Many people have trouble pairing the idea of getting stronger with bodyweight training alone because, well, only lifting weights equals muscle and strength, right? Bodyweight is for beginners, and people who don’t have access to a gym…
Well, not quite. In truth, strength is too often viewed in a one-dimensional way. Your average gymnast or wrestler does the majority of their training with bodyweight; ditto for the guys in your local park who do pullups and pushups by the hundreds. These athletes may not load up on squats, deadlifts, and leg presses, but no one’s questioning their strength. The fact is, done correctly, bodyweight training can be quite challenging, even humbling, and give you more than enough stimulus to grow muscle and gain power.
The following is a guide to getting bigger, stronger legs by lifting your bodyweight—and nothing else.
Can You Build Leg Muscles and Strength Without Weights?
The science is pretty clear now that the main driver of muscle growth is mechanical tension—the amount of stress a muscle is placed under when you work it. Notice that the operative term is “tension,” not load. Lifting weights is a pretty easy way to measure, control, and progress the amount of tension you apply—for example, you know how much you’re lifting when you grab 40-pound dumbbells, and you know that when you can use the 45s, you’ve gotten stronger. But the weight of your body can create mechanical tension too. You just have to be a little more creative in how you use it.
With bodyweight training, you want to take advantage of something called the length-tension relationship of muscle, which refers to the different amounts of force a muscle produces when it’s at different lengths. Generally, when a muscle is stretched into a lengthened state—think of your quads at the bottom of a squat, or your glutes when your butt is pushing back in a Romanian deadlift—it can contract more strongly than when it’s shortened. Exercises that emphasize the lengthened position of the muscles they train can recruit more muscle fibers and allow you to produce more force.
When you do bodyweight exercises, you often have the opportunity to use a greater range of motion than when you lift weights, because there is no barbell or dumbbells to accommodate. That means more range in the lengthened position. This is also beneficial if you’re limited in your mobility, as performing lengthened-range exercises will improve your ability to get into those deeper positions. Improved mobility, in turn, promotes joint health and athleticism.
Many of the leg exercises we’ll recommend here will have you working out of lengthened positions, and using greater ranges of motion than you’re probably used to.
The Most Effective Bodyweight Leg Exercises
You don’t need any weights to do the exercises that follow. Some basic equipment, such as a bench, mat, exercise band, and a rack, or similar sturdy object, will help you perform them in some cases, so it’s good to have access to a home gym or garage that provides some options, but you don’t need barbells, dumbbells, or machines.
Bodyweight Leg Curl (aka Nordic Hamstring Curl)
The bodyweight leg curl works the hamstrings’ two functions at the same time. That is, extending the hips and flexing the knees, similar to a glute-ham raise (an excellent bodyweight hamstring exercise we’ve already written about, but one that requires a special bench that isn’t available in most gyms). Be warned, this is a hard exercise—arguably the hardest move on our list, so we’re getting it out of the way now.
With that said, you don’t have to perform a full Nordic hamstring curl right away. Focusing on the eccentric portion only—performing the lowering phase of the lift slowly—provides plenty of hamstring training for a beginner or intermediate, and will eventually build the strength you need to handle full-range reps.
All you need to do the bodyweight leg curl is a sturdy place to secure your feet. You can brace your heels under a low bench, a weighted barbell in a rack, your living room couch, or have a friend hold your ankles. Rest your knees on a thick mat or a few towels to protect them from the floor.
Step 1. Kneel on the floor and secure your ankles. Tuck your pelvis so it’s perpendicular to your spine, and take a deep breath into your belly. Brace your core. Bend your hips back so your torso leans forward a little, and remember to maintain this hip position throughout the set. Have your hands ready at your sides so that you can catch yourself if you lose control on the descent.
Step 2. Begin extending your knees, lowering your body toward the floor under control. Aim to take 4–6 seconds to descend. When you feel you can’t maintain tension in your hamstrings anymore, let your body fall, and break your fall with your hands. The range of motion won’t be great, but the extreme tension you create in your hamstrings will still make the exercise effective.
Step 3. Push off the floor, creating enough momentum to get your body moving back upward, and then try to pull yourself up the rest of the way by flexing your knees.
Set a goal of 6–8 reps for a set. Over time, try to use your hands less and less until you’re really pulling yourself up by your hammies. At that point, you should be able to do full reps at normal speeds.
Alternative Exercise: Nordic Curl Hip Hinge
The classic Nordic hamstring curl can be troublesome for people with knee issues, so here’s a similar hamstring exercise that’s much more joint-friendly. In this movement, the knees stay in a fixed position while you work the hamstrings at the hip joint, performing a bowing motion. Your hamstrings still have to perform both their functions, working to keep the knees flexed while extending the hips, but the leverage disadvantage isn’t as extreme. This makes the Nordic curl hip hinge a great hamstring exercise that’s accessible to more people.
Step 1. Set up as you would for the bodyweight leg curl above, with the ankles braced and the knees resting on a pad. Tuck your pelvis so it’s perpendicular to your spine, and take a deep breath into your belly. Brace your core.
Step 2. Shift your weight forward slightly so that you feel tension on your hamstrings. Now bend your hips back, focusing on maintaining a long spine and a flat back. Bend until your torso is parallel to the floor, or you feel you’re about to lose your lower-back position.
Step 3. Extend your hips to lockout.
Do sets of 10–15 reps. You can progress the movement by holding a weight to your chest as shown.
Bodyweight Leg Extension (aka Reverse Nordic)
Almost all quad exercises involve hip flexion too. That means you fold at the hip when you do them, as in a squat, lunge, and even a leg extension. The bodyweight leg extension is unique in that the hips remain extended the whole time. This forces the quads into a deep stretch when you bend your knees, making them work from a lengthened position. This is an unusual range to train the quads, and makes for a nice complement to more conventional quad exercises.
Step 1. Attach an elastic exercise band to a sturdy object at about the height your head would be if you were kneeling on the floor. (The band isn’t a must have, but it will help you get more range of motion on the exercise.) Place a mat or towel on the floor and kneel on it with your shoelaces down and knees about shoulder-width apart. Grasp the free end of the band, and hold it with your arms extended in front of you. Scoot back until there’s light tension on the band.
Step 2. Extend your hips so you’re standing tall, and tuck your pelvis under slightly so it’s perpendicular to your spine. Squeeze your glutes and brace your core.
Step 3. Slowly allow your body to drift backward (your butt moves toward your heels), keeping your hips extended and driving your feet into the ground so that your quads control the descent. You’ll feel a strong stretch in your thighs.
Step 4. When you feel you can no longer control the movement backward, use your quads to extend your knees and come back to the starting position. Use the band to help you pull yourself back.
Sets of 5–10 reps are a good target, but you may only be able to manage a few reps with these at first. Do them with control and progress gradually.
There aren’t many ways to work the inner thighs directly, and those that are out there tend to not be especially functional or athletic (i.e., the seated adductor machine). The Copenhagen plank, on the other hand, allows the body to remain in a straight line, stacking the shoulders and hips over the knees just as they appear when you’re standing and moving. Since it’s also a variation of the side plank, you’ll get some core work too.
Step 1. Lie on one side, and place your top leg on a box or bench that’s no higher than 20 inches off the floor. The knee of the top leg should be bent enough so that your entire shin can apply pressure to the surface of the box. The bottom leg can be straight or slightly bent. Plant your bottom elbow and forearm on the floor, and brace your core.
Step 2. Drive your top shin down into the box to raise your body off the floor, and try to close the space between your two legs, sandwiching the platform you’re working on. Your body should form a nearly straight line in the top position.
Aim for sets of 10–12 reps each leg, moving with a slow, controlled tempo. If performing reps is too difficult, simply get into the top position and hold it for a 15 to 30-second isometric. That’s one set.
Target: quads and hips
The foot-over is a very sneaky exercise that’s much more difficult than meets the eye. Here’s why: the quadriceps is a four-part muscle that’s mainly credited for extending the knee, but one of its components—the rectus femoris—serves another role by flexing the hip joint as well. For that reason, the rec fem can be underused during standard quad exercises, and this move works it to its full capacity.
Step 1. Sit on the floor with your legs spread out in a V shape and knees straight. Sit up tall with your pelvis perpendicular to your spine. Place an obstacle (a kettlebell, standing dumbbell, or foam brick works great) to the outside of one foot.
Step 2. Keeping your knee locked out and your toe pointed, slowly raise your foot off the floor and over the obstacle, tapping your heel on the floor on the opposite side.
Step 3. Reverse the motion, tapping it on the side you started. That’s one rep. Make sure you don’t succumb to compensations like slouching, leaning back, or bending the leg in any way. Doing this correctly will absolutely annihilate the rectus femoris (the muscle that runs right up the center of the thigh). It won’t take any added weight to feel the burn.
Do sets of 10–12 reps per leg.
Band-Assisted Pistol Squat
Target: glutes and quads
A true one-legged, full-depth, single-leg squat (known as a pistol squat) is very challenging, and may not be in the cards for many people, either due to a lack of mobility or unfavorable leverages. But using a band as a target on the way down can help, slinging your rear out of the bottom position where the move is most difficult. This can help you build strength and stability on one leg without the worry of falling or getting stuck at the bottom, and it can help you build up to doing true pistol squats down the road.
Step 1. Set a thick exercise band, or multiple smaller ones, across the spotter bars of a squat rack, or attach bungee cords between two sturdy objects set at about knee height. (The thicker the band or bands, the more help you’ll get out of the bottom of the squat.) Stand about a foot in front of the band, and test out a double-leg squat first, touching your butt to the band, to make sure you’re close enough to reach it safely.
Step 2. Take one foot off the floor, and reach forward with your arms to provide a counterbalance. Bend at the hips and slowly descend, pushing your butt back until it reaches the band. Let it stretch as you lower your body as far as you can control—you should be able to get to a near rock-bottom squat.
Step 3. Allow the band to help you rebound out of the bottom, but don’t bounce out. Come back up with control. Keep the non-working leg raised the entire time, but you can rest it on the floor to help you reset between reps.
Aim for 6–10 reps each leg. As you get stronger, try to lower the height of the band, and/or reduce the band tension so your lower body does more of the work.
How to Stretch and Prepare For a Bodyweight Leg Workout
Stretching and mobility work are paramount for getting the most out of your athletic potential and avoiding injury. Done before your lower-body workout, the following three drills can warm and limber up your hips, hamstrings, knees, and quads.
Squat Mobility Drill
Step 1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, and turn your toes out about 20 degrees. Keep your head, spine, and pelvis in a long straight line as you squat down and wedge your elbows between your knees, using your arms to gently pry your knees apart even more. As you push the knees out, try to extend your torso to get as tall and upright as possible.
Step 2. Plant your hands down on the floor inside your knees, and twist your torso to the right, reaching one hand straight overhead. Turn your head as well so you’re watching your hand. It’s OK if your heel comes off the floor as you twist, but try to keep it down. Return your hand to the floor, and repeat on the opposite side.
Step 3. Stand back up from the bottom of your squat position, keeping your heels on the floor. That’s one rep.
Perform 3–5 reps.
Step 1. Stand tall, and take a step forward, raising one knee to your chest as high as you can. As the knee rises, grab hold of your shin with both hands and pull it into your chest for a deep glute and inner-thigh stretch. Avoid slouching or bending forward as you do. Try to keep the support leg straight as well.
Step 2. Release the leg, plant your foot, and repeat on the opposite leg.
It’s OK to come up onto the ball of your foot with each step. Do 2 sets of 8–10 strides.
Step 1. Stand tall, and take a big lunge step forward. Place your hands on the floor to the inside of your lead leg, and lower your trailing knee to the floor.
Step 2. Tuck your pelvis under slightly, and push your hips forward until you feel a deep stretch—it’s OK to let your knee move in front of your toes.
Step 3. Twist your torso away from your lead leg and raise your arm overhead. Turn your head and follow it with your eyes. Be sure to raise the arm above you, not behind, so you create a straight vertical line between your planted arm and your raised arm.
Step 4. Return your hand to the floor, and then step forward with the rear leg to stand tall again. Repeat the lunge and twist on that leg.
Perform 2 sets of 5–6 strides on each side.
Sample Bodyweight Leg Workout Plan
Here’s a balanced leg routine that makes the most of the exercises listed above.
Perform the paired exercises (marked A and B) as a superset. So you’ll do one set of A, then one set of B, and then rest as prescribed. Repeat until all sets are completed for the pair. Perform exercise 3 as straight sets, resting between sets until all sets are complete.
Sets: 3 Reps: 12 (each leg) Rest: 0 sec.
1B Eccentric Bodyweight Leg Curl
Sets: 3 Reps: 6 Rest: 60 sec.
Take 4–6 seconds to lower your body on each rep, and use your hands to push your body back up.
1B ALTERNATIVE: Nordic Curl Hip Hinge
Sets: 3 Reps: 10–15 Rest: 60 sec.
If the eccentric bodyweight leg curl is too difficult, perform the Nordic curl hip hinge in its place.
2A Bodyweight Leg Extension
Sets: 3 Reps: 10 Rest: 0 sec.
2B Band-Assisted Pistol Squat
Sets: 3 Reps: 8 (each leg) Rest: 60 sec.
3 Copenhagen Plank
Sets: 4 Reps: 10 reps (each leg) Rest: 90 sec.
Perform your reps on both legs before resting.