You don't need barbells to sculpt strong legs, just 4 moves and a set of kettlebells

Man holding kettlebell above head with right arm and kneeling on left knee with right leg bent during outdoor kettlebell workout
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Barbell squats, lunges, and deadlifts are brilliantly effective at strengthening your core, hips, glutes, and legs during lower-body workouts. You can load endlessly and pack on weight as you get stronger, but what if you don’t have access to barbells?

The workout below requires a set of the best kettlebells, four leg exercises, and 30 minutes of your time. You can perform the workout if you’re a kettlebell beginner, but we recommend starting with light weights and building as your experience improves. 

What are the 4 kettlebell leg exercises?  

We’ve chosen a kettlebell exercises that emphasize each lower body muscle group, including your glutes, quads, hamstrings, hips, and calves, also building a stronger core while you work. If your gym goals this year include strengthening and building seriously popping muscle definition in your legs, these exercises are a must-try.

How you choose the kettlebell is entirely up to you, but make sure the last few reps of each move feel tough to complete. If you’re cruising through your reps, add weight, sets, or reps to increase the intensity.  

Beginners: we strongly recommend learning how to hold a kettlebell properly if you’re still getting up to speed with your grips. Believe it or not, how you hold your kettlebell matters and will help you develop proper movement patterns and efficiency with the bell without hurting your wrists.  

Quad focus: kettlebell leg extensions

The goal of the leg extension exercise is knee extension, which means your quads will fire up considerably. Sit on a chair or bench, then hook your foot through the kettlebell window on the floor in front of you. Bend your knees, sit tall and engage your core, bracing your torso nice and tight. Avoid leaning forward or backward, and check that the crease of your knee rests on the seat. 

From this starting position, extend your leg away from you to hip height, pause, and then lower your leg again. Avoid swinging your leg or throwing your weight forward — the entire move should feel controlled from start to finish. 

  • 8-10 reps per leg x 3-4 sets 

Hamstring focus: toes elevated goblet squat

an illustration of a man doing a goblet squat

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Elevating your toes helps emphasize the glutes and hamstrings. We recommend using a squat wedge if you have one or plates if you don’t. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and grip the kettlebell close to your chest using a goblet squat hold. 

Elevate your toes so you can drive down deeper into your heels, and use the front load counterbalance of the kettlebell to help you stay upright and drive vertically.

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Perform your squat, keeping the chest lifted and spine neutral without rounding your back or shoulders. Lower until your thighs are parallel to the floor, then drive upward through your feet to stand, extending the hips as you do. Brace your stomach throughout to help maintain core tension.

  • 8-10 reps x 3-4 sets

Posterior chain: staggered-stance Romanian deadlift (RDL)

The hip hinge helps target the posterior chain muscles that run down the back of your body, including your lower back, glutes, hamstrings, and calf muscles. Your core and hip flexor muscles also see some action throughout. 

If you have a squat wedge, elevate your back heel, but this is optional. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and step your right foot back while keeping your hips square. Position the toes of your back foot to align with the heel of your front foot. 

Hold a kettlebell in your right hand, engage your core and lats (large muscles that run down the sides of your back), and stand tall. Hinge forward at your hips and maintain a flat back as you lower the kettlebell toward the floor. Squeeze the glute of your standing leg and get that stretch down the back of your front leg. 

Don’t drop too far — wait until you feel a gentle pulling activation in your hamstrings, then drive upward to stand and extend your hips. Isolating one side at a time helps you fully load into your working leg. Learn more about the staggered-stance RDL to help keep your form in check.

  • 8-10 reps per leg x 3-4 sets

Glutes and adductors: Cossack squat

Vector woman performing Cossack squat on both legs

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

The Cossack squat builds lower body strength with a strong gluteus medius (outer glute) and adductor (inner thigh) focus while improving mobility and flexibility in the hips, lower back, knees, and ankles.

It requires core strength and a bucket load of practice to help achieve full depth in the squat and gets used frequently during strength training warm-ups to help open the hips and groin before workouts. 

Hold a kettlebell to your chest in the goblet hold position and stand with your legs wide and toes pointed forward. Brace your stomach, bend your left knee, and send your weight to the left into a side squat. Your opposite leg should be straight, and your toes pointed upward.

Sit into your left heel and drive your bum down, lifting your chest and keeping your spine neutral. Push through your left leg to stand, then repeat on the right side.

  • 8-10 reps per leg x 3-4 sets

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Sam Hopes
Senior Staff Writer - Fitness

Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods.  When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.