The one leg squat
Finding the right bodyweight leg exercises might not seem like the easiest thing to do at first glance, particularly if you want to build strength and muscle rather than endurance or explosive power.
However, it can be done with a little imagination and it is something you should defiantly strive to do in your own training program because your legs consist of the biggest, strongest and most powerful muscles that you have.
In fact, strong leg muscles are the key to most feats of strength and also provide the power for the knock out punch of boxers, the ability of a martial artist to remain unmovable in his stance and the gymnast to jump 10 feet in the air.
If you want to build fantastic leg endurance to improve your staying power in sport or are a martial artist who needs to be able to stay in stances for long periods of time it is a reasonably easy thing to accomplish because there are a number of good leg exercises for the job.
Another benefit of endurance based leg exercises is that because the legs are the biggest muscles in the body they also require a lot of oxygen when they are being exercised and therefore leg exercises will also dramatically improve your cardio vascular performance.
Some exercises for muscular endurance
Free squats – Although free squats are one of the easiest leg exercises to do and are therefore not suitable for building strength or muscle they are perfect for developing endurance.
The most effective way to include this exercise in your training program is to do only one set of as many reps as you can. This can be done by setting a predetermined goal of a certain number of repetitions or alternatively you can forget about counting reps and just do the exercise for a certain amount if time. I regularly do this exercise continually for 30 minutes.
Hindu squats – although the Hindu squat is slightly different to the free squat (you use your arms, breathe in a different manner and lift up on to your toes) it is still basically the same exercise.
However, the rhythmic way in which it is performed makes this the perfect exercise for doing the hundreds of reps that are necessary to build real leg endurance and it has a unique hypnotic quality unlike most exercises.
In your first attempts you might find the Hindu squat so demanding that even 25 repetitions leaves your legs feeling like jelly but after 3 months training you will be able to do 500 of these without stopping, that is how effective this exercise is.
How to do Hindu squats
Begin by standing tall with your back straight, head up and feet hip width apart. Your feet can point forward or slightly outwards depending on what feels most comfortable.
Reach forward with your arms and then pull back in a rowing motion until your fists are even with your chest and begin to descend in to the squat position by bending your knees.
Squat down letting your arms swing behind your hips and as you get lower down in the squat position your heels raise off the floor so you are squatting on the balls of your feet. Continue the squat until your thighs are touching the back of your calves.
Now begin to rise up and let your arms swing forward as you inhale.
The breathing pattern is the opposite of standard squats so you breathe out on the way down and in on the way up. The arms perform a rowing motion throughout the exercise. Remember to keep your back straight, look straight ahead at all times and keep your weight evenly distributed so you do not fall forwards or backwards.
The first few times you perform Hindu squats do them very slowly so that you get used to the technique and the different breathing pattern.
Final tip, when you reach the bottom position of the Hindu squat never bounce back up. The whole movement from start to finish should be smooth and graceful like all leg exercises.
Explosive power can greatly enhance your performance in most sports and is especially useful for martial arts jumping kicks, parkour and sports such as basketball and football.
There are several good bodyweight leg exercises that are perfect for the job but remember that to build explosive power you need to choose exercises that are demanding and allow you to move your legs with speed as strength x speed = power
Some exercises for building explosive power
Squat jumps – This is the number one exercise for building explosive power and you will find that it is possible to double your jumping power within a very short time.
Start by standing with your feet shoulder width apart and your toes pointing forward. Lower yourself down to the full squat position making sure you keep your back straight. Push against the floor and jump as high as you can and make sure you contract the muscles of your legs as you leap up.
Squat thrusts – although this exercise is perhaps not as effective for building jumping power as the squat jump it does develop the ability to extend and then retract the legs with speed and is therefore very beneficial for improving sporting performance. Is also one of the best exercises for developing overall fitness for anybody who desires it.
To do this exercise begin by standing with your feet together then squat down and place your hands on the floor next to your feet. In one explosive movement thrust your feet backwards into a push-up position and then pull the feet back between the hands and stand up.
Strength and muscle building
Because strength and muscle building requires you to keep the repetition range between 6-10 reps but must still be demanding enough to stimulate muscle growth many people find it difficult to design a good program of bodyweight leg exercises for the job.
However, strength and muscle can be developed with bodyweight exercises and consider this, male ballet dancers possess some of the best developed legs of any athletes.
Although their legs are not as huge as a professional body builders their legs are none the less extremely muscular, strong and supple. Ballet dancers are also capable of executing moves that no other athletes could possibly hope to do.
Whilst I am not suggesting you take up ballet (unless you want to) keep in mind that despite their great leg development Ballet dancers never use weights. Therefore, remember that strong muscular legs are possible with bodyweight exercises as long as you train them correctly.
Some exercises for leg strength and muscle building
One leg squat – the one leg squat is probably the best known bodyweight exercise for building strength and muscle and I am sure you can imagine the power lowering and lifting your entire bodyweight on one leg will give you.
However, remember this is an advanced leg exercise that you should build up to. Take my word for it they are very difficult.
For beginners it is best to begin doing this exercise with the aid of a strong box. All you have to do is have the box directly behind you at a height that you can safely squat up and down on. Then simply use smaller boxes to increase the height that you squat down to over time.
One of the best ways of building strength and muscle with bodyweight exercises is to incorporate isometrics and static holds in your training.
If you have access to a power rack you can easily do isometric squats by placing the bar at the desired height and pushing up as hard as you can for between 30 and 60 seconds making sure you breathe properly throughout.
To get the most from this exercise you should perform it 3 times and each time it should be done at a different height. The first one should be done with the legs only a few inches lower than when they are straight.
For the second one you should have your legs halfway between standing up and in the squat position. For the third position have the thighs at 90 degrees so you are in the squat position. By doing all 3 positions you are certain to exercise the entire length of the muscle.
If you do not have excess to a power rack you can (believe it or not) use a door frame to train the legs in the same manner by sitting within the frame and placing your back against one edge and your feet against the other and then pushing as you would with a power rack.
Another great isometric exercise for the quadriceps can be done by standing directly in front of an immovable object such as a heavy table or bench. Place the foot under the table and lift the foot up against it pushing as hard as you. Imagine you are trying to lift the table up with your foot and hold it for 30 – 60 seconds.
Not only does this exercise build great strength but it also is one of the best exercises for bringing out the definition of the quadriceps. You can also train the hamstrings in the same manner by simply standing with your back to the object and lifting your heel up against it.
Static holds are one of the best ways to develop strength in all muscles and work equally well for the legs. In fact, I have found that static holds are the quickest way to increase strength and you should always try to include at least one static hold in each training session.
The most effective way to incorporate static holds for the legs is to include traditional martial arts stances in you training. These might appear easy at first glance but if you hold each stance for one minute and move from one to another without resting you will find them so demanding that your legs will shake with exhaustion.
These martial arts stances are perhaps the best way of developing the deep separation of leg muscles that great definition requires.
To show you how good static holds can be for leg development why not try this simple test.
Hold each one of the following three stances for 60 seconds each. Make sure you move from one to another without any rest and in the front and back stance have your left leg in front of you and your right leg behind you.
As well as being the quickest way to improve flexibility, isometric stretching can also build strength in a way that no other leg exercises can do. The reason for this is because the nature of isometric stretching means you contract your muscles in positions that simply are not possible any other way.
The result is that you build amazing leg strength that enables you to do things you perhaps thought would be impossible. For anyone involved in sports such as rock climbing, gymnastics, football or martial arts isometric stretching is a must and even if you are not involved in sport you will benefit as you are far less likely to injure yourself if you have built up isometric strength and flexibility.
How to do isometric stretching
Isometric stretching involves tensing (or contracting) muscles whilst they are in a stretched position. The purpose of doing this is that the tensing of the muscles exhausts them and prevents them from switching on what is known as the stretch reflex.
The stretch reflex is the way the body prevents injury when placed in an unfamiliar position and in a nutshell when you are stretching, muscles contract and act like brakes to prevent you from stretching further.
By purposely exhausting the muscles in the stretched position they have no option but to relax which enables you to then stretch a bit further before they recover. The other way in which isometric stretching works is that over time it builds up the strength of the muscles in the stretched position so that the stretch reflex is less likely to switch on.
The classic example of an isometric stretch is the front splits. First of all stretch in the normal way going as low as is comfortable. Then ease up just an inch or so and from there contract or tense the muscles of the legs by trying to squeeze your feet together using 50-75% of your maximum effort.
Hold this stretch for anything from 10 -30 seconds and then instantly relax the muscles. At this point you will have a window of a couple of seconds were the relaxed muscles will enable you to go even lower in the splits. You can then repeat this process several times to reach your maximum splits position at that time. Most people find that after only 6-8 weeks of this type of stretching they can comfortably do the front splits.
The legs consist of the largest, most powerful muscles in the body and you can only develop overall bodyweight strength if you have the strong foundation that leg exercises provide.
Endurance type leg exercises not only build muscular endurance but also improve cardio vascular performance.
Include leg exercises in your training to dramatically improve your sporting performance.
Ballet dancers possess strong, muscular legs but never use weight training to develop this power. You can also do the same with a little imagination and some experimentation with isometric and static holds.
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