YOU DON’T NEED A BARBELL FOR YOUR LEG WORKOUTS
Let’s say that you want to build bigger legs but you only have access to a few pairs of dumbbells. What do you do?
Do you run out and buy a few barbells, stacks of weight plates, and all the bells and whistles?
No! You work with what you have.
Look guys, it’s a myth that you NEED a barbell to build your legs. The truth is that dumbbell exercises are just as effective.
However, the trick is to choose the right dumbbell leg exercises.
That’s what I’ll be covering below.
I’m going to show you the best dumbbell leg exercises of all time for building strength, muscle hypertrophy, power, and metabolic overload.
I’m also going to cover a total body option, corrective movements, and a specialized exercise for the outer hips and lower back for you to include in your dumbbell workouts.
BREAKDOWN OF THE LEG MUSCLES
Before I jump into the best dumbbell leg workout, I want you to get familiar with the muscles that make up your legs.
This will help form a strong mind-to-muscle connection, ensuring you see better results.
As the name suggests, the quadriceps are made up of four different muscle groups:
The vastus medialis is the medial component of the quad and it favors the inside of the knee. You need this muscle to extend your knee. For example, during a leg extension, your vastus medialis is firing.
The vastus intermedius doesn’t get all the glory for being an aesthetic muscle – it’s tough to see even if you’re shredded – but it’s essential for proper knee extension.
On the outside of the knee, you’ll find the vastus lateralis. A lateral component of the quad, it also helps with extension of the knee.
Finishing up with the posterior chain, we have the calves. Your calf muscles are critical for ankle stabilization, especially during power-based movements like sprinting or jumping.
GASTROCNEMIUS AND SOLEUS
BEST DUMBBELL LEG EXERCISES FOR STRENGTH
It’s no secret that barbell exercises like the squat and deadlift are favorites for building strength.
But if you pick exercises that allow you to lift a heavier dumbbell, you can get the same results.
That’s why I’ve chosen the Dumbbell Reverse Lunge and the Romanian Deadlift.
DUMBBELL REVERSE LUNGE
The Dumbbell Reverse Lunge is an anterior chain, knee-dominant exercise, but it’s one of my favorites because…
- It’s a unilateral (single leg) movement
- It allows you to go really heavy
- It protects your knees despite the weight load
If you can manage it, you can use 100-pound dumbbells (or more), but I’d recommend starting lower and adding weight over time.
During the Dumbbell Reverse Lunge, don’t step straight back because this can narrow your base of support and make the exercise problematic to someone that has a weak balance.
Instead, keep your torso upright and step back to the side to widen your stance and give yourself the best opportunity to continue to load the exercise for the purpose of building strength.
Exercise Notes: Start standing with feet shoulderwidth apart holding one dumbbell in each hand. Lunge backward and slightly out to the side with one leg to help with balance, and then return to standing and repeat on the opposite side. Keep your torso upright throughout the whole movement.
Time to switch sides to the posterior chain with the Romanian Deadlift. Just like with the Dumbbell Reverse Lunge, you can go pretty heavy here. Again, this is going to tap into those strength gains you’re looking for.
The key is to mimic the movement path of a traditional barbell Romanian Deadlift, which is straight up and down.
If you’re limited in the depth that you can go because of the flexibility of your hamstrings, it shouldn’t compromise the fact that you can still load them with as heavy dumbbells.
Even if you’re not able to get the full hinge, you can go down as far as you can and hold for a few seconds in the isometric portion of the exercise.
Exercise Notes: Stand with feet hipwidth apart holding a dumbbell in each hand. Slowly lower the dumbbells and let them slide down as the hips hinge backward. Push your hips back as far back as you comfortably can and hold the isometric portion of the exercise for a few seconds. When you get there, you initiate the return by squeezing your glutes and driving back up to the top, pushing hips forward.
BEST DUMBBELL LEG EXERCISE FOR HYPERTROPHY
Moving on, we go to the hypertrophy exercise selections. To add some size to your legs, I recommend one exercise: the Bulgarian Split Squat.
But I’m going to give you two variations: one for the anterior chain and one for the posterior chain.
The Bulgarian Split Squat allows you to front load to hit your quads or you can back load to target your glutes.
The best part about this leg exercise is that it also allows for intensification techniques to be added. I recommend the technique of one and a half reps.
You go down to the bottom, you come up only halfway, then you have to go back to the bottom again before returning to the starting point. This is no joke, but it can further induce overload and muscle growth.
Try it with both variations if you’re looking to challenge yourself and kickstart those gains.
BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT FOR THE QUADS
Want to overload your quads? You need to focus on an upright torso. That means keeping your chest up and shoulders back as you drop straight down.
Take a second to ensure that your foot is properly situated on the bench behind you to ensure stabilization. You don’t want to be wobbling back and forth during this one.
Exercise Notes: Start with the left leg on the floor and the right leg positioned behind you on the bench and a dumbbell in each hand. Lower your body and the dumbbells toward the floor, maintaining and upright torso, and repeat. After completing all the reps on this side, switch sides with the right leg on the floor and the left leg positioned behind you. The upright torso helps emphasize the quads in this movement.
BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT FOR THE GLUTES
To focus on the glutes, all you need to do is change your torso position. By leaning forward during the Split Squat, you’ll immediately be able to feel the difference in the load shifting toward the glutes.
As you drop down, keep your back angle straight and forward. Again, you can go heavier here but make sure your feet are properly stabilized before you start.
Exercise Notes: Start with the left leg on the floor and the right leg positioned behind you on the bench and a dumbbell in each hand. This time angle your torso forward toward the quad, keeping the back straight and not rounded. After completing all the reps on this side, switch sides with the right leg on the floor and the left leg positioned behind you. The torso angled forward toward the quad helps target the glutes in this movement.
BEST DUMBBELL LEG EXERCISE FOR POWER
A proper power exercise allows you to accelerate the weights that you’re moving.
That means you need to be able to move quickly but safely. My favorite dumbbell power exercise is the Dumbbell Jump Squat.
DUMBBELL JUMP SQUAT
The Dumbbell Jump Squat trains triple extension through the ankles, knees, and hips, and its benefits carry over to other explosive exercises like the hang-clean and power-clean.
You want to make sure you’re extending through the ankles, the knees, and then the hips in that order. This will allow the kinetic chain to pass that power from the ground up into the explosive jump.
Make sure to land soft and eccentrically load through your quads. Take a moment to reset and then perform the next rep with precision and quality.
I cannot stress this enough: When focusing on power exercises, it isn’t about training to failure or fatigue.
What you’re trying to do is accumulate only high quality, powerful repetitions in a defined period of time. If you do this properly, you’ll maximize that speed output and the overall amount of power that you can generate.
Remember, quality over quantity!
Exercise Notes: Taking a dumbbell in each hand, squat down bending your knees, and explosively jump your body upward from squat position. Land softly in squat position, remain a couple of seconds in squat position and then return to standing. The key here is to choose a weight that’s between 25% to 50% of your bodyweight. Going too heavy will slow down your ability to perform this properly. So, if you’re a 200-pound person, you want to use a 25-pound dumbbell in each hand; a total weight of 50 pounds.
BEST METABOLIC DUMBBELL LEG EXERCISE
Next up, we have our metabolic dumbbell exercise and this one is a killer.
The idea here is that you want to find a way to resist the burn for as long as you can as you train to complete metabolic failure. Your legs should be completely fatigued by the end of one set.
This intense environment of stimulus creates a buildup of metabolites. In turn, this creates a chemical stimulus for muscle growth.
The exercise I’ve picked for this fitness goal is called Walk the Box.
WALK THE BOX
This exercise isn’t easy, but it delivers different overload benefits. Best of all, you can perform it anywhere, especially if you prefer a leg workout at home with dumbbells.
Focus on proper placement of the hips. You don’t want your knees caving in.
I love this exercise because it’s a three-dimensional movement as well as a metabolic powerhouse. Your legs are going to light up in ways they never have before so get ready.
How much of the metabolic burn can you tolerate?
Exercise Notes: Start by placing two light dumbbells in the front rack position. Get down at the bottom of the squat and stay here. While maintaining proper form and good thoracic extension through your upper back, you’ll walk around and create the shape of a box.
BEST TOTAL BODY DUMBBELL LEG EXERCISE
For the total body dumbbell leg exercise, you want to be able to utilize the dumbbells in a similar way to a barbell.
The best way to do that is with a clean variation. One of my favorite exercises for total body force generation is a Dumbbell Squat Clean.
DUMBBELL SQUAT CLEAN
The Dumbbell Squat Clean requires you to lift the dumbbells from the floor and clean them into a front rack position.
If you catch the bottom portion of the dumbbell on top of your shoulder, it’s going to get your elbows into a proper front rack position.
Try to match up your stomp with the catch of the dumbbells onto your shoulders. This will help with proper timing and execution of the exercise.
If you’re looking for that extra challenge, you can add an overhead press. This would involve even more upper body and make this an even better total body movement.
There’s no reason why you can’t load up on the weight here, but I guarantee you’re going to find that’s pretty damn challenging. So, start lighter.
Exercise Notes: Start in deadlift bending your knees and hands holding onto two dumbbells placed on the floor. Explosively clean the dumbbells up to your shoulders and squat, then return to standing and repeat.
BEST CORRECTIVE DUMBBELL LEG EXERCISE
When it comes to the lower body, one of the most overlooked muscle complexes is going to be the adductor complex.
Five muscles on the inside of your legs that are not only going to provide stability to your pelvis but assist you in getting out of the hole at the bottom of a squat.
The Goblet Adductor Lunge is one of the best ways to target the adductor muscles. Make sure to add this exercise in your dumbbell leg workout at home.
GOBLET ADDUCTOR LUNGE
Select a dumbbell that is light but challenging.
Holding one dumbbell with both hands, place one foot on a surface where you can slide and keep the other foot on a stable surface. For example, one foot on a hardwood floor and the other on carpet.
Exercise Notes: Start by sliding the foot out to drop down into a lateral lunge position, as you shift all your weight to the other leg. To get back up, squeeze and shorten those adductors. Make sure that all of the work to get back to the standing position is being done by the muscles on the inside of your leg. This is when you’ll realize how weak these muscles are, but that’s okay, they won’t be for long.
MISCELLANEOUS DUMBBELL LEG EXERCISE
Let’s finish strong with our miscellaneous category. This exercise doesn’t fit neatly into these other categories but it’s still very important.
We’re going to target the glute medias, which is just as overlooked and underworked as the adductor complex.
The best way to target this muscle is with this offset dumbbell lunge.
OFFSET DUMBBELL LUNGE
What we do is load the dumbbell on one hand and step out and lunge with the opposite leg.
Naturally, if a weight is placed in the opposite hand and you step out with the other leg, you’ll feel the weight pull you in that direction, especially if you’re holding a heavy weight.
To counteract that, the glute medius fires to pull you back, get you level, and prevent you from falling. You’re creating a demand on the glute medius to maintain a level torso and a level pelvis.
There’s no doubt that you’ll feel a burn in your hip that you probably haven’t felt before. This is a good thing because it’s exposing a weakness and you’re actively working to get rid of it. So, keep at it!
Exercise Notes: Holding a dumbbell in one hand, lunge forward on the opposite foot and push back with the glute to return to standing.
There are plenty of ways to build bigger and better-looking legs without a barbell. You just have to know which exercises give you the most bang for your buck.
Just as important, I want you to identify your fitness goals first. Then let our Program Selector help you choose the program that best fits those goals.
Program Selector ==> See which program best fits your goals and abilities
AX1 ==> Train at Home With Dumbbells and Minimal Equipment
XERO ==> Train at Home With No Equipment
- You CAN build lean and muscular legs with dumbbells – not just barbells.
- You have to match up the proper dumbbell leg exercises to your specific goals.
- For strength, the Dumbbell Reverse Lunge and the Romanian Deadlift allow you to lift a heavier dumbbell, optimizing strength gains.
- To increase muscle mass in the quads, use a Bulgarian Split Squat. To get bigger glutes, use the same exercise with a forward lean.
- The Dumbbell Jump Squat trains triple extension and explosive power.
- Walk the Box to create a buildup of metabolites and the stimulus needed for muscle growth.
- Target your adductor muscles with the Goblet Adductor Lunge.
- The offset dumbbell lunge focuses on the glute medius, which is just as overlooked and underworked as the adductor complex.
Jeff Cavaliere M.S.P.T, CSCS
Jeff Cavaliere is a Physical Therapist, Strength Coach and creator of the ATHLEAN-X Training Programs and ATHLEAN-Rx Supplements. He has a Masters in Physical Therapy (MSPT) and has worked as Head Physical Therapist for the New York Mets, as well as training many elite professional athletes in Major League Baseball, NFL, MMA and professional wrestling. His programs produce “next level” achievements in muscle size, strength and performance for professional athletes and anyone looking to build a muscular athletic physique.