Body Weight Workouts: The Legs, Back To The Basics

Bodyweight exercises and workouts are highly effective, use these exercises for fast results.

First, for who are these bodyweight exercises and workouts for?

  • Kids and young athletes from any sports: it has to be part of their physical education and it is critical to train the basics as soon as possible. Bodyweight exercises are best for developing total body muscular strength, joint stabilization and functional flexibility. A regular training routine is also a smart investment for injury prevention. All the popular sports are concerned: football, soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, tennis, martial arts… A strong physical base is built for future performance, parents and coaches, never underestimate the power of these exercises.
  • Beginners, men and women: learn to control your body, it’s never too late. Bodyweight exercises are safe, easy to implement anywhere, no equipment.
  • Elite athletes: keep working on the basics, the ratio strength/bodyweight (relative strength) is critical in many sports for best performance.
  • Busy people: bodyweight workouts are easy to set up, can be at home or work, a full body workout can last 15 minutes and even less.

If your goal is to develop a terrific physical condition, you have no choice, the legs should be a priority for two reasons:
– They support the body weight in most sports
– They represent the largest muscle mass resulting in a rapid impact on the physiological level: it means you’ll get faster results in term of overall conditioning.

You must simultaneously develop strength and endurance using basic exercises. Doing jogging and slow long runs is not enough, doing the “leg press” is completely ineffective (minimum transfer), doing squats with heavy bar requires complete technical mastery and may cause problems for the spine in the long run.

The solution: integrate the following exercises. Then, depending of your goal , add progressive sprints and interval training for a complete cardiovascular conditioning.

Here are the best bodyweight exercises for the legs:

Squat:

This is one of the most basic exercises and one of the best.
Too easy? Well, let me to ask you this question:

Are you able to do 200 reps in one single set without stopping?

If your answer is no, you need to do squats because your legs need more strength and endurance.
Remember, the legs get old first! Beginners as well athletes need to squat.
For starters, do half squat, if it is hard do quarter squat. Keep your stomach tight, your back straight. Breath in when you squat down, breath out when you stand up.
To increase the difficulty of the exercise, extend the arms above the head during flexion.
Well conditioned athletes will use the bodyweight squat as a good warm up exercise; but also for developing a good endurance in supersets combined with other exercises during the general physical preparation.

The last 10 years, I have been working with many professional boxers and almost everyone needed to improve strength in the legs! More strength in the legs means more total body power.
Isometric squat, get in half squat position, keep your back straight, press your feet on the ground. You can also put your back against a wall: hold the position 20 to 30 seconds, 5 reps.

I often combine a dynamic movement and a static hold in one set, for example: 30 squats followed immediately by 10 or 20 seconds static. You’ll improve your leg strength and endurance very fast!

Lateral squat:

Squat on one leg and lower the whole body on this side, the opposite leg is straight. Keep your back straight and look ahead, the abdominals are tight. Stretch your arms forward to be in control of your balance. Push back and go on the other leg. Breath out each time you go up. You improve strength and flexibility of the legs.

Lunges with extension of the arms:

This is one of the most functional exercises for the legs. Keep your back straight, inhale and contract the abdominals. Take a large step and bend the front leg while lowering your body, stretch your arms over head, push back to the starting position, switch legs.
Emphasize the range of motion bending gradually. Stay focus on your lateral balance.

Lunges with lateral bend:

This is a leg and core exercise. It’s more difficult than it appears: you need to focus on your lateral balance which increase the work of the core.

Hindu Squat:

Do sets of 20 or 30 repetitions, even more.
This is a complete bodyweight squat exercise, you develop strength and endurance at the same time, as well as coordination and balance.
Pull the arm by closing the fist, squat and let hands fall backwards, slightly lift the heels off the ground, swing your arms forward as you get up to the starting position, heels back to the ground; inhale as you pull your arms and exhale when you flex.
During the squat, raise the heels, the body weight is on the front of the feet.
Here is a variant that I use often in my Boot Camps: perform a set of 30 reps, at the last rep stay in the bottom position… in balance on the toes. Stay in this static position 10 or 20 seconds with a perfect stabilization .

This exercise is much more difficult than it seems because the balance and coordination are the major problems in the beginning. Its name comes from Hindu wrestlers: it was widely used by Hindu wrestlers in the 19th and early 20th century. This is Matt Furey, a former NCAA wrestling champion and World champion, who has rediscovered this great exercise.

Once you understand the movement, the goal is to work on long and dynamic sets of 30 to 50 repetitions or more. Increase the range of motion gradually to achieve full squats.
You will develop strength endurance very quickly with only your body weight.

My personal experience with this exercise: as a former elite kayaker I have to say I never worked on my legs for my performance goals. A few years ago I decided to strenghten more my legs and started to do sets of Hindu squats every day: sometimes several sets of 30 to 50 reps, sometimes a longer set of 100 to 200 reps.
3 weeks later I was able to perform a complete one leg squat (see below) without to train in this exercise (I was not able to do it before due to a lack of strength). The hindu squat, despite working on long sets (endurance), allowed my strength to peak in a very short period of time.

One leg squat:

This is probably the best exercise to improve strength of the legs without any equipment.
It is very functional, you develop balance and improve flexibility in the hamstrings. All athletes should master this exercise instead of sitting or lying on machines for quads and hamstrings!
But the problem is that it is much harder, you also need a high concentration. This exercise is also excellent for enhancing the stabilization of the joints, especially the ankle and knee.

Sets of 5 to 8 repetitions on each leg.
Initially, you’ll probably need to work in half flexion: no problem, start there and try to increase the range of motion gradually. You’ll be surprised at the results!

Add isometrics and a slow tempo.
Once you master the squat on one leg, you can continue to improve your strength with isometric reps: squat down and stay in static position 5 to 10 seconds and push up. A slow tempo is also very effective: squat and go as slowly as possible.

Problem of flexibility?
It may be difficult to be able to do a full squat with the free leg extended: you need a good flexibility in the hamstrings.
So what to do? First of all, improve your hamstring flexibility, but it can take time, so here a solution to work the one leg squat when you are tight.
The alternative is to exercise on a bench, extend the free leg while trying to maintain it the highest possible. The height of the bench allows a complete squat without being limited by the free leg which can be lower than the bench.

If you cannot perform a complete squat, you have a lack of strength in the legs; the stabilization and flexibility involved in this exercise make it difficult.
You can use a stability ball; do sets of 5 reps with a 90 ° flexion. Once again, a very effective solution to improve strength quickly is to work in static position: stay in this position as long as possible until fatigue.

One leg squat, lunge style:

Here is a very effective alternative to improve strength of the legs: this exercise is easier than the previous one leg squat, but beware it seems much easier than it looks! If you have any problems with the squat on one leg, this exercise is the solution: squat down on the support leg, the other leg is suspended behind; go down until the knee of the free leg touches the ground and get up. At the beginning if you do not have the strength, go down half way; try to squat down a little lower, session after session, until the knee touches the ground.

One leg squat, lunge style, static: perfect for strength and stabilization.

You must maintain a balance on one leg, squat down on the leg and hold the position 10s. The rear leg should stay in the air.
5 repetitions on each leg.

Like the one leg squat, the lunge style strengthens the ankle and knee.

Once you are well trained, here is a very effective variation:
isometric and pliometric are combined to develop power and explosiveness:
Go down on one leg and hold the position 5 seconds. Take an impulse to jump and change legs. Control the balance on the other leg and squat down, hold 5 seconds. Repeat 5 to 8 times.

Plyo squat:

Jump in the squat position, hold the position one to three seconds and jump back: the feet must be very dynamic and there is an immediate impulse to return to squat position.
Keep your back straight, jump and push the arms with a forced exhalation.
Do sets of 10 to 30 repetitions, keep the tempo high.
You will improve explosiveness in your feet and legs, and power if you do full squats.

Plyo split squat:

Power, explosiveness and stability are combined in this exercise; keep your back straight and concentrate on the tempo and balance: the reception must be controlled, split saquat with a complete flexion of both legs and immediately take off, jump and switch legs.
Sets of 10 to 20 repetitions.
This exercise is both muscular and cardio if you do long sets which means this is an excellent conditioning drill.

Alternating jumps on bench:

You must seek the best extension of the leg and body; the step up has to be explosive. Alternate legs at each jump, keep your focus on balance.
Series 10 to 20 repetitions. 

Side jumps over bench:

Look here for a full extension using the explosive power of the leg on the bench.

Bodyweight workouts for the legs: 4 circuits

These programs are only examples and you can change the exercises; but I strongly suggest you use the bodyweight exercises of this article. These programs are very simple but very effective. All leg bodyweight exercises are also very effective exercises for the abdominals: the core is strongly engaged for balance,  keep a good form. Depending of your workout intensity you can burn a lot of calories, so if your goal is to get a flat stomach and strong and ripped abs, you should use the following circuits.

Circuit 1

Squats: 20 repetitions
Run (or jogging) 60-80 yards
Lunges : 20 repetitions

Repeat this circuit 3-4 times. You’ll build strength and endurance in the lower body and core muscles along with cardiovascular endurance.

Circuit 2

Lateral squats: 20 repetitions
Run (or jogging) 60-80 yards
Lunges with side bends : 20 repetitions

Repeat this circuit 3-4 times. You’ll build strength and endurance in the lower body and core muscles along with cardiovascular endurance.

Circuit 3

Hindu squats: 20 repetitions
Run (or jogging) 60-80 yards
Plyo lunges: 20 repetitions

Repeat this circuit 3-4 times. You’ll build strength and endurance in the lower body and core muscles along with cardiovascular endurance.

Circuit 4

Squats and jump: 5-10 repetitions
Sprint 60-80 yards
Plyo lunges: 10-20 repetitions
Jogging 60-80 yards

Repeat the circuit 3-4 times
This circuit is much harder because there are explosive movements. It is more targeted for athletes and advanced trainees with good conditioning. You’ll improve power in the lower body along with cardiovascular power: your heart rate may rise very high so you need to be able to manage the intensity and not go too far in the “red zone”.

By Dominic Paris, exercise physiologist and coach

Contact: coach @ compusportusa.com

Las Vegas