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Pistol Squat Bottom position

How To Develop Strong Legs With Calisthenics

Developing strong legs can be quite challenging if you don’t have access to weights.

However, with the right knowledge, it’s still possible to strengthen your legs using calisthenics exercises only.

The biggest challenge of training your legs with calisthenics is that it isn’t obvious how to progress to the next level.

In this article, you’re going to learn how to progress towards advanced calisthenics moves (ie. Pistol squat, shrimp squat, etc) and strengthen your legs even if you don’t have access to weights.

Exclusive Bonus: Download the step-by-step training plan that will help you
achieve the Pistol Squat in 12 weeks…or less!

Can You Build Strong Legs Without Weights?

The answer to this question isn’t very simple.

There are weight lifters that claim that it’s impossible because with calisthenics you can’t increase the weight the same way you would in weight lifting (eg. heavy squats).

On the other side, there are calisthenics experts like Al Kavadlo who claim that it’s possible.

What do you think, Nick?

My approach to the subject is to look at it with an open mind.

Does a heavy squat define how strong your legs are or how strong you are at squatting?

There are Muay Thai fighters that kick way harder than any heavy squatter without touching weights in their whole life.

Are their legs weak because they can’t do heavy squats?

Do their strong kicks define how strong their legs are or how strong they are at kicking?

Can you see the pattern here?

A single movement doesn’t define how strong you are.

So, the real question you should consider is this:

What kind of leg strength would you like to develop?

Would you like to be able to squat 2-3 times your bodyweight?

Or would you rather be able to perform advanced calisthenics moves like the pistol squat, the shrimp squat and the dragon pistol squat?

Or both?

Thinking about your goals will help you determine which method of training will be more appropriate for YOU.

Cautions

The movements presented below are advanced and I recommend you to follow the progressions carefully.

If you experience any pain or strain during any of these movements, you should back off.

Furthermore, you should be able to do at least 50 consecutive bodyweight squats before training with any of these movements.

If you’re still a beginner and you can’t do 50 bodyweight squats, make sure to check out the [Bodyweight Training Plan For Beginners].

With that said, let’s get started…

Calisthenics Leg Exercise #1: The Pistol Squat

pistol squat

This is the first advanced calisthenics leg exercise I achieved.

In order to do a pistol squat you must meet 3 requirements:

  1. You must have the strength to squat your own bodyweight with one leg all the while keeping the other off the ground.
  2. A combination of mobility and flexibility that allows you to reach the bottom position of the pistol squat.
  3. The balance to be able to squat on one leg.

Pistol Squat Progression: Partial Pistol Squats

The simplest way to achieve the pistol squat is to train with partial reps.

To train with partial reps all you have to do is find a surface (like a chair) to squat on. The key is to be able to gradually decrease the height of the surface you’re squatting on.

To achieve the pistol squat, I used a stack of books. To progress, I was gradually removing books from the stack. If you don’t have access to books, you can use bricks, stairs, etc.

Most of the time the partial pistol squats aren’t enough.

For this reason, I included some other exercises that will help you achieve the pistol squat faster.

Later in this article, you’ll learn how to systematically progress towards the pistol squat using partial reps.

Helpful Exercise #1: The Elevated Pistol Squat

Elevated pistol squat
You can use this variation if you lack the necessary hamstring flexibility or hip strength to keep the “non-working” leg off the ground.

Helpful Exercise #2: Supported Pistol Squats

assisted pistol squat
This progression should be used if you have difficulty maintaining balance during the movement.

You should use your arm only for maintaining balance. If you need assistance to achieve the movement, you can use the assisted pistol squat described below.

Helpful Exercise #3: The Assisted Pistol Squat

This variation is similar to the supported pistol squat but instead of just maintaining balance you’re also going to use your arm to help you with the movement.

This exercise is very helpful if you lack ankle mobility.

Helpful Exercise #4: The Bottom Pistol Squat Hold

To perform this exercise simply get in the bottom position of the pistol squat and hold that position for 10 to 30 seconds.

This exercise is going to help you get comfortable with the bottom position of the pistol squat.

Pistol Squat Training Plan

The plan that I recommend you to follow, with this approach (partial reps), is based on the 5×5 rep scheme.

How to Assess Yourself

Firstly, you have to find a depth that you can comfortably complete 5×5 reps (with 3-5 minutes break between sets).

As you are going to see below you are going to increase the depth in every workout, so I recommend you to find a depth that is really comfortable for you to complete 5×5 reps.

How to Progress

Following this system, you are going to progress by 2 cm (1 inch) in every workout until you can’t complete 5×5 reps.

The 1st time you aren’t able to complete the requirement for a given depth, decrease the ROM (range of motion) by 4cm (2 inches) from you last successful session and continue from there (e.g. If your last 5×5 was 50cm high, go back to 54 cm).

If you are still stuck in the same depth twice, decrease the ROM by 4cm and start progressing by 1 cm instead of 2 cm. If you get stuck while progressing by 1 cm, it’s time to decrease the requirement from 5×5 to 3×5 or 5×3 and finally to 3×3.

This way of progressing is inspired by Stronglifts 5×5.

Further Assessments

While you are progressing to more challenging depths, you are going to notice that certain issues limit your performance.

By being more mindful during your training, you will be able to identify these issues correctly. Also, having a spotter or taking a video of yourself, can help you with the assessment.

The main issues that are of concern are balance and mobility. Your strength is going to increase gradually by following the progressions.

For lack of mobility, you should practice the bottom pistol holds and hip extensions.

For lack of balance, you should train with assisted squats.

If you lack both mobility and balance combine both of the above.

More Training Resources

Here are some resources that can help you achieve the pistol squat faster:

  • If you lack hamstring flexibility, other than training with elevated pistol squats, you can stretch your hamstrings between the training sets.
  • To increase your hip strength you can use the exercise described in this video [L-seat Progression pt.3].
  • Another useful pistol squat tutorial [Pistol Squat Tutorial].

What Should You Do After You Master The Pistol Squat?

After you finally master the pistol squat, there are still a lot of ways to progress even further.

Here are some of them:

  • Train for endurance – 20+ consecutive pistol squats
  • Train for the explosive pistol squats.
  • Make the exercise harder by putting your hands behind your head and then behind your back as seen here [Pistol Squat Progressions].
  • Use a weighted vest.
Exclusive Bonus: Download the step-by-step training plan that will help you
achieve the Pistol Squat in 12 weeks…or less!

Calisthenics Leg Exercise #2: The Shrimp Squat

Shrimp squat bottom position

After you master the pistol squat, you can move on to the shrimp squat.

The shrimp squat may look like it’s easier than the pistol squat, but it’s not.

That’s because the shrimp squat requires more mobility to be accomplished.

In the beginning, I’d recommend you to train for this skill only 2 times per week so that your knees and ankles can get used to the movement.

Shrimp Squat Progression #1: The Lunge

Lunge
The first progression is quite easy.

You can start practicing lunges regularly on your workouts, even if you’re still a beginner.

The goal is to do 50 lunges (per leg) before moving to the next progressions. You can accomplish this by following a simple plan like this [Beginner Bodyweight Training Plan].

Shrimp Squat Progression #2: The Air Lunge

Air lunge
This exercise is similar to the lunge, but in this variations, your one leg is going to be off the ground (as seen in the picture above).

This exercise is similar to the lunge, but in this variation, your non-working leg touches the ground only in the bottom position.

When you start training with this variation, you may not be able to complete the movement in full range of motion. If this is the case you can train with partial reps like in the pistol squat.

Goal: 3×10 reps per leg.

Shrimp Squat Progression #3: The Shrimp Squat

Shrimp squat
In this progression, you are going to hold the non-working leg in the bent position with the same arm (right arm for right leg).

Start with partial reps and gradually increase the range of motion similarly to the pistol squat.

Goal: 5×5 reps per leg.

Shrimp Squat Progression #4: Advanced Shrimp Squat

Advanced shrimp squat
In this progression, you are going to hold the non-working leg with the opposite arm.

Goal: 3×3 reps per leg

Shrimp Squat Progression #5: Tow-handed Shrimp Squat

2-handed shrimp squat
In the final progression, you are going to hold the non-working leg with both hands.

I am still not able to complete a full ROM two-handed shrimp squat. However, you can see how it looks like in this video.

Goal: 3×3 reps per leg.

Shrimp Squat Training Plan

The training plan is very similar to that of the pistol squat.

How to Assess Yourself

To assess yourself, you should test if you can complete 50 consecutive lunges per leg.

If you complete the test successfully then you can proceed to the next progression. Otherwise, you should spend some time increasing your endurance.

Even if you can complete 3×10 reps with the air lunge immediately, I’d recommend you to practice this progression for at least a month so that your ankle and hips get used to the motion.

How to Progress

Every progression has a different progression standard. The first ones, that are not so “advanced”, have a higher number of reps.

When you progress from one progression to the next, you should find a height where you are able to do 5×5 reps with good form.

After you have found the necessary height, you should proceed in advancing to more range of motion in a way similar to the partial pistol squat training. 

When you reach the full ROM of a progression, practice it until you can complete the progression standard and then move to the next one.

Cautions

When you practice with the advanced progressions (#2 – #5), I recommend you to do it on a soft surface so that your knee doesn’t get hurt in case you lose control during the negative portion of the exercise.

As I said in previously, don’t practice this movement more than twice per week in the beginning.

You can practice it more when you have been training for a while and you have mastered some of the progressions.

More Training Resources

Here are some more resources for the shrimp squat:

What Should You Do After You Master The Shrimp Squat?

After you have mastered the 2-handed shrimp squat, you can do one of the following:

  • Train with a weighted vest
  • Increase the range of motion by training on an elevated surface.
Exclusive Bonus: Download the step-by-step training plan that will help you
achieve the Pistol Squat in 12 weeks…or less!

Calisthenics Leg Exercise #3: The Harop Curl

The Harop curl may be the best bodyweight exercise for your hamstrings.

I am not yet able to complete this movement, mostly because I haven’t trained for it.

To train with this movement you need something that is really stable to support you during the exercise.

Unfortunately, no bed or sofa in my home provides the necessary stability for this movement.

The Harop Curl is sometimes referred as Glute Ham Raise.

Harop Curl Progression #1: The Hip Bridge

Hip bridge
The first progression is the hip bridge.

Lay down on a soft surface (like a yoga mat).

Press with your glutes, so that only your legs and upper back are in touch with the floor.

Goal: 3×20

Harop Curl Progression #2: The Single Leg Hip Bridge

One leg hip bridge
Similar to the first progressions, but as the name suggests you are going to use only one of your legs.

Goal: 3×15 per leg

Harop Curl Progression #3: Assisted Harop Curl /Beginner Variations/ Partial Reps

After you’re able to do 3×15 with the single leg hip bridges, you can then train with 2 different variations to achieve the Harop curl.

You can train with:

Assisted Harop Curl

In this variation, you are going to use your arms to help you complete the movement.

Gradually reduce the assistance you are using.

Harop Curl Beginner Variation

In this variation, your legs’ angle will stay static while you are moving your upper body.

Partial Harop Curls

In this variation, you will one complete a part of the movement.

You should use something (like books), to be able to track your progress.

For all of these variations, you should train with 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps.

Harop Curl Training Plan

How To Assess Yourself

Firstly, test yourself with the hip bridges.

  • If you can complete 3×20, test the next progression.
  • If not, you can follow the simple plan that I describe here:
  • If you can complete the 3×15 of the 2nd progression, test the next.

Test until you can find a progression where you can’t complete the progression standard.

How To Progress

Since the first progressions of the Harop Curl are easy, they have a high rep progression standard. To achieve these numbers you can train with a system like the one described here [Beginner Bodyweight Training Plan].

When you reach the final progressions you will have to train in a different way.

If you choose to follow the partial rep protocol, you can train with the same system used for the partial pistol squats.

Helpful Resources

Here are 2 more helpful resources regarding the Harop curl:

Exclusive Bonus: Download the step-by-step training plan that will help you
achieve the Pistol Squat in 12 weeks…or less!

How To Train For Explosiveness

We can’t really talk about lower body strength without discussing explosiveness.

The topic of jumping higher or broader is very big, and I can’t cover it completely in this post.

So here, you’ll find only some of the basics to help you get started.

After you have already built some strength (and only then) you can start adding plyometric exercises into your training plan.  – Preferably after you’re able to perform 50 consecutive bodyweight squats.

In the beginning you should start with the very basic exercises, such us:

You can train with such exercises in 3 sets of 8-12 reps.

Your main goal while training with such exercises is to jump as high (or broad) as possible.

Depth Jumps

As you become more advanced (ie. You’ve achieved some moves like the pistol, etc) it’s time to try some advanced plyometrics as well.

One of the most effective exercises you can try is depth squats.

This is one of the best exercises for building lower body explosiveness.

Performing a depth jump is pretty simple. All you have to do is:

  • Step on an elevated surface (not very high)
  • Step off the surface
  • Land
  • Jump as high as you can
  • Repeat for reps

The landing face (step 3) should last as little as possible, meaning that you’ll try to jump as soon as you get in contact with the ground.

Keep in mind that this isn’t an exercise for beginners and you should be very careful when training with it. (if you have a coach with you, the better)

Box jumps

Box jumps aren’t as advanced as depth jumps, but you can easily measure your progress with them.

If you don’t have a box, you can use stairs.

Other explosive exercises

As you continue to progress with calisthenics you can aim for other advanced plyometric moves.

Such moves are:

  • Back flips 
  • Front flips
  • Plyometric pistol squats
  • Flying kick variations (and tricking in general) 

How to condition yourself for safe jumping

I learned about this concept from a friend of mine who does parkour.

When most of us jump we focus completely on the jumping portion, however, the landing portion is of equal (if not more) importance.

Contrariwise, in parkour, they spend a big amount of time practicing their landing skills.

Of course, you don’t have to practice landing as extensively as a parkourista would. But it’s important that you invest some time in it.

You can also train with drop jumps:

Running

What’s the point of having strong legs if you can’t run fast?

Surely it’s better than having weak legs, but running is a too basic function to ignore.

As such, I would recommend you to run at least once per week.

Running will help you:

  • Become faster
  • Increase your leg endurance
  • Lose fat and become leaner
  • Increase your work capacity

Regular Running

Regular running should be your starting point.

In the beginning, you can start with 400 meters (1 track round) and train until you are able to do 5 complete rounds.

After that, you can either try to improve your time or increase your running distance.

Sprinting

As you become more advanced, regular running will start to feel quite easy.

Then you know it’s time to train with sprints.

Sprinting has all of the benefits of running plus a few more!

  • It requires less time
  • You become even faster and more explosive
  • With interval training, you burn even more fat.

For sprinting you can use 100, 200 or even 400 meters.

To take the things up a notch, you can practice with hill sprints or stair running.

Even when training with sprinting, it’s still beneficial from time to time to train with longer distances.

For more information on running make sure to check these out:

How To Use Isometrics To Strengthen Your Legs

Some leg muscle groups are difficult to get worked by using only bodyweight training.

However, you can target these muscles with isometric exercises.

An isometric exercise is an exercise that involves muscle tension without movement.

Here are some exercises that can help you:

  • Isometric deadlift. You can find a description of this exercise here [How to Train With Isometrics].
  • Isometric Kicking
  • Isometric holds for time – e.g squat hold, horse stance, etc.

You can find more ideas on how to use isometrics for lower body strength training in “Never Gymless” by Ross Enamait.

Other Exercises For Strength Training

Other than the exercises presented above, there are other exercises that you can use to develop stronger legs.

Some of them are:

Lower Body Mobility Exercises For Faster Results

As you can see, all of the advanced calisthenics leg moves have one thing in common…

They require a LOT of mobility and flexibility!

In fact, your main concern regarding such movements may be your flexibility’s current level.

Only the Harop curl doesn’t require extensive flexibility or mobility.

So, how to do you develop such an advanced level of flexibility?

Well….

You’ll have to train and practice with mobility exercises every single day.

You read that right.

Every.Single.Day.

Of course, it doesn’t have to take up too much time.

15-20 minutes per day are usually enough.

What I like to do is to have 5 mobility-flexibility exercises and do them every day for 15-20 minutes.

My current routine includes:

For faster results, your mobility exercises should be focused towards the skill you’re trying to achieve.

For example, if your next goal was the pistol squat, you could use something like:

Lastly, your mobility sessions shouldn’t be focused completely on your lower body but should include exercises for the upper body as well.

Exclusive Bonus: Download the step-by-step training plan that will help you
achieve the Pistol Squat in 12 weeks…or less!

How to Add These Exercises Into Your Current Routine

Usually, I approach my training using 2 main workouts (A & B).

One for maximal strength and one for explosiveness and I alternate between them. I train with these workouts every other day and in the days in-between, if they are not rest days, I will add a workout C, where I will practice isometrics, endurance, locomotion or a combination of these.

Here are some samples of workout A:

Workout A (Maximal Strength)

A1: 5×5 Partial Pistols (or Shrimp squats, depending on your goals)
A2: Harop Curl training
A3: 3x(10-20) Calf raises

Notes

  • Rest 3-5 minutes between sets.
  • If you train upper and lower body on the same day, you can use the variation bellow to save time.

Workout A’ [2]

A1: 4×5 Partial Pistols (or Shrimp squats, depending on your goals)
A2: 4 sets of OAPU training

B1: 4 sets of Harop Curl training
B2: 4 sets of Pull up variations

C1: 3x(10-20) Calf raises
C2: 3x(10-20) triceps extensions

Notes

  • Practice from exercise 1 to 2 like in a circuit, but with 60-90 sec rest between the exercises.
  • You can do these workouts in one session or spread them throughout the day.
  • I learned about this type of programming in Ross Enamait’s “Never Gymless“.

Workout B (Explosiveness)

A1: 3×8-12 squat jumps
A2: 3×8-12 plyometric push ups

B1: 3×8-12 broad jumps
B2: 4×8-12 plyometric pull ups

Notes

  • Similar to Workout A

In this post [Explosive Leg Workout], Ido shares some great exercises and also provides a different approach than mine, where you train explosiveness and maximal strength at the same session.

Sample Programs

3 day calisthenics leg workout plan
3 Day sample: Alternating between maximal strength and explosiveness
3 day calisthenics leg workout plan - strength focused
3 Day sample: Focusing on maximal strength
4 day calisthenics leg workout plan
4 Day sample: Alternating between maximal strength and explosiveness

Frequently Asked Questions

With Which Exercise Should I Train First?

When I started training with calisthenics I started with the pistol squat, because I didn’t know about other advanced leg exercises back then.

If I had to start over again, I’d still choose the pistol squat as the first movement to aim for.

Why?

Because it isn’t as stressful on the joints as the shrimp squat and not as advanced as the dragon pistol or the tuck squat.

It’s like a starting point for more advanced movements in some way.

Furthermore, the pistol squat is going to help you train your balance for the other advanced versions.

Once you’re able to perform 10 strict pistol squats, then you can move to some of the other exercises.

Keep in mind, that you can still train with the Harop curl as it’s more focused on the hamstrings and glutes while the pistol squat on the quads and hips.

What If My Knees Hurt?

Well…

Let me ask you a question:

Would you begin training with heavy squats directly at 100kg?

Probably no.

But guess what.

Most people would try a pistol squat the moment they see it!

(I did that as well by the way)

The problem with that is that even if you’re able to do a pistol squat, chances are your joints aren’t prepared for frequent training.

So, if your knees hurt, it means that your joints aren’t ready for the movement yet.

As such, you’ll have to back off a little from your training and return to the basics and train with easier progressions.

Once you feel that the pain is gone, you can then continue with your training right where you left it.

In addition, take a good look at your form.

For best results take a video of yourself performing the movement and see where your form breaks (if it does). Next time try to correct the mistake you’re making.

Are these moves healthy for your knees?

If you approach them respecting both the move and your current limits, you won’t have a problem.

In fact, your knees will grow stronger in response.

So be patient.

When I was training with pistol squat I was stuck at 5 reps.

I couldn’t do more because my knees were getting tired all the while my muscles were ok.

This passed only when my knees finally got used to the load.

Lastly, always keep in mind that if a movement causes you pain, you should abandon it (at least for the time being).

The goal of training is to get stronger not to injure yourself.

Which Move Will You Achieve Next?

I’d suggest you start with the pistol squat.

The pistol squat is the easiest to learn and it can help you achieve other advanced skills much faster.

If you’d like to achieve the pistol squat fast, then be sure to download my FREE Pistol Squat Training Plan.

This plan will help you achieve the pistol squat in 12 weeks (or less)!

Click below to download your free training plan…

pistol squat dl