Your legs have some of the largest and strongest muscles in your entire body. You might have the roundest biceps in all the land, but tree trunk legs are going to load up so much more. If you’re able to train your legs regularly, you’re likely able to load up your favorite leg exercises pretty heavily. As such, it’s understandable that a bodyweight workout might seem a bit underwhelming by comparison.
However, with the right training tools, some creativity, and a lot of mental grit, you can get after a bodyweight-only leg workout that will rival the intensity of your last heavy session. Strategies like tempo training, paused work, and 1 ¼ reps can help you progressively overload your leg days. That is, you can make your workouts continuously more challenging and stimulating for gains — without the bumper plates.
It might be hard to believe when you can load up your legs so heavily, but the tools of progressive overload don’t need you to keep slapping weight on the bar. With not a barbell, dumbbell, or leg press in sight, here are the five best bodyweight-only leg workouts.
Best Bodyweight-Only Leg Workouts
- Best Bodyweight-Only Glute Workout
- Best Bodyweight-Only Hamstring Workout
- Best Bodyweight-Only Quad Workout
- Best Bodyweight-Only Endurance Workout
- Best Bodyweight-Only Full-Leg Workout
One of the easiest ways to amp up the intensity of a bodyweight workout is to be more focused in your approach. Dividing out muscle groups per session to devote greater time and energy to one of the major leg muscle groups can help you reach the level of fatigue you’ll need for growth. The glutes are a great choice, with many great bodyweight exercises targeting your butt.
A good glute workout will give some love to your gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus by having both hip extension and external rotation exercises. Think hip hinge patterns where you enter deep hip bends and exercises where you shove your knees out.
Training these two aspects with enough volume and intensity will grow a peach and leave you hobbling for days.
- Single-Leg Glute Bridge: 3×15 per leg
- Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat: 4×15 per leg
- Bodyweight Clam-Shell: 3×12 per leg
- Tempo 1 ¼ Squat: 3×12; tempo: 3-1-1-1
Note: Tempo indicates a three-second eccentric, one-second pause, one-second concentric, and one-second reset between repetitions.
It might take a bit of creative thinking, but you can target your hamstrings through bodyweight-only training. One of the best (and most feel-the-burn) ways to hit up your hammies is by using slow, lengthening contractions.
Your hamstrings are particularly long muscles that will allow for extended ranges of motion and muscle growth from intensity via tempo and eccentric focus. Use this to your advantage and roast them without any added weight necessary.
Hamstring work without any barbells or dumbbells will be heavily reliant on the hip hinge technique. Using an eccentric emphasis with high volume work can help bridge the gap where you would normally use a loaded barbell. Combine that with some innovative floor work to mimic hamstring curls, and you’ll forget you’re training without a gym.
- Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift: 3×12 per leg
- Nordic Hamstring Curl: 3xAMRAP
- Bodyweight Good Morning: 3×10; tempo: 3-1-1-1
- Hamstring Slide: 4×15
Note: AMRAP means as many repetitions as possible.
Where a glute-based workout will prioritize hip movement, targeting your quads will focus more on deep knee flexion exercises. Bending your knees as much as you can without losing balance or experiencing any pain is how you’ll make your quads work as hard as possible. Tie those deep knee bends together with some high volume work and you’ll be all set.
Even without weight, mimicking the leg extension machine can be a killer for pumping up your quads and preparing you for the challenging exercises to come. Unilateral work and long stretch-based exercises are extremely crucial when loading is minimal.
End your day with a doom march — a walking lunge finisher with a shorter stride — to maximize your quad work per repetition.
- Bodyweight Leg Extensions: 3×15 with one-second pause
- Pistol Squat: 3×10 per leg
- Sissy Squat: 3×10
- Short Stride Walking Lunge: 3×15 per leg
Make sure you’re going into the full range of motion for each exercise to maximize effectiveness here.
The next logical jump to make when training your legs with bodyweight is to lean into the fact that you have reduced loading potential. Instead, you’ll seek endurance-based challenges. If you take your sets to the limit, you’ll be able to see some great carryover to muscle maintenance.
Ultra-high repetition sets that incorporate unilateral and tempo-based exercises will be a real mental test as the burn accumulates. Just try to keep your lunch down.
Combining tempo into already brutal exercises like the one and a quarter squat can pre-fatigue your body for the rest of the workout. Although you’re just using bodyweight here, you’ll quickly run into the psychological challenge of determining if your muscles are close to failure or if your brain just wants to stop.
- Tempo 1 ¼ Squats: 2×15
- Reverse Lunge: 2×20 per leg
- Jump Squat superset with Alternating Jump Lunge: 2×10 per exercise
- Single-Leg Glute Bridge superset with Bilateral Glute Bridge: 2×15 per leg, 20
- Walking Lunge: 2xAMRAP
The difference between “this sucks” and true muscle failure will be up for debate on every single set – especially if you’re unaccustomed to high repetition work. Be disciplined and reap the rewards.
To wrap everything together nicely in a lower body workout that hits your entire leg, you can draw on the best parts of each specialized muscle group workout. Unilateral and tempo-based exercises with higher volume will still be your bread and butter. Chase the burn and take your sets to the absolute limit.
Since you’re hitting your full legs instead of primarily one muscle group, tossing in some intensifying techniques should help each exercise really hit home.
Supersets, tempo, pauses, or high-volume finishers are great ways to wring as many gains from each exercise as possible.
- Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift superset with Bodyweight Good Morning: 3×15 per leg, 12
- Paused Rear-Foot Elevated Split Squat: 3×15 per leg
- Tempo Squats superset with Jump Squat: 3×12; tempo: 3-1-1-1, 10
- Nordics Hamstring Curl: 3×10
- Glute Bridge: 3×20
When in doubt, add a timer to your rest periods to keep things brief. Less rest when load is limited is another ace card for intensity.
Anatomy of the Legs
With an honorable mention to your calves, the major muscle groups of the legs are your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps.
The glutes are the enormous muscles of the hips — the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. The gluteus maximus is the primary muscle that will help you with hip extension (moving from a flexed posture to standing straight up). With that in mind, exercises that put you in a flexed position such as squats, lunges, or hinges are all great options for targeting these muscles.
The gluteal muscles also help with external rotation, meaning that exercises that drive your knees out will heavily recruit them, as well. The hip abductor machine or clam shells are great examples here.
The hamstrings are the long muscle group on the backs of your legs which span the length of just below your knees to just above your hips. Since they cross two joints, you can use exercises that either flex your knee or extend your hip to work out your hamstrings. Hamstring curls and hip hinge exercises are two of the most common choices to target your hammies.
The quadriceps are the big beefy muscles found on the fronts of your thighs. Similar to the hamstrings, they will cross two joints — starting above your hips and inserting just below your knees. Therefore, exercises that extend your knees will give you the biggest bang for your buck when targeting your quads. The leg extension and walking lunges are favorites to develop a deep burn in your quadriceps.
Bodyweight-Only Tips and Tricks
When you’re performing a bodyweight-only routine, the absence of absolute load to add to each exercise forces you to find intensity through other methods. Gaining strength and muscle is closely tied to how difficult the exercise is by the end of your set.
Without weight to make things challenging, you can draw on intensifying techniques or finishers to bridge the gap. Leaning into tempo, eccentric-based exercises, and unilateral training are other powerful tools to add intensity to your workout.
An intensifier is a technique used to extend the length or difficulty of a normal set to help you get closer to reaching true failure. A drop set is a perfect example. With these, you might perform a set of 10 at a moderate or heavy weight before dropping the load down a bit and continuing until failure. Rinse and repeat until you can’t go anymore. This allows you to make significant progress when you’re in a situation that might not have the broadest range of equipment.
A workout finisher is a similar premise to an intensifier. The distinction is that a finisher is placed at the end of your workout. The intent behind a finisher is to leave nothing left in the tank. An intensifier may allow you to complete an additional exercise on the day for the same muscle group — or, at the very least, continue with the rest of your workout.
On the other hand, a finisher is meant to take you to absolute failure and cap your entire workout. For example, you might end your workout by taking walking lunges to the absolute limit. This will end your workout on a high (and also low) note.
Tempo training is another useful tool to help generate more intensity across your workout when load is limited. In the case of a bodyweight workout, intentionally slowing your repetition cadence is a clever way to make even an unloaded squat that much harder. Applying tempo to specific exercises can work in tandem with other techniques to squeeze all the value possible out of your training session.
Eccentric-focused exercises are the perfect remedy to a lack of equipment or loading potential. There are a few key exercises that you can perform beautifully on the lengthening or descending component that are nearly impossible on the concentric component.
The Nordic hamstring curl is the perfect example. You are generally stronger in the eccentric, so you might be able to control your descent. Then, you will likely need a boost to come back up to the beginning of each repetition. These lengthening exercises can be potent in producing high-intensity sets, as you are overloading your muscles in a big way.
Unilateral training, or completing each exercise independently on either limb, is another extremely effective technique for adding intensity to your bodyweight-only workout. By performing as many exercises as you can using a unilateral variation, you can immediately double the amount of resistance available to you by placing it all on one leg.
Bodyweight is the Right Weight
Almost nothing is going to test your pain tolerance and ability to problem solve like making leg gains without the convenience of a gym. Bodyweight work is one of the true unsung heroes of fitness, with some of the most fundamental principles of training popping up again and again to save the day.
Unilateral work, tempo, intensifiers, and finishers are the same tools you might see with barbell training. They are truly amazing when you want to up your intensity regardless of load. Take your wheels for a spin with these leg workouts and see if you have what it takes to match your gym intensity with a bit of grit and your own bodyweight.
Featured Image: LightField Studios / Shutterstock