Most people think they need to lift a lot of heavy weights to get strong, powerful legs. There's nothing wrong with lifting weights if that's what you like to do, but there are other ways to build leg muscle without a gym membership and expensive equipment. Old-school calisthenics performed intensely enough is all you need to forge functional and brute strength that's also better for your joints and range of motion than weighted exercises.
Making Calisthenics 'Heavy'
We're not talking about Jane Fonda calisthenics here. We're talking about calisthenics that cause real muscle growth, just as if you were squatting and deadlifting with barbells in the gym. Muscles grow when you stress the muscle fibers. After the workout, your body begins to repair the damage, and your muscles become bigger and stronger.
While it's easier to cause stress by pumping a lot of iron, you can still get the same results with body weight exercises if you train the right way. Here are a few guidelines:
Make it Progressive: As with weight training, doing the same routine week after week with the same weight won't get you results. Your body will adjust to the stress and plateau. Start with body weight exercises that are easy for you to do, then keep increasing the complexity of the moves to continue to challenge your muscles.
Slow it Down or Speed it Up: Sure, you can pump out 20 air squats at a comfortable pace, no problem. But try slowing those squats down or speeding them up and suddenly squats become a whole lot harder. Focus on drawing out the eccentric (muscles actively lengthening) and concentric (muscles actively shortening) movements in each rep, or try doing as many as you can (with good form) in a minute. This doesn't mean you have to do all your sets like this, but this is a good way to increase the challenge of an exercise.
Change Body Weight Distribution: When you're doing a traditional squat, you've got your body weight equally distributed between both feet. When you want to up the ante, you have to change it up. If traditional squats are no longer difficult for you, try single-leg pistol squats. You can still do regular squats, but include different, more challenging variations as well.
Do Multiple Sets and Don't Rest in Between: To really fatigue your muscles, you need volume. One set of each exercise isn't enough. Do at least three, and up to six, sets of all your exercises. Really fatigue your legs by not taking rest breaks (or taking only short breaks) in between sets.
Body Weight Exercises for the Legs
There's an endless variety of body weight exercises to target all the muscles of the legs -- quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, adductors, abductors and calves. They range from beginner-friendly to advanced and can be modified or made more challenging in various ways. Here are a few tried-and-true with options for increasing the intensity.
Squats are one of the best lower body exercises that target your glutes, hamstrings and quadriceps all at the same time. The basic technique includes starting with the feet shoulder-distance apart and keeping the torso erect as you lower the hips back and down. Always keep the knees aligned over or slightly behind the toes to protect the knees, and squat to at least parallel.
You can increase the challenge of the squat in several ways:
Squat deeper: Squat all the way down below parallel. You can only do this safely if you have the requisite mobility in your hips and knees. Gradually work up to squatting deeper and deeper.
Squat on one leg: Doing single leg, or pistol squats, will really test your mettle. In a pistol squat, you extend one leg all the way out in front of you while lowering your hips all the way down as low as you can go. Pause at the bottom then rise back up to the starting position.
Jump squats: Turn it in to a plyometric exercise that builds explosiveness by using the momentum of the upward movement to propel you off the ground at the top of your squat. Land with bent knees and go right into your next rep.
You can do lunges in all different directions and make them either static or plyometric. To do a basic lunge, take a big step forward with one foot and bend both knees to 90-degree angles. Keep your torso erect and your front knee behind your front foot to protect the knee. Lower down to hover above the ground, then press back up to your starting position.
Make it harder: Seriously slow down the movement. Step into the lunge as if you're moving through honey. Hold at the bottom position. Focus on each phase of the movement and drag it out to 30 seconds.
Do multi-directional lunges: Lunge to the front, then immediately lunge to the right, then lunge to the rear. Repeat.
Build explosiveness with jump lunges: From the bottom of the lunge, explode up and off the ground switching your feet in the air and landing in a lunge.
Other Exercises to Try
These calisthenics challenge your glutes, or buttocks, and your calves.
Double and single-leg calf raises: Hang your heels off a step and rise up and lower down on your toes. Do a set of doubles followed by a set of singles on each foot, then repeat.
Bridge ups: Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Lift your hips all the way up and pause, then lower back down. Increase the challenge with single-leg bridges.
Sprints: Although they're a great cardio workout, sprints also build strength and power in the legs. Start your workout with a warm up and then 2 to 3 sets of 15-second sprints.