“I’ve always wondered if it’s possible to build the muscles, the connective tissue (tendons and ligaments) and the bones of the lower body to a very high level, with only bodyweight? I mean, after mastering pistol squats, in order to strengthen those tissues much further, is there no other choice but using at least pistol squats + dumbells (or barbells/kettlebells)? I’m kind of confused about this, and it seems like people max out early on lower body potential when it comes to strength, and the need to add weight to the most challenging exercises you can do for legs is a forced choice, or am I wrong? If so, I would be glad about it, and thanks in advance.”
First off, let’s say that for the average person, who is far from their limit, there is a lot of room to grow with lower body bodyweight training. Though for most it’s not so much a strength issue, as one of flexibility. And ultimately flexibility is the main benefits that come with bodyweight leg training. We’ll come back to that.
The legs are strong. They carry the majority of the body mass. Even if you’re doing one legged squats you’re handling just your bodyweight. Depending on your size that may be compared to say a 200 lb. front or back squat. It’s not that much.
As I said the issue for many people isn’t the strength involved. That’s pretty easy. It’s the flexibility. Tight hamstrings, psoas, and/or tight ankles stop more people from pistols than strength.
You can also do other forms of one legged squats. There’s the shrimp squat. There’s the Hawaiian squat. There’s the dragon pistol squat. Hitting all of those have been a fun challenge for me recently. Yet, once again, these are all matters of mobility and flexibility though, not really taking more strength since your bodyweight is static.
So you have a couple of options on what you can do:
- One option is to add weight to these exercises. Then it’s a combo bodyweight/weighted exercise. Use a weight vest or hold some kettlebell or dumbbells in the rack. With this added weight you can continue to progress the strength used in any one leg squat.
- Another option is to do weighted exercises in addition to bodyweight exercise. Unless you’re a purist that does bodyweight only for ideological reasons, there’s no harm in mixing and matching the tools you use. Do some back squats, front squats, deadlifts, etc. More tool options that you can use are in this detailed guide about leg supporting machines.
- There is one last option that can save bodyweight only leg training. And that is by adding explosiveness. When you’re explosive you are using more strength, even if the load (your bodyweight) remains the same.
Enter jumping pistol squats.
You can also do things like hill sprints. It’s not a squat, but it is great for muscle, strength, cardio and explosiveness.
It’s the only real go-around to this bodyweight leg limit. But I reiterate, there’s no reason you should do all of the above. Different tools for different purposes.
When you’re starting out bodyweight squats can take you decently far in strength and endurance.
But not too far. Then bodyweight leg training is largely more about the other attributes of fitness. So, if your goal is strength, you’ll need to change focus to some degree.
For much more on this check out The Ultimate Guide to Bodyweight Squats and Pistols.