There are two kinds of people in this world, those with nice leg muscles and the ones who just lie a lot. “I have never skipped leg day”, said nobody, ever. Clearly, strong legs are the foundation of a strong body. But, oftentimes people forget about the importance of leg workouts. We all have our favorite muscle groups when it comes to working out.
Never skip leg day, they say. But how many of us act on that advice? I know I’m guilty of letting these workouts slip. It seems the most popular reasons for skipping legs are: lack of equipment, lack of motivation, and just a general dislike for leg days. Calisthenics could be the solution.
A set of strong legs isn’t only important for how it makes you look. Growing big wheels comes with added benefits like increased weight loss, improved mobility, improved stability, and increased range of motion.
Are your legs a bit on the scrawny side?
I'm here to help you get solid, chiseled legs.
You were motivated to train before, but now you're more enthusiastic and driven than ever. We've outlined the best exercises for a calisthenics leg workout in order to make the most of that enthusiasm.
First, here are the fundamental exercises you need to get very familiar with. After that, I'll introduce you to some killer workouts.
If you move your body in space this is one exercise that you must master. The humble squat is the most fundamental exercise for both a beginner and an intermediate because it provides a strong foundation for other movements and engages all major leg muscles. Squats (air squats, weighted squats, and squat jumps) target your quads, hamstrings, and glutes and require assistance from your core and lower abs to keep you stable.
Your feet should be shoulder-width apart, heels firmly planted on the ground while performing this excellent exercise. Lower yourself as low as you are comfortable with by sending your hips back and bending your knees. Return to the starting position by pressing with your feet. Your arms can either be behind your head or in front of you. That's one repetition, and there will be many more.
If you lack the strength to perform the squat properly, use a chair. Your butt will touch the chair at the bottom of the movement limiting the squat range to what you can safely do. Try holding onto something, like a door handle or a chair, to ease some of the pressure on your legs.
If you can’t go all the way down you may have tight muscles that limit your range of motion. Strive to reach lower with your glutes by performing the movement slowly. You should feel a stretch, but don't hold it for too long or push yourself to the point where you feel intense pain. To loosen the muscles and increase the range of motion in your legs, do some mobility exercises before and after your workout. And smash those muscles with a foam roller whenever you can (reading a book, before your first coffee, checking your Instagram feed, or logging your workouts)
Should your knees go over your toes? Traditionally, it's been said that you should try to prevent your knees from moving past the top of your toes (when looking down) because it puts additional pressure on your joints. However, this belief has been challenged in recent years. Ben Patrick, the “Knees Over Toes Guy,” claims the additional pressure created when you allow your knees to travel will bulletproof your knees. It's become a bit of an internet meme these days but there's plenty of evidence to prove that Patrick is right.
Research by the University of Memphis conducted suggests that while the restriction of forwarding knee movement may reduce stress on the knees, the hips and low back region are likely to suffer as a result.
So how do you deal with this? Stop focusing on which is the right way and simply perform a few repetitions to find out how your body responds to each movement. It is important to follow your natural rhythm because this allows your muscles to work in a way that is most conducive to growth.
Just like the squat, lunges are a powerful way to activate your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and even your lower back and core. Lunges put more force on the leading leg which leads to a higher stimulation of the leg muscles. They also increase mobility in your hips, hamstrings, and ankles because the range of motion is greater.
The forward lunge is performed by stepping forward with one leg until both knees are bent at 90 degrees. Maintain a straight upper body, and your step should be comfortable. Make sure your lower knee does not touch the ground.
The Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian Split Squat is what we call a functional training exercise.
You'll need to engage more of your hips, lower back, and core to maintain your balance in this exercise that emphasizes a single leg. It is an intense exercise that requires a lot of effort and as an added bonus, it helps stretch tight muscles. It's a great way of increasing the burn without using weights.
To perform the Bulgarian split squat:
- Position yourself in a split stance with one leg behind you placed on a box or bench.
- Next, stand up and place your left leg back behind you before lowering yourself down into a squat position.
- Perform a static lunge with the leading leg.
- Make sure to keep your core engaged and your back straight throughout the exercise.
Once in the squat position, slowly rise back up to the starting position before repeating on the other side. Be sure to keep your balance and avoid leaning too far forward or backward during the exercise. Reaching a 90-degree angle of the knee is ideal, but it can vary depending on your mobility.
The Bulgarian split squat is a great exercise for building powerful legs and improving mobility and posture. However, you can make it even more effective by doing variations that focus on specific muscles groups.
One of the most efficient exercises for working your calves is the calf raise. And when I say “work”, I mean “destroy”. Don't expect to turn up for dance class the following day.
Bodybuilders and calisthenics trainers alike use them to improve lower leg strength and power. There are many different ways to perform calf raises, but the most common is to simply stand on a raised surface with your heels hanging off the edge, then raise yourself up onto your toes and back down again.
Performing a calf raise is as simple as putting your weight on the ball of your foot and lifting your heels off the ground. To make this exercise more effective, stand on the edge of a platform so your heel starts from a lower position. This helps increase the stretch and improve range of motion (ROM). Avoid bouncing by pausing for a second at the top and bottom of the movement. This will also ensure you are exhausting the calf muscles (for more gains) and not relying on momentum.
Calisthenics enthusiasts will appreciate the benefits of the glute bridge. The glutes, hamstrings, and core will be working hard during this exercise. Legs should be shoulder-width apart and flat on the ground for the Glute Bridge exercise. Make sure your hands are close to your body at all times. As you place your heels on the ground, lift your hips up and out to the sides, aligning your thighs and torso. Hold the contraction in your glutes for two seconds at the top of the movement. Repeat the process, returning to the beginning point each time.
It's important to focus on your glutes and hips or else your legs will take over the movement.
The pistol squat is a highly challenging leg exercise so it's not exactly beginner-friendly. That said, many naturally flexible people, and beginners to calisthenics who already have fitness training experience can often perform pistols right from the get-go.
The pistol squat is a one-legged squat where the non-supporting leg is extended out in front of the body. It's a difficult exercise to perform and requires a lot of strength and flexibility. Pistol squats are superb for calisthenics training because they help build unilateral strength in one and improve balance. Think of them as a kind of unilateral squat variation. It's literally one of the best single leg exercises you can do, for a variety of reasons.
To perform a pistol squat, start in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Extend one leg out in front of you and lower your body down into a squatting position, keeping your other leg straight. Once your thigh is parallel to the ground, press back up to the starting position.
Simply put, box jumps are performed by jumping onto a box and then stepping down again. Simple, but not easy.
Explosive power and conditioning can both be improved with box jumps. It's a high-intensity leg exercise that primarily works quads, hamstrings, and glutes. The most common reason people do a box jump is to improve their athletic ability and power.
Loved by CrossFit & HIIT athletes, basketball players, volleyball players, and footballers. Jumping plyometric exercises like this one are some of the most effective calisthenics exercises to improve power, strength as well as speed.
If you haven't got a box to hand, try squat jumps as a great alternative.
Workout I – The Absolute Beginner
If it's been a while since you've exercised, or if this is your first time performing leg calisthenics, here's a simple but effective workout for you. These are the exercises you'll perform:
- Squat for 4 x CRT *
- Calf raises 3 x CRT.
- Glute bridges 3 x CRT.
* CRT stands for current repetition threshold, which is how many repetitions of an exercise you can do while being just shy of failure. Shy of failure would mean stopping 1-2 repetitions below your form breaks, and your muscles can't continue executing the movement. So if you are just starting out and performing your first set of squats and you can barely continue after 15, then that's your current CRT.
The resting period between each set of squats should start at 3 minutes and a minute and a half between sets of calf raises. The rest days between each workout should be 2-3 days since your body usually needs 48-72 hours to achieve recovery.
You can progress once the workout becomes less challenging.
With this particular workout, there are two directions of progression:
- Reduce the rest time in the following workout – do this in the beginning until your rest period between squats is 60-90 seconds and your rest period for calf raises and glute bridges between 30-45 seconds.
- Increase the repetitions in a set – Test your new CRT after resting for 2-3 days by performing a set and stopping shy of failure again. This is your new standard for the rest of the sets.
- Increase the number of sets you perform of an exercise.
You are ready to advance beyond this beginner workout when you can perform each exercise for the minimum rest time, and you can comfortably perform 5-6 sets of squats with a doubled CRT from your starting number.
Workout II – The Calisthenics Apprentice
When you are no longer a complete beginner, progress to this workout. By the end of this bodyweight leg workout, you will feel as if you've been moving heavy weights with your entire body.
- Bulgarian Split Squat for 3 x CRT.
- Lunges for 3 x CRT.
- Squat 3 x CRT.
- Calf Raises 3 x CRT.
- One-Leg Glute Bridge 3 x CRT.
If you want to challenge yourself, try substituting pistols for squats and box jumps for calf raises.
When you work out at home without much equipment, you need to get creative to build muscle. Progression can often be facilitated by adding weight to an exercise since you just need to select a heavier dumbbell. However, one equally effective strategy is to progress by increasing the number of repetitions you perform per set and reducing the rest time between sets.
This program is specifically designed to take advantage of high volume as a way for increased muscle growth and enhanced athletic performance. Having exhausted your muscles with tougher exercises, you move onto easier movements to maintain the high-volume intensity.
Don't rush things! Perfect form means using the correct muscles throughout the entire range of motion in your current sets.
Workout III – Maintaining Body & Mind
Unless you're a pro athlete, you might not have an hour or more every day to devote to your workout. You are a busy person which means intense training sessions more than a few times a week can be tricky to stick with. This can lead to demotivation, frustration, and even injury because you don't feel like you are working out enough. But this leg workout requires just 15 minutes of your time every day.
Here's the breakdown
- A complex foundational movement – squat, Bulgarian split squat, pistol squat, box jump, or lunge for 3 x CRT.
- Muscle-specific movement – Glute Bridges or Calf Raises for 3 x CRT.
You can still access the benefits of increased muscle growth, aesthetics, and mental resilience that lower body workouts offer by being consistent and spreading out the volume throughout the week instead of in 2-3 sessions.
If you need to take a day off, do so. All that matters is that you get back to it as soon as possible every day and give as much as you can.
Why You Should Train Legs
Training legs extends beyond the ability to perform certain exercises. Rather, leg training is about creating muscle mass, burning fat, and improving your athletic performance.
Strong legs mean more power, speed, and endurance. Simply put, it's your ability to jump higher, run faster, and kick harder.
Thankfully, you don’t need expensive equipment and heavy weights to tap into all the benefits of leg training. Here's why training legs is very important for calisthenics athletes.
- More muscle growth – Leg exercises, the squat, in particular, require a lot of effort to perform and keep your body stable because they require the involvement of many muscle groups. Bodyweight leg exercises even engage muscle groups in your upper body, such as the abs and lower back. Not only that, but it leads to increased growth hormone and testosterone. Although this response is strongest with heavy lifting, bodyweight squats can still be powerful, especially if you make a real effort to exhaust your legs. Growth hormone and testosterone are vital for your recovery, increasing the amount of muscle you have and maintaining a lean and healthy body. This means you can receive more growth in your upper body just by training your legs.
- Mental resilience – It can be difficult to continue working out when your legs are burning and trembling. That is especially true when bodyweight exercises are intense and high in volume. Surviving such torture will strengthen your mental endurance. The quality of your exercise performance is not determined by what your muscles can handle – it's also affected by what your brain can handle. Maintaining focus on the set, despite the pain, allows you to perform more repetitions towards near failure, resulting in increased muscle growth.
- Improves the shape of your body – Wishing to look good is not a goal you should be ashamed of. Aristotle himself once said that “It's a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” Even ancient philosophers agree that you are justified in wishing to look good. People make visual judgments based on comparing parts with one another, and when your legs are lacking, this creates an illusion that your upper body is not as well defined as it is. Training legs will give you more muscle and the perception of more muscle.
- Functional Training – Regularly training your legs will provide you with the strength, mobility, and balance needed to perform well in life. You need strong ligaments and considerable mobility for many sports and even for everyday activities such as carrying groceries, bending down, and squatting to pick an object. The endurance and explosiveness you will build with some of the exercises can be especially helpful if you are into sports such as biking, hiking, and running.
Frquently Asked Questions
What about the fancy bodyweight leg workouts I see on YouTube?
It is best to start with the foundational movements that engage all the major muscle groups of the lower body. Exercises like these are more than enough to build athletic performance, endurance, and muscle mass. The most effective routine isn't always the most elaborate and flashy.
How can I increase resistance with bodyweight leg exercises?
Resistance can be increased by working muscles at different angles or from different positions, basically changing how the loads are moved against gravity. Lunges and Bulgarian split squats are perfect for this.
You can also increase resistance by carrying weights while performing any of the exercises – any dumbbells and kettlebells you have laying around, water bottles, groceries, backpacks with books, etc.
If I don't have any equipment, will only high repetitions of calisthenics build large muscles?
Training with proper form through a full range of motion and to near failure in sets with multiple repetitions will be enough to build muscle.
How long should I rest between workouts?
A full-hour workout with multiple exercises that has required a lot of effort will require a rest of 48-72 hours to fully recover, given you consume enough protein and sleep well. You should make sure to keep the body active and include movement even on rest days. Do light exercises like walking or hiking.