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Strong legs are great — they help you squat more weight at the gym, climb hills and mountains with ease, bike, jump, run and generally do any of the fun activities you love to do. And you don’t need a whole room full of equipment to make them stronger. In fact, the best exercises to improve leg strength and balance don’t require any equipment at all.
“You don’t need to lift heavy weights to get strong and fit,” says Krista Stryker, NSCA-certified performance coach and author of The 12-Minute Athlete. “I’ve been doing mostly bodyweight workouts for nearly a decade now, and I’m pretty proud of how strong I’ve become.”
As Stryker mentioned in 3 No-Equipment Workouts to Build Total-Body Strength, building strength allows you to push yourself outside your comfort zone and perform difficult and amazing feats, both in and out of the gym.
Here are five exercises to improve leg strength and balance so you can continue showing up and kicking butt.
1. Compass Toe Touch
This is an excellent beginner exercise to improve leg strength and balance, particularly in the knee and ankle, and it can be scaled to challenge any fitness level. Stand on one leg and imagine you are at the center of a compass. Tap your non-standing toes in front of you at “north,” to the side at “east,” behind you to “south” and around the back of your standing leg to “west.” Reach as far as you can in each direction, bending your standing leg slightly to accommodate the movements. Repeat the same pattern in reverse, starting with west, then south and east before ending at north. Repeat the entire sequence on the other leg. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to reach further out in each direction.
Advanced Option: For a more advanced exercise to improve leg strength and balance that also challenges your hips and core, keep your free leg off the ground and kick your foot in each direction instead of tapping it.
2. Pistol Squat
Full pistol squats are among the most advanced exercises for building leg strength and balance, yet they are nothing more than a full-range-of-motion one-legged squat. “One-legged squats are my favorite leg exercise because they require a combination of serious leg strength, flexibility and balance,” Stryker says. “Since most of us tend to have one dominant leg that’s stronger than the other, pistols are great because they work each leg one at a time to help address any imbalances.”
To build up to a pistol squat, you can hold onto the upright of a squat rack or a suspension system for support. Stand on one leg, keeping your other leg straight in front of you for balance. Keeping your weight in your heel, shift your hips back and squat down. Remember to keep your back straight and your chest up. Lower your hips all the way down as far as your flexibility allows — think butt to calf — while keeping your other leg extended in front of you. From the bottom of the squat, push into your heel and extend your standing leg, keeping your free leg from touching the floor as you stand up. Again, you can hold on and use your arms to help you while you build up strength in your legs. You also can use one-legged squats from a bench or slow eccentrics as you build strength.
Advanced Option: At the bottom of the pistol squat, switch your feet, placing your free foot on the floor and lifting your other foot up while remaining in the pistol squat. Come up from the bottom of the squat.
3. Cossack Squat
Also known as a side lunge or archer lunge, Cossack squats are another awesome equipment-free leg exercise that works strength and flexibility while simultaneously addressing any imbalances in your legs. Since most leg exercises are in one plane of motion (front to back), this is one of the few exercises to improve leg strength and balance in muscles that stabilize your hips side to side. “I like these squats a lot because they get you working laterally,” Stryker says. “They are especially good for working on flexibility and strength in the hip flexors, knee and ankle.”
Stand in a wide stance, then shift your hips to one side, squatting down all the way to your heel as you straighten your opposite leg and lift your toes. Keep your chest up and your heel down on the side you are squatting toward. From the bottom of the squat, push through your heel and straighten your legs, shifting your hips back to center as you come back up. As with the pistol squat, you can hold on to a TRX suspension system to help pull yourself up as you build strength. Once you finish all the reps on one side, repeat on the other side.
Advanced Option: Shift all your weight to your standing leg and keep your free leg straight and your toes up as you lower down, almost as if doing a sideways pistol squat. Push into your heel to come up, putting as little weight into your free leg as possible.
4. Hip Airplane
Hip airplanes are a fun exercise to build leg strength and balance while working on hip mobility and flexibility. They are similar to one-legged deadlifts but with an extra rotation to work the glutes and hip flexors.
Stand on one leg with your arms extended out in a T. Engage your core, then bend forward from your hips to bring your body parallel to the floor with your free leg extended straight out behind you for balance. Holding your body parallel, slowly twist in the direction of your non-standing leg, turning your chest to the side as you reach your fingers on the side of your standing leg toward the floor as your arms twist perpendicular to the floor. Pause, then rotate your body back down until your arms are parallel to the floor again. Keep your body parallel to the floor and your free leg up and extended throughout the twist. Straighten your hip and lower your free leg down to come back to standing. Repeat on the opposite leg.
Advanced Option: Hold small weights in your hands, or add ankle weights for more resistance.
5. Marching Glute Bridge
The glute bridge is a standard core builder with a ton of fun variations, but this exercise takes your leg strength and balance to a whole new level. If you struggle to isolate and engage your glutes and hamstrings or have any imbalances in your hips, this exercise will help.
Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor. Push into your feet and lift your hips up until your body is in a straight line from your knees to your shoulders. Keep your core engaged to protect your lower back. Holding this position and keeping your hips level, lift one foot off the ground. Hold for a beat, then set that foot down and lift your other foot up. Set that foot down, then lift your first foot up again. You should feel each glute engage as you lift the opposite foot up. Keep your body straight and your hips level as you continue “marching” your feet.
Advanced Option: Add more movement by kicking your free leg out before setting it back down, making sure to keep your hips up and level. You also can add ankle weights or use a band across your hips anchored on either side for extra resistance.