If you’re looking for a leg-day challenge, a bodyweight lower-body workout probably isn’t the first thing that jumps to mind. You need external resistance—say, in the form of free weights or resistance bands—to really bring on the oomph, right?
Not exactly. If you want an intense lower-body workout without weights, there’s a pretty straightforward way to ramp up the challenge: Look to single-leg moves.
“Bodyweight training using single-leg or unilateral moves is not easy,” Sivan Fagan, C.P.T., owner of Strong With Sivan, tells SELF. “It requires a lot of single-leg stability, as well as hip, knee, and ankle stability, too.” In fact, many people who can squat a significant amount of weight bilaterally tend to struggle performing just a few reps when they try unilateral leg moves with only their bodyweight.
Single-leg moves are also helpful for building lower-body strength, especially if you’ve been strength training for a while with bodyweight moves. Think of it like this: If you can crank out a whole load of bodyweight squats—say, 20 or more without resting—that puts you in the endurance training range, says Fagan. But if you can only do about half that for a single-leg move, you’ll move more into the sweet spot for building muscle (and strength).
A solid bodyweight lower-body routine using unilateral moves, like the one Fagan created below, focuses on the main movement patterns: hip extension from a horizontal position (think, glute bridges), a hip hinge (like a deadlift), a squat pattern, and hip abduction (a side-lying leg lift). This works your lower body muscles like your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, including the smaller glute muscles that function as hip abductors—and you’ll be done in just 15 minutes!
An additional benefit of single-leg lower-body workouts is that they help you identify strength imbalances—many of us have one side that’s stronger than the other. If you notice a significantly stronger or weaker side during this workout, there are two things you can do to work to build balanced strength, says Fagan.
Your first option is to start on your weaker side, and do as many reps as you can on that side. Then, you’d do the same number on the stronger side. After your prescribed sets are done, you’d do two additional sets on the weaker sides.
Another option is to start on your stronger side, and then try to match that number of reps on your weaker side, even though it probably won’t be all in one shot, says Fagan. For instance, say you can do 10 single-leg glute bridges on your right leg. Maybe on your left, you can only do 6. After you complete that 6, you’d rest about 20 seconds or so, and then crank out the remaining 4. You’d end your program with two additional sets on your weaker side.
Ready to get started? Here’s what you need for an intense bodyweight lower-body workout that focuses on single-leg strength.
What you need: An exercise mat for comfort.
- Single-leg glute bridge
- Side-lying leg lift
- Side step to squat
- Warrior balance
- Frog pump with hold
- In the first superset, complete 10-15 reps per side of the glute bridge and 15-20 per side of the leg lift. Complete 3 rounds total. Rest for 1-2 min after all your rounds are done.
- In the triset, complete 10-15 reps per side of the squat and warrior balance. Then complete AMRAP (as many reps as possible) of the frog pump. Complete 3 rounds total.
Demoing the moves below are Grace Pulliam (GIF 1), an aerial yoga and Vinyasa yoga teacher in New York City; Krystal Salvent (GIF 2), NASM-certified personal trainer in New York City; Nikki Pebbles (GIF 3); a fitness instructor and an AFAA- and NCCPT-certified personal trainer and group fitness trainer in New York City; Cookie Janee (GIF 4), a background investigator and security forces specialist in the Air Force Reserve; and Shauna Harrison (GIF 5), a Bay-area based trainer, yogi, public health academic, advocate, and columnist for SELF.