Ask an expert weightlifter for their favorite leg exercises and you’ll probably hear a long list of movements – from barbell squats to leg press – that require a barbell or special machine to be performed properly.
Luckily, not all of these exercises really require a barbell. From classic exercises like the squat or deadlift to compound lifts like the push press, many of the most popular barbell or machine leg exercises can be performed using a pair of dumbbells.
In this blog post, we’ll share eight dumbbell leg exercises for your quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings. Read on to learn how you can build strong legs without going to the gym or leaving your home.
Do you want to build muscle and burn fat at home? Learn how to train your upper and lower body, strengthen your core and build a powerful back at home with our No Equipment, No Excuses Home Workout course.
It’s tough to think of a better lower body exercise than the squat. This compound exercise target all of the muscles in the upper thigh and lower back, strengthening your quadriceps, hamstrings and glutes, as well as the muscles of your lower back.
Most athletes perform squats with a barbell and power rack, typically in sets of five to 12 reps. While power athletes will need to have access to a squat rack to develop serious strength, it’s possible to perform light squats using a pair of dumbbells.
Hold your dumbbells at the sides of your body and keep your hands facing towards your torso. Keep your back straight, your head looking straight ahead, and slowly squat down until your thighs are parallel with the ground.
Make sure your knees don’t extend beyond your toes, as this can put extra strain on your knees and cause injuries. Slowly lift yourself back up using your quadriceps to complete a dumbbell squat, then repeat until you’ve finished your set.
Squats are one of the most challenging lower body exercises to perform using good technique. Learn how to squat properly and prevent common knee, spine and neck injuries in our blog post on bodyweight squats.
Not everyone likes the standard dumbbell squat. If your lower body is stronger than your upper body, you may struggle to grip the dumbbells throughout the movement, making it more difficult than it should be.
Goblet squats are an alternative version of the dumbbell squat that lowers the strain on your wrists and forearms. Instead of holding a dumbbell in each hand, you’ll hold just one dumbbell in front of your torso as it if were a goblet.
Grip the dumbbell around the round weighted part with your palms facing towards the ceiling. Keep your chin elevated and your head pointing straightforward to take pressure off your lower back, and sit back as if you were squatting with a barbell.
Since you can only hold one dumbbell during a goblet squat, it’s not a particularly difficult exercise. However, it’s a great alternative squat for people whose wrists or forearms hurt during the normal dumbbell squat.
Do you need help building a lower body training routine? Learn how to put together a fitness routine that helps you improve your weak points and become a better all-round athlete in our No Bull Fitness Course.
Dumbbell step-ups are a simple but effective compound exercises that targets your quadriceps and hamstrings. To perform them, you’ll need a pair of light dumbbells and a set of step platforms that you can raise and lower using extenders.
Alternatively, if you don’t have a step platform, you can perform this exercise on the bottom step in your home or on a small ledge. Hold your dumbbells at your side and step up onto the platform using one leg at a time.
Switch legs and repeat, keeping your rear leg unused the whole time. Perform sets of eight to twelve reps per leg, then take a one-minute break before starting on the next set.
Dumbbell Push Press
The push press is a fantastic exercise that works almost every muscle group in your body. From your deltoids to your abdominals, this lower body exercise also targets a number of muscle groups in your upper body for excellent all-round fitness.
Hold a pair of light dumbbells at shoulder height, as you would for a military press exercise. Instead of pressing using only your shoulders, squat down and push using your glutes and quadriceps to thrust the dumbbells above your head.
Gently lower the dumbbells back to shoulder height and repeat, making sure to keep your back straight and your knees behind your toes. Perform two to four set of eight to twelve reps of this exercise after squats for a great full-body strength boost.
The push press is one of the most challenging weightlifting movements, and it’s easy to injure yourself without the right warm-up. Learn how to improve your flexibility and avoid common injuries with our Yoga for Strength and Flexibility course.
Lunges are one of the most popular bodyweight lower body exercises, and they’re incredibly easy to perform with dumbbells. Choose two light dumbbells and hold them at your sides with your arms fully extended and relaxed.
Step forward with one leg and bring your rear leg back for support. Lunge forward until your knee lines up with your toes, then push your body until it’s upright with your quadriceps and glute muscles.
Switch legs and repeat, making sure you keep your upper body straight and your rear leg used only for balance. Keep the weight as light as possible and make sure you use good technique to maximize your gains and minimize injury potential.
Along with the squat, the deadlift is one of the ‘big three’ exercises in competitive powerlifting. Although most people deadlift with a barbell, you can perform great deadlifts using a pair of dumbbells or, for beginners, just a single dumbbell.
If you’re an experienced weightlifter, place two dumbbells on the ground and bend your legs slightly. Look straight ahead, keep your back straight and pick up both of the dumbbells before lifting them up to your waist.
Dumbbell deadlifts are challenging, and beginners may prefer to use one dumbbell as they get used to the exercise. To perform a single dumbbell deadlift, keep your legs further apart and lift them dumbbell from between your feet.
This exercise targets your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings and the muscles of your lower back. Since it targets several major muscle groups, the deadlift should be performed near the start of your workout to reduce the potential for injury.
Do you want to learn the perfect deadlift technique? Learn how to perform one of the ultimate strength exercises without damaging your knees and back in our How to Deadlift: The Ultimate Strength Exercise course.
Straight Leg Deadlifts
Normal deadlifts target your quadriceps, glutes and hamstrings fairly evenly. If you would like to isolate the glutes and hamstrings – the two muscles at the rear of your legs – you can perform a variation called the straight leg deadlift.
As its name suggests, the straight leg deadlift is a standard deadlift performed with your legs almost perfectly straight. Since there’s no knee movement, more pressure is placed on your hamstrings, glutes and lower back muscles.
The straight leg deadlift is an advanced lower body exercise, and it’s not suitable for beginners. However, experienced athletes aiming to strengthen their posterior chain should add this to their lower body dumbbell workout in place of normal deadlifts.
Hamstring curls are a great isolation exercise for your hamstrings – the long, strong and flexible muscles that connect your buttocks with your knees. Since squats often target the quads more than the hamstrings, these muscles are frequently neglected.
Bring your hamstrings up to speed with two to three sets of hamstring curls at the end of your lower body workout. To perform these, grip a dumbbell between your feet and – with your body flat on a workout bench – lift the weight to your glutes.
Keep the weight as light as possible and focus on slow, deliberate movement with perfect technique for this exercise. Perform two to four sets of eight to twelve reps for an extra burn in your hamstrings the next morning.
Improving lower body recovery
The muscles in your legs are the largest and most powerful in your body. They’re also the most frequently used in everyday life, making post-workout soreness an annoyance and serious inconvenience.
Did you know that you can eliminate most post-workout soreness by using a foam roller before and after your workout? Learn the techniques for preventing common injuries and defeating post-workout pain in our Foam Rolling Techniques course.