Bodyweight training is a popular and accessible method of improving your strength and conditioning with minimal to no equipment.

When it comes to building stronger legs, bodyweight training offers you a variety of options to target the muscles in your lower body.

Types of bodyweight leg exercises

Most variations of bodyweight leg exercises fall into one of the two following movement patterns:

  • squat pattern
  • lunge pattern

Within each of these movement patterns, certain exercises allow you to progress and improve your strength without relying on much, if any, external equipment.

Meanwhile, many other bodyweight leg exercises don’t neatly fit into these patterns. A few of these options are included after the squat and lunge pattern movements to add variety, warm up, and help improve your overall mobility.

SUMMARY

Squats and lunges are the primary movement patterns available for bodyweight leg training. Additional exercises can be added for more variety and comprehensive training.

Squat form and variations

The squat is arguably the king of lower body exercises. When it comes to building stronger hips and legs, squat variations are must-have exercises in your workout program.

Muscles trained with the squat

The squat movement pattern primarily trains the following muscles:

Squat exercises also require core stabilization, so you will strengthen the muscles of your core as well.

Bodyweight squat exercises have easier and harder variations.

If you’re new to training your legs, beginning with a chair squat is the best option.

If you have some training, a standard bodyweight squat provides an excellent method for leg training with just bodyweight.

For more advanced fitness practitioners, performing a jump squat can provide the extra challenge you may need for a good bodyweight leg workout.

Standard bodyweight squat

The classic standard bodyweight squat can be performed virtually anywhere. You can wear standard workout shoes or even bare feet when performing this exercise (1).

To perform the bodyweight squat:

  1. Stand with your feet around shoulder-width apart and turned out 5–12 degrees.
  2. Begin the motion by moving your hips backward, sitting back, and lowering your hips. Reach your arms out in front for counterbalance.
  3. As you sit back, generate tension in your feet and legs by imagining you’re pushing your knees outward and sitting down between your thighs, as opposed to on top of them. This is to counteract the tendency to let your knees cave or turn inward.
  4. Lower your hips until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor. You can go lower if your mobility allows.
  5. Once you reach the bottom position, push through each foot evenly to stand up to the starting position.
  6. Keep your knees pointing in the same direction as your toes throughout the entire range of motion.
  7. Your torso should be roughly at the same angle as your shins throughout the motion. This means that you’ll lean slightly forward as you squat down, and your knees will move slightly forward as well.

When you’re first learning the bodyweight squat, start at a slow speed and practice before increasing your tempo.

For an optimal baseline breathing pattern, inhale as you lower down and exhale as you drive up to return to the start position.

If squatting until your thighs are parallel to the floor is too difficult, or if you cannot maintain the proper form without your knees turning in or leaning too much with your torso, squat to just above parallel or start with the chair squat instead.

Chair squat

The chair squat is the best option if you’re just learning how to properly perform a bodyweight squat. For this exercise, a sturdy, standard-size kitchen chair is the best choice.

Chair squats are great if you’re still getting used to the feeling of sitting backward with your hips.

The chair gives you the security that you’ll not fall backward and offers a reference point so you know when you hit the bottom of the squat.

If you find yourself losing balance on a normal bodyweight squat, train with the chair squat to build the proper control and movement pattern.

If you don’t have a chair, a flat-topped surface around 18 inches (45.7 cm) high will work.

To perform a chair squat:

  1. Position a chair of around 18 inches (45.7 cm) high behind you.
  2. Stand about 1 foot (30.5 cm) in front of the chair, with your feet around shoulder-width apart and turned out 5–12 degrees
  3. Begin the motion by moving your hips backward, sitting back, and lowering your hips.
  4. As you sit back, generate tension in your feet and legs by imagining you’re pushing your knees outward and sitting down between your thighs, as opposed to on top of them. This is to counteract your knees’ tendency to cave in or turn inward.
  5. Lower your hips until your hips touch the chair. Don’t sit down on the chair.
  6. As soon as you feel your hips contact the chair, push through each foot evenly to stand up to the starting position.
  7. Keep your knees pointing in the same direction as your toes throughout the entire range of motion.
  8. Your torso should be roughly at the same angle as your shins throughout the motion. This means that you’ll lean slightly forward as you squat down, and your knees will move slightly forward as well.

After a few weeks of doing the chair squats as part of your workout, you may feel ready to try the standard bodyweight squat.

Jump squat

Once you’re confident with your bodyweight squat, you can progress to a variation called the jump squat (also called a squat jump) to add intensity to your bodyweight leg training (2).

The jump squat is remarkably like the bodyweight squat. However, instead of steadily standing up to the top position, you explosively drive through the floor and fully extend your feet to jump off the floor.

As you land, absorb your weight by squatting back down using the same technique.

The jump squat is considered a plyometric exercise, which means that it utilizes the natural elasticity of your muscles and connective tissue to help with the explosive movement (3).

Plyometric exercises are incredibly demanding on your body, so be sure you can safely and comfortably perform multiple sets of standard squats before attempting the jump squat.

To perform the jump squat:

  1. Stand with your feet around shoulder-width apart and turned out 5–12 degrees.
  2. Begin the motion by moving your hips backward, sitting back, and lowering your hips. Reach your arms out in front for counterbalance and swing them backward at the bottom to generate momentum for the jump.
  3. Lower your hips until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  4. Once you reach the bottom position, explosively drive through each foot and rapidly stand back up. In the same motion, extend your feet and push through your toes to completely clear the floor and jump off the ground. Throw your arms upward as you leave the ground.
  5. As you land, absorb your weight by squatting right back down using the same technique.
  6. Keep your knees pointing in the same direction as your toes throughout the entire range of motion.
  7. If performing for repetitions, the landing absorption becomes the initial downward squat movement for the next jump squat repetition.

To safely jump squat, you must ensure your knees track in-line with your toes the whole time. The jump squat should only be performed once you’re confident with the bodyweight squat.

SUMMARY

Squats are a must-have exercise in your leg training program. There are progression options for increasing or decreasing the difficulty depending on your fitness level.

Lunge form and variations

Alongside the squat, the lunge is a foundational lower body movement pattern that offers several exercise options.

The lunge pattern forms the basis of a wide range of movements in both athletic activities and everyday life, such as walking and running.

Muscles trained with the lunge

The lunge primarily targets the following muscles:

  • quadriceps
  • hamstrings
  • glutes

Since lunges have a high requirement for stabilization, they’ll work your core and glutes in a different manner than the squat exercises. Training lunge pattern movements will quickly improve your balance and stability.

If you’re very new to fitness, the basic lunge will challenge your coordination and strength. Start slowly and focus on the movement and balance itself.

Soon, you’ll be comfortable performing standard bodyweight lunges and be ready to try split lunges and jump lunges.

Standard bodyweight lunge

The standard bodyweight lunge is the first lunge variation you should learn.

To perform the standard bodyweight lunge:

  1. Begin standing with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Take a large step forward. The exact distance will depend on your body size but should be roughly 2–3 times the distance of a normal walking step. Your front foot should be pointing directly forward. Your back foot will be turned out very slightly.
  3. Lower your hips by slowly bringing your back knee toward the ground. Actively rotate your back foot inward and raise your back heel as you lower your knee for optimal movement. Your front knee will bend as your center of mass lowers.
  4. Continue lowering your body until your back knee is just off the ground. At the bottom of the lunge, your front shin should be perpendicular to the floor or angled forward slightly.
  5. Push through your front foot to stand straight back up to the starting position.
  6. You can alternate legs each repetition or stay in the staggered stance and perform one side all the way through before switching.

If you find yourself losing balance, be sure that your feet stay hip-width apart even once you take your step forward. There should be an imaginary diagonal line from your front foot to your rear foot.

You may also prefer to take a step backward to enter the initial staggered stance position, sometimes known as a reverse lunge. All other aspects remain the same.

Split lunge

The split lunge, also called the Bulgarian split squat or just split squat in the fitness community, is a more advanced lunge variation in which your rear foot is elevated on a surface such as a chair or bench.

Elevating the rear foot shifts more of your weight to your front leg, increasing the demand and stimulus to the muscles on your front leg without adding any external weight.

The split lunge also helps prevent injury and improves sports performance to a greater degree than other common leg exercises (4).

The split lunge requires good balance and coordination, and you should be comfortable with standard lunges before attempting this exercise.

To perform the split lunge:

  1. Begin standing lunge-distance in front of a roughly 18-inch (45.7-cm) tall chair seat with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Place one leg behind you on the chair. You can have the balls of your feet and toes on the chair or point your foot, so the top of your foot is in contact with the chair. Try both positions to see which is more comfortable.
  3. At the top position, your front shin should have a slight rearward angle.
  4. Lower your hips by slowly bringing your back knee toward the ground. Focus on lowering your back knee and hips and avoid driving forward with your front knee.
  5. Continue lowering your body until the top of your front thigh is parallel to the ground. At the bottom of the split lunge, your front shin should be perpendicular to the floor or angled forward slightly.
  6. Push through your front foot to return to the starting position. Focus your pressure in the rear-third area of your front foot.
  7. You can alternate legs each repetition or stay in the staggered stance and perform one side all the way through before switching.

The split lunge will take a few workouts to get used to.

Depending on the length of your legs, a lower platform may work better. Experiment with different surface heights and foot positions until you find one that works.

Jump lunge

Once you’ve developed the strength and coordination for standard and split lunges, you can increase the intensity and explosiveness by adding jump lunges to your training.

To perform the jump lunge:

  1. Begin standing with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Take a large step forward. The exact distance will depend on your body size but should be roughly 2–3 times the distance of a normal walking step. Your front foot should be pointing directly forward. Your back foot will be turned out very slightly.
  3. Lower your hips by slowly bringing your back knee toward the ground. Actively rotate your back foot inward and raise your back heel as you lower your knee for optimal movement. Your front knee will bend as your center of mass lowers.
  4. Once your back knee is roughly 6 inches (15.2 cm) off the floor, explosively drive through your front foot and jump off the ground.
  5. In midair, switch your feet and land in a lunge position. Your front foot on the previous lunge will now be your rear foot.
  6. Use the same lowering portion of the lunge technique to safely absorb your body weight.
  7. Continue directly into the next repetition once your rear knee reaches full depth.

Landing with proper form is vital to safely absorbing the force and preventing injury.

If you find yourself becoming too fatigued to land controllably after each repetition, take a rest before continuing.

SUMMARY

Lunges are a key exercise to improve your strength and coordination for daily movement tasks. You have options for increasing the difficulty once you can perform standard lunges.

Additional leg exercises

These additional leg exercises do not fit neatly into the standard squat and lunge pattern but are good options for bodyweight leg training.

A-skip

The A-skip is a classic track-and-field drill that primes your legs for more intense work. For non-track athletes, A-skips are excellent warmup exercises to prepare your body for a leg workout.

To perform the A-skip:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
  2. Aggressively raise one knee, keeping the foot on the raised leg flexed.
  3. As you raise your knee, push through the floor with your planted foot to lift your heel off the ground.
  4. Once your top thigh is parallel to the ground, aggressively drive that foot heel-first to the floor to step forward. Once your heel hits the ground, “paw” the ground by coming up onto your toes and fully pointing your foot, elevating your heel off the ground.
  5. As you paw the ground with your planted foot, aggressively raise the other knee to prepare for the next skip.
  6. Let your arms swing naturally by having the opposite arm swing upward with the opposing knee.

Side lunge

The side lunge is a good exercise to warm up your hips before leg training. Additionally, the side lunge helps stretch out your inner thighs and improves your overall hip mobility.

To perform the side lunge:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and take a large lateral step with one leg directly to your side. Your toes should now be on the same line with your feet far apart.
  2. Bend your knee on the side you stepped with and sit your hips back to lower your body to the bottom of the lunge. Your other leg should be straight. Put your hands in front of you to balance, and avoid letting your knee shoot past your toes.
  3. Push through your heel on the lunging leg to stand up straight and return to the start position.
  4. Repeat on the other leg.

The side lunge is less suitable for performing as a primary strength exercise and best used as a component of your warmup.

Step-up

The step-up is an exercise that requires an elevated surface around 6–12 inches (15–30.5 cm) high. A basic set of stairs will work just fine.

Step-ups can be used as both a strength and cardiovascular training exercise. When doing step-ups with bodyweight, they’ll generally fall into the latter category.

Nevertheless, incorporating step-ups into your bodyweight strength program will add an extra kick to your workouts and increase the intensity without the need for much equipment.

To perform the step-up:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart with a 6–12 inch (15–30.5 cm) high stepping surface in front of you.
  2. Take a step and place your front foot on the surface.
  3. Push through your front foot and fully extend through your knee and ankle to stand up straight on the step.
  4. Raise your other knee until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Do not place your back foot on the step.
  5. Return your back foot to the original position and step your front foot (the one on the elevated surface) back to the starting position.
  6. Alternate sides or repeat on the same side for the target number of repetitions.

This step-up variation provides extra work to both legs given that you raise the non-stepping knee up.

SUMMARY

Additional exercises that do not directly fit under the squat and lunge patterns can add variety to your warmup and workout options.

Benefits and drawbacks of bodyweight leg training

The primary benefit of bodyweight leg training is that you can perform functional and effective movements using minimal equipment.

Even practicing the squat and lunge patterns without weights will do wonders for your coordination, strength, mobility, and overall fitness.

Furthermore, bodyweight exercises are well suited for circuit training conditioning programs (4).

The main downside to bodyweight training is the diminishing strength returns.

Although these exercises may be challenging during the early phases of fitness, without adding resistance over time, your body will adapt to the stimulus and not continue to gain strength.

Once you can perform 15–20 reps of an exercise, you’re primarily building endurance at that point.

While there’s nothing inherently wrong with this, reaping the benefits of long-term strength training will require adding an external load, such as dumbbells, barbells, or kettlebells, to your routine.

SUMMARY

Bodyweight leg exercises are a great way to begin developing functional strength and always a viable option for conditioning. Eventually, external resistance is needed for continued strength adaptations.

The Take Away

Bodyweight leg training is a great way to add functional fitness and train vital movement patterns with limited equipment.

The squat and lunge patterns are the primary movements available for serious bodyweight leg exercises.

Additional movements can be added to your program to increase variety, warm up, and improve mobility.

You can manipulate bodyweight exercise routines to focus on different fitness goals, such as strength or conditioning.

In the long run, external resistance is needed to continually improve strength.

Bodyweight training can always be used as an effective form of cardiovascular conditioning.

But best of all, these exercises can be done anywhere, anytime. So next time you need to get your blood flowing after sitting for too long, give some of these exercises a try.

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