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April 26, 2022
When you think of "leg day", thoughts often turn to the barbell or big machines like the leg press and hack squat. Dumbbells are probably not top of mind and that is understandable. If you want to build serious mass and strength, heavy lifts are vital, and it's just hard to do that with anything other than machines, barbells and trap bars. However, if we are talking accessory exercises to strengthen imbalances or to add more volume to your training for better muscle development of your legs, dumbbells are an excellent tool full of versatility. They most certainly should not be overlooked.
Here we’ll discuss what benefits dumbbells can provide your lower body workouts and the 12 best dumbbell leg exercises that you should start incorporating into your routine.
When it comes to building lower body strength and muscle, machines, barbells and trap bars will allow you to move the most weight. But that doesn’t mean there are no benefits to working with dumbbells. Here are a couple of important benefits of using dumbbells when training your legs.
All in all, dumbbells are versatile, safe, and easy to use. And make no mistake, as a beginner, you can get really strong and build a lot of muscle using just dumbbells; and for more advanced trainees, dumbbells are the perfect way to increase targeted volume for better muscle growth.
There are a few ways to hold one or two dumbbells to make your leg exercises harder or easier to meet your goals and needs.
At Your Sides:
Holding two dumbbells by your side with squats, lunges, and deadlifts allows you to use more weight as it's easier on your upper body and grip.
In-Between Your Legs:
You can hold the dumbbell at your center down below your hips for certain exercises and this is also easier to grip and can allow you to do a heavier single dumbbell leg exercise.
The goblet position (at your center in front of your chest) makes things a little harder as your core needs to do more work to keep your body upright, and your arms to hold the kettlebell in position. However, it'll give you more freedom of movement both for range of motion (ROM), exercise selection and leg position.
The racked position means up by your anterior shoulder. This is the hardest position, with exception to the overhead grip position which is more of a speciality grip. The racked position also provides you freedom of movement, ROM and exercise selection, and you can do it with two dumbbells (or one if you want to challenge your core more), which means heavier loads.
You can also train your legs with a unilateral grip. You can hold one dumbbell at your side or in a front racked position to train balance, coordination and core stability at the same time you train your legs.
These positions all have their advantages. It just depends on your routine and what you want to get out of your training at that specific time. For example, if you want to train heavy, then using two dumbbells either at your sides or in a front racked position is best OR if you want to hone in on your quads and glutes with just one dumbbell, then go for a goblet hold.
Here are the 12 best dumbbell leg exercises to put on muscle, strengthen imbalances, and for getting your legs ready for swim season.
Dumbbell split squats are a unilateral exercise so they will strengthen imbalances between legs which will help your all around performance, and especially your squats. Being quad-dominant, split squats help improve leg drive which is important when squatting up from the ‘hole'. This is one exercise you need to do if you’re serious about squatting or deadlifting more weight OR you simply want better thigh and glute development.
Muscles emphasized: Quads, adductors, and glutes.
Form tips: Using a pad underneath your knee will provide a reference point for your split squat position.
Best rep range: 8-16
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is similar to the barbell variation but with less weight and more options for holding the dumbbells. By shifting the position of where you hold the dumbbells, you can hit the targeted muscles differently. This is a great option if there is no barbell around or you’re looking for more variety.
Muscles emphasized: Hamstrings and glutes
Form tips: Try to keep the dumbbells moving in a straight path, just in front of your legs. Feel your hamstrings stretching each rep on the eccentric (downward) phase.
Best rep range: 12-16
The dumbbell single-leg RDL is one of the harder leg exercises to do. So, start with bodyweight and progress slowly with dumbbells. When performing these with good form, it provides you with many benefits. These include reducing muscle imbalances, hamstring strains, better balance, and glute hypertrophy.
Muscles emphasized: Hamstrings, glutes and calves
Form tips: Really grip the floor with your feet to help with your stability. You can place your foot down each rep as well. If you use one dumbbell at a time, you can also hold onto something with your hand for balance and to hone in on the hamstrings, but ideally you want to try not to as that will work more stabilizer muscles and improve your balance.
Best rep range: 6-12 reps per side
Goblet squat is a great option for nailing squat form, improving hip mobility, and improving your anterior core strength. With the weight being front-loaded, it encourages your torso to stay upright, allowing you to squat better and deeper. The hip mobility benefits of the dumbbell goblet squat will help your barbell squats and deadlifts. Also, it's simply a great quad focused movement, which is why even pros like to use it for extra volume on leg day.
Muscles emphasized: Quads
Form tip: Keep your chest up, shoulders down and upper back engaged to keep a neutral spine.
Best rep range: 8 to 20
Side lunges will strengthen your glutes in a different plane of motion and involve the smaller muscles of the hip, the gluteus medius and minimus. The side lunge strengthens and mobilizes your adductors (groin) muscles at the same time. This helps improve your hip mobility and reduce your chances of groin strains. Side lunges are also great because they improve your ability to go side to side against resistance, which helps your agility.
Muscles emphasized: Glutes, adductors, and quads.
Form tips: Only hinge into your working hip as much as your adductor allows. No need to strain a groin muscle here.
Best rep range: 8-16 reps
Reverse lunges are a hip dominant exercise making it easier on your knees than other lunge variations or single-leg exercises. The reverse lunge is a great exercise if and when you’re suffering from knee pain. Being hip dominant helps to improve hip mobility which has direct carry over to your bi-lateral squats and deadlifts.
Muscles emphasized: Hamstrings, quads, and glutes
Form tip: Taking a larger step back will increase the tension on your glutes. Taking a smaller step back gives your quads a little more love.
Best rep range: 8-16
The dumbbell front squat has you holding the dumbbells in the front rack position by the shoulders. Because the dumbbells are held anteriorly, there is an increased demand on your upper back, quadriceps, and core. It essentially mimics the barbell front squat. One of the four quad muscles, the vastus medialis (teardrop muscle), is engaged more during the dumbbell front squat too.
Muscles emphasized: Quads, upper back, anterior core, and glutes
Form tip: Keep your elbows high during the entire exercise
Best rep range: 6-12
If you were to do one exercise to improve your performance with barbell squats and deadlifts and you like pain this would be it. With the extra range of motion due to the back foot being elevated the working quad and glute receive extra time under tension to improve hip mobility, leg drive, and muscle-building potential.
Muscles emphasized: Quads, abductors/adductors, and glutes
Form tips: Start with lighter dumbbells and higher reps to get into the groove with this exercise.
Best rep range: 6-12
Forward lunges the knee bears the brunt of the forward step making it a quad-dominant exercise. If you have healthy knees and good hip mobility then forward lunge to your heart’s content. It's a great quad and glute builder. This will also drive your heart rate up. But if it hurts your knees, skip this one as it places more force on the knee.
Muscle emphasized: Quads, glutes, and hamstrings
Dumbbell step-up is one of the easiest single-leg exercises to do but it is not as easy as it looks. The balance challenge and the large range of motion hit the glutes and the quads. So don’t be deceived. To progress or regress this exercise simply make the box higher or lower. The weighted step up improves explosive leg power which helps you jump higher and run faster.
Muscles emphasized: Glutes and quads
Form tips: Press up from your heel to activate your glutes more.
Best rep range: 6-15
The dumbbell jump squats is a fantastic exercise to build lower body strength and power but only when you load it right. Use approx. 20% of your body weight for best results. The goal with jump squats is not strength but power and quickness so load accordingly. This exercise is generally safer than the barbell squat because your spine isn't directly loaded.
Muscles emphasized: Calves, quads, glutes, and hamstrings
Form tips: Try to land soft and not make much noise when returning to the ground.
All the moves here are either in the sagittal (left/right) or frontal (side to side) plane. But the is another plane of motion that’s often neglected and that is the rotational transverse plane. By stepping behind like you’re curtsying to the queen, you train the hips, glutes, and quads muscles in the rotational plane. Training these muscles from a different angle will lead to more even muscle development.
Muscles emphasized: Quads, hip adductors, hip abductors, glutes, hamstrings
Form tips: Keep the working leg toes pointed forward to make this exercise more effective
Best rep range: 8-15
Dumbbells are a great tool to train legs because they are versatile, safe, and easy to use. If you want to strengthen imbalances or add volume for better muscle growth, start incorporating some of these exercises into your routine. Although you can’t use as much weight as other tools, it will lead to getting stronger with your barbell lifts too, make no mistake. Dumbbells deserve a front and center spot in your accessory routine. You may even want to find room for some dumbbell leg exercises in your upcoming legs and shoulder workout!
More Dumbbell Exercise Resources:
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