6 Exercises to Build Legs with Calisthenics

Hi! I am the author and founder of Old School Calisthenic

June 28, 2018

How many of you have heard about the new school of training versus the old school of training? Regardless of what many people think about fitness in general, and especially about bodyweight fitness, the truth is that athletes who train using the old school principle have muscular legs and a proportionate musculature compared to those who follow the principle of the new school, and the majority of these athletes are walking around on a pair of underdeveloped legs.

Why is the Old School Method Superior?

The reason lies in the training techniques. While the old-school bodyweight fitness is based on simple and compound exercises, the new school is based on tricks and gimmicks on pull-up bars. In the second case, the athletes overemphasize their upper body and neglect their lower body almost entirely. They also do not require heavy legs and glutes because then it will be harder to sustain the isometrics or to spin so freely.

Of course, there are athletes who have it all. I personally know some too. But the vast majority tends to go one way or another, depending upon their goals. Now, if your goal is (such as mine), to build some muscular and athletic legs then here are the exercises that I find to be the most efficient:

1. Squats with Added Resistance

I know that this exercise is not purely a bodyweight exercise, but I still consider it to be so because nothing meaningful changes and you only add a bit of extra resistance to the same movement. I have several methods by which I achieve this:

  • By using a weighted vest. I personally use a 10 kg vest;
  • By using elastic resistance bands. You can also combine these two for even more resistance;
  • Placing your training partner on your shoulders.
weighted squats using a training partner

All these methods still utilize the same basic movement of bodyweight squats and the reason why I prefer to integrate them into my training log is that they help me build muscular legs which are strong and athletic at the same time. The only downside to these methods is that you can’t control the weight you are actually squatting. But, with time and experience, you will find the proper method.

Many others prefer doing Pistol Squats over this variation. However, for me, due to the fact that I had lower back issues, this particular exercise is much safer. But I will discuss more about Pistols in a chapter of their own. You can also do squats using a barbell, but I personally train outdoors and thus, I have to be more creative.

Never attempt weighted squats without warming up really good and start doing them only after 2 sets of bodyweight squats first. I usually train in a pyramid style, starting with the hardest exercise and moving towards the easier ones as my muscles gradually become more exhausted.

In terms of sets and reps, you should always do over 4 sets and put out your maximum repetitions while maintaining good form. Pay extra attention to speed and execution than the total reps themselves. The last tip will be to not use the maximum weight you can squat. Limit the intensity in order to be able to squat for at least 5 repetitions per set and up to 10-15.

2. Bodyweight Squats

This exercise is the one most practiced by me. A squat is a squat, regardless of the fact that I add extra resistance or not. What changes it is the number of repetitions due to its easier intensity. However, I strongly recommend you to always train with them and here is why:

Bodyweight squats allow you to perform a lot the volume and it is less demanding on your knees. In reality, doing only weighted squats is not sufficient as you can lose the muscular endurance and you can increase the risk of losing the legs athleticism. The only way to get your joints stronger is by doing a high number of repetitions with light exercises like bodyweight squats. Plus, you can build muscle definition with them, but not necessarily mass -a reason why I recommend you to combine weighted squats with bodyweight squats. They complement one another just fine.

calisthenics exercises to build muscular and athletic legs

The rep range I use for bodyweight squats depends if I start with them and do no weighted squats or if I do them soon after weighted squats. Now, I only do 4-5 sets of at least 25-30 repetitions (It is the least possible amount). When I do not perform weighted squats, then my sets with bodyweight reps go up to 7-10 and the reps per set go up to 35-50. The rest intervals I recommend you to take between is always of 60-90 seconds.

3. Plyometrics

Watching the picture above you can notice that my legs are not extremely big, but neither are they small. My body is harmonious and well proportioned. But the way I developed them is not just by doing squats but also by jumping in different angles and variations. For instance, you can notice in the above picture the concrete wall. I use to jump on it for sets and reps [I call this exercise, Box Jumps]. I start from a squat position and end up in the same. This could easily be a squat variation if you want, only that is done with a jump.

Any kind of plyometric exercise will develop athleticism and strengthen the joints and will help you sprint and run faster, or even jump higher. The main exercises I use are:

  • Jumping Squats
  • Burpees
  • Frog Jumps
  • High Jumps
  • Long Jumps
  • Box Jumps
  • High Knees Jumps
  • Jumping on Stairs
plyometric exercises for legs to build athleticism

I said only 5 exercises, but I think I didn’t count their variations. Although there are plenty of exercises, you don’t need to try them all at once. Pick one or two plyometric exercise for each workout sessions and you will be fine. Remember that for this particular exercise you will need fresh legs, hence integrate them somewhere in the middle of your training session.

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4. Sprints

No athleticism and powerful muscles in your legs will be built without sprinting and running with consistency. One of the cornerstones for your leg development is definitely between these two. You will have an enormous variety to choose from as you can run at different intensities from even jogging, or you can sprint on hills, for different distances and you can even run backward.

It is up to you how you choose to do it for none of them are wrong. Sprints are those exercises that develop your legs in absolutely every manner. They will increase muscle mass, endurance, speed, acceleration, and enhance your overall performance. However, sprints are perfect to be added among long distance runs and plyometric exercises.

legs built with sprints

I usually start with 15-20 minutes jogging and afterward, I continue with the hardest sprints, which are those over longer distance like 400 or 200 meters. I do 4-5 sets of those and then I continue with 100 and 50 meters sprints. All this time the rest intervals are about 1-2 minutes and even 3-4 minutes for 400 meters sprints.

5. Lunges

Whether is Walking Lunges or Weighted Lunges for more resistance, it is the same idea as for squats. I found this exercise extremely good for glutes and hamstrings muscles. I use to integrate them into the end of my workout. However, it also puts a stress on knees, hence if they hurt then leave it out and do something else.

walking lunges

6. Pistol Squats

Pistols are considered the hardest bodyweight leg exercises from all, and it is obvious why. I am not only talking about the fact that your entire weight is relying on a single leg, but I am also considering the other leg that needs to be placed in front and needs to be pretty straight.

This exercise is extremely good and can be a great replacement for weighted squats. The body alignment though is very different and because of this, pistols tax the spinal muscles more. It is almost impossible to keep a great back position while doing pistol squats. For someone with lower back problems, this exercise might not be the best option. But if that is not your case then you can integrate it, because it will definitely help you build strength and muscles.

A variation I found to be safer than pistols is the One Leg Squat:

one leg squats and pistol squats

My form isn’t perfect, but it is also not very far from good It is between bad and good -balanced. The picture is perfect for you to observe it. If you choose to squat on a raised platform such as this, then you can afford to let the other leg fall down and then, as a consequence, your body alignment will be better. You will also have far more stability which is better to build muscles. Strict pistols squats are as good for balance as they are for strength gains.

These exercises represent everything you need to build your lower body like never before. And if for any second you think that these ones are not sufficient to develop the lower back muscles, then you are wrong my friends. I have developed my lower back just fine from these and also from training my core, but that is the topic of another discussion. The lower back muscles work efficiently each time you work your legs with these variations. But, for the sake of positivity, you can do deadlifts too if you have at your disposal the necessary gear.

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