There is a tendency among beginner and aspiring calisthenics trainees to skip leg training completely and focus exclusively on achieving upper body strength feats.
I used to be like that in the beginning too.
When I started training with calisthenics my biggest aspiration was to achieve the unbelievable calisthenics skills that I saw on Youtube.
Almost all of these skills were related to upper body strength. The few skills that were related to lower body strength (like pistols) didn’t seem as exciting. And, for this reason, I pushed leg training aside.
Other than neglecting my legs, everything was going really well. I had started to achieve some of the skills that I wanted and I was making good progress.
But one day, I decided to crank out some pistols and was shocked to realize I could only get a few. I actually needed to support myself on my left side when I was trying to go back up. It sucked.
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That was a complete eye opener for me.
And I used to think that I was in good physical shape back then…
After that day, I started to train my legs more than even before.
Fortunately, you don’t need such an experience to start valuing leg strength and to understand that you can’t be truly fit if you have weak legs.
“But Todd is it really possible to develop strong and muscular legs with bodyweight exercises?”
The quick answer is yes and the aim of this post is to show you can develop your leg muscles using bodyweight leg exercises.
Before moving on, I would like to mention that this post is very similar to the “45 Bodyweight Exercises To Help You Build Strength And Definition”. I recommend you to take a look at that post because it has lots of helpful info that applies to leg exercises as well.
Also, if you’re looking to use these exercises in the context of a whole body program, make sure to check out my Bodyweight Physique Academy.
Weightlifting VS Calisthenics
If you have been following SOA for a while, you are probably going to know a dozen reasons why calisthenics is an awesome form of training and the many benefits it has over weight lifting.
So, in this section I would like to focus just on the differences between calisthenics and weight lifting in regards to leg training.
Calisthenics leg training is very effective for endurance and conditioning. Concerning explosiveness and muscle mass, it is very similar to upper body calisthenics.
The big difference comes in maximal strength training.
Maximal Leg Strength And Calisthenics
This is one of the areas where weight lifting can be considered superior to calisthenics.
When training with heavy squats, all you have to do is to master the technique and then you just increase the weight on the bar “infinitely”. On the contrary, to move from a simple squat to a pistol you have to master a completely new movement and after that you have limited options on how to make a pistol more difficult.
But don’t let this scare you away because calisthenics leg training comes with another advantage.
Building Resilient Legs
If you train seriously with calisthenics, you are going to build a pair of very resilient legs.
This happens because as you are advancing with bodyweight leg exercises, you are moving through extreme ranges of motion and, as a result, your joints and ligaments become more supple and stronger.
What Are The Muscles In The Leg?
Before we dive into the exercises, let’s take a look at the basics of leg anatomy to get a sense of how the legs work.
The leg consists roughly of these muscles:
Hip Flexors – Lift your leg up
Glutes – Pull your leg back
Quads – Extend your leg
Hamstrings – Bend your leg
Calves & shin muscles – Flex and extend your ankle, respectively
Adductors & Abductors – Bring the legs close and away from each other, respectively
Rotational movements use a combination of these muscle groups.
Of course, this is a very simplistic overview, but it’s enough to get you started.
If you are more interested in the anatomy of your leg, you can take a quick look at this site.
How To Warm Up
Warming up for your bodyweight leg workout is pretty straightforward.
In the beginning do some light mobility work for 2-5 minutes.
You should perform exercises for all joints:
This is really important if you are going to train for an exercise like the shrimp squat, where you are going to move through extreme range of motion. You can skip the warm up part only after you have gotten very proficient with an exercise.
The rest of your warm up is going to depend largely on what you are going to train for in the following workout.
If you are going to train for strength or muscle mass, then practice some low rep sets (3-5) of easier progressions leading to the move you are going to practice with.
For example, if you are going to train with pistols, you can do 3 set of 5 reps of partial pistols increasing gradually the range of motion with every set.
If you are going to train for explosiveness or conditioning, practice with moderate rep (6-12) sets in a fast pace.
For example, you can do 2 sets of 8 reps of bodyweight squats in a fast pace.
55 Bodyweight Leg Exercises To Help You Build Strength & Muscle
Below is a complete guide of bodyweight exercises for legs.
I divided the exercises based on which muscles they target more. This was very difficult for certain exercises since most of them target a lot of muscles simultaneously.
To help you choose which exercises are more appropriate for your current level, I divided the exercises based on their difficulty as well.
Lastly, there is a category for leg isometrics which is appropriate for every level.
Bodyweight Leg Exercises For The Quads
In this section, you are going to find the exercises that are quad dominant. In this category belong some of the most difficult bodyweight leg exercises.
Sumo Squat (Bodyweight)
You can find more info for this exercise here.
I actually prefer to have my knees touching during the exercise, but either way it is a good exercise.
Walking Pistol Squat
Bodyweight Leg Exercises For The Hips
Here are bodyweight leg exercises for the hips flexors. Most of the exercises for the hips are also core exercises, so you may want to train your hips at your core training sessions. I recommend that you practice bridging after you’ve trained your hips because tight hips might “ruin” your posture because the hips flexors can pull your pelvis forward. This gives you an anterior rotation in the pelvis which can cause problems in your low back. Lastly, if you stretch your antagonist muscles (the hamstrings) prior to your workout, you are going to perform better.
Lying Leg Raises
This exercises can be easily modified by bending your legs.
Hanging Knee Raises
Jack Knife Exercise
Hanging Leg Raises
Some great variations from Al in this video.
Bodyweight Leg Exercises For The Hamstrings
In this category belong the hamstring dominant movements. Since most of the advanced bodyweight exercise are quad dominant, I recommend that you focus a lot of your attention in this muscle group.
One Leg Deadlifts
One Leg Hamstring Curl
Harop Curl Progression (Easier variations)
Bodyweight Leg Exercises For The Glutes
Almost all the exercises mentioned so far train the glutes pretty well. For this reason, in this section there are not going to be too many exercises for that specific muscle group.
Bird Dog Exercise
Elevated Hip Bridges
Single Leg Hip Bridge
Elevated Single Leg Hip Bridge
Miscellaneous Bodyweight Leg Exercises
In the section, you are going to find various exercises that weren’t put in any of the above categories.
Adductor Leg Lift
Side Leg Raise
Single Leg Calf Raise
Side Plank With Leg Raise
Isometric Bodyweight Exercises For Legs
Isometrics for legs can be a great addition to your workout. There are 2 ways to implement leg isometrics into your routine. You can practice static hold as a finisher to your strength workouts and you can practice short isometric sessions for strength training.
The exercises in this section aren’t going to be divided into difficulty levels. This is just a list to help you get introduced to isometrics.
Static Wall Squat
One Leg Wall Sit
Plyometric Bodweight Exercises For Legs
In this category, you are going to find exercises that help you develop explosiveness and speed in your lower body. The difficulty levels start from intermediate because plyometric exercises require a solid foundation for safe practice.
The 180 Degree Spiderman Jump
You can find more info about the crazy lunge here.
Tornado Jump Lunge
You can progress even if you don’t have weights by increasing the height of the landing surface like in the last progressions of the video.
Explosive Pistol Squats
How To Train Your Legs
Since it is very difficult to isolate muscle groups with the advanced leg exercises, I recommend that you choose one advanced movement as your main goal and then train the rest muscle groups with easier exercises.
For example, if you choose pistol as your main goal, you should train for it following strength training parameters (low rep sets with big breaks) and afterward or in the next day you can train the rest muscle groups with beginner and intermediate variations.
If your goal is to build muscle, you can follow the same approach but instead of following strength training parameters you are going to focus on building more volume with the progressions. Of course, with this way of training achieving skills is going to take a little longer.
For leg endurance and conditioning, I consider AMRAP type workouts to be the best option.
For explosiveness you should choose 2 exercises to perform on every training session. I recommend you to stick to these 2 exercises for 2-3 months so that you can track your progress. You can train with 3-4 for sets of 8-12 reps. Speaking from experience, alternating between explosive and strength training workouts is really helpful.
How To Recover Faster
I really enjoy training hard. I also enjoy training a lot.
However, there is a limit to this… Namely overtraining.
During all the years that I have been training, I have searched for ways on how to train more frequently and with greater intensity.
The subject of recovery is very large, so here I am going to share with you some exercises and ways on how to recover faster from your leg training.
This is the simplest thing you can do.
After your workout just perform a short mobility session for 5-10 minutes similarly to the warm up.
Also, you can perform various static stretches and target the muscle areas that feel sore.
Using foam rolling is great as well.
Some of the stretches that I like to perform are these:
Your cool down shouldn’t take more than 20 minutes (I usually spend about 5 minutes).
This is going to help release tension. If you are doing it right, you should feel really relaxed afterward.
Active Recovery Sessions
Because it is very hard to get a full stretching and foam rolling session after your workout (except if you have a lot of available time), I recommend that you have a planned active recovery day where you dedicate 30-60 minutes (or more) to stretching and foam rolling.
If you don’t have big chunks of time for something like that, you can split the recovery days into upper and lower body days.
This practice is really valuable.
You are going to be amazed at how much faster you are going to recover by using something like this.
This is the closest think you can get to getting a professional massage.
Note: In the beginning, stretching and foam rolling might make you sore as well. Don’t be afraid of this, it’s normal. After a while you are going to feel a lot better.
Here are some great articles on active recovery and stretching in general:
- Stretching For Strength
- Squat Like A Champion
- How To Stretch After A Workout
- What Is A Foam Roller, How Do I Use It, and Why Does It Hurt?
- How To Do A Full Splits: The 4 Stretches You Need To Know
- List Of Stretches And Routines
And Finally… The Training Plans
There are multiple training plans in regards to developing strong legs using bodyweight exercises. All of these plans are different depending on your goals.
In this section, I am going to make a summary of some of the best articles that I have found on the web and some of my own on how to develop stronger legs.
Bodyweight Workout Plans & Resources For Strength Gains
- Pistol Perfect: One-Legged Squats And Beyond
- How To Develop Strong Legs With Calisthenics
- Pistol Squat Tips
- Tutorial: Natural Hamstring Curls
Bodyweight Workout Plans For Muscle And Definition
- How To Develop Muscular Legs With Bodyweight Training
- Quick & Brutal 5 Minute Body Weight Leg Workout
- The 3 Month Bodyweight Butt Workout Plan
Bodyweight Workouts For Explosiveness
Bodyweight Workouts For Endurance And Conditioning
Most of the workouts, in this section, are circuits that contain upper body exercises as well.
Other Helpful Resources For Calisthenics Leg Training
Some of the resources below are not exclusively dedicated to calisthenics leg training but you can find a lot of info that applies to leg training as well.
- Body Weight Workouts. This is a complete list with all SOA workout plans.
- A Complete Guide To AMRAP Training
- How To Perform A Full Squat!
- Wheel’s Of Steel: Al Kavadlo’s Bodyweight Legs Workout
- 10 Irrefutable Ways To Build Muscle Using Only Bodyweight Exercises
To return to the beginning question of this post:
“But Todd is it really possible to develop strong and muscular legs with calisthenics?”
I hope I answered this question fully and that you can now see the true value and potential of bodyweight exercises for leg training.
If you still have more questions that were left unanswered with this post, feel free to post them below.
I would love to help you out!
– Bodyweight Todd