What do you need to do to build your legs with Calisthenics?
Training Your Legs Using Bodyweight Exercises
When it comes to leg training, most people agree that Calisthenics has limitations, especially in regards to size and strength. It would be reasonable to say that you could build size and strength to a certain extent, but even reaching some degree of mastery with single leg movements, there is not really anything that replaces a weighted squat or deadlift in simplicity, muscles used, and the vast array of benefits and cross over to other disciplines. With that said, there are still plenty of ways we can use our body to have strong legs as well.
Squat Variations: Working on different squat variations will help to increase your depth, improve your knee, hip, and ankle mobility, and can bring attention to your foot placement so that your arches are active and the weight is placed properly along the balls of your feet and the heels. As you progress from two legged squats to one legged squats, you will need greater focus and stability in your joints to perform one legged squats. Initiating the movement with the hips will help to engage the muscles in the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings) in addition to the quads and calves. Other experts say the pistol squat has a better carry over to low bar squats, romanian deadlifts, and stiff leg deadlifts because of the posterior chain action required. I would say it is hard to do a direct comparison since the movement is very different from weight bearing exercises. Overall, I would say the Pistol Squat is a great challenge for everyone to learn. I would suggest looking up Al Kavadlo. He has some great content on working towards a one legged squat. I would also recommend The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline. The knowledge and resources by these two individuals will give you everything you need to be a one leg squatting machine.
Here is a link to a quick Pistol Squat Tutorial with Al Kavadlo
Shrimp Squats with Al Kavadlo!
There are two other exercises I like to consistently do. I do not practice these for the sake of exhausting the muscles, getting pump, and triggering hypertrophy. I practice these to refine balance, practice gripping the floor with my feet, and using my core to maintain energy and connection with my upper and lower body. The single leg deadlift. I like to do this with a straight leg to challenge balance and light up my hamstrings. I also like to do it with a bent leg to emphasize the glutes and the back of the legs more. These two exercises are fairly simple to master with some consistency. They can quickly lose their value regarding strength, but I find they still have value to dial in on smaller details I mentioned in the beginning of this paragraph; so I find consistently trying to improve the balance and coordination with these movements helps the joints in the lower body function well.
Another Al Kavadlo Video on Single Leg Deadlift
Calf raises! Everybody wants big muscular calves for some reason. I do not have particularly great calf genetics but I do not really care. I do not get fixed on the size of my calves. Then again, I do not engage in fitness for the sake of body building and size. I am not trying to demean others that focus on bodybuilding and size, I am just not focused on that. I like to focus on strength, control with my body, healthy joints, and learning more complex movements. With that said, working on single leg calf raises will help you to build those calves of steel, and work the movement and stability of your ankle and feet. As you get better balance and control, you can work towards doing these on one leg without any assistance for balance, and on an elevated surface for increased range of motion.
Check Out Scott Herman on Single Leg Calf Raises
To recap so far, we have single leg squats, single leg deadlifts, and single leg calf raises. These three will hit many muscles in the lower body, but might leave one lacking some quad development. To help hit the quads more, work in lunges will help. You could start with step back lunges, forward lunges, walking lunges, plyo lunges, as well as working on lunges with one leg. Your non working leg in the beginning will be at a 90 degree angle. As you gain better strength and balance, you will be able to grab the ankle of your non working leg and do shrimp squats! You could also work bulgarian split squats and progressive increase the range of motion over time. IT might be good to achieve some progress with these before moving to shrimp squats. The only way to find out is to start small and build. Working on a lunge pattern in the different ways described here will help to improve your quad strength.
Other suggestions for your bodyweight leg program: sissy squats, nordic curls, reverse nordic curls. Sissy squats will help to further develop the quads. Although these will isolate the quads, done right, you will squeeze your glutes and maintain a posterior pelvic tilt the whole time, which keeps the pressure off the knees. Like all exercises, approach it progressive. Hold onto a doorway, rope, bands, or some other object and slowly increase your range of motion over time. The nordic curl will give extra development to your glutes and hamstrings. The glutes are very important in lower body movements and athletic pursuits since they can actually absorb a lot of force. Good glute development is important. If you do not believe me, then you really need to check out The Glute Guy: Bret Contreras! He has a ton of info on the importance of glutes. And of course work the reverse nordic curl! You will be able to hit other parts of your quads as well as the back of your legs.
Reverse Nordic Curls
I will give some basic suggestions. You might disagree with my suggestions. Great! I am a big fan of Bruce Lee. Use what works and discard the rest.
2-3 warm ups sets of 5 with squat variations that are easy for you.
2 working sets of challenging squats: start with 5 reps, and work up to 10 to 12 reps.
Single Leg deadlifts
Straight leg: 1-2 sets of 10
Bent Leg: 1-2 sets of 10
2-3 warm up sets of 5, like some easy step back lunges or walking lunges
2 work sets of challenging lunge exercises such as Shrimp Squats. Start with 5 reps and work up to 10 to 12 reps
2-3 sets of 5 to 10; make sure you have something to hold onto, and increase your range of motion and control slowly over time.
Reverse Nordic Curls
2-3 Sets of 5 to 10: Same as sissy squats; slowly increase the range of motion over time. As you get better with the range of motion, work to the point where you can do these without holding onto anything. Then increase your repetitions.
1-2 Sets: 5-10; These are hard, and you will be tired from previous exercises. Range of motion will increase little by little over time. Make sure your feet are well anchored. You should feel the entire back of the legs if you do these right. At least, I do when I do these right!