It only takes 20 minutes to sculpt strong muscles with this calisthenics leg workout

a photo of a woman doing a squat
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Calisthenics is a form of strength training that uses just your body weight to sculpt strong muscles. Calisthenic exercises, like squats, mimic the natural movements of the body, so often a calisthenics circuit will be great for building functional strength. But where do you start? If you’re looking for a leg-day workout to target your lower body, put your best adjustable dumbbells and best kettlebells to one side, and give this 20-minute workout a go. All you’ll need is a yoga block (or a book) to stand on and a chair. 

Calisthenics is very versatile, so it can be a great stepping stone for beginners who want to learn weight training or progress into refined gymnastics used in sports like CrossFit. This workout follows a giant set format, where you repeat four exercises back-to-back with no break, to increase the time the muscle spends under tension. Confused? Read more about time under tension, what it is, and how it helps you grow muscle here.

As a reminder, if you’re a complete beginner, or you’re returning to exercise following an injury or a pregnancy, it’s a good idea to check with a healthcare professional before taking on a new workout regime. If in doubt, always check your form with a personal trainer to ensure you’re not putting yourself at risk of an injury. 

What is the workout? 

The workout, created by YouTube personal trainer Caroline Girvan has four giant sets, which are repeated on each side, so eight in total, followed by a finisher. In each giant set, you’ll repeat two exercises twice. You’ll do each exercise for a total of 30 seconds, so two minutes of work, followed by 20 seconds of rest. 

It might sound confusing, but you can follow along with Girvan on the YouTube workout, and watch her form for pointers on how to move correctly. If you like to know what’s coming, here’s a few exercises to expect: 

Elevated lunge: For this exercise, place your left foot on a yoga block or book to elevate it off the ground and increase your range of motion. Lunge down, letting your right knee tap the floor, before rising back to your starting position. Here’s more on how to do a lunge with perfect form. 

Step out to elevated curtsy lunge: Again, start with one foot on a yoga block or book so it is elevated off the floor, and the opposite foot next to the block, resting on the ball of your foot. Step your foot back around behind your front leg and step down into a lunge. At the same time, bring your arms up towards your chest, keeping your torso upright, and engage your core. Lunge down until your front thigh is parallel to the floor, then straighten back up, pushing from your heel, and return to your starting position. Here’s more on how to do a curtsy lunge, and what happened when our fitness editor did them every day for a week

Bulgarian lunge: To do a Bulgarian split squat, stand in front of a chair or step. You’ll be roughly two feet from the chair, and your feet should be hip-width apart. Lift your right leg, and put it on the chair behind you. You can either lie the top of your foot on the chair, so your ankle joint is on the edge of the chair, or flex your ankle, and balance on the ball of your foot. Make sure your feet are still roughly hip-distance apart, with your hips facing forward. Stacking your front foot in line with your back foot can make it even more difficult to balance. Engage your core, and bend your left knee, as you would in a lunge. Pause at the bottom, then drive back up to your starting position. Here’s more on how to do a Bulgarian split squat with perfect form. 

I tried this 20-minute calisthenics leg workout — here’s what happened 

I’d never recommend a workout I wasn’t willing to try myself, so to find out more, I unrolled my yoga mat, grabbed a yoga block, and gave this one a try. The results surprised me — read on to find out more. 

I noticed a slight imbalance

This is a unilateral workout, as you focus on working one side at a time. It didn’t take me long to notice an imbalance in my body — my right, dominant side was a lot stronger than my left, and I found it a lot easier to balance during the Bulgarian lunges on my right side. This is normal — everyone will have one side that is slightly stronger than the other, but over time, if you don’t work on this imbalance it can lead to injury. I’ll definitely be focusing on my left side more in the gym. 

I felt it in my glutes the next day

The giant sets in this workout really worked my lower body hard, and felt this workout in my glutes almost immediately, but more impressively, the next day too. As a runner, strong glutes are important — they work to propel the body forward, helping me run faster, and further. That said, like many runners, I tend to have lazy glutes, and I struggle to switch them on when I’m running. This workout helped me to isolate and work my glutes hard. 

My muscles burned, despite the lack of dumbbells

I’m the first to admit it, I was skeptical about how hard I’d work without using a set of weights, but I was completely wrong. Research has shown that calisthenics workouts develop strength, improve posture, and positively impact body composition. Without using additional weight, I found I was able to move with control and really focus on my form and the muscles I was working. I’ll definitely be dropping the weights and incorporating more calisthenics workouts into my strength training in the future. 

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Jane McGuire
Fitness editor

Jane McGuire is Tom's Guide's Fitness editor, which means she looks after everything fitness related - from running gear to yoga mats. An avid runner, Jane has tested and reviewed fitness products for the past five years, so knows what to look for when finding a good running watch or a pair of shorts with pockets big enough for your smartphone. When she's not pounding the pavements, you'll find Jane striding round the Surrey Hills, taking far too many photos of her puppy.