There are many things we can learn from bodybuilders. One is that, if you want to cover yourself in baby oil and walk around in your underwear in public, there’s an audience for it. Another is that you don’t absolutely need to lift heavy weights in order to build bigger, stronger muscles. And yet a third lesson is that the way you sequence your exercises can go a long way toward preventing injury and maximizing muscle growth, especially when you’re working with minimal equipment.
The two routines that follow, courtesy of New York City transformation coach Jeb Stuart Johnston (visit him at foodonthemind.com), take a bodybuilding approach to leg training, but that doesn’t mean squatting with weight that can bend a barbell. In fact, it doesn’t even mean going to a gym. You can do both workouts in your home. One demands only a band and a light dumbbell or kettlebell, and the other requires no weights all.
How do you get an effective leg blast like that? Let Johnston walk you through it.
A Killer Leg Workout for Bands and Dumbbells
“The first workout starts you off getting a good pump in your hamstrings,” says Johnston. You’ll do leg curls just as you would on a machine, but with a band instead (we like the short light one available at elitefts.net). These are nearly as easy to set up as the machine version, but they offer even more tension at the top of the movement, where your hams are at their strongest. When your hamstrings are warmed up and full of blood, your knees and hips will be also, and that sets you up for safer squatting when you hit your quads.
For your squat movement, Johnston opts for the Spanish squat, in which you wrap a band around the back of your knees while the other end is attached to a sturdy object. The tension of the band helps to keep you upright, so that you can squat vertically and deeply, keeping the stress squarely on your quad muscles and off your knees. If you have a history of knee pain, or you’re over 40 and a little banged up, you may want to make this squat a staple in your leg training from now on. It’s a game-changer.
“After that, we stretch the quads out and fill them with blood,” says Johnston, referring to the walking lunges that come next. Lastly, you’ll do good mornings to finish off the glutes and hamstrings. If you’ve had bad experiences with this movement in the past because you did it with a barbell on your back, fear not. This version requires only a band, and is much easier on your lumbar spine. You’ll really be able to focus on the hinge movement, stretching your glutes and hams at the bottom, and squeezing them to stand up straight. Bonus points: “As an optional finisher for those masochists out there, you can end with kettlebell swings,” says Johnston. This will get your heart rate up and burn some calories while you drive more blood into the posterior chain muscles.
Directions: Perform the exercises in the order shown. Complete 3 sets of 10–20 reps for each (except where otherwise noted), resting 45–90 seconds between sets. Aim to perform more reps, or one additional set for each exercise, every time you repeat the workout.
1 Banded Leg Curl
Step 1. Attach an elastic loop exercise band to a sturdy object and step into the open loop. Turn around and lie on the floor, chest down, with the band around your ankles. Extend your legs. Make sure you’re far enough away from the attachment point to put tension on the band.
Step 2. Tuck your pelvis so it’s perpendicular to the floor, draw your ribs down, and brace your core. Your body should form a long line from your head to your hips, with your weight supported on your forearms and knees. Take a deep breath into your belly, expanding your rib cage and shoulder blades.
Step 3. Contract your hamstrings and bend your knees to draw your heels toward your butt, until your lower legs are perpendicular to the floor. Squeeze your hamstrings at the top, holding the position a moment. Slowly extend your knees again.
2 Spanish Squat
Step 1. Stand in the loop of the band you just used for the leg curl, hooking it around the back of your knees, and face the attachment point. Step back to put tension on the band. Draw your ribs down and tuck your pelvis under so that it’s perpendicular to your spine. Stand with your feet between hip and shoulder-width apart, and your toes turned slightly outward.
Step 2. Slowly lower your body into a squat, maintaining a long line from your head to your hips as you descend. Drive your knees outward and sit back. Go down as far as you can without losing your alignment, allowing the band to support your body as you descend. If you can’t go to where your thighs are at least parallel to the floor, elevate your heels and inch or so by standing on blocks or weight plates.
3 Walking Lunge
Step 1. From a standing position, take a big step forward with one leg and lower your body until your rear knee nearly touches the floor and your front thigh is parallel to the floor. Keep your torso upright.
Step 2. Come up from the lunge while stepping forward with the rear leg to perform another lunge. Continue lungeing forward for as many reps as possible.
4 Banded Good Morning
Step 1. Loop the exercise band around the back of your neck and stand on the free loop with feet shoulder-width apart. Steady the band with your hands, and align your head, spine, and pelvis, as described above. Take a deep breath into your belly.
Step 2. Bend your hips back, shifting your weight to your heels, and allow your knees to bend as needed. Continue until you feel a strong stretch in your hamstrings. Maintain your head, spine, and pelvis alignment. Squeeze your glutes as you come back up and lock out your hips.
5 Kettlebell/Dumbbell Swing (Optional)
Reps: 100 total
Step 1. Place the kettlebell (or a dumbbell) on the floor and stand behind it with feet between hip and shoulder-width apart. Keeping your head, spine, and pelvis aligned, bend your hips back so you can reach down and grasp the kettlebell handle with both hands. Draw your shoulder blades together and down—think “proud chest.” Take a deep breath into your belly and brace your core. Focus your eyes on a s spot on the floor a few feet in front of you.
Step 2. Extend your hips to lift the weight off the floor, and then hike it back between your legs. When you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, squeeze your glutes and reverse the momentum to explosively extend your hips and swing the kettlebell up to eye level. Control the descent and allow the weight to swing between your legs again to feed into the next rep.
Perform 100 total reps in the fewest number of sets possible. Rest as needed between sets.
The Ideal Lower-Body Workout Without Weights
In the second workout option, which is bodyweight only, you’ll focus on training density. That is, doing a lot of work in a short time, and aiming to do even more work in that same period in subsequent workouts. Without equipment to tax your leg muscles, you’ll have to keep the pace fast and the reps high, so a brisk circuit is used here. “If you’re accustomed to training with heavy slag iron,” says Johnston, doing shorter sets and taking longer rests, “this will be tough. However, this workout will have your legs pumped so full of blood they will feel like they’re popping.” And that means they’re going to grow.
Directions: Perform the exercises as a circuit, completing one set of each in turn. For each move, you’ll perform reps for 40 seconds, and then rest 20 seconds, and then go on to the next exercise. Rest 3 minutes at the end of the circuit, and then repeat for 3 total rounds of the circuit. Track your reps and try to perform more in the same amount of time every time you repeat the workout.
1 Close-Stance Heel-Elevated Squat
Step 1. Place weight plates or blocks on the floor, and rest your heels on them with feet hip-width apart.
Step 2. Without letting your feet actually move, try to screw both legs into the floor as if you were standing on grass and wanted to twist it up—you’ll feel your glutes tighten and the arches in your feet rise. Take a deep breath into your belly and bend your hips back. Bend your knees and lower your body down. Push your knees out as you descend. Go as low as you can while keeping your head, spine, and pelvis aligned, and then extend your hips and knees to return to standing.
2 Sliding Leg Curl
Step 1. Lie on your back on the floor, and place furniture sliders or similar plastic discs under your heels (if you have access to a waxed floor, towels can work as well). Position your feet right behind your butt with your knees bent. Tuck your pelvis under, take a deep breath into your belly, and brace your core. Drive your heels into the floor to raise your hips to full extension.
Step 2. Slowly extend your legs until you feel you’re about to lose tension in your hamstrings, and then bend your legs, sliding your heels back toward you.
3 Alternating Reverse Lunge
Step 1. From a standing position, step back with one leg and lower your body until your rear knee nearly touches the floor and your front thigh is parallel to the floor.
Step 2. Step back up to the starting position, and repeat on the opposite leg.
4 Frog Pump
Step 1. Lie on your back on the floor and bend your knees 90 degrees. Bring the soles of your feet together, and rest your ankles on the floor. Drive the backs of your arms into the floor at about 45 degrees to your torso. Tuck your pelvis slightly so that it’s perpendicular to the floor, and brace your core.
Step 2. Drive your knees outward as you push through the outer edges of your feet to raise your hips off the floor. Rise until your glutes are fully contracted.
5 Alternating Jumping Lunge
Step 1. Lower your body into a lunge positon with your rear knee just above the floor and your front thigh parallel to the floor. Explode upward, jumping and switching your legs in mid air.
Step 2. Land with the opposite leg in front and control your body position into another deep lunge. Use the rebound effect to begin the next rep.