The Best Leg Workout Exercises Without Weights
Barbells, squat racks and dumbbells aren't the only way to develop strong, defined leg muscles. Your own bodyweight can provide a significant challenge to help you acquire greater definition and more power.
Whether you're new to strength-training or an experienced athlete who's just away from the gym, use a weight-free workout at home, in a hotel or simply as a way to add variety to your typical back squat and deadlift routine.
When first starting a resistance-training routine, working out without weights helps you hone form and get your joints accustomed to movement. Your muscles will be challenged by just your bodyweight — no dumbbells or machines necessary. Start with one set of eight to 12 repetitions of each exercise. Aim for two workouts per week and, after a couple of weeks, add another set or two of each move to build stamina and challenge your muscles further.
Squats: Stand with your feet hip-distance apart. Hold your arms in front of your body parallel to the floor to provide a counterbalance. Bend your knees and hips to lower your buttocks down and back. Keep your knees behind your toes as you lower and press the entire foot into the floor — don't let the heels lift up. Lower until your thighs are parallel, or close to parallel, to the floor. Rise back to a stand to complete one rep.
Lunges: Stand with your feet hip-distance apart. Step forward 3 to 4 feet with your right leg. Bend your right knee to lower your right thigh parallel to the floor and drop the left knee to almost touch the floor behind you. Step the right foot back to meet the left and repeat with the left leg to complete one rep.
Step ups: Stand in front of a stable bench, chair or stair step that's about 13 to 24 inches high. Place your right foot on the surface and step up. Bring the left foot up to meet it. Step down with your right leg, then your left. Repeat, allowing the left leg to lead.
Once you've mastered bodyweight squats, lunges and step ups, you'll need a greater challenge. Add in variety by changing the angles and depth of the movements. Work the legs independently to further stress your muscles, which leads to increases in strength and stability. Do eight to 12 reps of each of these exercises for two to four sets total.
Single-leg squats: Stand on your right leg in front of a bench or chair, and extend your left leg out in front of you. Bend your right knee and hip as if you were going to sit on the surface behind you. Tap the surface with your butt cheek and rise back up. Do all the reps on the right, then switch.
As you start to feel more comfortable with the exercise, progress it to sink yourself down lower. Move the chair or bench away until you can single-leg squat, so the thigh is parallel to the floor and, eventually, so the back of your thigh touches your calf muscle in a pistol squat.
The Best Leg Workout Exercises Without Weights
Side lunges: Start with your feet hip-distance apart and step widely to the right. Bend your right knee and hip to press your buttocks back. Keep your left leg straight as you lower into this lateral movement. Step your feet back together, then repeat with the left leg.
Balancing squats: Stand on a BOSU or balance pad as you perform squats.
Plyometric, or jumping, exercises develop powerful muscles. The movements are quick and explosive, which challenges your muscles in a challenging but different way than the long, slow movements of strength training. Plyometrics should be reserved for people who have a good base of resistance training — only add them in once you've mastered the other bodyweight exercises.
Plyometrics strengthen your tendons and joints, train the fast-twitch fibers in your muscles and fine tune your neuromuscular system. All of these translate into better sports performance and greater muscle development.
A solid plyometric routine that trains your legs includes the following exercises performed for as many reps as you can muster in a 30-second interval. Do the following as a circuit, after a brief warmup, leaving just 30 seconds between each exercise.
Squat jumps: Stand with your feet hip-distance apart and lower your hips and knees toward the ground. Swing your arms and explode upward, so your feet leave the floor. Land back down with bent knees and hips.
Jump lunges: Stand in the bottom of a lunge. Push through your feet to launch into the air and quickly switch the lead leg. Land back into a lunge position.
Lateral bounds: Stand with your feet hip-distance apart. Bend your right knee and use your left leg to leap to the left. Land on your left foot with your left knee bent slightly to absorb the impact. Alternate leaping right and left for the duration.
Long jumps: Bend your knees and hips to lower into a squat. Push off the ground and propel yourself as far forward as possible. Land with bent knees and repeat immediately.
- Breaking Muscle: 7 Best Bodyweight Exercises For Stronger Legs
- Box Life Magazine: The Benefits of Plyometrics
- President's Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition. Ways to Be Active. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 2017.
- Fradkin AJ, Zazryn TR, Smoliga JM. Effects of warming-up on physical performance: a systematic review with meta-analysis. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2010 Jan 1;24(1):140-8. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181c643a0
- Machado M, Koch AJ, Willardson JM, Pereira LS, Cardoso MI, Motta MK, Pereira R, Monteiro AN. Effect of varying rest intervals between sets of assistance exercises on creatine kinase and lactate dehydrogenase responses. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2011 May 1;25(5):1339-45. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d680d6
Andrea Boldt has been in the fitness industry for more than 20 years. A personal trainer, run coach, group fitness instructor and master yoga teacher, she also holds certifications in holistic and fitness nutrition.