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The Ultimate Dumbbell Leg Workout: 6 Exercises To Build Strength

Try our leg day workout to really blast that lower body!

Leg workouts are vital in any strength training program, as the lower body muscles are involved in almost every type of physical activity or exercise and most functional everyday activities like walking, climbing stairs, and squatting.

Whether you want to build muscle and lower body strength or simply have strong legs to perform everyday activities, a lower body workout should be a part of your strength training regimen.

In this workout guide, we will discuss how to structure a dumbbell leg workout and provide step-by-step instructions for the following best leg exercises with dumbbells for a well-rounded, efficient leg day workout:

Let’s dive in! 

Calf raise.

What Are the Best Dumbbell Leg Exercises?

Given the size and strength of the leg muscles, beginners often ask: “Can you do leg exercises with dumbbells?”

While many of the primary powerlifting lower-body exercises, such as back squats, deadlifts, and power cleans, are performed with barbells, you can also perform many leg exercises with dumbbells.

In fact, while many people performing at-home strength training workouts worry that dumbbell leg workouts aren’t as “good” as barbell lower-body exercises, there are plenty of benefits of leg exercises using a pair of dumbbells vs barbells or weight machines.

Aside from being more beginner-friendly, intuitive, and affordable for home workouts, dumbbell leg exercise benefits extend beyond the practical to the performance and functional benefits of dumbbell leg workouts as well.

Dumbbells force you to work each side of the body independently, whether you perform the exercise bilaterally or unilaterally, which recruits more stabilizing muscle fibers and can help you activate your core muscles, identify muscle imbalances, and rectify strength imbalances.

Therefore, leg workouts with dumbbells can potentially help prevent muscle imbalances and decrease the risk of injuries

Front squat.

How to Structure the Best Dumbbell Leg Workout 

When putting together the best dumbbell leg workout, you should include dumbbell leg exercises that target all the major muscles in the lower body

This includes dumbbell leg exercises for the following:

  • Glute muscles in the butt
  • Hamstrings in the back of the upper leg
  • Quadriceps on the front of the upper leg
  • Adductors and abductors on the inner thighs and outer thighs
  • Hip flexors
  • Calves on the back of the lower leg
  • Shin muscles and small stabilizing muscles that surround the ankles
  • Pelvic floor muscles
  • All of the smaller muscles that help provide stability and mobility to the hips

Unless you have a lot of time to train, this is generally accomplished most efficiently by relying primarily on compound dumbbell leg exercises that work multiple joints and leg muscles at one time.

Lunge.

Because dumbbells are free weights and many of the best dumbbell leg exercises involve unilateral movements, by default, most of the best dumbbell leg workouts will also indirectly work all of your smaller stabilizer muscles both in the legs and in your core.

How you should structure the best dumbbell leg workout regarding the number of reps, sets, and weights depends primarily on your fitness level and primary training goals.

For strength gains, work up to performing 2-6 sets of each leg exercise with dumbbells. Perform 2 to 5 reps per set using a weight corresponding to at least 85% of your one-repetition maximum (1RM) for the load.

If your goal is muscle building, (hypertrophy), strive to perform three sets of each dumbbell leg exercise, using weights that are 70 to 85% of your 1RM for 8 to 12 reps.

Ensure that before you begin your workout, you warm up properly with some light cardio and dynamic stretches.

What Are the Best Dumbbell Leg Exercises?

Here are some of the best leg exercises with dumbbells to include in a dumbbell leg workout:

#1: Front Squats

There are many variations of squats such as the sumo squat and the goblet squat, but the front squat helps directly load the quads and is easier to perform with dumbbells than the back squat given the ergonomics of holding dumbbells for the exercise.1Gullett, J. C., Tillman, M. D., Gutierrez, G. M., & Chow, J. W. (2009). A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research23(1), 284–292. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e31818546bb

‌Here are the steps to perform this leg exercise with dumbbells:

  1. Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart, shoulders back, chest up, and core engaged for your starting position.
  2. Hold dumbbells around the level of your clavicles with your palms facing each other.
  3. Squat down by bending your knees and sitting your hips back until you reach a 90-degree angle.
  4. Hold the bottom position with your thighs parallel to the floor for 2-3 seconds.
  5. Press explosively through your heels to stand back up.

#2: Single-Leg Dumbbell Hip Thrusts

Hip thrusts are often performed with your bodyweight or barbells, but you can include them in leg workouts with dumbbells, especially if you perform a unilateral hip thrust variation.

This is one of the best dumbbell leg workout exercises to develop strength and power in your glutes.

Plus, since you only work one leg at a time, the single-leg hip thrust strengthens the gluteus medius and minimus, and adductors to help stabilize your hips and pelvis.

Unilateral exercises also help you identify and correct muscle imbalances—so in this case, the single-leg hip thrust is a great dumbbell leg exercise for improving leg strength imbalances in your glutes and hips.

Here are the steps for this dumbbell leg workout exercise:

  1. Place your shoulder blades (upper back) on the long side of a bench with your body bridging off the side with your hips up in a tabletop position, your knees bent 90 degrees, your feet hip-width apart and flat on the floor, and your core and glutes engaged.
  2. Rest a heavy dumbbell across the crease in your hips centered over one leg. You can lay a towel across the front of your pelvis and rest the weight on top of the towel for comfort.
  3. Lift the other foot off the ground (the one with no dumbbell lying on top of it) and straighten the knee out so that you are only pressing through the other foot.
  4. Slowly lower your hips towards the floor.
  5. Pause when your butt is nearly on the floor.
  6. Press through your heel to explode up to the top position where your thighs are parallel to the ground.
  7. Complete all of your reps and then switch sides. 

#3: Single-Leg Deadlifts

Single-leg Romanian deadlifts are one of the best leg exercises for strengthening your posterior chain muscles, including the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back extensors.

Like some of the other dumbbell leg exercises in this workout routine, since the single-leg dumbbell deadlift is a unilateral exercise, it will also improve core stability, hip and ankle strength, and your balance. 

Here are the steps to perform this leg exercise with dumbbells:

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, chest up, arms at your side, and a dumbbell in your right hand.
  2. Engage your core and glutes, and bring your left arm out to your side for balance.
  3. Bend your left knee (the one on your standing/support leg) about 20 degrees to activate your hamstrings and glutes while you lift your right leg off the floor.
  4. Squeeze your glutes and hinge from your hips to bring your torso towards the floor. Keep your back straight and your gaze on the floor to prevent hyperextending your neck. Your right leg should extend behind you as a counterbalance. Make sure that you are not rounding your back. You should be hinging from your hips to bend down.
  5. Reach the dumbbell in your right hand down towards your front foot.
  6. Engage your core and glutes to press through your heel to come back up, extending your hips until they are fully locked out. If you need to regain your balance, touch your right foot back down to the floor; otherwise, keep it lifted and move into your next rep.
  7. Complete all your reps on the right side and then switch sides.

#4: Side Lunge With Overhead Press

This is a good dumbbell leg workout exercise for the adductors and glutes. The side lunge strengthens your legs in the frontal plane, helping develop more well-rounded hip and glute strength.

Here are the steps:

  1. Stand upright holding a dumbbell at your right shoulder with your palm facing inward.
  2. Step your right leg out to the side, shifting your weight towards that side as you bend the right knee into a lateral lunge position. Keep your left knee straight. Simultaneously, press the dumbbell straight up overhead from your shoulder.
  3. Engage your glutes to press back up into a standing position, and bring the weight back down.
  4. Complete all your reps and then switch sides.

#5: Forward Lunges with Dumbbells 

You can also do forward and reverse lunges with dumbbells. Hold heavy dumbbells down at your sides to add resistance to further work your quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core muscles.

Another variety of this lunge would be the Bulgarian split squat, where you raise your back foot on a bench and performing lunges.

#6: Dumbbell Single-Leg Calf Raises

The best dumbbell leg workouts also target the muscles in your lower leg, such as the calves.

The calf raise off of a step allows your heels to extend down below the level of the step, which increases your range of motion and elongates the eccentric portion of the exercise.2McMahon, G. E., Morse, C. I., Burden, A., Winwood, K., & Onambélé, G. L. (2014). Impact of Range of Motion During Ecologically Valid Resistance Training Protocols on Muscle Size, Subcutaneous Fat, and Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research28(1), 245–255. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e318297143a

‌The eccentric, or lengthening, contraction builds muscle mass and strength more efficiently than the concentric, or shortening, contraction of an exercise.3Hedayatpour, N., & Falla, D. (2015). Physiological and Neural Adaptations to Eccentric Exercise: Mechanisms and Considerations for Training. BioMed Research International2015, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/193741

‌Here are the steps:

  1. Stand at the edge of a step, curb, or box with the ball of one foot on the step and the other foot hooked behind the calf of the working leg. Hold a dumbbell in one or both hands, depending on if you need to have a free hand to provide some balance assistance.
  2. Use your calf muscles to press through the ball of your foot and push up so that you raise onto your tiptoes.
  3. Pause at the top position for 2 to 3 seconds, squeezing your calf muscles.
  4. Slowly lower all the way back down, extending beyond neutral so that your heel drops below the level of the step as deep as you can stretch.
  5. Pause for 1 to 2 seconds, stretching the calf muscle group and your Achilles tendon.
  6. Press through the ball of your foot to lift all the way back up onto your toes as high as you can as you move into the next rep.
  7. Complete all of your reps and then switch sides.

If you want to do home dumbbell workouts, we recommend the Bowflex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbells, which are now supported with motion tracking via the JRNY app.

This means that you can check your form to ensure proper technique and execution.

For more dumbbell workout ideas, check out our guide to dumbbell chest workouts here.

Single leg dead lift.

References

  • 1
    Gullett, J. C., Tillman, M. D., Gutierrez, G. M., & Chow, J. W. (2009). A Biomechanical Comparison of Back and Front Squats in Healthy Trained Individuals. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research23(1), 284–292. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e31818546bb
  • 2
    McMahon, G. E., Morse, C. I., Burden, A., Winwood, K., & Onambélé, G. L. (2014). Impact of Range of Motion During Ecologically Valid Resistance Training Protocols on Muscle Size, Subcutaneous Fat, and Strength. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research28(1), 245–255. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e318297143a
  • 3
    Hedayatpour, N., & Falla, D. (2015). Physiological and Neural Adaptations to Eccentric Exercise: Mechanisms and Considerations for Training. BioMed Research International2015, 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1155/2015/193741
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Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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