Bodyweight Leg Workout (Get Strong & Sculpted Legs)

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Published by Christiana Mikesch, CPT | Senior Coach
Last updated: April 30, 2024
FACT CHECKED by Dr. Kristy Dayanan, BS, MD
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Throughout my decade-long career as a fitness coach, I've consistently recommended clients supplement their fitness routines with bodyweight leg workouts due to their effectiveness in strengthening the lower body.

Recognizing the potential difficulties in reaping benefits, I dedicated a week to in-depth research. I also collaborated with other experts to identify exercises targeting leg muscles while emphasizing proper execution.

This article summarizes our findings, including exercise variations to add new challenges for optimal muscle development.

Quick Summary

  • Some of the best bodyweight leg workouts are jump squats, split lunges, glute bridges, and step-ups.
  • Squats and lunges are two standard bodyweight moves for leg workouts, and their variations can accommodate different fitness levels.
  • According to the National Institute of Health, 8 weeks of bodyweight squats can result in a 4.2 percent drop in body fat, along with a 2.7 percent increase in lean body mass and a 3.2 percent boost in muscle thickness.
  • In my opinion, incorporating bodyweight leg exercises into a full-body workout can be a highly effective strategy for lower-body strengthening and toning.

Leg Exercises Using Just Your Body Weight

When focusing on bodyweight leg exercises, the go-to movements are squats and lunges.

These two primary exercises are key because they engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, making them highly efficient for building strength and muscle endurance in the lower body.

As a fitness trainer, I consider squats and lunges essential in bodyweight training. They effectively target the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, and calves, offering a comprehensive approach to leg workouts without requiring extra equipment.

Squat Exercises for Strong Legs

A woman performing bodyweight leg workout

The squat is a top-notch lower-body exercise, building strength and stability in your hips and leg muscles, while engaging your core.

Bodyweight squats cater to different fitness levels, with beginners starting with chair squats and more experienced individuals trying standard or jump squats for an extra challenge.

As a fitness trainer, I've found standard squats to be a powerhouse, effectively targeting the quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, abdominals, and calves.

Here are a few examples of different squat variations:

Standard Bodyweight Squat

A woman doing a standard bodyweight squat

The standard bodyweight squat, also known as an air squat, is the most basic type of squat that utilizes only your body weight as resistance.

How to do a Standard Bodyweight Squat:

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart, toes slightly outward.
  2. Shift weight back to your heels, tighten your core, and keep your chest up.
  3. Lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  4. Exhale as you push back up to a standing position.
  5. Complete 12–15 reps.

Chair Squat

A chair squat is a good option for beginners to get used to a bodyweight squat’s feel and good form.

How to do a Chair Squat:

  1. Position a chair about a foot behind you.
  2. Stand with feet just wider than hip-width apart.
  3. Lower as if to sit in the chair.
  4. Push through feet to stand up, keeping knees pointing outward.
  5. Maintain good form throughout.

Jump Squats

A woman doing jump squats outdoors

An advanced variation suitable only after mastering the standard bodyweight squat.

According to Strength and Conditioning Journal, these plyometric exercises aim to take advantage of the stretch reflex in your muscles to boost your speed and strength [1].

How to do a Jump Squat:

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, slightly turned outward.
  2. Move hips backward, sit back, and lower until thighs are parallel to the floor.
  3. Explosively drive through each foot to jump off the ground.
  4. Land with soft knees, squatting down using the same technique.
  5. Keep knees pointing in the same direction as toes.

“As a dynamic strength training exercise, squats require several muscles in your upper and lower body to work together simultaneously.”

- Sara Lindberg, BS, MEd

Lunge Variations for Toned Legs

Two women doing lunges

The lunge is a basic lower-body movement pattern that enhances balance and stability. If you’re a beginner, perform standard bodyweight lunges first to develop coordination and strength.

Research from the Strength and Conditioning Journal indicates that it engages your core and glutes to a higher degree than squats, making it a versatile exercise to incorporate into bodyweight leg workouts [2].

In my training experience, lunge exercises, whether at a basic or advanced level, effectively target key muscle groups such as the gluteus maximus, hamstrings, quads, and calves.

Here are a few examples of different lunge variations:

Read More: How to Do Lateral Lunges

Standard Bodyweight Forward Lunge

A woman doing a standard bodyweight forward lunge

The standard bodyweight forward lunge is a versatile leg exercise that enhances strength, flexibility, balance, and core stability, making it an ideal foundation for a total-body workout anywhere.

How to do a Standard Bodyweight Forward Lunge:

  1. Stand with feet hip-width apart.
  2. Take a large step forward with your left leg.
  3. Lower until your right knee is just off the floor.
  4. Push through your left foot to stand back up.
  5. Complete all reps for one leg, then switch to the other leg.

Split Lunge

Also known as the Bulgarian split squat, this involves elevating your rear foot on a surface, adding more load to the front leg.

How to do a Split Lunge:

    1. Stand in front of a chair, feet hip-width apart.
    2. Place one foot behind you on the chair.
    3. Lower your hips by bringing your back knee toward the ground.
    4. Push through the front foot to return to the starting position.
    5. Alternate legs for each repetition.

Side Lunge

A woman doing side lunges

Also referred to as a lateral lunge, this exercise enhances lower body strength and flexibility.

How to do a Side Lunge:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Take a large lateral step with your right leg.
  3. Bend the knee of your right leg, sit your hips back, and keep your left leg straight.
  4. Push through the heel of the lunging leg to stand up straight.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

“Lunges primarily work the gluteals, quadriceps, and hamstrings. These muscles lengthen during the eccentric phase as you lower to the ground, and they contract during the concentric phase to return your body to the starting position.”

- Travis Edwards, CPT, MPT

Other Bodyweight Leg Exercises

A woman doing glute bridge exercise

Add the following exercises to complete a good bodyweight leg workout:

Glute Bridge

A glute bridge is an exercise that targets and strengthens the glutes and hamstrings, commonly incorporated into both strength training classes and yoga flows.

How to do a Glute Bridge:

  1. Lie on your back.
  2. Begin with arms at your sides, knees bent, and feet flat.
  3. Engage your glutes and abs, lifting your hips toward the ceiling.
  4. Maintain a straight line from knees to hips and shoulders.
  5. Squeeze glutes tightly while holding for 3–5 seconds.
  6. Slowly lower hips to the floor while maintaining tension in the glutes and abs.

Step-Up

A woman doing step-up exercise in the gym

Step-ups are an effective cardio and strength-training exercise to add to your leg day.

How to do a Step-Up:

  1. Place a 6- to 12-inch step in front of you.
  2. Stand with feet hip-width apart.
  3. Move your right foot forward, placing it on the step.
  4. Push off the right foot to stand up straight.
  5. Lift your left knee until the thigh is parallel to the floor.
  6. Keep your left knee elevated and left foot off the step.
  7. Return the left foot, then the right foot, to the original position.
  8. Immediately alternate sides or repeat on the same side for desired reps.

Benefits of Using Bodyweight for Leg Workouts

Using your bodyweight for leg workouts allows you to work your legs at home, avoiding gym discomfort or stress. Additionally, it's a more cost-effective option, eliminating the need for expensive equipment.

Additionally, even when you're away from home, continuing leg exercises is a breeze. They can be done in hotels or any location, making it simple to stick to your routine.

I frequently advise clients to kickstart their workout routine with bodyweight leg exercises. This ensures they learn the correct techniques for building strength safely, allowing for the gradual addition of weights without the risk of injury.

Do Anywhere Workout

A woman doing bodyweight leg workout at home

The Washington Post suggests that you can achieve a comprehensive aerobic and strength workout at home or any location in less time than it typically takes for a coffee break [3].

Here is a sample leg workout that uses just your body weight that you can do anywhere.

Perform 4–5 rounds with a brief 20-second rest between exercises:

  • Squats x 20 reps
  • Glute Bridge x 10 reps
  • Bulgarian Split Squat x 20 reps
  • Calf Raises x 20 reps
  • Jump squat x 15 reps

FAQs

Do Legs Matter in Calisthenics?

Yes, legs matter in calisthenics because gaining lower body strength will give you the power required for more advanced and explosive moves.

Can Your Legs Be Skinny But Strong?

It isn’t likely your legs can be skinny and strong because muscle hypertrophy is limited if you do a lot of cardio exercise and strength training.


References:

  1. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Fulltext/2016/02000/Effects_of_Plyometric_Training_on_Sports.5.aspx
  2. https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/Fulltext/2009/12000/Using_the_Body_Weight_Forward_Lunge_to_Screen_an.2.aspx
  3. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness/interactive/2022/bodyweight-workout-hiit-anywhere/
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About The Author

Christiana Mikesch, CPT
Senior Coach
Christiana Mikesch, CPT is a personal trainer and author with contributions to publications like the Chicago Tribune and Yahoo. She emphasizes a holistic approach to weight loss, combining an energy-fueling diet, goal-oriented workouts, and daily habits. Her approach avoids short-term goals and fosters a lifelong commitment to health and well-being.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Kristy June Dayanan, BS, MD is an author with a BS degree from University of the Philippines and an MD from University of Perpetual Help System. Her ability to simplify medical science complexities and dietary supplement jargon for the average reader makes her a valued medical fact checker and reviewer.
Learn more about our editorial policy
Dr. Harshi Dhingra, MBBS, MD is a published peer-reviewed author and renowned physician from India with over a decade of experience. With her MBBS from Bharati Vidyapeeth and an MD from Rajiv Gandhi University, she actively ensures the accuracy of online dietary supplement and medical information by reviewing and fact-checking health publications.
Learn more about our editorial policy

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