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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
December 21, 2022
Calisthenics, which comes from the Greek words kállos (beauty) and sthenos (strength), is a form of resistance training that requires only your body weight. As no equipment is needed, this versatile form of training can truly be done anywhere.
Whether through bodyweight squats, push ups, or chin ups, it's likely that at some point, you've included some calisthenics in your training. In fact, you probably have a bodyweight exercise or two in your leg day warm-up routine.
But, calisthenics shouldn't be reserved for warm ups only. In fact, we think they deserve a front and center spot in your leg day routine! You can effectively build leg muscles using a calisthenics leg workout routine. You just need to know what to do, and fortunately, we're here to help with that.
This post will discuss:
We're about to teach you everything you need to know to effectively run a calisthenics leg workout.
Calisthenics is a form of resistance training that uses your body weight as the resistance. This doesn't necessarily mean body weight only, as some calisthenics require minimal equipment. Examples include a bar for pull-ups or a ledge for step-ups. However, increasing the intensity only comes from manipulating the biomechanics.
Almost everybody has done at least one basic calisthenic exercise before and probably still incorporates at least one in their training routine. Some of these include push-up variations, lunge exercises, and plyometrics.
The issue with calisthenics is figuring out how to continue building muscle. For example, what happens when you can do 50 unbroken bodyweight squats? And how do you increase the intensity of your calisthenics leg program to ensure you're training all your leg muscles adequately?
This is when true knowledge of calisthenics comes into play.
Here are three reasons why you should perform calisthenics.
Another major benefit of calisthenics is that they can be performed almost anywhere. Whether you're on vacation and want to stay fit while traveling or would like to start working out at home, there's no excuse for not being able to perform calisthenics.
Plus, as you can only perform major, natural movement patterns with calisthenics, it's a great form of exercise for increasing your overall strength and athletic performance.
As seen above, calisthenics is an awesome and effective form of training. However, there are valid concerns regarding a calisthenics legs workout. While none are deal breakers, the main criticisms of calisthenics are worth being aware of and considering.
While you can effectively train your legs with calisthenics, there are a limited number of exercises. Therefore, it requires knowledge of how to manipulate the biomechanics of these exercises to hit different muscles.
Even when using progressions, everything is still relative. That means that since your body weight is constantly fluctuating, you're likely never lifting the same load. You can easily work around this, but it's something to consider when programming your calisthenics leg workout.
In addition, even performing one of these exercises can be difficult for beginners. Regressions are available for some moves, but not all of them, leaving you with an even smaller exercise selection.
If you're new to calisthenics, be sure to check out our calisthenics for beginners workout plan! It'll help build a strong foundation to tackle many of these leg exercises.
Here are the exercises you'll use for your best calisthenics leg workouts. Notice that we've included some variations for some of the exercises. For several, you can make the exercise easier in the beginning and then harder as you progress.
In addition, a few exercises may require a box or bench. If you don't have one, use a chair, ledge, or anything else that will enable you to safely replicate the move.
Plyometric exercises are awesome calisthenic exercises to build power in the lower body. Plyo is an essential variable missing from many people's workouts and incorporating box jumps in your training is an easy way to address that gap.
Box jumps require either a box or ledge. Make sure it's low enough for you to jump on. When you're ready to progress, try the single-leg box jump variation. You'll follow similar directions, but only use one leg at a time.
No box or bench nearby? Look for an alternative equipment option that will safely enable you to perform this exercise. If nothing is available, jump squats are a good option.
How to do Box Jumps:
Another great plyometrics exercise is knee tucks, which are performed by jumping as high as you can and bringing your knees up to your chest. Do these in rapid succession.
How to do Knee Tuck Jumps:
Bodyweight squats are a staple in the fitness world, whether as a warm-up or a leg workout finisher. It's a basic and essential movement pattern that lays the foundation for every workout, training all of your lower body muscles.
You can add some versatility to your routine by incorporating a few different squat variations. For example, place one foot on an elevated surface so your feet are at different heights
You can also perform pulse squats. To do pulse squats, only come up 50-75% of the way before lowering back down. Do this “pulse” 3 times per rep.
How to do a Bodyweight Squat:
A cossack squat is also referred to as an archer squat or a lateral squat. Regardless of what you decide to call the exercise, they're tough.
An archer squat is performed by lowering down on one leg in a lateral position, so the majority of your body weight is in the bent leg. Not only does this increase the exercise intensity, but it also improves the mobility of your hips and inner thighs.
How to do the Cossack Squat:
Walking lunges are a great exercise to include in your calisthenics leg workout routine. Not only does the exercise train all of your lower body muscle mass, but it also improves your performance and mobility while preparing you for more advanced calisthenics exercises.
We like walking lunges, as opposed to static, as they are one of the few traditional exercises done while moving. This offers tons of benefits as your legs must simultaneously balance and control your body weight.
You can make this move even harder by performing the same motion backward in reverse walking lunges.
How to do Walking Lunges:
Split squats, which are similar to lunges except performed statically, are another great move to include in your calisthenics leg workouts. With this exercise, you'll train your legs one at a time in a stationary position.
You can play around with this move by performing split squats with either the front leg or rear leg elevated. This changes the muscle activation and prepares you for even more challenging exercises.
How to do Split Squats:
Bulgarian split squats are one of the more intense calisthenics for legs exercises before moving to more advanced moves. The Bulgarian split squat is a split squat but with the rear foot elevated on a bench.
How to do Bulgarian Split Squats:
The glute bridge is one of the few hip extension-specific calisthenics exercises you can do with body weight only. This means it's a great exercise for the glute muscles and hamstrings, particularly in a lower body calisthenics program.
Looking to make this harder? Try a single-leg glute bridge.
How to do the Glute Bridge:
Make this exercise more intense by performing calf raises on one foot. You can also make it easier by holding on to something for balance as you perform this move.
How to do Calf Raises:
Another effective bodyweight leg exercise that trains your calf muscles, walk-on toes can be performed anywhere and will cause your calves to feel the burn!
Again, this makes for an easy finisher, even if it's just walking home or to your car.
How to do the Walk-On Toes exercise:
The above leg exercises are tough and for most people, can certainly improve strength and muscle growth. But eventually, those exercises will do what they're intended, and make your leg muscles strong. This means that while an archer squat may have once been hard for you, completing rep after rep will become much easier.
When this happens, it's time to call in the calisthenics big guns. These more advanced calisthenic leg exercises typically include harder variations of the single-leg squat, requiring additional skills, strength, and balance.
For each of these exercises, we will list some regressions and exercise alternatives to further help you on your calisthenics journey.
Pistol squats are perhaps the most famous one-leg squats. A pistol squat gets its name due to its appearance at the bottom of the movement. One leg is sticking straight out (the barrel), and the other leg is bent, forming the handle.
When looking at the biomechanics, the pistol squat trains the quadriceps to a greater extent due to the extreme knee flexion and upright torso. In addition to seriously activating your legs, your core muscles will also be hard at work, keeping your upper body erect throughout the exercise. For a progression, you can use a resistance band attached to a sturdy object.
A few regression options include archer squats, which can strengthen the leg's ability to move your body weight, and the Bulgarian split squat.
How to do the Pistol Squat:
Skater squats are another single-leg squat variation that compliments the pistol squat. Compared to the pistol squat, your upper body bends forward to a much higher degree to maintain balance. The front leg also has significantly less bend in the knee, meaning less range of motion.
This is a bodyweight leg exercise that focuses more on the hamstrings. For a regression, try reverse lunges, glute bridges, or reverse slider lunges.
How to do Skater Squats:
Nordic curls are arguably the best body weight exercises for legs that focus on training your hamstrings1. Instruction-wise, they're simple to follow, but performance-wise, they are tough, requiring an eccentric contraction to control your body weight.
How to do Nordic Curls:
When done correctly, sissy squats are an impressive calisthenics leg exercise. That said, many people have concerns about the safety of this move.
While we think they are safe when performed correctly, we also think there's a lot of room for error, whether through form or mobility issues. For this reason, we don't recommend them in general programs for the majority of the population.
To be clear, we firmly believe in the motto that there's no such thing as a bad exercise. There are simply bad exercises for some people.
And with the sissy squat, the risk of it being a bad exercise for you is higher than the other moves we've included, which is why we didn't add it to these body weight leg workouts.
While using the exercise progressions laid out above is a great way to ensure improvement, there are some other easy tactics you can use to make your leg workouts even more effective.
Or, at the very least, add a novel stimulus to change things up.
Isometric exercises contract the muscle without moving it. You're essentially flexing while not moving.
Studies show that isometric exercises can build muscle mass and strength². To alter the variety, you can choose various positions to hold, such as a squat position midway through a lunge. When a normal version of an exercise becomes easy, add in some isolation holds.
It may sound crazy, but it works. Studies show that when you visualize moving an object, you can increase muscle activation³. When doing body squats, visualize a barbell on your back!
Similar to the above, you can use your neuromuscular system and mind-muscle connection to think about contracting as hard as you can. Again, this can increase your muscle activation and create a more intense stimulus, with no weights required⁴!
Use as much force as you can when performing your calisthenics exercises, particularly with your plyometric moves.
Your best calisthenics leg workout includes two sessions, both of which will be performed once per week. In other words, you will train your legs twice a week. Avoid performing these sessions on back-to-back days. For muscle recovery, it's best to give your muscles a few days to rest in between sessions.
Aside from your plyometric exercises, the remainder of your calisthenics leg exercises will be prescribed with RPE instead of a traditional rep scheme. This means you train by how you feel rather than a set number.
RPE works on a scale of 1-10 with 10 meaning total failure.
For Session A, you won't add pistol squats into the routine until you've progressed significantly. See our note below Session B for more information on this.
For this session, don't add in skater squats until you've made serious gains in your calisthenics leg routine. Take a look below this workout for more information on how and when to include skater squats.
**Beginners should exclude pistol squats and skater squats at first. When you are able to perform a significant amount of bodyweight squats (i.e 40 per set), begin including the pistol squats and skater squats. To do this, insert them after the first plyometric exercise (as shown in the calisthenics leg training programs above). You then will only train bodyweight squats and archer squats with 3 sets instead of 4.
Your goal when training calisthenics is to always try to perform harder progressions. This is where too many people fail with their calisthenics leg workout as they try to increase their reps instead.
While this can be an effective way to progressive overload, to an extent, eventually you'll get to a point where you're only training muscular endurance, rather than training to build strength or increase muscle mass. With this said, you must progress to performing the hardest exercises.
This means you need to consistently try to progress to more challenging leg exercises, including pistol squats, skater squats, and full nordic curls.
And keep your intensity nice and high. If you feel really good one day and you're knocking out 75 bodyweight squats a set, then so be it. As long as you're bringing your sets close to failure, you will improve.
Remember, the key to calisthenics is consistency and intensity. Continue pushing yourself, and you'll find out that a calisthenics leg workout can definitely build some impressive legs. If things start to get stale, mix up your workout by rearranging the exercise order or maxing out on squat reps and intensity.
Once you're at the point where you're knocking out 20 pistol squats per leg, we guarantee your legs will be extremely strong!
Want a full calisthenics workout program? Check out our Calisthenics Workout Plan For Strength, Mass & Aesthetics.
Looking for more muscle group-specific routines? Head to our Calisthenics Back Workout for another great routine!
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September 30, 2023
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