We are all familiar with classic chicken leg syndrome: massive and well developed upper body supported by toothpick legs that looks neither aesthetic nor athletic. Unfortunately, this is a state exhibited by a lot of Street Workout enthusiastic and hardcore gym rats. They resemble Johnny Bravo (I think we all know the character).
Now I don’t want to see you end up looking like Johnny Bravo so I have decided to help you build those legs the old school way just like we did to earn our well-developed, symmetrical physiques. Contrary to what most people and bodybuilders say, you can build your legs up to their potential with calisthenics successfully. However, building well-developed legs require lots of hard work, patience, pain, and consistency if done by the book. Just remember all the ‘day after leg day’ memes on social media!
For solid results you will have to train for years using different approaches and techniques and the process will still be a slow one. Even if people know how to train their legs -this slow progress coupled with pain intolerance are the reasons they don’t achieve their goals and don’t push themselves hard enough. This is one reason for the imbalance between the upper and lower body. Or maybe they don’t know how to train their legs the right way. Either way, I find it unacceptable as your legs are just as important as other body parts. I may sound ridiculous but when you ask a person with well-developed legs about his journey he will laugh and say that it was a painfully slow one! And believe me, I haven’t discovered an easier way so far. But, what I have discovered about the topic is to be found in the following 5 steps:
1. Use Compound Exercises
We do not train with any fancy, isolation type movements and hence do not recommend others to do so. Our training revolves around basic movements and compound exercises that are natural to the body’s inertia. Compound exercises (like sprints, squats etc.) involve the movement of all leg muscles in a synchronized manner. There are ten different compound exercises that we use:
- Weighted Squats (using a partner as external weight, weighted vest or barbells etc.)
- Pistol Squats or One-Legged Squats (Bulgarian Split-Squats, Assisted Pistols, and its basic variations)
- Bodyweight Squats like Regular Squats and its variations: Close-Feet Squats or Sumo Squats
- Walking Lunges (with and without external weights)
- Jump Squats and variations (Burpees, Frog Jumps, Stair Jumps, High Jumps etc.)
- Sprints and variations (Hill Sprints, Medium to Long-Distance Sprints)
- Skipping [Jump] Rope
- Running or Jogging (they differ in pace and intensity)
- Calf Raises and variations like One-Leg Calf Raises or also the same exercise but with an external weight
- Wall Sits (This is an isometrical exercise. Lie with your back against a wall and block/stay in a squat position)
Deadlifts are great leg exercise and deserve to be mentioned but we haven’t included them in our list as we train outside using what nature has provided us with. However, if you have access to heavy barbells or a tire like you see below then we recommend you to include them as well. But the exercises on the list are fine on their own and you needn’t worry if you can’t deadlift.
As you can see that we do weighted squats with a training partner on our shoulders. The only issue is that you can’t regulate your partner’s weight and you have to either be able to lift him/her or not. If you are unable, then you must work with easier variations like Assisted Pistol Squats.
2. Plan Your Workouts
The list provided above contains at least 20 exercises if I count the variations and any sane person will conclude that it is not possible to do all of them at once. So here are some tips to help you program your routines.
- To build athleticism and stamina: Running, Rope skipping, Burpees, Stair running, Jumping on stairs, Jogging, Sprinting over long distances (over 100m).
- To build strength: Bodyweight Squats, Weighted Squats, Sprinting short distances (normal or Hill Sprints), Box Jumps (High Jumps) and Long Jumps.
- To build muscular endurance (also called strength endurance): Squats, Walking Lunges, Burpees, Jumping and Running on Stairs, Calf Raises, Wall Sits and Sprints.
- To build muscles or hypertrophy: all the exercises from the list.
Everything is connected to each other and if you train only for one purpose than imbalances and other problems surface. And this is bad!
I believe that the trigger for muscle growth aka hypertrophy is actually the sum of all the methods combined. You can’t train everything in a week but you could do them in cycles of 2-3 weeks and repeat them. You can easily mix and combine workouts in between.
Mixing high-volume (endurance) workouts with low-volume (strength) workouts are the key to hypertrophy and muscular legs. Changing intensity from light to heavy is also crucial. This is how we plan our workouts:
This is a hypertrophy type of workout:
- Bodyweight squats: 2 sets of 40 reps (this is like a warm-up)
- Weighted squats: 5 sets of 10-15 reps (use a barbell, a training partner or a 30 kg. weighted vest)
- Bulgarian splits: 5 sets of 10 reps
- Bodyweight squats: 5 sets of 40 reps
- Weighted walking lunges: 100 straight steps (use a 10 kg. vest)
- Calf raises: 5 sets of 50 reps
This is a strength-endurance type of workout:
- Bodyweight squats: 5 sets of 40-50 reps
- Frog jumps: 5 sets of max reps
- Jump squats: 5 sets of 15 reps
- Walking lunges: 5 sets of 40 reps
- Isometric wall sits: 4 sets of max time
- Calf raises: 5 sets of 100 reps
This is a routine to build stamina and some strength:
- 30 minutes running
- Sprints: 4 sets of 400 meters
- Sprints: 4 sets of 200 meters
- Skipping rope: 10 sets of 2 minutes
This routine is good for building muscles, strength, and stamina:
- 3 km running (warm-up)
- Hill Sprints: 5 sets of 50 meters
- Straight Sprints: 5 sets of 50 meters
- Frog Jumps: 4 sets of max. reps
- Squats: 5 sets of 40 reps
This routine is good to build endurance, stamina, and athleticism:
- 40 minutes to 1 hour running (run at low speed and intensity)
- Skipping Rope: 10 sets of 2 minutes
This is another hypertrophy routine:
- Pistol Squats: 5 sets of 10 reps
- Weighted Squats: 5 sets of 30 reps (use a 10-20 kg. vest)
- Squats: 5 sets of 30 reps
- Jump Squats: 5 sets of max. reps
- Calf Raises: 5 sets of 100 reps (you can use external weights if you want)
This is another strength-endurance routine, but also good for shredding:
- Squats: 10 sets of 50 reps
- Jumping Squats: 5 sets of max. reps
- Walking Lunges: 5 sets of 25 reps
As you can see, the workouts are all connected. If you want big-muscular legs then you will have to integrate each method of training.
Build a good stamina and muscle endurance and you’ll lose body fat faster and be more pain-tolerant to squats or sprints. Do a lot of Squats and Weighted Squats and you’ll get mass & strength (also, you will be able to sprint faster). Hill Sprints and plyometric exercises [like jumps] will train your nervous system and make you stronger and more athletic, plus you will develop coordination too. Being stronger means that you will be able to squat at a higher intensity. This goes over and over again and there is progress even if you keep it simple. You don’t need to add any other progressions. Stay with the basics! The only thing remaining is to be patient and to work hard.
Now you have to organize these workouts. You can do one or two types of workout routines per week. Anything over two different routines will be too taxing on your legs and core. Do the remaining routines over subsequent weeks and so on.
3. Adjust the Workouts According to Your Goals
In this step I will teach you how to approach the same routine for different purposes:
- 5 km. running
- Sets of 400 m sprint
- Sets of 200 m sprint
- Sets of 50 m sprint
- Sets of 30-90 sec. skipping rope
To attack certain goals (hypertrophy, strength, endurance) you’ll have to adjust intensity, the pause between sets, the number of sets and time under tension. What is Intensity? It refers to the work you choose to put in a set from your overall capacity. What is Time under Tension? It refers to the time for which your muscles are under tension/pressure and work during an exercise.
HYPERTROPHY: 70% intensity, 60-90 sec. rest in-between sets, 4-5 sets, high time under tension.
STRENGTH: 90% intensity, 3-5 min. rest, 4-5 sets, low time under tension (short distances for this workout).
ENDURANCE: 50% intensity, less than 30 sec. pause or not at all; more than 5 sets, high time under tension.
After you have completed running that 5 km which is like a warm-up for sprints you will have to decide the purpose for which you are going to train:
- If hypertrophy is your goal, then do at least 4 sets, on 70% intensity and with pauses of 90 seconds in-between.
- If strength is the purpose, then do at least 5 sets, on 90% intensity with pauses of 3-5 minutes in-between. You will have to shorten the sprinting distance because you have to reduce the time under tension. The reduction will be like this: 400m becomes 100m; 200m becomes 50m and 50m becomes 30m.
- Training for endurance is basically easy because it comes as a consequence of training for hypertrophy or strength. But, even so, if you want to add extra stamina work, then modify the routine like this: run for 5-10 km (50% intensity) and then sprint for 5-6 sets (50% intensity). Rest 30 seconds in-between.
- The Skipping Rope is there to get some extra work for the calves and to help you build extra stamina.
You can apply the same principle to Squats, or you can mix the methods (time under tension, intensity, rest times, number of sets) between them in the same workout routine. And as a result, you will not only get muscular and big but also be able to run for 1-2 hours at a decent pace as I can.
4. Train Your Calves
You do not have to train your calves at every angle, because if you’ll do what I have already told you, then your calves will get plenty of work. But, if they are stubborn and don’t want to grow, then you’ll have to integrate some more exercises:
- Calf raises (one leg, two legs, with added weights)
- Jump rope
- Hill sprints or sprints
- Jumping on the stairs.
However, the handiest exercises will definitely be calf raises and rope-jumping. These can be integrated with an upper body routine. From experience, I know that calves only grow when I put a lot of sets and reps.
5. Adapt to Your Own Fitness Level
There is a saying: “In life, we must first learn to crawl, then stand, then walk, then run, and only then, fly. We cannot crawl into flying”.
You may find the Pistol Squats, Weighted Squats or any kind of sprint extremely intense, but this means you will have to work with easier progressions for enough time to get stronger. If you want to be able to sprint you will have to build your stamina/endurance by running/jogging and skipping the rope to a low intensity for at least 3-4 times a week.
“Repetition is the mother of learning…” If you don’t know how to jump the rope, then practice it every day till you learn the skill (that is the way I did it).
If you can’t run for too long, then begin by jogging for 10-20 minutes gradually increasing the pace and time to 1 hour (it might take you several months). Then, start sprinting for 100 meters at a lower intensity and build up, progressively, to 400 meters at a higher intensity (this could take you 1-2 years). If Pistol Squats or Squats are too hard, then you might want to assist yourself by grabbing a steady bar/support with hands till you get strong enough to work freely. Then, buy a weighted vest of 10 kg to challenge yourself. By now you should understand how to adjust the exercises.
The sets and repetitions should always be pretty high. I have done from four to ten sets ever since I was a beginner and this is the reason why people recognize the Old School Calisthenic method to be a high-volume type of work. Call it whatever you like, this method is proven!