Training Without a Gym – The Legs
When it comes to training the legs, there’s an almost infamous air of hesitation. Leg day, as it’s called, is hard. Notoriously hard. Squats are the best way to train your legs, and if you’re doing the right — with flat soles, heels digging into the ground, and a whole bunch of weight on your shoulders — they can easily force your entire body to exert itself. Then, there are half a dozen extremely effective isolation exercises that make your quads and hamstrings burn and cramp like no other muscle.
Because of their sheer sizes, when your leg muscles get exhausted, you feel it. You feel it hard. And, because bodybuilders have popularized the odd habit of working your legs once a week as hard as possible, that one workout will take about as much willpower as you can manage, every time. Furthermore, because of the reputation of leg day — isolation exercises with machines, heavy squats — the idea of doing a leg workout with nothing but your bodyweight is kind of hard to handle. But, believe it or not, it’s possible. More than that, it’s extremely effective. All you have to do is know where to start, how to progress and make sure to hit your legs on every single workout.
If you think about the disproportional amount of strength in your legs versus your arms, you realize just how powerful those muscles can be. Try getting into a handstand against a wall and hold on for a minute. Then, just lean against a wall for a minute. You could probably do that for an hour, or three, or even an entire day. Your legs are built to carry you and help you walk, run, and jump. The only disadvantage they have is their general inflexibility versus your arms — but even that can be trained.
With the legs, the most important thing to take into consideration is balance — more so than even your arms, you need your hamstrings and quadriceps (back and front of your thighs respectively) to be of equal strength. Weak hamstrings increase your rate of injury, by leaving your knees vulnerable. That means when you train your legs, go for deep squats.
There’s only really one movement to focus on when working out without (or with) a gym, and that’s squatting. The golden standard is simple. As you squat:
- Your shoulder and heels should be in a single, straight line, your shoulder stacked on your heels. Imagine an invisible bar as the point that should align with your heels, or alternatively, use a broom/plank/stick as a bar substitute.
- Your heels should be digging into the ground. Flat soles work best for this, although if your sole is minimally raised, you shouldn’t worry too much about that.
- In the bottom of your squat, your thighs should be parallel to the ground or slightly below parallel — never above.
- Your lower back should be kept entirely straight throughout the entire exercise — minimal to no “butt wink”, which is when your pelvis begins to turn inward under your body.
- Your toes should point outward slightly, more so the wider your stance is. The rule is to have your toes point in the direction your knees go as you widen your stance.
- As you go down and up, force your knees out. The tendency here is to collapse the knees inwards, due to quad weakness — avoid this.
- Your knees shouldn’t go past your toes on the bottom section of your squat. You can play a little fast and loose with this rule if you’re doing an “ass to the grass” squat, but if you’re just squatting at parallel, they should stay away from your toe line.
There are other rules when squatting with weights — such as where to look, where to keep the bar, how low to go, and more. But generally speaking, if you’re doing bodyweight squats then sticking to the above ruleset will keep your joints healthy and happy, and make your legs more powerful and stable. Now let’s go through the squatting progressions on a bodyweight-only program.
Assisted Squat: Right off the bat, the one squat you should always be capable of doing (unless you’re morbidly obese, have knee injuries or lack legs entirely) is the assisted squat. Grab onto a pole or door or other support structure, and perform a squat. Keep the rules in mind — lean forward for your shoulders to stack onto your heels, dig them into the ground, keep your back straight, go down as far as possible. Take a deep breath and go down slowly — then come up. Don’t hyperextend your knees at the top — you can lock them up, but be mindful, especially if you’re overweight.
Full Squat: Once you’re strong enough, it’s time to let go of the pole finger by finger — until you’re doing full squats with your ass to the grass. If you have mobility issues here, don’t forget to stretch several times a day — the typical problem areas for most people squatting are their ankles, hips, and hamstrings. This is the most crucial progressional step — not everyone can do a proper squat, and doing a proper squat is absolutely critical for good physical mobility.
Jump Squat: Jump squats, like a few previous exercises noted in the series, is a plyometric exercise. Basically, you exert more force than a regular squat by forcing yourself to jump and absorb the impact coming down. The key in a jump squat is to land on the balls of your feet and then roll into the heels as you squat all the way back down. Then, swing your arms up, jump as high as you can, and repeat. Alternatively, you can box jump squat — choose a bench or box to jump onto or over, and do the exercise using that as a gauge.
Assisted Pistol Squat: Jump squats might always come in handy in your leg training arsenal (try working them into burpees!), but if you want pure strength, the next step is to go into the equivalent of a one-armed pushup or pullup — the pistol squat. Grab a pole, door or support structure, and raise one leg. Then, follow the basic rules of the squat – but on one leg, and without worrying about your back (you can bend your lumbar here). Keep the other leg extended forward, get into an ass-to-the-grass position, and make your way up again. At first, you may have to use your arms to help pull yourself up — with time, you may only need one arm to slightly support yourself until you can do a proper one-legged squat.
Pistol Squat: It’s much the same as the assisted version — only instead of holding onto a bar or pole, hold onto your toes. You can also simply point your hands forward, or if things are getting boring, try holding something heavy over your head. You can actively assist your squat by holding something heavy in front of you — the weight will help you avoid plopping down onto your ass. This might seem familiar to you — yes, it’s similar to the kind of position you’d be in in a Cossack dance.
Shrimp Squat: Shrimp squats are an alternative to pistol squats if pistol squats are hard on your knees. They’re also very difficult in their own right — and simple. Grab your foot, and squat down with your other leg. Keep your back straight, lean forward, and go down until your raised leg’s knee touches the ground. Then get back off the ground. If you have trouble with these, use some support. There are a lot of weighted variations to the shrimp squat, as per T-Nation.
The reason most people can’t squat properly or easily is because of chairs. Any toddler can plop down a proper squat — a 30-year-old office worker with an eight hour a day desk job is going to have trouble. If you’re dedicated to your mobility and athleticism, consider cutting out chairs if you can afford to do so professionally. If you can’t do so, then work on your squat on a daily basis. Take up yoga — and work in a deep squat in the middle of your flow. The goal is to get to the point where a deep squat isn’t a challenge, but a comfortable stretch. Your body will thank you for it.