How to Build Bigger Legs with Just Dumbbells
Ah, leg day. A part of the week that most could do without, but if you want to take your muscle-building and weight-loss goals seriously then it's something you can't live without.
Thankfully, when it comes to exercises, there are many to choose from – think barbell squats, deadlifts, lunges and leg presses, not to mention an endless slew of machines that are all designed to hit different parts of your lower body.
But with choice comes confusion, which is why we've kept it simple with our ten best dumbbell based lower-body movements that will help take your next leg day up a level.
Whether you’re training at home, in a sparsely equipped gym or just don’t have the time to queue for the next available squat rack, our Fitness Editor and Head of Elite Training for Squad Membership Andrew Tracey has picked the best exercises to build bigger legs with just dumbbells.
But first, let's break down leg day, explain why it's an important part of your workout week, how an efficient leg day workout will help you achieve your muscle-building and weight loss goals and how to truly nail a killer leg day workout.
Why Leg Day Is so Important
You'll build more muscle: Testosterone is a steroid hormone that's naturally produced in the body. Not only does it play a key role in improving health, it's vital for muscle growth. Compound moves, such as squats and deadlifts, help generate higher levels of testosterone and therefore increase the opportunity for building more muscle.
You'll burn more calories: The bigger the muscle you work + the more energy required = the more calories you'll burn. Simple. And guess what? Your glutes and quadriceps are the biggest muscles in your body. You do the math.
You'll improve your big lifts: Almost every exercise you do requires leg strength. Take bench pressing, for example, it's your lower body that's predominantly engaged to help provide a stable platform to push from. Overhead press? Yep, without a strong pair of glutes, you'll struggle to increase the weight week on week.
Reduces risk of injury: Majority of injuries occur due to muscular imbalances and a lack of mobility. Leg exercises such as squats, lunges and deadlifts help maintain posture, promote stability and build muscle around weak joints.
How to Work Your Legs Using Only Dumbbells
Before we explain how just a pair of dumbbells is all you need to give your legs a thorough workout, it's worth highlighting what makes up the leg muscles. Having a basic understanding of the anatomy of the lower body will help with your workouts, too, as you'll be able to focus on the specific muscle that you are working. There's science behind the mind-muscle connection, too.
Published in the European Journal of Sport Science, researchers tracked the results of two groups of men who trained with weights three times a week for eight weeks. Both groups did the same exercises – which included leg extensions – but with one major difference: subjects in the first group were told to squeeze the muscle, and therefore focus internally on the muscle they were working, while the second group were told to simply 'get the weight up.' Results showed that gains were almost double in the first group.
Your quads are the muscles that sit on the front of your thigh. They play numerous supporting roles, most notably: stabilising the knee; assisting with flexion of the hips; maintaining posture and balance and regulating your gait (the way you walk).
Your hamstrings assist with walking and running, helping your knees bend and legs extend. Hamstrings also act a braking force to stop your knees from hyperextending. If your hamstrings are weak, they are vulnerable to injury.
Running from the lower side of the pelvis to the inner thigh, their roles consist of assisting with hip flexion, extension and knee stabilisation.
Running from above your pelvis to your outer thigh, they help with hip and pelvic stabilisation.
Best Dumbbell Leg Exercises
1. Front Squat
AT says: Probably the heaviest squat you’ll be able to muster using just dumbbells— and when it comes to adding size to your legs, every kilo counts. You’ll also be building a stronger core and upper back as you resist being dragged forward and folded up like origami.
How to do it: Clean the heaviest set of dumbbells you can muster onto the front of your shoulders (A). From here, drop into a front squat, until your thighs pass parallel to the ground (B), before driving back up. Your grip and upper back may be tiring but keep upright, keeping your core tight throughout is crucial.
2. Dumbbell Deadlift
AT says: Although you may not be able to go as heavy as with a barbell, dumbbell deadlifts shift the focus onto your legs and allow you to really drive from the lower body, avoiding all-to-common lower back pains. Building stronger quads, whilst also putting you in a safer position to pull heavy weights from the floor, what’s not to like?
How to do it: Hold a pair of heavy dumbbells at your sides and with a flat back, push your glutes back, hinge down and touch your bells to the ground (A). Engage your lats and stand upright, ‘pushing the ground away’ with your feet, ensuring your hips don’t shoot up too early (B). Your arms should be hanging straight throughout this movement, think of them as ropes connecting you to your dumbbells.
3. Reverse Lunge
AT says: Whether you hold your dumbbells at your sides, or in the ‘front rack’ position, the reverse lunge is a great option for everyone from beginners to seasoned pros. ‘Unilateral strength’—ie. working one side of the body at a time— is essential for addressing imbalances, avoiding injury and building the type of strength and coordination that carries over to sports such as football or rugby.
How to do it: Hold your dumbbells with straight arms by your sides (A). Keeping your chest up at all times, take a step backward with one leg, bending your front knee until the back knee touches the ground (B). Stand up explosively, pause and repeat with the other leg. Keep your torso upright throughout and control the descent of each rep. Avoid simply ‘dropping’ to the ground.
4. Goblet Squats
AT says: If you struggle to keep your upper-body up during squats, the goblet variation could be your solution. By keeping the weight close to your body, you're forced to maintain an upright position, helping you to focus on what really matters – your legs. A great tool for beginners, or excellent in high rep sets where form may begin to break down.
How to do it: Hold a single dumbbell close to your chest (A). Take a deep breath, brace your core and sink your hips back, descending into a squat (B). Your elbows should come in between your knees at the bottom. Drive back up, exhaling on the way up and tensing your glutes at the top. Repeat. Push yourself through these, you can probably do more than you think.
5. Walking Lunge
AT says: As much a challenge of your balance, coordination and the ‘integrity’ of your core as they are a leg movement, which is what makes them so great for building pins that are useful in or out of the gym. Again, keep that torso strong and upright and avoid hitting the floor too hard with your knees. If it hurts, you’re doing it wrong.
How to do it: Standing tall, grab a set of dumbbells and hold them with straight arms by your sides (A). Keeping your chest up at all times, take a long step forward with one leg, bending your front knee until the back knee touches the ground (B). Stand up explosively, pause and repeat with the other leg, moving forward.
6. Romanian Deadlift
AT says: Hamstrings tend to be a bit of an afterthought in most trainees leg day exercise selection, but they really shouldn’t be. Those hammies aren’t just one of the key determiners of your athletic prowess, but avoiding training them directly could lead to stagnant progress in your squats and deadlifts. This is one movement that should be in every leg session.
How to do it: Lift your dumbbells to hip height, feet at shoulder width (A). With a slight bend in the knees, push your hips back and slowly lower the bar towards the ground (B), pinching your shoulders back and maintaining a flat back throughout. When you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, pause and lift back up to the starting position. Keep your dumbbells close to your body.
7. Goblet Cyclist Squats
AT says: We’ve already extolled the virtues of the goblet squat, but by simply kicking our heels up a few inches we can majorly ramp up the intensity— putting an incredible focus on the quadricep muscles at the front of our legs and building the musculature that surrounds (and supports) the knees. Perfect for runner and cyclists. Try high reps, light weight sets to finish your workout with a serious burn.
How to do it: Raise your heels up on a weight plate or block, keeping your feet within 6 inches of each other, heels close together. Hold your dumbbell close to your chest. Squat down until your thighs pass parallel to the ground, (A) stand up explosively, stopping just short of locking your legs out to keep the tension on the quads (B). Repeat.
8. Wall Supported Hack Squat
AT says: The hack squat is a great movement that helps to guide your body through a range of motion that’s ideal for building bigger, stronger legs. It’s also a huge machine that wouldn’t even make it through the door of most home gyms. Put a foam roller or exercise ball between your back and a wall, then grab your dumbbells to recreate this fluid motion that also helps to mitigate back injuries.
How to do it: With a pair of dumbbells just behind you, place a foam roller in the small of your back, between your body and a sturdy wall. Take a small step forward, leaning your bodyweight into the wall before squatting down, allowing the foam roller to roll up your back, towards your shoulders. At the bottom of the squat firmly grip your dumbbells (A). Create tension in your core and ‘press the floor away’, rising back upwards as the roller works it’s way down into the small of your back. Once your fully upright (B), take a deep breath and repeat.
9. Rear Foot Elevated Split squat
AT says: The split squat has a lot in common with the lunge, all except the ‘lunging’ part. By keeping your foot planted and simply moving up and down on the same knee, we’re able to keep the tension and focus on one leg, resulting in considerably more muscle activation, and with any luck, growth. Elevating the back leg adds to the range of motion, recruiting more of the muscle into the mix.
How to do it: Stand tall with your back foot resting on a bench or box behind you, dumbbells hanging at your sides (A) bend at the front knee, slowly lowering until your front thigh is below parallel to the ground (B). Drive your weight through your front foot, standing back up explosively.
10. Box Step-up
AT says: The bigger, uglier brother of the lunge and split squat, box step-ups don’t only create a much larger range of motion, bringing the glutes and hamstrings into play to a greater degree, they also bear much more resemblance to movements we’re forced to do in real life, making them extremely practical. Alternate legs rep to rep to properly replicate a ‘climbing pattern’, or focus on one leg at a time to ramp up the burn.
How to do it: Stand in front of a box, with your feet hip-width apart, dumbbells at your sides (A). Step one foot up on top and drive your foot into the box. Lean forward slightly to keep your balance, but keep your torso upright (B). Once at the top, stand up fully by extending your knees and hips. Slowly step backward off the box and repeat with the opposite leg.
How to Do a Killer Leg Day: 5 Best Leg Day Workouts
Now you know the moves, it's time to put them together to create the ultimate leg day workout routine, using nothing but a pair of dumbbells:
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