9 Bodyweight Leg Exercises To Be A Better Athlete

Man running on a highway. The focus of the picture is placed on his leg muscles

Bodyweight leg exercises are often overlooked due to the fact that they provide low resistance.

While I agree that it is difficult to build big legs using a bodyweight leg workout, size is not necessarily everything (pun intended).

If you’re aiming for the tree trunk kind of look in your legs, we recommend you to check this article. However, if you’re interested in having what I call bamboo legs - that offer functionality for activities other than just lifting heavy weights, then keep reading.

Muscular legs and bodyweight fitness

This section is meant to help you understand if you should aim for legs as muscular as possible or if you’re better off having athletic legs.

As always, it all boils down to your goals.

Looks

Athlete working his leg muscles with the leg press

If you are interested in having an aesthetic body, exercising with your body weight is a great choice when it comes to your upper body. Thanks to the nature of these exercises, they are ideal if you want to build lean muscle mass and an athletic body.

They are compound movements, involving more than one join and primary muscle. Compound exercises will burn more calories than any isolation exercise - i.e. you will get leaner without needing a strict diet.

However, when it comes to leg development, matters get a bit difficult.

  • You’ve been using your legs since forever, on a daily basis
  • Leg muscles are big, as they have to support your weight
  • Your legs have the resistance to support your body for hours at a time, with no rest

Therefore, you can understand why training using your weight alone won’t make big of a difference.

If you’re solely focused on having an aesthetic, proportionate body, a list of bodyweight leg exercises won’t help you out. We highly recommend you to use weights. You can get started by checking our guide on leg training.

Functionality

Gymnast doing a straddle planche on the pommel horse

Note: We will discuss functionality from a bodyweight fitness standpoint only. We are not talking about it in sports that are highly leg-performance-specific, such as soccer, football, etc.

If you are aiming to move towards advanced elements such as planche, front lever, 90-degree push ups, etc., then big legs may represent a disadvantage.

The more muscular your lower body is, the more it weighs. Therefore, you need more strength in your upper body to compensate for the weight of your lower body. Your performance may have to suffer as a byproduct of having big legs.

Hence, if you are interested in increasing your performance, we recommend you to train the lower body using your own weight.

Regardless of your goals, we do NOT recommend skipping leg training.

Bodyweight leg exercises

The intensity of all exercises presented below can be easily increased with the use of weights. However, if you don’t have access to weights or choose not to use them, we recommend you to increase the time under tension of each repetition (tut or tempo).

Instead of performing the exercise as fast as possible or at a comfortable pace, try doing the negative part slower. For example, when you are doing a squat, descend over a period of three seconds.

Squat

Picture of a woman doing a squat as part of her bodyweight leg training

The squat is the most popular lower body exercise. It can be loaded heavily and comes with a ton of benefits. One of the major benefits is the promotion of muscle-building throughout the whole body, not just your legs.

Form check:


  • Keep the chest up and don’t round the shoulders
  • Hold the spine in a neutral position - don’t hyperextend it
  • Don’t let the knees pass your toes - may result in knee pain
  • Go down a bit below parallel, or A to G (ass to grass)

The squat is a complex movement that deserves its own article. Therefore, we have written the complete guide to squatting. Check it out for additional information regarding this exercise.

Lunge

Man doing weighted lunges

The lunge is yet another fundamental bodyweight leg exercise. Just as with the squat, you can heavily load the lunge and still comfortably perform the movement. Additionally, the intensity can be changed by stepping onto an elevated surface, instead of the ground.

If you’re a beginner you can do the exercise in a stationary position (one leg in front of the other, then just go up and down), instead of stepping in a lunge.

Form check:


  • Only go up and down, not forward
  • Keep the knee of the front leg right behind the toes
  • Keep your chest up and look forward

As you progress with the exercise you can do stepping lunges instead of stationary. Additionally, you can start increasing the intensity by doing the exercise slower or by elevating the surface on which the front leg will be placed.

Step-up

Diagram showing the muscles worked by the step-up exercise

For some reason, this exercise doesn’t get the attention it deserves. All you need to perform it is a surface that is knee-high or a bit higher, and you’re all set. The higher the surface, the more intense the exercise.

A major advantage of the step up is the minimal risk of injury. Thanks to its mechanics, the step up is one of the most natural movements our body can perform.

Form check:


  • Only push with the working leg
  • Keep the hips level throughout the entire movement (may be hard if the elevated surface is too high)

Once you can comfortably do step ups, you could try doing the reverse variation. Instead of facing the elevated surface, you would stay with your back towards it.

Forward jumps

Woman doing a forward jump

Forward jumps are a great bodyweight leg exercise. Actually, it’s pretty hard to do the exercise other than bodyweight, unless you are using ankle weights.

This exercise will prove to build strength, muscular endurance, explosiveness and muscle mass throughout the muscles of the entire leg. It’s an all-around exercise which should be included in most leg workouts.

Form check:


  • Start as low as you can; we recommend on the bottom position of a squat
  • Explosively jump as forward as possible
  • Without resting, jump again for as many repetitions as you choose to

In the beginning, the exercise will be pretty difficult. Your heart will start racing and your legs will be screaming with fatigue. However, as you keep on doing it, you will find it easier and more beneficial.

Vertical jumps

Athlete showing a vertical jump

Once again, we have a jumping exercise making our list. The thing about these exercises is that they build overall explosiveness, strength, and mass - so why wouldn’t we do them?

Vertical jumping is just a bit different than frog jumps. Instead of jumping forward, as far as you can, you will jump as high as you can. Even though it’s difficult at first, with time it will become easier and you will see an increase in your jumping strength.

Form check:


  • Start from a squat position, as low as you can
  • Push through your legs, swinging your arms by your side and up for increased reach

If you find this exercise too easy you can increase the intensity by using weights or use it as warm up to increase your heart rate.

Box jumps

Four workout partners doing one of the best bodyweight leg exercises - the box jump

If you’re looking for an exercise that is good for cardio and muscle building at the same time, you should give the box jump a try. However, be ready for complete exhaustion - just as with most plyometric (explosive) exercises.

You can use any surface to perform the exercise. We recommend you to do the exercise on a height that challenges you from the get-go but which is not too tall either.

As you keep doing the repetitions, fatigue will start building up and you may no longer be able to complete all of them.

Form check:


  • From a standing position bend your knees and send the hips and arms backward
  • Jump towards the box by throwing your arms forward and simultaneously extending the hips, knees, and ankles
  • Land in a soft squat to avoid hurting your joints

While plyometric exercises may feel annoying at times, performing them will bring lots of benefits to your musculature.

Glute bridge

Woman showing the glute bridge exercise

The glute bridge is a great exercise for your hamstring and glutes. You do not need any equipment to perform the exercise. The intensity can be increased by doing it unilaterally (one leg), on an elevated surface, or both.

Form check:


  • Push through your heels and use the hamstrings to lift the hips, rather than just using the abs to push them upward
  • Keep a straight back; do not arch it
  • Flex the glutes as you push up

For most people, the glute bridge won’t feel difficult at all. If that’s you, place your feet on an elevated surface or perform the exercise using one of your legs instead of both.

Crab walks

Man demonstrating crab walks using a resistance band

An amazing functional exercise that can strengthen your glutes, quads, hamstrings, and calves is the crab walk. While it seems easy, you may quickly find that it’s not. Especially when you have to do it for an extended period of time.

Form check:


  • Hinge at the hips and slightly flex the knees
  • Step to your side and drag the other foot
  • Repeat for the designated amount of repetitions, time, or distance

If you find crab walks too easy, you can increase their difficulty through the use of external weight (dumbbell, weight vest, weight plate, etc.) or by flexing your knee more so you go lower.

Calf raises

Athlete doing calf raises on a calf raises machine

The calf raise is, in our opinion, the most efficient exercise for calf muscle building. A lot of people have issues with this region of their legs - meaning that they don’t seem to be building muscle mass.

For calf training, we recommend doing a high amount of repetitions per set - 15 to 20 - with a big time under tension in the top position.

Form check:


  • Stand on an elevated surface so your heels can go below your toes
  • Push as hard as you can in the top position and hold the tension active for a few seconds

If you find the calf raise too easy, feel free to do it using one leg or adding external weight to your body.

Conclusion

Most of these bodyweight leg exercises can also be performed using additional weight. If your goals are based around looks, you may want to consider adding barbells for your leg training days.

However, if you are concerned with isometric skills such as the front lever or the planche, leg training using your weight only may be the ideal approach. This way there will be less strain placed on your upper body when you are trying to hold those positions.

Lastly, regardless of what you choose, you should be fine as long as you are not skipping your leg training day. Whether it’s weighted or bodyweight only.

Over to you.