Bodyweight Leg Workout: How To Get To Advanced Quickly

A group of people doing box jumps during their leg workout

A bodyweight leg workout is a perfect fit if you are on the road, on vacation, or away from any sort of weightlifting equipment.

It is also ideal if you are looking to fix a knee injury, or if you are a total beginner.

However, we will be honest: there is only so much you can advance with your leg training by only using the weight of your body. A point will come where you will hardly make any progress without the use of external weights.

Before we get into the pros and cons of bodyweight leg training, let’s have a look at and discuss the workout routine.

Bodyweight leg workout

There are several ways to incorporate the workout into your schedule.

If you are a beginner, we recommend you to check our full body routine, as that will prove to be the most efficient for your level.

However, if you’d like to do a split, there are two ways to go about it:

  • Having one or two designated leg days in which you work out all the muscles in your legs
  • Having two separate days; in one of them you’re working on your quads, and in the other on your hamstrings

We’ll give example routines for both these approaches.

Let’s get started.

Note: both these splits work wonders with an upper body workout.

Beginner

Man doing squats as part of his bodyweight leg workout

At the beginner level, we recommend doing more repetitions while focusing on good form and a slower tempo. The tempo is the speed with which you are performing the exercises, focusing on the eccentric (negative) part.

A full leg day would look like this:

  • 4 x (10-15) Squats
  • 4 x (10-15) Lunges
  • 4 x (10-15) Glute ham raises
  • 4 x (10-15) Step-ups
  • 4 x (10-15) Calf raises + 15s isometric hold at the end
  • Rest: 1 minute between sets, 1-2 minutes between exercises

With this bodyweight leg routine, you are working all the muscles in the legs. However, there are some fibers that are being worked out less than others. We can change that in the split routine.

Let’s have a look.

A split routine would look like this:

1. Quads

  • 3 x (10-15) Squats
  • 3 x (10-15) Lunges
  • 3 x (10-15) 180° Squats
  • 3 x (10-15) Lateral lunges
  • 3 x (10-15) Step-ups
  • Rest: 1 minute between sets, 1-2 minutes between exercises

2. Hamstring & Calves

  • 3 x (10-15) Glute ham raises
  • 3 x (10-15) Reverse hyperextension
  • 3 x (8 - 12) Single leg calf raises
  • 3 x (6 - 10) Hamstring walkouts
  • 3 x (10-15) Calf raises
  • Rest: 1 minute between sets, 1-2 minutes between exercises

As you might have noticed, we have dropped the number of sets from four to three.

While there are fewer sets, there is more overall volume (number of repetitions) for each muscle group. Along with the extra volume, there is an extra emphasis on the overall structure of the muscle.

Exercises such as the lateral lunge or the 180° squat train more fibers in the quadriceps, as opposed to the regular squat and the regular lunge. 

We are not switching any of these exercises, but rather complement them with each other.

​Intermediate

Picture of a man doing pistol squats

We’ve seen what a beginner bodyweight leg workout would look like.

In the intermediate stages, we are advancing with the progressions in all the exercises we can. However, it should be noted that there is not a huge variety in terms of leg exercises progressions.

Note: We’ll start to ramp up the total work volume in terms of repetitions and the number of exercises. Since we are unable to change much of the intensity (the amount of resistance), the volume will force strength and hypertrophy adaptions.

A full leg day would look like this:

  • 4 x (6 - 10) Pistol squats (each leg)
  • 4 x (6 - 10) Nordic curl
  • 4 x (8 - 12) Bulgarian split squats
  • 4 x (8 - 12) Elevated or Single leg glute ham raise
  • 4 x (10-15) Squats
  • 4 x (10-15) Lunges
  • 4 x (15-20) Single leg calf raises
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between sets, 2-3 minutes between exercises

We’ve started the routine with the most difficult exercise - the pistol squat. This is also the highest progression that you can reach in the squat.

The Nordic curl is an intermediate to advanced exercise for your hamstrings. Unfortunately, there are no easier or harder progressions to this exercise, other than, perhaps, extending your arms for increased leverage.

A split routine would look like this:

1. Quads

  • 3 x (6 - 10) Pistol squats
  • 3 x (10-15) Lunges
  • 3 x (8 - 12) Bulgarian split squats
  • 3 x (10-15) Lateral lunges
  • 3 x (10-15) Squats
  • 3 x (10-15) Step-ups
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between sets, 2-3 minutes between exercises

2. Hamstring & Calves

  • 3 x (6 - 10) Nordic curls
  • 3 x (8 - 12) Elevated or Single leg glute ham raise
  • 3 x (15-20) Single leg calf raises
  • 3 x (8 - 12) Elevated hamstring walkouts
  • 3 x (10-15) Reverse hyperextension
  • 3 x (20-25) Calf raises
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between sets, 2-3 minutes between exercises

Now that we have presented the routine, it’s time to see what are the pros and cons of training your legs using only your body weight.

Pros and Cons

Picture showing the balance between pros and cons

As mentioned at the beginning of the article, we don’t really encourage leg training without external resistance, unless you’re a beginner or you are rehabilitating from an injury.

There are skills such as the pistol squat that a lot of people want to achieve so this may be an argument against our statement above. However, that is not regarded as leg training, but rather skill work.

Let’s go ahead and check the benefits and drawbacks.

PRO

  • The decreased intensity of unweighted leg exercises is ideal for beginners who cannot lift weights yet. Done in a high number of repetitions they also prepare the joints (especially the knee joint) for the upcoming strain of the added weight.
  • If you injure yourself, it’s unlikely that you will have to stop exercising your legs altogether. Thanks to their low intensity, these exercises can be used not only to prevent muscle loss but also to rehabilitate the injury.
  • Not using weights for your leg sessions is usually less taxing on the central nervous system. This may prevent strength and hypertrophy adaptions; however, less fatigue will build over time.
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    It can help you reach your goals faster. If you have goals such as the planche, front lever, or most other power moves in bodyweight fitness, bulky legs may slow down your progress. Since the resistance is based on leverage, you wouldn’t want extra weight at the end of the lever.

CON

  • Your leg development will stall fairly quickly. Our legs are used to a lot of strain from jumping, walking around all day, jogging, sprinting, cycling, etc. Extra resistance is needed if you want to keep your progress going and prevent it from stalling.
  • You will spend more time training. If you cannot increase much of the intensity, you will have to increase the volume. Therefore, instead of doing four sets of 10-12 repetitions to get adaptions, you may have to do four sets of 20-25 to get a similar response from your body.
  • You are limited by mobility in advanced moves. With pistol squats, there is strength involved; however, there is also a lot of mobility. If you don’t have the necessary ankle, knee and hip mobility to go ass to grass, you will not be able to do the pistol squat.
  • There is a big gap between some of the exercises (we’re looking at you, Nordic curl!). In weightlifting, most gaps can be bridged by incrementally adding weight. This cannot be said for some of the bodyweight exercises which require a lot of extra effort in different other areas to bridge the gap.

​Conclusion

There are lots of people who skip their leg training, so, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing a regular leg workout or a bodyweight leg workout.

Figure out what are your goals and, based on that, choose whether you’d like to increase the size and strength of your legs, or if it would be more beneficial to do the bare minimum.