Unless you’re that guy at the gym—the one with giant back, arms and chest muscles but stick legs—you no doubt already know the importance of working your legs. Because not only will working your legs result in a nice, well balanced physique, they’ll also make you more functionally fit and a better athlete overall.
But although a lot of people think the only way to work your legs is to work the machines or squat rack at the gym, what the average gym-goer doesn’t realize is that many of the best leg exercises can be done with nothing but your own bodyweight—making them the ultimate excuse-free exercises.
Here are 7 of the best bodyweight exercises for strong, powerful legs:
Jump lunges are one of those exercises that can humble even the most fit person, since not only do they require quite a bit of leg strength, jump lunges also put a focus on coordination, balance, and a high V02 max.
But every bit of pain is worth it, since jump lunges are one of the best bodyweight exercises to strengthen your legs and get you in good conditioning shape, fast.
To start, get into a lunge position with one leg bent forward in a 90 degree angle and the other bent behind you. Jump up explosively with your front leg, switch positions in the air and land with the opposite leg forward. Although at first you should focus on form and make sure you don’t fall over from lack of balance, eventually you should try and do these as quickly as possible for maximum conditioning effect.
Make it harder: Try doing jump lunges with your front leg on an elevated surface such as a step or a gymnastics mat. This will put even more of a focus on your leg strength as well as balancing abilities.
Not only will squats give you a strong, bulletproof lower body, they’ll also improve your overall athleticism and make you a better, more functional, well rounded athlete overall.
And although weighted and barbell squats certainly have their purpose, you should never discount the awesomeness of the simple bodyweight squat. Here’s how to do an air squat:
Stand with your feet hip-width apart with your toes pointed slightly outward. Your arms should be hanging loose by your side. Then engage your core muscles and push out your chest slightly by pulling your shoulder blades towards each other.
Next, bend your knees and push your butt and your hips out and down behind you as if you were sitting into a chair. Keep your weight on your heels and make sure your knees are over your toes, but not beyond them.
Come down until your thighs are below parallel to the ground, or as far down as you can get them. Eventually, you’ll want to work up to getting your butt all the way to the back of your cables, but if you’re not strong enough or flexible enough yet, don’t worry—you’ll get there with practice.
As you lower down, raise your arms in front of you so that they’re about parallel to the ground, and make sure to keep your torso upright. As you come back up, straighten your legs and think about squeezing your butt and keeping your knees externally rotated (don’t let them turn inward).
Make it harder: Hold a kettlebell, use a sandbag or just fill a backpack with some heavy stuff and wear it while you’re doing squats. Or, just do 100 in a row and see how that feels.
Walking lunges are great for building lower body strength, improving athleticism and will make your legs burn.
To do them, start in a lunge position with your knees touching or almost touching the floor (if you’re doing these on a hard surface like concrete, please don’t smash your knees into the ground). Without pausing, alternate legs, bringing your opposite leg forward into a lunge position. Think about keeping your chest up and shoulders pulled back while you continue alternating legs and moving forward.
Make it harder: Hold some weights (or even better, something really awkward to throw off your balance) as you do your walking lunges.
Side lunges are an awesome way to work your legs one at a time to get rid of any imbalances while building up the strength necessary to do pistol squats.
Stand with your legs wider than hip width apart so that you’re in a standing straddle position. Lean toward your left leg, bending down as far as possible. Eventually, your goal should be to get your hamstring (back of your leg) to hit your calf, but don’t worry if you’re not there yet.
Squeeze your butt as you stand halfway up into a squat position, then lean toward the right leg. Try and keep your torso upright and abs tight the entire time. If you’re having trouble balancing with this exercise, hold onto a sturdy surface in front of you or use a band to get you used to the movement.
Make it harder: Grab a sandbag or hold some weights to further increase the difficulty level.
Squat jumps are one of those exercises that are a lot harder in practice than they seem like they should be. Not only will they work all your squatting muscles, they’ll also get your heart rate up in a hurry—making them challenging for even the most well conditioned athletes.
Start by standing straight up with your arms by your side, then squat down until your knees are at about a 90 degree angle or lower. Make sure to keep your shoulders pulled back, your chest out and core tight. When you reach the bottom of the squat, immediately jump up explosively, straightening your legs as you do so and get enough power so that you jump off of the ground. You’ll land immediately back in the squat position before doing it all over again.
Make it harder: Clasp your hands behind your head rather than having them by your side to put more of an emphasis on your abs.
Bulgarian split squats
Despite the funny name, Bulgarian split squats are a great way to really work your butt, quad, and hamstring muscles and will help prepare you to do pistols like a badass.
Stand in a split stance with your leg elevated on a box, bench, or elevated surface. Keep your front foot flat on the ground and lower your body until your thigh is around parallel to the ground, making sure your knee doesn’t go beyond your toes. Lower back up and repeat. Don’t forget to switch sides!
Make it harder: Adding any kind of weight to Bulgarian split squats will make them much harder.
Pistols are the true test of leg strength and flexibility, and if you can do even one, you should be very, very proud.
Start by holding your arms out in front of you, then stand on one leg with your free leg held straight out in front. Push your hips back and sit down as far as you can so that your butt is almost touching the ground. Push your hips back, lean forward slightly, and raise yourself back up to the starting position.
Can’t do one yet? Don’t get discouraged! Here’s how to work up to doing a pistol.
Make it harder: If you need to make pistols harder, you are undoubtedly a badass. Try walking pistols or plyo pistols for an extra crazy challenge.