We wanted big legs, but as luck would have it, all the squat racks at Onnit Gym were taken. We don’t have a leg press machine in the gym, so we were about to grab a smoothie, hit the sauna, and call it a day when we ran into Onnit-certified coach Juan Leija (@juannit_247 on Instagram).
“What are you guys training today?” he asked.
“Well, we were going to hit legs, but we can’t get a squat rack and we don’t have machines. Oh well, see you next week!”
“Not so fast,” said Leija. “I can take you through a leg workout using only some kettlebells and your bodyweight. It’ll turn those twigs into tree trunks in no time.”
What could we say? Leija’s quads were blocking the door. And if you’ve seen them, you know why we refer to him as Onnit’s resident redwood.
Defeated but inspired, we downed some Alpha BRAIN® Pre-Workout, gritted our teeth, and followed Leija into the weight room.
See the routine he showed us below to build your quads, hams, and glutes.
Can I Get Big Legs With Kettlebells?
Heavy barbell squatting, leg press machines, and leg extensions may get all the publicity for producing thick, muscular legs, but they’re certainly not the only tools that can do it. If you train with modest equipment at home, a gym that only offers the basics, or a facility that is so crowded after 5 p.m. that you can’t get your hands on anything but a few kettlebells, kettlebell and bodyweight training is your answer.
Leija’s workout starts with the kettlebell swing, but not for sets to infinity as you often see done. The swing is a great exercise for endurance, but it can also build power and strength in the glutes and hamstrings when performed for low reps. After five heavy sets here, your hips and knees will be plenty juicy for the rear-foot elevated split squats that follow.
Ask a cross-section of trainers which leg exercise they dread most and we bet these split squats come up near the top of the list more often than not, and for good reason. One leg has to support your whole body—your rear foot is really just there to help you keep balance—and you’ll work through a greater range of motion than you do with back squats. Like the swings, most people do split squats light (if they do them at all), but don’t be afraid to go heavy here. Sets with as much weight as you can handle for five reps will light up your quads, glutes, and adductors—the inner-thigh muscles most people neglect.
From there, you’ll train straight power with the squat jump. Focus on jumping as high as you can and controlling the landing. These burn like normal squats, so you know they’re activating plenty of muscle, but the goal here is explosiveness. Being able to recruit muscle fibers quickly and produce fast contractions translates to stronger lifts with heavier weight, not to mention greater running, jumping, and sports performance in general.
Next up are goblet squats, which teach the squat pattern like nothing else. Holding the kettlebell in front of your chest acts as a counterbalance, allowing you to stay vertical as you descend without fear of losing balance. You’ll most likely be able to sink into a deep squat, getting more out of your quads and glutes, while reinforcing good mechanics. The next time you back squat or front squat with a barbell, you’ll have better control of the movement.
Finally, Leija chops your legs down with some walking lunges. You’ll burn out whatever is left in the muscles by performing 100 total reps—and doing whatever it takes to get them. Aim for five sets of 20 reps, 10 sets of 10, sets of 50, 30, and 20, or whatever other configuration you’re capable of, resting as needed in between, but get 100 total.
Only then have you earned the right to a smoothie and sauna.
For a six-week program of kettlebell-only workouts you can do at home, see our Onnit 6 Kettlebell course.
Kettlebell Tree Trunk Workout Directions
Perform the exercises in the order shown. Do not perform any other leg routine for at least three full days before and after this workout. For the best results, repeat the workout for four to six weeks, adding weight and reps to the exercises wherever possible.
1. Jump Rope
Reps: Jump for 3 minutes
(See 00:08 in the video above.)
This is your warm up. Jump 3 minutes at an easy pace. You can mix up the type of jump you do (for instance, jump with one leg at a time, alternate legs, or swing the rope backward), or just do two-legged jumps as shown.
2. Kettlebell Swing
Sets: 5 Reps: 10
(See 00:20 in the video.)
See our full tutorial on how to perform the kettlebell swing here.
Take a few warmup sets to work up to the heaviest kettlebell you can handle for 10 reps, safely. Make sure to keep your lower back flat and extend your hips to drive the kettlebell up (don’t lift with your shoulders).
3. Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat
Sets: 4 Reps: 5 (each leg)
(See 00:45 in the video.)
Step 1: Hold a kettlebell in each hand and stand lunge length in front of a bench, step, or box that’s about 12 inches high.
Step 2: Step your left foot back and rest the top of your left foot on the bench so that your knee is bent 90 degrees. Your right foot should point straight forward.
Step 3: Hinge your hips back a bit so you feel like you’re leaning forward, but keep your spine straight and tall. Slowly bend your right leg until your left knee is just above the floor. Your front leg should be bent about 90 degrees.
You may want to spend some time in the bottom position before you start your set to figure out your best distance from the bench. You should feel like your front foot is forward enough that your heel won’t come off the floor, but not so far that you feel your hamstrings getting stretched in the bottom position.
When you’ve found a good stance, come up to a standing position. Then begin your set. Rest as needed between legs.
4. Squat Jump w/ Reset
Sets: 4 Reps: 3
(See 01:07 in the video.)
Step 1. Stand with feet between hip and shoulder width. Reach your arms straight overhead and get up on the balls of your feet.
Step 2. Drop your heels to the floor as you swing your arms back behind you to gather power.
Step 3. Swing your arms forward and overhead as you jump as high as possible. Land with soft knees and take a moment to reset yourself. Then begin the next rep.
5. Goblet Squat
Sets: 3 Reps: 10–15
(See 01:20 in the video.)
Step 1. Hold a kettlebell in front of your chest by the sides of its handle, or by the bottom of the bell itself. Draw your shoulders back and downward (think: “proud chest”), and tuck your elbows in close to the bell—try to get your forearms as vertical as you can. Stand with your feet between hip and shoulder width, and turn your toes out a bit—up to 30 degrees if you need to.
Step 2. Tuck your tailbone and draw your ribs down so that your pelvis is parallel to the floor. Take a deep breath into your belly, and brace your core. Actively twist your feet into the floor, but don’t let them move. Think of your legs as screwdrivers, or that you’re standing on grass and trying to twist it up beneath you. You should feel the arches in your feet rise and your glutes tighten, creating tension in the lower body.
Step 3. Keeping a long spine from your head to your pelvis, push your hips back and squat down, as if sitting down into a chair. Squat as low as you can while keeping your head, spine, and pelvis aligned. Push your knees apart as you descend. You should feel most of your weight on your heels to mid-foot area. If you feel your lower back beginning to round, stop there, and come back up. Keep your torso as vertical as possible—you shouldn’t have to lean forward or work extra hard to hold the bell upright. Avoid bending or twisting to either side.
Step 4. Drive through your feet as you extend your hips and knees to come up.
6. Suitcase Walking Lunge
Reps: 100 total
(See 01:40 in the video.)
Step 1. Hold a kettlebell in each hand and take a long step forward. As your foot lands, bend your knee and lower your body until your front thigh is parallel to the floor.
Step 2. Step forward with your rear leg and lunge on that side. Each rep should have you walking forward, and each lunge counts as one rep. Do as many sets as needed to complete 100 total reps (50 each leg).