When it comes to calisthenics training, there’s no shortage of pull and push exercises. Beginners and masters alike can amuse themselves with countless pushup and pull-up variations, as well as a number of horizontal pulls and vertical pushes. While the upper body is heavily featured in every single calisthenics photo shoot or video, there’s very little out there in terms of effective leg calisthenics for powerlifters. You can only get so far with unweighted lunges and squats.
However, I’m here to tell you that it isn’t all that grim. While I won’t argue that any of these exercises are superior to working the iron, particularly as none of them boast much carryover for something as specific as the competition squat, they will definitely keep you occupied over the quarantine and other gym-less periods and help you pack on plenty of muscle. My advice? Go for hypertrophy on these exercises.
Useful Quad-Focused Leg Calisthenics to Try
You’d be surprised at the wealth of leg calisthenics exercises out there. While it’s a lot easier to get a good leg workout in with some weight, even if it’s a heavy bag of cement or a couple of big jugs of water, you can make do without any equipment whatsoever. Here are some of my top picks for leg calisthenics at home.
- Bodyweight squats. Beginners who were new to powerlifting, to begin with, should use this quarantine to perfect their bodyweight squat. Go for tempo squats (a slow eccentric, a pause at the bottom, an explosive ascent, immediately followed by a slow eccentric), aim for five sets of 20, and practice on improving depth and consistency.
- Split squats. If bodyweight squats are way too easy, move on to split squats. There isn’t much you can do to make bilateral squats harder without resistance, and since we’re talking about leg calisthenics here, we’ll want to pick exercises that focus mostly on bodyweight first. Not everyone has weights and bands lying around. Split squats are a harder alternative to the lunge because by getting the back leg in an elevated position you can achieve better depth with the working leg. You can add tempo to these to make them harder, too. Don’t lockout at the top – get just shy of locking out and drop right back down to depth.
- Cossack squats. Also called side-to-side squats or archer squats, these are another half-step on the way to a full one-legged squat. They’re also a great mobility exercise, and I don’t suggest you do these cold. Get your hips nice and warmed up first, so you can reach the proper range of motion you need to hit depth in these. Don’t half-ass them – your working leg should go into a full squat while the other leg should stretch out completely, don’t cut depth or lift your heels.
- Skater squats. You can do these either while holding onto your back foot, or with both hands in front of you for counterbalance. The goal here is to squat down with one leg until your back knee touches the ground, and then getting back up without the assistance of the back leg. Holding your back foot makes this exercise much more challenging, because you can’t compensate by pushing yourself off with the other leg, and it often increases the balance and depth requirements. If you have ankle mobility issues, don’t bother holding your back foot. This is also called a hover squat.
- Pistol squat progressions. When split squats become too easy, you’ll want to find yourself a box or a sturdy chair. Aside from using it for step-ups, you can also use it to train your pistol squats if you aren’t proficient at these. Start with your working leg on the box, and the other leg hanging off the box. Squat down slowly until your other leg touches the ground. Pick a smaller box or a stair if you can’t get your leg to touch on a regular box.
- Proper pistol squats. Eventually, work on getting all the way down into the bottom position of the pistol squat while letting your other leg hang close to the ground. You can work on bringing it up until you’re able to do these on solid ground. At this point, you’ll want to clean up your form to make these properly challenging. No stretch reflex out of the bottom (pause every rep), and work on getting your back more and more upright (without falling back). This will take tremendous ankle mobility.
- Pistol squats to a box. If you don’t have the ankle mobility to do pistol squats and lack the means to pad your heels out (squat shoes or a plate under the heel), you can do pistol squats to a chair/box. These are a decent progression exercise as well, although I recommend slowly stepping down from a box to really nail the mechanics of the lower half of the movement.
- Wall hack squats. Get something like a towel that lets you slide up and down a wall really well, or pick a slick wall (wood/epoxy), and perform these as you would a smith machine squat – with your feet a little bit further away from your body, and ass-to-grass repetitions. These might be tough on the knees, so warm up properly first. If you’re a real beast, do them one-legged.
- Sissy squats. These are genuinely tough to pull off properly, and you need really strong quads and healthy knees. Avoid them if they feel painful. I don’t think most people should do these. Some people probably get some sort of benefit out of them, but you’re far better off trying to just do more squat variations than attempt to isolate your quads with bodyweight exercises. Seriously, these suck most of the time.
- Kneeling leg extensions. Same warning. They’re not easy, and I don’t advocate that you do these unless you’re reasonably strong and have no history of knee problems. Even then, warm up with other exercises first and give them a tentative try before you go for a full set. The idea here is to kneel, sit back, and lean back until your hips are extended, then extend your knees (i.e. get back into an upright kneeling position).
Hamstring-Focused Leg Calisthenics
Your thighs can generally be divided into two major muscle groups, and while everyone wants big juicy quads, strong hamstrings are critical to minimizing the risk of overuse injuries, and imbalance-related pain. While it’s significantly easier to work the hamstrings with some weight, there are plenty of leg calisthenics exercises, particularly for the hammies. Here are some top picks:
- Sliding/rolling ham curls. Probably the easiest of the bunch. Do these with furniture sliders, a towel, some paper, or an exercise ball of some sort under your heels. Flex your ankles dorsally (toes pointing towards you) to relieve the gastrocnemius and make these a little easier on your calves, since they’ll inevitably work to help flex the knee. If you want to make them harder, keep your hips extended all the way through, and go single-legged. To make them easier, don’t extend your hips.
- Hanging ham curls. If you have a rope, bands, rings, or suspension trainers, loop your feet through and do the same movement on these. They’re a bit tougher, and a good progression if the other ones felt too easy. Again, keep your hips extended to make them even harder. You can also do these with a low bar by holding on with your hands and rocking back and forth with your legs. Set the ropes/rings higher to do hyperextensions.
- Stiff-legged bridges. Get your legs on an elevated surface and keep them straight. Then, simply do glute bridges with straight legs. You can add weight to make these more challenging, but they’re also a good beginner hamstring exercise. They’re also a solid exercise for stronger people if you do them one-legged. Keep your hips square, engage your core.
- Hamstring walkouts. Another way to tax your hamstrings if you aren’t comfortable with bodyweight ham curls is the hamstring walkout. This exercise has you starting at the top of a glute bridge with your hips extended, and you slowly step your feet out until they’re straight. Then walk them back in.
- Nordic ham curls. The hardest of the bunch. Get a partner or use an object to lock your ankles, get something under your knees for support (something soft, like a yoga mat or a towel), and start by lowering yourself onto an elevated surface or a block or something. You can also use an exercise ball or ab wheel to roll yourself out slowly. Alternatively, do a pushup to get off the floor and finish with your hamstrings. Keep your hips extended the entire time.
- Hip hinge exercises. I’ve got a whole article on hip hinge exercises and at-home deadlift accessories for building stronger glutes and hip flexors, so go check it out.
Other Squat Variations at Home
I’ve covered plenty of leg calisthenics, but these are mostly exercises that isolate the quads and hamstrings, and try to give you a progression to work through during the quarantine so you’re constantly working towards a bigger goal. But when it comes to keeping your squat mechanics nice and primed, don’t give up all hope yet. The first thing you should keep doing is squatting, even if it’s minimal weight. To begin with, try your hand at goblet squats for sets of 15-20. Pick up the heaviest object around. It could be a cement sack, several heavy backpacks, a heavy bag for striking, big gallon jugs of water, propane tanks, and so on and so forth.
If that isn’t enough – either because you’re already quite strong or because you just don’t have enough weight lying around – switch to unilateral leg exercises. Bulgarian split squats are best here. Again, go for reps. Goblet squats and split squats will help you keep those squat mechanics drilled into your being until you can get back to the gym, and lift properly. They’re great accessory exercises in general.
It’s important to note that you won’t just be able to go back to lifting as you did, even if you make progress in calisthenics and technically get stronger. This is because when you take a break from powerlifting, you’re no longer training those specific lifts, and you start to get rusty from a neural perspective. Always give yourself two to three weeks or a month to get back into the groove and work back up to your old weights, even if you’ve maintained or even added new muscle by training at home.
Resistance Bands are Awesome for Leg Calisthenics
An additional note is that nearly all of these exercises can be improved with a set of resistance bands, and you can use resistance bands to do regular squats, front squats, deadlifts, and Romanian deadlifts with a simple broomstick and some bands.
A set of resistance bands of a variety of resistance levels can be a bit pricy depending on what kind of resistance you’re looking for – and some bands can pack several hundred pounds of resistance – but they’re still a bargain compared to setting up your own home gym. Definitely a must buy if you’re stuck in quarantine.