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The Best Lower Body Body-weight Exercises

The Best Lower Body Bodyweight Exercises

If you are stuck at home self-isolating or social distancing without access to a gym then this series is perfect for you. In this blog post we’ll review some of the best bodyweight lower body exercises which require little or no equipment and serve as great alternatives to gym based free weight and machine exercises.

1) Split Squat

 

 

The split squat is a classic unilateral (single leg) exercise that works the quadriceps (front of thigh), glute max (buttocks) and hamstrings (back of thigh) and can help address asymmetries in leg size and strength. Legendary strength and conditioning coach Mike Boyle categorises the split squat as a supported single leg exercise as although the front leg is the ‘working leg’ the back leg does assist with stability. When performing the split squat focus on dropping the hips and back knee straight down in the descent rather than forward and down to better engage the glutes and hamstrings, push through the front leg and minimise any push from the back leg. You can adjust your body position to bias certain muscle groups. Lengthening your stance and/or increasing the forward torso lean will bias the glutes and hamstrings, whilst shortening the stance and keeping a more upright torso will emphasise the quadriceps more (Shutz et al, 2014). If split squats feel too easy for you try performing isometric pauses and stop at the bottom of each rep with your back knee just off the floor for 3-5 seconds.

 

2) Bulgarian Split Squat

The bulgarian split squat or rear foot elevated split squat is a more challengeing variation of the split squat. Elevating the back leg means more bodyweight is supported on the front leg (85% of bodyweight compared to 75% in the split squat, McCurdy et al, 2010), and the hip and knee go through a greater range of motion. In the image shown here the back leg is elevated on a stand, but a bench, chair or sofa are all suitable alternatives. Just as with the split squat focus on pushing through the front leg and minimise any push from the back leg.

 

3) Single Leg Squat from Box

Using Mike Boyles classification system the single leg squat is categorised as an unsupported or true unilateral exercise as the non-working leg is not in contact with the ground and cannot assist or help with balance and stability. Like the split squat exercises the single leg squat primarily works the quadriceps, glute max and hamstrings, but electromyography (EMG) studies have shown that the glute medius (muscle on the outside of the hip) is also highly activated in this exercise (DiStefano et al, 2009), most likely due to the increased stability requirements of being on one leg.

 

In this picture I am using a plyometric box to stand on, but any sturdy object such as a bench will work. This is a deceptively difficult exercise so I recommend starting with a range of motion that you can control, ensuring that the knee tracks in line with the toes. Gradually increase the range of motion over time as you become stronger and more proficient with the movement. This exercise requires a good level of mobility in the ankle so make sure that you keep the heel down throughout and focus on pushing through both the heel and the ball of the foot.

 

4) Skater Squat

 

The skater squat is another true unilateral exercise and a variation of the single leg squat. The key difference between a skater squat and other single leg squat variations is that in a skater squat the hips travel further backwards and the torso inclines further forwards. This results in greater activation of the hamstring muscles and slightly less activation of the quadriceps (Kulas et al, 2012). The skater squat also requires less ankle mobility than other single leg squat variations, making it a great choice for the many people who don’t have enough ankle mobility to perform pistol squats or single leg squats from a box.

 

Full skater squats can be very challenging but a great regression that I like is to reduce the range of motion by lowering the back knee to a stack of yoga blocks (or books),  and gradually removing blocks over time until you can lower the back knee all the way to the floor.

 

5) Nordic Leg Curl

 

The Nordic leg curl is one of the most researched exercises of all time and is a staple in many strength and conditioning and rehabilitation programmes because of its ability to reduce the incidence of hamstring injuries in sport (Van Dyk et al 2019). In recent years this exercise has become increasingly popular amongst fitness enthusiasts and gym goers as it does an excellent job of building muscular strength and size in the hamstrings (Seymore et al, 2017). This is a very challenging exercise and not one for beginners. I do not recommend attempting this one unless you have a good level of hamstring strength already. Generally only the eccentric (lowering) phase of the exercise is performed and the concentric (lifting) phase is either completed with the assistance of a dynamic push from the upper body or skipped altogether and reset from the top. Some very strong athletes may be able to perform both the eccentric and concentric phases of the exercise without any assistance from the upper body but for the rest of us mere mortals the eccentric only version works great. Aim to keep the glutes engaged throughout and lower yourself as slowly as possible. Keep the reps low in the 3-6 range and progress by slowing the movement down and controlling the lower portion of each rep more.

 

6) Modified Copenhagen Adductor Bridge

 

The Copenhagen adductor bridge is a fantastic exercise for building strength in the adductors (the inside of the thigh). The adductors are activated during lower body exercises such as split squats and single leg squats but can benefit from some additional isolation work to maximise strength in this muscle group. Like the Nordic leg curl the Copenhagen adductor bridge started in the performance sport and rehabilitation world but has recently started to gain some attention in the wider fitness community. Research has shown these exercises are very effective in building adductor strength and reducing the incidence of groin injuries in sport (Haroy et al, 2019). I’ve cheated a bit with this one as I’ve actually included two variations of the exercise. The first variation with the top knee bent is significantly easier than the straight leg version. In the images here I am using a plyo box but a chair and cushion works very well. The exercise is ‘modified’ as in the original version that has been the subject of much recent research the top leg is held by a partner (meaning that it can be done on a football pitch with no equipment), but the modified version works just as well. Focus on performing the exercise in a very slow and controlled fashion with a slow eccentric (lowering) phase and a pause at the top of each rep.

 

References

DiStefano, L.J., Blackburn, J.T., Marshall, S.W. & Padua, D.A. (2009). Gluteal muscle activation during common therapeutic exercises. Journal of Orthopaedic  and Sports Physical Therapy. 39(7), 532-540.

Haroy, J., Clarsen, B., Wiger, E.G., Oyen, M.G., Serner, A., Thorborg, K., Holmich, P., Anderson, T. E., & Bahr, R. (2019). The Adductor Strengthening Programme prevents groin problems among male football players: a cluster-randomised controlled trial. British journal of sports medicine.  53(3), 150-157.

Kulas, A.S., Hortobagyi, T., & Devita (2012). Trunk position modulates anterior cruciate ligament forces and strains during a single-leg squat. Clinical Biomechanics. 27(1), 16-21.

McCurdy, K., O’Kelley, E., Kutz, M., Langford, G., Ernest, J., & Torres, M. (2010). Comparison of lower extremity EMG between the 2-leg squat and modified single-leg squat in female  athletes. Journal of Sports Rehabilitation. 19, 57-70.

Seymore, K.D., Domire, Z.J., Devita, P., Rider, P.M., & Kulas, A.S. (2017). The Effect of Nordic Hamstring Strength Training on Muscle Architecture, Stiffness and Strength. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 117(5), 943-953.

Schutz, P., List, R., Zemp, R., Schellenberg, F., Taylor, W.R., & Lorenzetti, S. (2014). Joint angles of the ankle, knee and hip and loading conditions during split squats. Journal of Applied Biomechanics. 30 (3), 373-380.

Van Dyk, N., Behan, F.P., & Whitely, R. (2019). Including the Nordic Hamstring Exercise in Injury Prevention Exercise Halves the Rate  of Hamstring Injuries: A Systematic  Review and Meta-Analysis of 8459 Athletes. British journal of sports medicine. 53(21), 1362-1370.