Dumbbells allow you to train the lower body with a variety of exercises, however, it can be challenging to choose the right ones when you have limited equipment and loading options. This is why having a blueprint for building and progressing dumbbell leg workouts is critical to your success.
Dumbbell leg workouts should include 1 squatting movement, 1 hinge movement, and 2-4 other isolation exercises to target the hamstrings, glutes, and quads. By choosing 5-6 total exercises per workout you will be able to train the muscles hard and recover properly. For best results, aim to train legs 2-3 times a week.
Below, I will share with you how to train your legs effectively with dumbbells by increasing the strength of your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.
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How To Strengthen Your Legs With Dumbbells
To strengthen your legs with dumbbells it’s best to train the muscles 2-3 times a week to ensure you’re providing your leg muscles with enough stimulus to adapt and grow stronger.
When choosing exercises, it’s important to have a variety of exercises that target each muscle group, like the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. Choosing exercises like squats and hinges is a great place to start, but you also want to add isolation exercises to fully develop the quads, hastings, and glutes.
When it comes to building strength with dumbbells, the best sets and rep ranges are 3-6 sets of 6-10 reps for compound movements (i.e. squats & deadlifts) or 10-15 reps for isolation exercises (i.e. hamstring curls & calf raises).
The goal is to work towards using heavier loads for each exercise to give your leg muscles a reason to adapt.
Related Article: How to Start Strength Training with Dumbbells
Leg Workout Movements With Dumbbells
When building a dumbbell leg workout, you want to make sure you choose movements that target all the large muscle groups of the lower body (quads, hamstrings, and glutes).
Below, I’ll discuss all of the movement patterns associated with the lower body and the exercises associated with those patterns.
A squat movement is defined by bending the knees and the hips so that your shin angle (the shinbone) is parallel to your back angle (spine).
When squatting, your hips and knees both bend, which places loading on the quadriceps and glutes.
Common dumbbell squat pattern exercises are dumbbell goblet squats, dumbbell squats, and dumbbell Bulgarian split squats.
Dumbbell Goblet Squat
The dumbbell goblet squat is when you hold one dumbbell in front of your chest (with both hands) and squat downwards. Since the weight is held in front of your body, you need to keep an upright torso position, which helps to place more demands on the quads.
If you struggle to stay upright when performing this movement, you can elevate your heels with a weight plate. Being in an upright position will help you load the quads more effectively.
The dumbbell squat is similar to the goblet squat, but it involves holding a dumbbell in each hand and having them rest on your shoulders. This allows you to load the squatting pattern more heavily while also challenging your stability by supporting two dumbbells instead of one.
Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat
The dumbbell Bulgarian split squat is a squat patterning exercise that trains one leg at a time. You force the front leg to take on more loading by shifting the weight to the front leg and having your back leg behind you serving as a point of stability.
By training one leg at a time, you can address muscle imbalances. It also helps to train a muscle more effectively with less weight than the dumbbell squat or goblet squat (since you only use one leg to lift the weights), which is helpful if you do not have access to very heavy dumbbells.
A hinging movement pattern is defined by bending at the hips with straight or semi-bent knees (that do not bend or move during the movement).
With a hinging pattern, you place the load on the hamstrings and glute muscles.
Common dumbbell hinge pattern exercises are dumbbell Romanian deadlifts, dumbbell stiff-leg deadlifts, dumbbell single-leg RDLs, and dumbbell hip thrusts.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
The dumbbell Romanian deadlift (RDL) is an excellent hamstrings and glute exercise. In this exercise, you have the knees slightly bent, ensuring your shins stay perpendicular to the ground.
In doing so, you force the hamstrings to stretch as you lower and then contract with the glutes to bring you back up to a standing position.
Dumbbell Stiff-Leg Deadlift
The dumbbell stiff-leg deadlift is similar to the RDL in that it trains the hamstrings and glutes. However, this variation has less knee bend than the RDL so it shifts more emphasis to the hamstrings than the glutes.
This can be an excellent way to target more of the hamstrings, especially if you find it challenging to feel your hamstrings during RDLs.
Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
The single-leg dumbbell Romanian deadlift is a one-leg variation of the dumbbell RDL. This can help to address any side-to-side imbalances (having one side stronger than the other) you may have in the hamstrings and glutes.
Dumbbell Hip Thrust
The dumbbell hip thrust is a lying hinging exercise that primarily targets the glutes (and some hamstrings). Unlike the RDL or other standing hinging exercises, you do not need to load the lower back. It is ideal for lifters with lower back issues or who want to isolate the glutes.
If you want to focus on building stronger quads, then you’ll need exercises that place more emphasis on the quads than on other lower-body muscle groups. Below are two of the best dumbbell quad isolation exercises you can do.
Note, neither of these exercises are found in the Fitbod app.
Dumbbell Leg Extensions
This dumbbell leg extension can be done by holding a dumbbell between your feet and bending and straightening your legs as you let them hang off the edge of a bench (like you would the machine leg extension).
This exercise should be done with slow speeds (2-4 seconds lowering) and a squeeze at the top to keep constant tension on the muscles.
Front Foot Elevated (FFE) Split Squat
While the FFE split squat has knee and hip bending (which would typically recruit the glutes & hams), it is set up where you place most of the loading on the quadriceps muscle.
By taking a narrow stance and elevating your front foot, you force yourself to stay upright (which minimizes hips and hamstrings loading) and increases knee bending (loading of the quads). The higher the elevation of the front foot, the deeper you can bend the front knee and the more intense it will be for your quads.
Isolating the hamstrings adds more hamstrings muscle growth while limiting the strain and stress placed on other areas of the body (like the lower back muscles and glutes). Below are two hamstring isolation exercises you can do with dumbbells.
Note neither of these exercises are found in the Fitbod app.
Dumbbell Hamstring Curls
The dumbbell hamstring curl is a lying dumbbell exercise that mimics the lying machine hamstring curl. This targets the hamstrings and is best used for lighter-weight, higher-rep training (8-12 reps).
The setup can be tricky, but it gets easier with practice. If you’re struggling to get the dumbbell into position, ask someone else to put it between your feet for you.
Nordic Hamstring Curl
The Nordic hamstring curl is a bodyweight exercise that can be done for added intensity. To do this, you will need either a partner or a sturdy strap to place your feet under to keep you in place.
You can hold a dumbbell the entire time if body weight is too easy. If you struggle with body weight, you can also hold a dumbbell as you lower yourself down (the eccentric phase) and then drop it once you get to the floor. This is called a “negative” rep and is great for building strength.
Adding extra glute isolation exercises is a great way to place more emphasis on the glutes, which tend to be overshadowed by other muscle groups in movements like the squat and deadlift. Glute isolation exercises help to increase glute growth and address any imbalances you may have in your hips.
Dumbbell Glute Bridge
The dumbbell glute bridge is done by lying on the floor with a dumbbell placed on the hip crease and is a good way to train the glutes with minimal equipment.
The range of motion is less than the hip thrust (mentioned earlier), which can also be helpful for lifters who sometimes feel their lower back during the hip thrust or who struggle with using the glutes.
Dumbbell Fire Hydrant Circle
The dumbbell fire hydrant circle is a glute isolation exercise that targets the gluteus maximus as well as the smaller glute muscles (gluteus minimus and medius). This exercise trains the glutes with minimal loads because it is very challenging. As an added bonus, this exercise also helps improve hip mobility.
Build Your Own Dumbbell Leg Workout
Now that you’re familiar with lower body movement patterns and the exercises associated with them, it’s time to learn how to build your own dumbbell leg workouts.
You should perform dumbbell leg workouts at least twice per week to build muscle and strength. Some lifters may even prefer to do them three times a week (if they can recover from two sessions per week).
By training legs twice per week, you deliver a training stress every 48-72 hours to the legs, which maximizes the time they are spent being told to grow.
If you only train them once per week, then your legs are going a long time between stimuli so they are less likely to grow. Oppositely, if you train them every day then there is too much stress being placed upon the leg muscles and they won’t be able to recover or grow.
If you really want to push leg growth and strength, train them three times a week, making sure to take a full 36-48 hours of rest between leg workouts.
Pick one exercise from each movement pattern (squat, hinge, quad, hamstring, and glute).
This will ensure you train all the major muscle groups of the lower body. If you wanted to add a 6th exercise to the workout, you could add one extra isolation exercise to place more emphasis on a muscle group that you feel is lagging behind and needs extra attention.
For example, if my glutes are a weak point then I’ll choose two isolation exercises that target the glutes (glute bridge + fire hydrant circles) to add to my workout rather than just one.
Start by doing three sets per exercise, for a total of 15-18 total sets per workout (depending on how many total exercises you do).
This will allow you to push hard with intensity yet still allow you to progress week to week. You will also want to make sure that each set is challenging (pushing yourself to complete the necessary amount of reps with the heaviest weight you can, with good form).
For the squatting and hinging exercises, choose weights that are challenging for 6-10 reps. For the isolation exercises, aim to use weights that push the muscle to failure within the 10-15 rep range.
It is important to note that dumbbells can be challenging to get set up properly when training with very heavy weights, which is why lifting with less than 6 reps is not usually recommended unless you are more advanced.
Additionally, most lifters do not have access to very heavy dumbbells, which means they will need to train with whatever loads they have access to.
If you only have access to lighter dumbbells, then it’s important to do as many reps as you can with that weight (even if it means doing around 30 reps per set).
You should lift as heavy as you can in whatever rep range you are training in. If you can hit your goal rep target and still have more than 2-3 reps in the tank, then you need to go heavier.
If you do not have access to heavier loads, then you need to train more reps, even if this means doing more than the rep range says.
If you do not have access to heavier loads, you need to progressively overload your muscles in other ways, which means you need to add more sets, do more reps, slow down the movement to increase time under tension, or all of the above.
You should start every dumbbell leg workout performing the squat and hinge movements first (doesn’t matter what order), and follow them up with your isolation exercises in whatever order.
You want to train the squatting and hinging movements first in the session as they require the most amount of coordination, muscle recruitment, and energy.
Isolation exercises won’t be affected as much as your main movements if you’re fatigued going into them, so it’s best to incorporate these after your main movements.
If you train dumbbell leg workouts more than once a week (as you should), you can start one workout with a squatting movement and then start the other workout with a hinging movement.
Related Article: Full Body Dumbbell Workouts
Progressing dumbbell leg workouts is accomplished in a similar way to progressing any workout: by adding some sort of new stress to the body every week to give your muscles a reason to adapt.
For each workout, try to progress yourself by doing one of the three things below.
1. Increasing Weight
If you have access to a wide array of dumbbells, you can add weight to a movement to progress from one week to the next. This is often an easy way to progress. However, it is not always an option for lifters who do not have access to different dumbbell loads. This is also an issue when the next pair of dumbbells you have to be heavier with is too heavy. In this case, you may need to look at increasing your reps or sets.
2. Doing More Reps
Adding more reps with the same weight in the following week is another good way to increase the total amount of work your muscles need to do. By adding more reps, you can push more muscle growth without adding weight.
If you have the chance to go up in weight AND add reps, then that’s great too.
It’s important to understand that you shouldn’t be increasing your reps week after week without ever progressing in weight because this will increase your endurance more than your strength.
3. Adding More Sets
If you find yourself struggling to do more reps or weight, then you can add an extra set to your exercise to increase the total amount of work the muscle needs to do (similar to adding more reps).
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Sample Dumbbell Leg Workout
Below is a sample dumbbell leg workout that includes two different workouts. Each workout should take around 1 hour to complete and requires around 36-48 hours of recovery.
All of the exercises below can be done in the Fitbod app, except for the dumbbell hamstring curl, nordic curl, and dumbbell leg extension. The dumbbell split squat is found in the app. However, you will need to add something under your front foot to make it FFE (front foot elevated).
The first workout trains the squatting movement first and also adds an extra quadriceps isolation exercise for those who feel their quads are a weak point. It also trains the hamstrings and glutes with hinging patterns and isolation exercises, but places more emphasis on the frontside of your lower body.
- Dumbbell Squat – 3 sets of 8 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Single Leg Deadlift – 3 sets of 8 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- FFE Dumbbell Split Squat – 3 sets of 10 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Leg Extension – 3 sets of 15 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Glute Bridge – 3 sets of 15 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Hamstring Curl – 3 sets of 15 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
The second workout trains the hinging movement first and also adds an extra glute isolation exercise for those who feel their glutes need more emphasis. This workout also trains the quads with a squatting pattern and an isolation exercise but places more emphasis on the backside of the lower body.
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift– 3 sets of 12 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat – 3 sets of 12 reps, resting 90 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Hip Thrust – 3 sets of 20 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Hamstring Curl – 3 sets of 20 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Leg Extension – 3 sets of 20 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
- Dumbbell Fire Hydrant Circles – 3 sets of 20 reps, resting 60 seconds between sets
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.