The Best Bodyweight Training for Legs, Science Says!

Hi! I am the author and founder of Old School Calisthenics

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Science says that the best bodyweight training or workout for your legs must include squats, sprints and their most fundamental variations: stair work sprints, hill sprints, frog jumps, box jumps, side launches, crouch walk, sumo squats, one-legged squats, plyometric exercises and so on.

My experience and results confirm the theory. These compound bodyweight exercises are the best combination possible to grow thick, athletic and strong legs. They blend exactly how pushups and pull-ups do. Yet, many still have skinny legs because they don’t know the science behind it, the kinesiology, and how hard to push it or how to structure a good workout plan.

Though, in reality, you could grow your legs impressively athletic, strong and muscular from bodyweight training alone!

Why Is It So Hard to Grow Thick Legs with Bodyweight Training?

From what I was able to observe, I consider that there is a tendency by the people to focus way too much on upper-body development when, in reality, they should pay equivalent attention to their legs training. Look around and notice. You’ll see that the vast majority train 2-3 times a week their pull-ups and pushups, which of course is fine, but they neglect their legs almost entirely. In this case, it isn’t abnormal for them to overdevelop their upper limbs in contrast with their legs. It’s the perfect recipe for developing imbalances between the legs and upper muscles.

Many incorporate but a single bodyweight legs workout per week, usually moderate in difficulty and intensity. But to be honest, legs respond to hard work instead. If you go easy in your legs workouts, at least train them more frequently. Maybe the impediment to training them harder is the extreme muscle soreness caused by hardcore exercise, but your legs will adapt eventually, and you’ll be able to make gains without having problems walking the days after leg day.

The Best Bodyweight Training for Legs

Also, stop blaming genetics because even if you inherited bad genes, I guarantee that hard work will make your legs thicker and stronger. On the other hand, for those who seem blessed genetically, perhaps their sturdy legs were built on a solid framework during childhood with various sports that involved their legs to a high degree. I have friends who played European football for years when we were in high school. Nowadays, at 30, they barely train their legs and yet, they look developed and athletic. It’s a reality, and I bring it up to help you refocus your energy and strengths towards finding the path that works for you.

To Grow Size in the Legs, You Need Good Programming

Bad programming is a huge problem. Training your legs once a week is often insufficient, yet many mix upper exercises with legs exercises under the same workout. This is wrong because full-body workouts are not for building size in the legs. You could, but it requires great training knowledge.

You only need compound and fundamental leg exercises. Do not include isolation exercises of any kind if you want to improve motor skills and body coordination. It’s not about size and strength only. Functionality includes mobility, coordination, balance, power, dynamic strength, joint health, muscle endurance.

Moreover, you don’t need more exercise variations than what’s essential. Your training log or workout structure must be structured simplistic. For instance, I often jog for 15 minutes, increasing my pace and moving to various sprints. Then, I finish with frog jumps and high-rep squats.

Key Points to Grow Legs with Bodyweight Fitness

Keypoints to train your legs all bodyweight:

  • Dedicate 2-3 workouts per week to train your legs, from which the third could be full-body or an easier workout
  • Train bodyweight squats and sprints harder. Don’t go easy because your legs have to hurt and to be pumped when working out
  • Design a simplistic workout routine with the most fundamental exercises only
  • You can merge various sprints with squats under the same workout or have them done in separate workouts
  • You need long and short distance sprints, flat/hill sprints, side launches or powerful short-sided sprints and various plyometric exercises.

Balance is key, and for every 2-3 hard workouts, you’ll do another 2-3 light workouts to compensate. If you feel like structuring a good training plan is too hard, I have a great training program that includes everything I address in this article, with given workouts and weekly logs: The High Volume Calisthenics Workouts Program.

Why Are Squats and Sprints The Best Bodyweight Exercises for Legs?

First, you have to understand the biomechanics: sprints target the hamstrings and calves to a high degree, while squats target the quads properly. Thus, they complete each other and compound a perfect combination or training method.

From this point on, it matters how you tackle your workouts and the refinement of your execution. For this reason, I recommend you watch one of my YouTube videos to see the form, range, speed, tempo etc.

I have to reiterate one essential aspect. During squats, hamstrings engage too, but the activity is much reduced compared to the quadriceps. During sprints, the hamstrings are the agonist, and the quadriceps are the antagonist. I will explain more in a future article, but you can also download my detailed pdf guide about muscle activity during various sprints and leg movements: See Bodyweight Muscle Activation PDF Guide.

The illustration below will show you the leg muscles and how they contract during squats (on the left) and sprints (right side):

Muscle Activity During Bodyweight Squats and Sprints

Squats, just like sprints, are strengthening exercises. Using different squat variations like Closed-Squats or Sumo Squats or a deeper range of motion will target adjacent muscles. When squatting, the quads are most active during the concentric phase of the exercise.

For all who are passionate about heavy squats with external resistance, you can replace them easily with one-legged squats. You’ll lift twice as much in an instant, and that will generate a greater stimulus, consequently, further gains. It will work only if you stay consistent because results come over time.

Once pistol (one-legged) squats become too easy, you have two options:

  • You can increase the number of reps and sets and decrease the break time between your working sets
  • Or grab a dumbbell or a weighted vest and move towards weighted hybrid training. Even in that case, you should still mix bodyweight legs exercises with the weighted ones. That’s what I call a perfect leg training or good programming overall.

In conclusion, stop being afraid to replace heavy barbell squats with one-legged and bilateral bodyweight squats. It’s still resistance but not provided by external weights, but by gravity and your own mass. If you tackle the intensity, time under tension, tempo, total work volume, and frequency right, you’re all good. Done!

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