips up in order to form a straight line between them, your back, and your shoulders. Then just reverse the movement and repeat for the desired amount of reps. 

Once again, focus on those eccentric motions, and try to maximize your time at the top of the position, kind of like a reverse plank. 

Mountain Climber

While a full-body exercise, mountain climbers will especially target your core and your quads.

Start in a plank position, evenly distributing your weight between your hands and your toes. Make sure that your hands are about shoulder-width apart and your back is straight with an engaged core.

Then, pull your left knee into your chest as far as you can, pause, then reverse the movement back into the starting position. The next movement should be with the other knee, done for as many reps as required. Try doing this exercise as fast as you can, while maintaining form, in order to really maximize its cardiovascular benefits. 

If you’re up for a challenge, then try the foot-switch variation. Begin the exercise as you normally would, but as your knee comes up to your chest, allow your toes to touch the floor. Then in one explosive movement, jump as you switch the positions of your feet. This variation will definitely bring your heart rate up and you’ll probably be panting after a good number of reps.

If you want to narrow in on the quads further, you can do sliding mountain climbers. These require you to place a towel (or something else that’ll slide across the floor) under one of your feet. Complete a basic rep with the sliding foot, and use your non-sliding leg and your core to stabilize yourself as best you can. Speeding up the move will hit your quads much more than the basic mountain climber. 

Strong Legs for a Strong Body

Create a workout with the five exercises above you’ll have tree trunk legs in just a matter of time. You’ll be able to start your fitness journey on the right foot, even if you couldn’t stand leg days before.

The bodyweight exercises and variations are excellent if you don’t have access to a gym since they keep your eye on the prize and make it more difficult to create excuses against going to the gym and working out.

But as always, tree trunk legs won’t matter if you’re tired and hungry all the time. Make sure you're sleeping at least 8 hours a night, taking time off muscle groups, and eating a good variety of whole foods in order to keep your body fit and healthy.