When you have access to limited equipment but you want to strengthen and grow your quads, you’ll need to be more strategic about the exercises you perform based on how heavy your dumbbells are.
As a strength coach, I know which exercises you should prioritize based on your experience level and the weights you have available.
The 10 best dumbbell quad exercises are :
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat
- Dumbbell Front Squat
- Dumbbell Step Up
- Front Foot Elevated (FFE) Dumbbell Split Squat
- Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat
- Dumbbell Walking Lunge
- Dumbbell Forward Lunge
- Dumbbell Leg Extension
- Dumbbell Pistol Squat
- Dumbbell Sissy Squat
I’ll teach you exactly how to perform these exercises to target your quads (rather than your glutes & hamstrings) and share a few sample workout programs to help you achieve your quad goals in as little as 6 weeks.
If you want to build bigger quads, let Fitbod help. On average, a new Fitbod user who trains 3 times a week for about 45 minutes will see a 34% strength increase after 3 months. Get 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
Anatomy Of Quad Muscles
The quad muscles can be broken down into four primary muscles:
This muscle runs down the entire front of the thigh and is the only muscle of the quads that is responsible for action at the hip (hip flexion, bending of the hip) and knee (knee flexion, bending of the knee).
As such, it is best targeted in movements like a deep squat.
This is the largest of the quad muscles, as well as the strongest. This muscle runs along the outside of the thighs. This is often the muscle seen on the outside of the leg of lifters.
This quad muscle is emphasized in movements with a wider stance that involve external rotation (toes turned out), like a sumo squat.
This muscle lies underneath the rectus femoris and assists in extending the knee. This muscle is targeted during many of the same exercises and ranges of motion as the rectus femoris.
This is the smallest of the quad muscles and runs down the inner part of the thigh.
This muscle is best targeted with a narrower stance, with the knees pointed forward (not outward).
Benefits Of Dumbbell Quad Exercises
Below are four benefits you can expect from training your quads with dumbbells.
Improved Athletic Performance
Stronger, more muscle quadriceps will improve your athletic performance. Movements like squatting, jumping, running, climbing, and sprinting all require the quads to produce force to extend the knees.
Since the quad muscle is solely responsible for extending the knees, the more muscle mass you have and the stronger it is, the better your athletic performance will be.
Firmer and More Defined Legs
If your legs are soft and lack muscle mass or you simply are unhappy with their shape and appearance, then training the quads (along with the hamstrings and glutes) can help give your legs a firmer, more defined aesthetic.
The knee joint is a troublesome joint for many people due to a lack of muscle strength and muscle coordination at the knee. Like all joints, the stronger the muscles are around that joint, the more stability, strength, and protective capacities you have.
If you are just starting to train your quads and your knees are already hurting, then start with lighter loads that allow you to perform the full range of motion pain-free.
Over time you’ll be able to work up to heavier weights and build muscle, strength, and mobility to improve joint function and overall knee health along the way.
Better Quality of Life
We all know at least one person who has limited capacity to do things like walk, climb stairs, move around freely, go hiking, etc.
While some of this is outside their control, a lot of it comes down to building and maintaining muscle in the legs throughout all stages of life. Seeing that most people lose muscle very rapidly after the age of 30-40 (women lose it faster and earlier than men), it is imperative to have strong legs and quads (as we are upright, walking, and locomotive beings).
Strong, more muscular quads will not only keep you moving throughout your life, but they will also provide you with the strength, power, and stamina you need to enjoy and experience life without the limitations that physically inactive individuals face.
10 Best Quad Exercises With Dumbbells
Below are 10 of the best exercises you can do with dumbbells to build strength and muscle in the quads.
Note: Most of these exercises can be found within the Fitbod app. You don’t need to incorporate all 10 into your training program. Pick 3-5 exercises and rotate them through your program over the long term (swap them out every 8-12 weeks). If using Fitbod, you can select the muscle groups you want to work on (i.e., quads), and the program will build itself accordingly.
1. Dumbbell Goblet Squat
The dumbbell goblet squat is a back-friendly quad exercise that reinforces a vertical torso position when squatting.
Holding the weight in the front of the body encourages your chest to stay vertical as you squat down and allows for more bending of the knees to target the quads (rather than pushing your hips back).
You can also do these with your heels elevated on a plate or small surface to help improve your ability to maintain a vertical torso position and further isolate the quads. This is a great solution for those who struggle to stay vertical because of limited ankle mobility.
How To Do It
- Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding a dumbbell vertically at chest height.
- Sit down in a squat by bending the knees and allowing your hips to sit down, keeping your pelvis under you as you sit (instead of pushing it back).
- Squat low enough that your thighs are parallel to the floor (if you can sit lower, this will also help you target even more quads).
- Stand up by pushing through your legs, ensuring your hips don’t push back
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.
The more upright you can keep your torso, the more you will activate your quads as you squat down and stand back up. Think about allowing the knees to travel as far forward as you can without letting your heels lift off the ground.
2. Dumbbell Front Squat
The dumbbell front squat is similar to the goblet squat. However, you are using two dumbbells instead of one, which may allow you to load your quads with more weight.
Like the goblet squat, you want to make sure that you are keeping your chest up and not letting your hips shoot back as you squat down and stand up.
Holding each dumbbell (one in each hand) will reinforce better upper back strength and posture during squats.
How To Do It
- Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart while holding a dumbbell in each hand. The dumbbells should be held at shoulder height. You can also rest the dumbbells on your shoulders if you have the mobility to do so.
- Squat down by breaking at the knees and pushing them forward over the toes, keeping the heels down.
- Squat low enough that the top of your thighs is parallel to the ground or lower (the lower, the more you will target the quads).
- Stand up by pushing through the legs into the floor, while keeping your hips underneath you and your chest tall.
It can be helpful to think about keeping your knees forward for as long as you can as you stand to prevent them from shifting backward and letting the hips take over.
3. Dumbbell Step-Up
The dumbbell step-up is a single-leg exercise that has you stepping up to an elevated surface to target the quads and glutes. You can emphasize the quads in your step-up by keeping your knee over your toe and having your torso upright.
Depending on the height of your step, you can adjust how much you want to stretch the quads. As a general rule of thumb, aim to have your step-up height set so that your knee is bent at 90 degrees (or more) when doing the step-up.
How To Do It
- Stand in front of a bench holding dumbbells in each hand.
- Step up on the bench with one leg, and then bring the other leg up so you are now standing on the bench.
- Step down with the foot that you stepped up with, and then step down with the other leg so both legs are now on the ground.
- Repeat this with the same lead leg every time for all your reps, then switch legs
Two common mistakes are (1) jumping off the back foot to initiate the step up and (2) not slowly lowering yourself down. Focus on using the leg on the step and not relying on the back leg for help.
4. Front Foot Elevated (FFE) Dumbbell Split Squat
The front foot elevated (FFE) dumbbell split squat is a single-leg exercise that allows you to train the quads by increasing the range of motion the lead knee must move through to reach the floor.
The increased range of motion increases the amount of knee flexion involved, and the more knee flexion there is, the harder your quads have to work to extend the knee.
This single-leg exercise is a great progression for the Bulgarian split squat, which requires more balance.
How To Do It
- Place your lead foot on a small plate or platform that is raised 2-3”, and then step your rear leg back behind you 1-2’. You should feel balanced and not overly stretched out.
- While holding dumbbells in each hand, let the arms hang down by your sides.
- Lower yourself into the split squat, ensuring your back knee is bending freely and your weight is over the lead leg.
- Sit down as low as you can, touching the back knee to the ground (or as close as you can get), and then stand up by pushing your lead leg into the ground.
You need to focus on loading up the lead leg and using the back leg only for stability. Otherwise, you will not isolate the quads as efficiently as you can.
5. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat
The dumbbell Bulgarian split squat is similar to the FFE split squat; however, the rear leg is propped up onto a bench or pad rather than being planted on the ground.
Keeping the back leg up off the ground will allow you to squat down into deeper knee flexion to increase the demands on your quads. It will also be harder to balance and remain stable, so focus on moving slowly and with control.
How To Do It
- Stand upright with a pair of dumbbells resting at your hips, one in each hand.
- Stand 2-3’ in front of a bench, facing away from it.
- Extend your left leg behind you and place the top of the foot on the edge of the bend. The top of your foot should be facing the floor, and your rear knee should be bent and pointed toward the floor.
- With your weight shifted onto your lead leg, lower your rear knee towards the ground while staying upright with your torso.
- Touch your rear knee to the ground, and then stand up by pushing through the lead leg.
- Complete all reps on the lead leg, then switch the setup and repeat on the other side.
If you’re pushing through the rear leg as you come up out of the squat, then you’ll limit quad involvement of the lead leg. Try lifting your rear leg up off the support as you perform a rep to see how much you’re relying on the rear leg; sometimes you aren’t aware of how much you’re using it until you can’t anymore.
6. Walking Lunge
The dumbbell walking lunge is a dynamic exercise that trains the quads, glutes, and hamstrings simultaneously.
Unlike other exercises where you are in a stationary position, this exercise forces you to coordinate your movements to change position while the joints are loaded.
This is a good exercise to target the quads and it also has a very functional movement pattern for athletics and everyday life.
How To Do It
- Stand upright with your feet hip-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides.
- Step forward using a natural stride length, and shift your weight onto the lead leg.
- Lunge down with the weight on your lead leg, and allow the rear knee to touch the ground.
- Push through the lead leg only, and stand up, bring your rear leg back together with the lead leg in the standing position.
- Repeat this process now, but step forward with the other leg and repeat.
Minimize the distance between your front and back legs when you step out to encourage more knee flexion and force more knee extension. Aim only to step as far as you need to keep your lead foot’s heel down at the bottom of the lunge (and the back knee touching the ground).
7. Forward Lunge
The dumbbell forward lunge is a stationary lunge (you are not moving across the floor) that involves stepping forward into a lunge to load your quad and then pushing through the quad to return to your starting position.
This lunge is often a hit or miss, as some people get great quad activation and muscle growth, whereas others just feel pain in the knees.
Try it out and see how it feels; if you find it’s giving you more knee discomfort than a quad workout, try doing FFE split squats or Bulgarian split squats.
How To Do It
- Stand upright with your feet hip-width apart, holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides.
- Step your front foot forward far enough to let your rear knee bend and touch the ground but not too far that you feel you cannot keep your lead heel down or stand back up.
- Lunge down and touch the rear knee to the ground, and then push yourself back up by using your lead leg.
- Stand back up and repeat all reps on that side, and then switch sides.
If you struggle with balance or cannot push yourself up, try using a stick or straps for assistance.
8. Dumbbell Leg Extensions
The dumbbell leg extension is a free-weight variation of the seated machine leg extension. This is a single-joint, isolation exercise that trains the quads.
This is good for adding extra training volume (work) and intensity to the quads without adding any additional stress to other parts of the body (back and hips).
How To Do It
- Sit on a bench, one that is flat or inclined, so that your knees are hanging off the end of the bench. This allows them to bend freely.
- Place a dumbbell vertically between your feet. You can use a towel for padding and to help keep the dumbbell from moving around.
- Lean back slightly as you lower the dumbbell (bend the knees), feeling a stretch on the quads.
- Straighten the knees and contract the quads. You can also lean forward as you come up (not 100% necessary) as this may help you get a better quadriceps contraction at the top.
Doing this on a decline bench (knees higher than the hips) is even more beneficial because it allows you to train in a fuller range of motion and activate the quads to a greater degree.
9. Dumbbell Pistol Squat
The pistol squat is a single-leg exercise that requires leg strength, balance, and mobility. This exercise is extremely challenging, especially when performed with a dumbbell so it’s likely not beginner-friendly.
Most lifters should start with FFE split squats or Bulgarians split squats. However, as they develop more quad strength, they should start including these to build even more leg strength.
How To Do It
- Stand in an upright position with your feet together underneath you.
- Shift your weight all to one leg, and lift the other leg up in front of you.
- Bend at the knees and hips, keeping your heel down on the ground (of the leg you are standing on) at all times.
- Lower yourself downwards while maintaining an elevated front foot.
- Sit down, ensure your knee is fully bent, and then stand up and repeat for reps. Then switch sides.
If you’re finding it too challenging to perform this movement as described, you can start by performing the movement to a target, like a bench or lower box. Over time, lower the target to one day be able to sit down all the way and stand up fully, without any box or bench under you.
10. Dumbbell Sissy Squat
The dumbbell sissy squat is another more advanced bodyweight exercise that can be progressed with weight by lifters who may want to train the legs harder but do not have access to heavier loads.
This is also a great exercise to help strengthen quads and improve knee health, as you are working the quads aggressively in the lengthening (lowering) phase and requiring large amounts of control and mobility as you sit into the deep squat.
How To Do It
- Stand adjacent to a squat rack. You will want to be 1-2’ away.
- Grab the rack with your right hand (hand closest to the rack), and place your feet hip-width apart, toes forward. Your outside hand (in this example the left arm) can be holding a dumbbell.
- While holding on to the rack, bend your knees and lean back, allowing your knees to push forwards as you lean back and squat down. Your heels should also be able to lift off the ground.
- Continue to descend into a deep squat until your calves are touching the back of your hamstrings, and your knees are pushed forward (and heels lifted off the ground).
- Stand up by pushing through the toes and straightening the knees, and letting your heel come back to the ground. Use the rack as needed.
I recommend you do this first by holding onto a rack for assistance so that your balance isn’t limiting the intensity. Using a support will help you maintain better balance and allow you to train heavier and harder.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try 3 free workouts on Fitbod.
Sample Quad Workout With Dumbbells
Below are two sample quad workouts with dumbbells. The first is geared towards beginners or lifters who have access to heavy enough dumbbells where they can perform squats with enough weight to have the quads fail before their endurance levels or upper body stamina (from holding the weights).
The second workout is for lifters who do not have access to heavy dumbbells or are very strong to begin with and need to rely more on single-leg exercises to stress the quads.
For example, for someone who squats 315 lbs and only has access to dumbbells up to 35 lbs, doing goblet or front squats with less than 20% of their max squat is just not heavy enough to stimulate muscle growth.
Research suggests that around 30% of one’s max is the lowest you should go if trying to gain muscle mass (you can get growth with 30% of one’s max, you just need to do a lot more volume.. Sets, reps, workouts, etc.). So, in this case, it’s better to use more challenging single-leg exercises.
Related Article: Every Lunge Variation You Need to Build Muscular Legs
Workout 1 – Beginner Friendly (or Lifters Who Have Access to Heavy Enough Dumbbells)
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat: 4 sets of 10-15 reps, lowering slowly on a 4-second count each rep. Elevate heels as well to stay more upright. Rest 90 seconds between sets.
- Dumbbell Step Up: 4 sets of 15 reps, paired with dumbbell leg extensions
- Dumbbell Leg Extension: 4 sets of 15 reps, straighten legs at the top and squeeze thighs every rep. Rest 90 seconds after each pairing is completed
- Dumbbell Walking Lunge: 2 sets of max steps in one minute (goal is 20 steps or more), then go directly into dumbbell front squats
- Dumbbell Front Squats: 2 sets of max reps in one minute (goal is 20 or more reps), rest 1 minute after completing the first set
Workout 2 – Advanced Workout (or for Lifters Who DO NOT Have Access to Heavy Enough Dumbbells)
- FFE Dumbbell Split Squat: 5 sets of 10-15 reps, lowering slowly on a 3-second count each rep. Rest 60 seconds between legs. No need to rest between each set (just rest 1 minute between legs to attack each leg after a full 1 minute of rest).
- Dumbbell Front Squat: 3 sets of 20-30 reps, lowering slowly on a 2-second count each rep. Go directly into walking lunges.
- Dumbbell Walking Lunge: 3 sets of 20-30 total steps. Rest 2 minutes after each pairing set.
- Dumbbell Sissy Squat: 2-3 sets of 45-60 seconds of constant tension and effort, which can be bodyweight or added dumbbells.
Related Article: The Best Dumbbell Leg Workout Plan for Stronger, More Muscular Legs
Frequently Asked Questions
Can You Build Quads With Dumbbells?
Building your quads involves loading the muscles with enough intensity to encourage them to grow. Dumbbells can sometimes be limiting if you do not have access to heavier loads, so choosing movements that challenge you is important to encourage your quads to grow.
What Is The Single Best Quad Exercise With Dumbbells?
There is no such thing as a single best exercise. However, most people will get quad growth performing FFE split squats. This exercise allows you to bend the knee fully and train the quad in the largest range of motion. This is also good for strong lifters who are limited by not having heavy enough weights for squats.
About The Author
Mike holds a Master’s in Exercise Physiology and a Bachelor’s in Exercise Science. He’s a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), USA Weightlifting Advanced Coach, and has over 10+ years of experience working with collegiate athletes, national level lifters, and beginners alike. Mike is Founder of J2FIT Strength and Conditioning, a growing global training company with gyms in New York City, Cincinnati, and online offering personal training, online custom coaching programs.