You aren’t fit if you don’t have strong legs. That’s just how it is.
Our hips and legs generate the power needed for just about every athletic and other physical activity you can imagine.
I think most people know this, but maybe feel this type of strength and power can only be built using weights or machines. And yes, weights and specialized machines can be great for this, but there’s also a great variety of bodyweight leg exercises that will get you the same results.
What You’re Getting Yourself Into
2116 words (9-11 minutes read time), covering:
Want more?After reading this article, download a free bodyweight circuit routine to work on your leg strength on the go.
In this article I’ll share some of my favorite bodyweight exercises – along with demonstrations of some common weighted movements – that you can start working on as soon as possible. These leg exercises will help you put some good functional muscle on your lower body on your way to becoming more athletic!
Bodyweight Leg Exercises
The following are variations of the good old standbys, Squats and Lunges.
What I’ve done, though, is tweak them a bit so that you can get good stimulation to your hip and legs without having to do tons of reps. We’ll do this through the use of different leverages and angles to apply more tension to your muscles than you would in the basic squat and lunge patterns.
I’ll also show you the starting variations wherein you use some support and assistance as needed to get the full range of motion and enough repetitions to get the full benefit of these movements.
In the following video, I’ll demonstrate all the exercises described in greater detail below.
Now that you’ve seen these exercises in action, let’s take a look at recommendations and benefits for each.
Leg Strength Exercise #1 – Elevated Deep Lunge
The key here is to get as deep a knee bend as possible for the leg that is on the elevated surface. This will help you work your muscles in that stretched position.
It’s great for both maintaining and improving flexibility and will also develop strength in that range of motion. This can come in handy for a lot of athletic activities that have you low to the ground on your feet, such as wrestling, martial arts, surfing, and the like.
A strap or handhold on a supportive surface is a good idea when you first start practicing this move.
The first variation concentrates most of the tension on the front elevated leg, and I show another method where you shift your weight toward the back leg so that you are up on the ball of the foot for more of an emphasis on the quadriceps.
Leg Strength Exercise #2 – Elevated Shrimp Squat
Once you’ve gotten the hang of the regular Shrimp Squat (here my friend Al Kavadlo has a great tutorial on that exercise for you) and the Elevated Deep Lunge Squat, the Elevated Shrimp Squat is the next challenge.
A wonderful test of balance, flexibility and overall leg strength, the key here is to find the right upper body angle for your body type to keep your weight balanced in the middle of your foot as you squat up and down. This will keep you stable and help you apply your muscle force correctly.
Leg Strength Exercise #3 – Back Leg Elevated Lunge
This is also called a split squat or “Bulgarian Split Squat” because allegedly weightlifters from that country used this move as an accessory exercise. Whatever the case, this is another great exercise variation to develop strength in a stretched position.
I like to emphasize the pressure on the back leg rather than the front.
With your weight shifted in this way you’ll be using hip flexors and quadriceps strongly. You can also play with how your upper body is angled. Leaning forward places a bit more stretch and stress on the hamstrings.
Leg Strength Exercise #4 – Side Lunge Squat
This is a great way to work on hamstring flexibility and strength at the same time.
This movement is seen in a variety of martial arts disciplines as well as in dance, and is quite difficult without the use of a hand hold for assistance. So that’s where I’d suggest starting.
To get to the full range of motion in this exercise, go ahead and shift your weight backward and use the support of the strap/rope/ring to help you keep your balance. This little trick will help you practice the full movement right away.
As you get more flexible and strong, try the variation with your straight leg up on a bench or other sturdy, elevated surface. This will really get your hamstrings working!
Leg Strength Exercise #5 – Single Leg Deadlift
I love this movement. It’s very similar to one of my other favorite exercises, the back scale, but in motion.
This is a great “closed chain” hamstring exercise that is a favorite of the functional exercise crowd, and is a great combination move involving flexibility, strength, and balance. The key here is to keep a nice straight leg on the ground and to “pull yourself up” with those hamstrings.
Keep your shoulders and hips square for good form and you’ll get a good stretch as well.
Leg Strength Exercise #6 – Sissy Squats
This is a classic old school bodybuilding exercise, which people may not be using as much today for fear of hurting their knees. Well, it may be harmful for your knees if you have some pre-conditions and/or mobility and strength issues, but otherwise if you work up to the full movement carefully and progressively, there really shouldn’t be a problem.
Our joints and muscles were meant to move and support us and if you gradually expose them to forces appropriately you will adapt and get stronger.
The main form points here are to lean your shoulders back and push your hips forward while rocking on to the balls of your feet. As you get stronger you can shift your weight to one side to make the movement more difficult.
Leg Strength Exercise #7 – Box Jumps
I couldn’t write a post about leg exercises without discussing jumps!
➜ Here is my refresher on proper jump technique that teaches you the pointers for jumping correctly.
Box jumps are a great way to work on explosive jumping because you have an actual goal in front of you for every repetition. You need to concentrate on the jump the entire time when you choose a challenging height.
Remember to use your whole body in the jump and you’ll do a correct repetition every time.
Leg Strength Exercise #8 – Depth Jumps
This plyometric style exercise can be too much for you if your technique is incorrect or if you aren’t strong enough to control the forces in landing a jump from a height.
Save this for later if you have any doubts that you are ready for it. The exercises above are more than enough to keep you busy and productive for a long time.
The main point in this exercise is to land softly and with your butt back and upper body tilted forward a bit. This positions your hips, hamstrings, and quadriceps in the best way to handle the forces of landing.
Leg Strength Exercise #9 – Box and Depth Jump Combination
The last movement I show combines box and depth jumps for an intensive jump training exercise. You may never need to do this, but if you have the equipment and space this is an efficient way to work your legs for maximum explosive power.
Keep the same technique points in mind – land softly with your butt back and upper body tilted forward.
How to Integrate Bodyweight Leg Exercises Into Your Routine
One of the great things about using a support for assistance is you can adjust how much resistance is on your legs, and you can change how much you pull with your upper body to lessen or increase the support as needed.
The problem with most bodyweight exercises is they can either be too easy for a person, requiring tons of repetitions to make an impact, or they can be too difficult and you can barely get one repetition of an exercise! With the proper use of assistance, you can perform the exercise in the proper repetition range for your goals.
Recommended Sets and Reps for Your Leg Strength Goals
- General Purpose Strength – For general purpose strength and muscle gain improvements, I recommend 3-5 sets in the 6-10 repetition range. Rest 90 seconds to 2 minutes between sets.
- Pure Strength – For pure strength you’ll want to use lower reps. I recommend 1-5 reps for 4-8 sets. Rest 2-3 minutes between sets to make sure you’re fresh for the next set.
- Endurance – This goal will require higher repetitions. I recommend 12-25 reps for 2-5 sets. Rest 60-90 seconds between sets.
- Power and Speed – Here’s where the jumping exercises come in. I would keep the sets at 3-5 repetitions with a good amount of rest in between, at least 2 minutes, so that you can be as explosive as possible. When you feel your reps slowing down appreciably, that’s time to stop the set, and possibly the workout. You can set a goal of 3-5 sets, but really, the amount of sets will be based on your ability to remain explosive.
Your lower body can handle a lot of work as long as you work up to it gradually and intelligently – 2 to 3 times a week of work is a great place to start. I’d pick 3 of the exercise variations I’ve shown and work them for at least a month, then switch them out for other exercises.
In this way you can have a rotation of great exercises in your training year and have a good variety to cycle through and compare as your training moves forward.
Where Weights Come Into Play
If you practice the exercises above diligently, your legs WILL get strong. You can most definitely build strength, power, and muscle size using just your bodyweight.
With that said, there’s no question that barbell squats, lunges, and other weight training exercises work well for leg training. I practice them myself! At GMB we don’t believe in limiting yourself to any one style of training. But I’m not an expert in weight training so if you’re interested in incorporating weighted exercises into your leg strength routine, I recommend turning to these great resources:
We’ve seen and used their material and highly recommend their programs.
Start with the Basics
If many of the exercises above are too advanced for you right now, I recommend going back to work on the basic bodyweight squat. Here’s my full step-by-step tutorial for improving your squat.
The basic bodyweight squat isn’t necessarily an “impressive” skill but it’s one of the most important exercises to spend a significant amount of time on.
Depending on your starting point, the basic squat might be quite challenging for you, in which case you should work on getting comfortable with that before moving on to some of the more advanced exercises we covered in this post.
Don’t Skip Leg Day!
They say “don’t skip leg day” for a reason! A strong and muscular upper body is certainly nothing to scoff at, but strong hips and legs show just how hard and consistent you work in your training.
Your lower body is the foundation for so much in athletics and physical performance as well as overall health as we age. The strength you build now could mean the difference between needing help or being independent in your later years.
I’ve shared a few of my favorite bodyweight leg exercises with you here, and there are a lot of other great ones out there.
Try incorporating a few of these into your routine and see what you like and what affects you the most. Don’t be afraid to try new movements – they could open your eyes to some things you didn’t even know you should be working on!
Build Strength for Physical Skill and Mastery
Over eight weeks, Integral Strength will help you build the kind of strength that carries over into demanding physical skills and dynamic sports.