Calisthenics and bodyweight exercises might be perfect for a long-term, highly effective home training solution. It requires only a minimal amount of equipment and ticks a lot of boxes when it comes to moving well and getting strong. However, one thing we often get asked is how do you train your lower body?
This is a fair question and I am the first to admit that to build a well-functioning, ready to take on the world, lower body, you need over-load. The lower body musculature is much bigger and more powerful than the upper body so, where creating an appropriate level of intensity for the back, chest and shoulders is fairly straight forward using calisthenics exercises, simply doing bodyweight squats isn’t going to provide a big enough stimulus to build a really strong set of legs.
When it comes to leg workouts at home, not everyone has space or the finances to buy a barbell, a rack and a stack of weight plates which is a big reason why you might choose to have a gym membership.
But for those that enjoy the convenience, flexibility, cost and time saving benefits of training at home, I want to equip you with some tricks that will enable you to build functional, strong and powerful legs that will give you more than enough capacity to get the most enjoyment out of life.
Let’s not get this twisted, my intention is not to sell you the dream of bodybuilder sized quads or strongman-esque deadlift strength with a calisthenics inspired lower body programme. If you want either of those things then you’re going to need to do what the beefcakes do. For the rest of us who want to run, snowboard (or ski, whatever your preference), climb mountains, ride mountain bikes, play with your kids or whatever else you like to do in the world, there are many ways to design effective lower body/leg workouts at home.
To frame this conversation, we first need to define the most basic of training principles; progressive overload. In strength training terms, this can be defined as a gradual increase in the stress placed on your musculoskeletal and neuromuscular systems that result in adaptation. The type of stress i.e. endurance, hypertrophy, maximal strength or power will determine the type of adaptation. Put simply, if you progressively lift heavier weights, you get better at lifting heavy-weights.
When it comes to lower body training, the ‘easy’ way to do this is to pick up a heavy bar, or put it on your back and squat it. But that is not the only way. Here are some suggestions as to how you can build your home training lower body workout:
Single Leg Training
If you keep this strictly to bodyweight only, a lot of people will find that there is plenty of challenge in opting for a single leg squat over a double leg version. You also get the added benefit of improving stabilisation at the same time which is an essential asset of a high functioning lower body.
Over the many years of screening athletes, I have often said that if I have someone who is good on one leg, then I know they are good on two. The opposite is not always true. Individuals who can barbell squat competently with good relative loads can not always perform a stable and well-controlled single leg squat.
In sports performance there is of course value in both, however when you consider that running is actually a single-leg exercise and that stability is a major weapon against injury, single leg lower body exercises start to look very useful.
In terms of progression, single-leg squats become pistols or shrimp squats or rear foot elevated split squats. Stiff-leg deadlifts can be done on a single leg. Combining these patterns means we have both knee and hip dominant movements taken care of, and if we include some multi-directional challenge by doing a lateral box step up then we’re ticking a lot of boxes.
The intensity of these movements can be scaled with the use of some simple equipment. A 20kg weight vest will turn what was a comfortable single leg squat into something much more challenging. If you have space for a barbell at home and a few weight plates, you’re going to find that using these movements with a limited amount of equipment will keep you busy for a long time. You don’t need 200kg of weight plates but some options to increase the intensity will add to the effectiveness of your training.
Challenge Range of Movement
Muscles in the human body are weaker at end ranges and can produce the highest amount of force at mid-range. It’s why squatting only half way down is much easier than going ass to grass.
However, from a longevity and functional movement perspective, maintaining strength through the entire range of movement is of great value.
Pistol squats and cossack lunges do a great job of training this full range and also present a significant challenge to those who lack mobility. Many people who squat and deadlift a lot of weight will be doing so through a comfortable range of motion but they will never move into end-range positions. Providing you have the mobility and stability to maintain postural control, there is nothing wrong with this at all, in fact, it is a good thing because the human body works on a very simple principle. Use it or lose it, and range of movement is the cornerstone of everything else.
In the video below, we show you how to pistol squat with full progressions.
When I think about how I want to move and the things I want to do I ask myself this;
‘Do I need to be able to deadlift two times my own bodyweight or would I rather be moderately strong through all the ranges of movement that the hip allows’?
It’s fair to say that the latter lays better foundations for more robustness and overall function than the other.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not anti-getting strong. If that is what you enjoy then go for it. But when training time is limited by busy lives, I think it is important to be very clear on what is important to you.
Movement is life. Most people need to move more, through bigger ranges with appropriate intensity and they need to do it with control and stability. Most people don’t need to compress their spine with 100+kg and squat it.
Sprint and Jump
Your body is designed to run. Being able to do that at a variety of speeds is, therefore, an incredibly effective training method. Sprinting increases and maintains your fast-twitch muscle fibres, which is especially important as you age. It makes you more powerful. It’s great for conditioning and maybe one day, being able to run fast could save a life.
Plyometrics or explosive jump based movements do the same thing so if you don’t want to go and sprint in the park, you can include vertical jumps, lunge jumps and ice skater plyometric movements into your leg workouts at home very easily.
Lower body function is about more than what you can do with a barbell. It should be about maintaining the most basic attributes that make you an effective human being.
How to scale leg workouts at home
When you don’t have a load of equipment it’s necessary to think about what your entire programme looks like and what you are expecting to achieve from it. For example, there is no point trying to improve your 1 rep max in a squat if you only have a 12kg kettlebell from the middle aisle of Aldi.
Therefore using a combination of methods and focusing on volume becomes key. Increasing lower body strength endurance using single-leg exercises, through a variety of full range of motion patterns, combined with some explosive work in the form of sprints or jumps becomes a potent and well-rounded solution. Yes someone might be able to deadlift more than you, but this approach to training will prepare you far better to do the most important things in life. To keep moving in as many ways as you can for as long as you can. Don’t believe me? See how Ronnie Coleman moves nowadays.
Many voices in the fitness industry will tell you to train like an athlete. Well from someone who has trained a lot of them I’ll give you my opinion. You don’t need to.
Athletes often have specific jobs to do, they are not training for ‘life’ and the approaches we use to train them does not make them better at living.
My advice is this, unless you play a sport, be a generalist. And even if you are an athlete at whatever level, still be a generalist, just with a little more specificity.
Leg workouts at home with little or minimal investment in equipment can be highly effective if you have the right components in play. It just takes a slight shift in mindset against what popular fitness culture would have you believe ‘leg-day’ should look like.
For some lower body workouts, take a look at our Strength, Play + Conditioning Workouts and Exercise Tutorials in our Virtual Classroom. We also have a Lower Body Foundations Training Programme where we show you a corrective training process that you can individualise to regain and improve your bodyweight squat and multi-directional lunge.
The new Strength, Play + Conditioning Workouts and Exercise Tutorials are included as part of our memberships. Now you can get 50% OFF your first-month Standard Membership. That’s just £5! Check it out with no risk as you get 7-days FREE trial and there’s no minimum contract. Offer available until the end of September 2020.