February 24, 2022 1 Comment
If you’re looking to improve your squat, but don’t think that dumbbells can help get you where you want to be - think again. Dumbbells are for far more than just bicep curls, and they can have a big impact on the development of lower body hypertrophy and strength.
While we might typically think that squats and barbells are the best combination, dumbbells have their place as well. Dumbbells can significantly change the dynamics of your squat programming.
In this post, we’re going to look at the following:
Let’s get started!
A dumbbell squat is just as the name implies – a squat performed while holding dumbbells for added resistance. With the dumbbell weight of your choice, you’ll sit down and slightly back into a squat position and then press through the heels of your feet to return to a standing position, all the while maintaining control of the dumbbells.
With dumbbells, you have several different holding positions that you can do, such as:
Changing the type of holding position can affect both the difficulty level of the exercise, how much load you can handle, and the secondary muscles being worked.
Besides dumbbell holding positions, you also have different variations of squats which alter the muscles worked due to body positioning, such as:
And these variations also have different grip positions and there are also plenty more types of squats you can do (i.e. plie squats or Bulgarian split squats)...
We will touch more on these different squatting variations further below.
Before you begin the standard squat (feet about hip-to-shoulder width apart), choose your grip...
As listed above, there are multiple ways you can hold your dumbbell.
The goblet position will definitely challenge your core and upper body to stay upright as you lower yourself into your squat. Ensure that you can hold both heads of the dumbbell correctly - having the handle parallel with the floor - or that you can hold onto one head of the dumbbell and have it placed vertically as you squat.
If you prefer to use two dumbbells to increase the load, you can choose the...
ARMS TO SIDES (easiest grip option):
If you choose to hold your dumbbells by your sides (typically placed on the outsides of your thighs), then you can grab them off the rack before beginning your squat, or pick them up off of the ground as you dip into your first squat.
Regardless of where the weights are when you begin, you want to ensure that your shoulders stay down and back (as opposed to hunching forward) and your arms stay extended. The dumbbells can graze your legs as you move up and down, but you don’t want them bumping into your thighs and bouncing all over the place.
RACKED POSITION (hardest of the three):
If you want to hold your dumbbells in the front rack position, either clean your dumbbells up from the floor, or grab them off the rack. Regardless, you’ll need to ensure that you are properly cleaning them up into the front rack position without placing yourself in harms way, especially if the dumbbells are on the heavier side.
The front rack position should have your elbows pointing forward, with the back of your arms parallel with the floor. If this is uncomfortable or if you’re dealing with a possible wrist injury, placing the dumbbells on your upper shoulders/traps and resting them there (while still holding onto the head of the dumbbell that is closest to your chest, if the handles are on your shoulders) can be helpful as well.
This is more of a speciality squat hold variation, but nevertheless, a great way to build total body, real world strength as well as improve mobility. This will be by far the hardest variation to load heavily and most will do best to use a light to moderate load.
Make note that the goblet and racked position will require more upper body work than the arms extended down to the side hold (such as your core, back, and arms) to keep the dumbbells in place and your torso upright...
Now, on to the squatting movement pattern...
Regardless of how you are holding your dumbbells for your squat, the movement mechanics of the squat remains the same:
Keep a firm grip on the handles of the dumbbells as you move through your squat, ensuring that they stay steady during the exercise.
Dumbbells can mess with your balance and make your coordination feel off, especially if you are used to doing just bodyweight squats or even barbell squats.
So, get comfortable with holding dumbbells while squatting, as it's vital you maintain good squatting form.
Now that you know how to do a dumbbell squat and some of the options available to you in regards to holding onto your dumbbell(s), let’s take a look at some of the most common mistakes that you’ll find with this exercise!
Squats in and of themselves provide enormous benefits to the user; not only are they considered a functional exercise, but they’re also a compound movement – utilizing several different joints and muscles in the body at once. Let’s check out some other benefits of dumbbell squats:
1. VERSATILITY & VARIATIONS:
Dumbbells provide incredible freedom of movement. Not only can you alter the difficulty by simply choosing an easier or harder holding position, but you have several more variables to play around with such as body positioning and unilateral training. You can easily shift your foot placement and weight load placement, as well as train with one dumbbell or two.
With the versatility and variety that you can have with dumbbells, they also stimulate metabolic and mechanic overload, which can boost the size of muscles. Dumbbells also aid in increasing the activation of muscles within the body, improving intramuscular coordination – especially if used during compound movements. Along with being able to use them just about anywhere, dumbbells are a fantastic addition to a lifting program.
2. PROGRESSION & STRENGTH GAINS:
Not only can you progress via easier to harder squatting/grip variations with dumbbells, but you can also do so with weight load. Dumbbells starting weight will be much less than a barbell, so if you only wanted to add 5-10 pounds to your squat to start, then work up from there, dumbbells allow that.
Of course, barbells have a higher ceiling in terms of weight load, but dumbbells provide a greater versatility in terms of load.
For most people, dumbbells are more than enough to get to the strength level they want and to build the legs they want (study on hypertrophy with lower loads). However, if you did want to start squatting really heavy, at some point you'll need to upgrade to a barbell. HOWEVER, that doesn't mean you'll be done with dumbbells forever. Dumbbells can always have their place for squats, such as if you wanted to do a superset, accessory work, a circuit workout, or HIIT-style workout.
3. COMPOUND MOVEMENT & MORE MUSCLES WORKED:
Dumbbell squats target the lower body, specifically the glutes, quads, and hamstrings. But the core is also working overtime in a dumbbell squat just to keep those dumbbells in place and to maintain good form.
Activation of these lower body and upper body muscles translates to improved performance with activities of daily living, and can increase sports performance as well. Squat strength can make it easier to lift up your kids, sit down on the floor and stand up more efficiently, and allow you to carry heavier items safely (and correctly)!
4. GRIP STRENGTH:
As you start to use heavier dumbbells, this becomes more apparent. Just holding onto dumbbells while squatting will help you to build incredible grip strength, which is a crucial component of fitness. If you don't know the importance of grip strength and why you should take it serious, then you need to read this article we wrote on grip strength.
While it might seem obvious what muscles are worked in a dumbbell squat, let’s take a look at some of the major movers!
The calves are also being utilized in a dumbbell squat, as is the lower back and muscles within the core. Muscles within the upper back and arms are also working, while you are maintaining a solid grip on your dumbbells!
Then, you have different variations of squats that can allow you to target your muscles differently...
We won't go in-depth here, but we will show you several good squatting variations and how the muscles worked are affected. We recommend switching things up and/or adding these to your routine as well. This will allow for more well-rounded development in strength, hypertrophy, and athleticism.
1. DUMBBELL SUMO SQUATS
While sumo squats work your legs and glutes just like regular squats, the exercise emphasizes your side glutes/hip abductors (gluteus medius & minimus) as well as your inner thighs.
With sumo squats, you have different holding positions, such as with arms extended down between your legs (can be done with one or two dumbbells), goblet, or front racked as well (or even overhead).
2. DUMBBELL SPLIT SQUATS
Dumbbell split squats also work your legs, glutes and calves, but they place greater emphasis on your glutes and quads (particularly the area of the quadriceps around the knee) as well as core strength & stability. They will even work your calves to a higher degree simply for balance purposes.
You can have both feet flat on the ground or raise the front one up to increase the difficulty via increased range of motion.
Holding position options are the same as the standard dumbbell squat.
3. DUMBBELL SIDE SQUATS
Like sumo squats, side squats place focus on your hip abductors and hip adductors. Side squats also increase the activation of the hamstrings more than a regular squat. You won't be able to go nearly as heavy with the side squat as you can a sumo squat though, but the exercise is considerably more difficult due to the range of motion and hip mobility needed. Start light with this one (or even just your own bodyweight).
Goblet or front racked with be the best dumbbell holding positions for side squats.
Other good dumbbell squat variations you can look into are:
But for now, the ones we went through are the best to start and are more than enough in terms of variability for strength and building muscle.
The way that you choose to incorporate dumbbell squats into a routine will be based on goals, current fitness level, and current and past injury history, just to name a few factors to consider. However, there are some things to keep in mind regarding training variables.
Reps and sets: The dumbbell squat is a compound movement, so starting with lower weight and lower reps isn’t a bad thing – especially if you need to ensure that your form and technique stay on point. Once you’ve got the movement down, then reps of 12-15 for 2-3 sets with a lighter weight is where you’ll want to be to develop endurance within the lower body. If your goal is more along the lines of strength and mass, then 8-10 reps for a span of 4-5 sets with a heavier dumbbell is more ideal.
Rest: Taking time for recovery is imperative, especially if you are recovering from an injury or are brand new to working out. You don’t need to do dumbbell squats every day – after all, those muscles need time to repair and rebuild! Work this movement into a routine where you can get at least 24 hours of down time in between workouts; no need to go overboard on back-to-back squat days.
It's actually quite easy progressive overload with dumbbells. Before moving on to more challenging movements, ensure that your form and technique are correct!
One of the first ways that you can make the dumbbell squat more challenging is to increase the weight of your dumbbells. This should be done incrementally, and not in huge steps. Your core and overall stabilization will need to learn and adjust to new weight, and your legs will certainly feel it!
Another progression you can make with dumbbell squats is to work on the negative, or the eccentric phase of the movement. This essentially means that instead of taking a count or two to drop down into your squat, you’re extending that out to three, four, or even five counts. If done correctly, this added time under tension will have you working much harder than you were before!
If you are wanting to add other movements into your routine (and you definitely should), then working the dumbbell sets into a solid program is another way to progress – especially if you work them into a routine similar to a superset. For example, do a set of dumbbell squats, immediately move into a set of lunges, and then you’ll be right back to the next set of squats for a given rep scheme and/or time.
Related: Progressive Overload Guide
The dumbbell squat is a highly versatile compound movement that can improve your functionality throughout activities of daily living – all while providing an excellent base of strength and stability to your lower body and core. Incorporate dumbbell squats into your program and you are sure to reap the benefits.
More Dumbbell Training Resources:
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