Most of our home gyms don’t have room for a squat rack. So, I wanted to come up with a list of the best leg exercises that can be done from home WITHOUT equipment. Just because we don’t have the bulky equipment the commercial gyms have doesn’t mean we can’t still get lean, strong legs. Having strong legs is an important part of being fit and healthy- it makes daily tasks easier and keeps us safer while performing them. Keep reading, I’ll explain.
It’s Important To Train Your Legs!
I must admit, I used to always hate doing legs. I’ve become a little less hateful towards them as I’ve gotten older (maybe I’m a little wiser in my old age?). Honestly, even now, I by no means enjoy leg exercises. They are hard, my legs are always sore for like a week (because I never did them consistently), and I always had to spend like 2 hours at the gym to get a good leg workout. Well, that’s what I thought anyway.
I workout A LOT DIFFERENTLY now than I used to. Before marriage and kids (mostly kids), I would get off work around 5ish, go to the gym for a good hour and a half or so, then go home for dinner around 7ish. Clean up, then enjoy the rest of my evening watching tv or doing whatever I pleased. Let’s just say my workouts aren’t the only thing that have changed drastically.
Anyway, before I got off topic, the point I was making is that luckily, you don’t need to spend hours at the gym to get a great leg workout. And, you don’t need any equipment! That’s good news, right? Right.
I wanted to comment a little on the importance of including leg strengthening exercises in your overall routine. A lot of us (guys, anyway) tend to spend more time on our upper bodies- you know, the glamour muscles. The muscles that are more visible to everyone else, especially in the warmer months. As a guy, I want strong arms, strong chest, broad shoulders, etc. You know, I want to look good!
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Looking good is fine. It’s also healthy to have a strong, lean upper body. But I would argue it’s at least AS important, probably MORE important to have strong legs. We use our legs everyday for walking, climbing stairs, lifting boxes, lifting groceries, lifting our children…I mentioned a lot of “lifting” tasks because we are constantly lifting stuff in our daily routines. Our legs are important for lifting stuff correctly!
When we lift stuff correctly, we are using our legs muscles to do so. Have you ever heard the old phrase, “Lift with your legs, not your back”? Well, there ya go. That saying is correct. A lot of people might not understand what it means. It means, bend your legs (not your back) when you pick something up. Squat down and hug that box, and then extend your legs to lift it off the ground. DO NOT KEEP YOUR KNEES STRAIGHT AND BEND AT THE WAIST TO PICK UP THAT BOX! I don’t care how light it is, that is how we injure our backs. Sorry, remember, I am a physical therapist.
The stronger our legs are, the easier it is to use them for our lifting tasks and the less pressure we tend to put on our low backs. Not to mention all the athletes out there. If you play a sport, for recreation or a team, then exercising your legs will make you better. Doesn’t matter what sport (unless you are playing some sport where you sit, then I guess you wouldn’t benefit from stronger legs…is chess a sport?). Everybody would benefit from stronger legs. Period.
A quick anatomy lesson and then we are off to the races with our awesome leg exercises…
A Little Leg Anatomy
When it comes to the legs, we are really interested in a few major muscle groups: the glutes, the quads, the hamstrings, and the calves. I never have spent much time on the calves and I still don’t. Some people might want to do calf raises all day and try to get huge calves, I’m just not one. Our calves are worked wonderfully when we walk, run, or cycle, so I don’t spend much time doing calf raises, but feel free to do as many as you like.
- Glutes- these are our butt muscles. There are 3, but the one everyone is concerned about (outside of the therapy world) is the gluteus maximus (yea I know, awesome name). He’s the big muscle in the back of your rump. He extends your hip. If you are curious, the other two are the gluteus medius and gluteus minimus. Glute medius is an important muscle for walking, fyi.
- Quads- the “quads” are referred to as the “quads” because there are 4 of them: rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and vastus intermedius. These are the strong muscles located in the front of our thighs. The latin names for these muscles just tell us where they are in relation to each other (I guess it helps if you speak latin, which I don’t). Rectus femoris is the biggest, he’s in the middle of the thigh, and he crosses the front of the hip and the knee. These muscles are mostly responsible for extending our knee- think leg extension machine at the gym.
- Hamstrings- these are the counterpart to our quads, these are the long muscles in the back of our thigh. Biceps femoris, semimembranosus, and semitendinosus. I always had a hard time remembering these guys. Luckily, the names aren’t important, but it’s good to know that these muscles are responsible for bending your knee, and extending your hip.
- Calves- everyone knows where this is. But there are actually 2 muscles in the back of your calf: gastrocnemius and the soleus. Only real difference is that the gastrocnemius crosses the knee and the soleus doesn’t. So, if you are doing seated calf raises, you can isolate the soleus over the gastrocnemius…but who cares if you ask me.
Now that we all know what muscles we are working, let’s take a look at the 5 best ways to work these muscles from home.
5 Best Leg Exercises From Home
#1 Wall Squat
This is a tough one, tougher than it looks. It’s isometric, which means there is no moving, also means it is very low impact to joints. With your back against a wall, you squat down like you are sitting in a chair, legs about shoulder-width apart. Make sure your knees are not past your toes. The lower you squat, the harder the exercise. The longer you hold it, the harder it is (duh). Aim for 90 deg at the knee. Workout example: 4 x 30 sec, 3×60 sec, etc.
See example on youtube here.
#2 Single-Leg Wall Squat
If you are really trying to punish your quads, give this one a try. Just like a the wall squat above, except you are doing one leg at a time. For this one, start with your feet together, squat down, and then lift one leg. This one is tough! Hold for 10-15 sec, then switch legs. Alternate back and forth. Try 4×15 sec on each side.
See example on youtube here (this guy is really good at them by the way).
#3 Balance Lunge (Bulgarian Split Lunge)
Most of us are familiar with the classic lunge where we take a large step forward, bend our knee, and then explode back up. This one steps the classic lunge up a notch! Start with one foot on a chair (I know I said no equipment, but come on, a chair is furniture, not equipment), hop other leg out into lunge position- exaggerate your step so that when you bend your knee, your knee doesn’t go past your toes. Now perform your lunges! Another very tough exercise, great for the quads. Try 3-4 sets of 10-15 depending on fitness level.
See example on youtube here.
#4 Backward Lunge
Very similar to the classic lunge again. We are starting with our feet together, but instead of stepping forward, you are going to take a large step backwards. The foot that steps back can remain straight or bend, see what feels best for ya. Again, make sure that stationary knee isn’t going past toes when it bends (this increases strain through knee, we don’t want any injuries).
See example on youtube here.
#5 Side Lunge
It’s no surprise that my top 5 leg list includes 3 types of lunge- lunges are great exercises! With the side variety, you are starting with your feet together again. Take a large step to one side, bend your knee (keeping stationary leg straight), and explode back to starting position. Repeat on other leg, alternating sides. I like to keep my toes pointing forward, but feel free to rotate foot toward side if it is more comfortable. This lunge variation will really kick in your adductors (the muscles in your inner thigh). We didn’t discuss those earlier, but they are also important, especially for sports that include a lot of side to side motion (basketball, soccer).
See example on youtube here.
Step Up Your Leg Workouts!
I shared my favorite leg exercises that can be done at home without any equipment. The above exercises concentrate on the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. I like these exercises because they all hit these major muscle groups at the same time. Instead of having to do leg curls, then leg extensions, then leg press I can do lunges and squats and save A LOT OF TIME.
All of these exercises are tough with body weight alone, but you can step up the intensity on these lunges by adding a little weight with the help of a set of dumbbells. If these exercises are new to you, try them without dumbbells first, believe me, you will be feeling it!
Now it’s time to include these into your leg workouts. You could add 1 or 2 into your regular routine, or create a completely new routine using all of these. I have an idea for a killer leg circuit:
- 10 balance lunges
- 10 side lunges
- 10 backward lunges
- 15 sec single-leg wall squat each leg
- 30 sec wall squat
Repeat entire circuit 3-4x, rest 90 sec between rounds. I guarantee your legs will be asking for mercy after that last round!
I hope this article was helpful. FYI a lot of these leg exercises are included in the P90X workout system. If you like these exercises, you should check it out for yourself, killer workouts. Click the link above to see a review I did on it a while back.
Leave a comment and I’ll get back to ya.