In this article I’m going to show you how to build strong and powerful legs using just calisthenics.
A lot of people think that building truly strong legs is impossible when using only your own bodyweight but I’m here to set the record straight.
If you can perform an unassisted pistol squat you’re already in the 99th percentile of strongest people out there.
On top of that, in order to perform some of these calisthenics leg exercises you’re going to have to have good flexibility to maintain control as you balance your body throughout the movement.
This translates into real world strength and mobility that can sometimes be lacking when only working with barbells or machines.
So without further ado here are twelve of the best bodyweight leg exercises to build serious strength and power.
Squats are a fundamental exercise in fitness that work a large range of muscles at the same time.
They’re a great exercise because they train a fundamental movement which we perform daily throughout our lives: sitting down and standing back up again.
On top of that squats are a compound exercise that target some of the largest muscles in our bodies.
Squats work all of the muscles in our legs but focus most on the muscles on the back of our body; specifically the quadriceps and glutes.
Below is a list of different squat exercises to try starting with the easiest forms and working towards the most difficult.
The first thing you want to master is the ability to perform a full squat.
That means going lower than having your upper legs parallel with the floor.
For a long time people were scared of doing full deep squats because of injury but more and more evidence has shown that it’s both healthy and important for you to build strength in a full range of motion which a deep squat trains.
Just think of a toddler when they’re playing.
How do they squat?
That’s what you want to be able to do.
For many that will require some stretching in order to rebuild the mobility we’ve lost from our modern lifestyles but it’s well worth the effort.
To begin, find an open space and stand up tall.
In order to help you balance when going down into the squat you can put your arms out straight in front of you.
This will put your center of gravity a little farther forward and help keep you from rolling backwards as you go all of the way down.
As you become more flexible this won’t be as big a deal.
Next, go ahead and lower yourself down as far as you comfortably can.
Feel free to spend some time in the bottom position in order to help your body get used to the position and become more flexible.
Then simply stand back up straight.
Once you feel comfortable with deep squats you can move on to trying some different varieties.
Wide Stance Squats
Wide stance squats are a version of the squat which works your inner thighs and hamstrings more.
It’s done by placing your feet slightly wider than your hips and angle your feet so your toes are facing away from you out to the side.
Once you’re in position go ahead and lower yourself down but be aware that you won’t be able to go as low as a normal squat due to the angle of your legs (unless you’re a professional acrobat).
The jumping squat is a type of exercise that is used to build explosive power and strength.
This style of exercise, also known as plyometrics, is done by exerting as much force as possible as quickly as you can.
With bodyweight squats this is done by pushing yourself back up from the squatting position so fast and powerfully that you literally jump into the air.
Hence the name, “jumping squats.”
They’re a great way to build explosive power in your legs and really throughout your whole body.
Another popular form of this exercise is the famous burpee.
Single Leg Bench Squat
This squat is really done in order to get you ready for the king of calisthenics leg exercises; the pistol squat.
A single leg bench squat is a squat that is done with only one leg but with the assistance of a bench behind you.
Get into position by standing in front of a bench facing away from it.
Then stretch one leg out in front of you so you’re only standing on one leg and begin to slowly, and with control, lower yourself down onto the bench behind you.
Then stand back up again using only the one leg you’re standing on.
This is a fantastic way to build both strength and balance.
If you can’t yet stand back up again on the one leg it’s ok.
Just continue to slowly train the sitting down portion of the movement.
This is known as eccentric training and is also a great way to become stronger and build your muscles.
Practice this exercise regularly to be ready for the next step.
The pistol squat is known as the king of bodyweight leg exercises for good reason.
Not only does it require some serious strength but also a lot of flexibility and balance.
The only downside to the pistol squat is that it can be hard on your knees so it should be done in moderation.
But it’s still a great exercise to do as a test of your strength and to practice your balance.
The pistol squat can be a little technical but it’s done similarly to the single leg bench squat mentioned above.
The only real difference is that you can go much lower and there isn’t any bench to catch you if you lose your balance.
Begin by standing on one foot with the other leg stretched out in front of you.
Then begin dropping yourself down into a full squat on just one leg.
Here’s a video to walk you through it in more detail:
Lunges are a great exercise which target your hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes.
They focus more on one leg at a time and are an awesome bodyweight exercise that builds strong and stable legs.
In order to do lunges you want to take a big step forward with one leg and then drop down until your upper thigh is parallel with the ground and the leg behind you is balanced on your toes.
Then push yourself back up again with the same leg that you stepped forward with.
You can either repeat the exercise with the same leg or you can “walk forward” by alternating legs if you have enough room or are outside.
If you really want to take things to the next level you can do some jumping lunges.
These are a great way to build explosive strength as well as balance.
In order to perform jumping lunges you want to drop down into position the same way you did before with one leg stepping forward and that same upper thigh parallel with the ground.
Now, instead of just standing back up you want to explosively leap into the air so that you can swap the positions of your two legs.
Repeat for as many reps as you can do with good form and I promise you’ll feel like you had an intense workout.
Here’s a video with some more details:
Calf raises are a way to focus in on your calf muscles in the back of your legs.
They’re done by simply standing up on your toes repeatedly while keeping your legs straight.
However, in order to get some benefit from these you’re probably going to have to do a lot of reps.
To make it harder try balancing on just one foot to double the difficulty and you’ll be surprised how much more of a workout your calf muscles get.
Bridges are often thought of as a type of yoga maneuver but they’re right at home in any calisthenics workout plan.
Doing bridges primarily works your glutes but also works your back and quadriceps as well as giving a good stretch to the whole front of your body.
For the purposes of this article, though, we’re going to focus on just a couple of varieties.
The basic bridge which we’re going to discuss will help to build a strong set of glutes which carries over into many aspects of fitness.
To begin, lay down on your back and then bend your knees so that your feet are walked up closer to your body.
Then, using your glutes (or butt muscles as some would say), thrust your hips forward and up so that you look like this:
If you want to make it a little harder try this version;
Single Leg Bridges
To double the difficulty try the same bridges as above but only use one leg.
Not only does it require more balance but you’ll really feel your back muscles getting more of a workout too.
Jumping may sound like something you do on the playground but then again those types of exercises often turn out to be the best ones.
In order to do a long jump you want to make sure you’re somewhere that you feel ok falling on your butt if you lose your footing when you land.
Either a workout mat, some nice soft grass, or a sandy beach.
Start by forming a good hip hinge and squat down a little bit.
Then explode up and forward as hard as you can.
See how far you can go and be sure to keep a record of it.
In fact, one of the best parts about this exercise is being able to track how far you can actually jump.
It’s fun to be able to know something about your own athleticism that is so tangible.
If you do the long jump regularly you’ll be able to see those benefits spill over into just about any other sport too as it builds the kind of explosive power in your legs that can benefit almost all activities.
Sprinting is something that many people never think of when they’re trying to make their legs stronger but it’s definitely something which shouldn’t be left out.
Even though sprinting falls into the conditioning aspect of most people’s training it still can do an awesome job of building strong and powerful legs due to the explosive and exhaustive use of the leg muscles.
Also, when you see the sprinters during the Olympics what do they look like?
People can run a hundred meters at various speeds but if you can sprint it in about thirteen seconds you’ll be doing pretty good.
Similar to the long jump, sprinting is a fun thing to be able to track and it can give a good measurement of your overall health too.
Calisthenics may not be able to put you in top place at the Olympics deadlifting competition but it’s still a great way to get into tip top shape.
If you can perform all of the above exercises then you’re guaranteed to be one of the strongest people you know.
On top of that you’ll have the ability to confidently move your body through many real-life functional movements in a way that even some of the strongest guys in the weight room have trouble doing.