There are a handful of reasons why a lifter may choose dumbbells over other free weights. Limited resources, insufficient space, and the need for versatility make dumbbells a popular implement for home gyms. And because they’re generally lighter than barbells and allow your limbs to move more freely, dumbbells are considered to be joint-friendly.
Most lifters associate dumbbell training with chest pressing, curls, and rows while thinking of barbells for heavy squats and deadlifts. But dumbbells, when used effectively, can strengthen and add mass to your legs as effectively as any other tools in the gym. Here are five dumbbell-based workout programs to carry you through your lower-body training.
Best Dumbbell Workouts for Legs
Note: The notation prescribed in these routines is (sets) x (reps). The first set and rep scheme in specific exercises indicate warm-up sets. The set and rep scheme that follows is your working rep range.
The classic bodybuilding prescription of eight to twelve reps to near failure is the most efficient to emphasize muscle growth. Heavier weight for lower reps produces more fatigue and wear on joints. Not to mention that sets of reps in the 15-30 range to failure can feel torturous when done frequently. Dumbbells are just as effective as barbells and machines for creating the key drivers of muscle growth: mechanical tension, training volume, training intensity, and metabolic stress.
You can do this workout twice a week. When you’re hitting the high end of the reps range with more than the goal reps left in reserve (RIR), increase the load you’re using by five pounds. You can increase training volume by adding one total set across the workout each week. Stay on the program for a minimum of three months to optimize progress.
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat: 2 x 12, 3 x 10-12 (0-1 RIR)
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 8-12 (1-2 RIR)
- Walking Lunge: 4 x 10-12 (1-2 RIR)
- Single-Leg Dumbbell Hip Thrust: 4 x 12-15 (0 RIR)
- Standing Single-Leg Calf Raise Raise: 4 x 10-20 each side (0 RIR)
To get strong, you need to reach failure (or close to it) in the three to six rep range. For this reason, gaining strength is difficult without barbells, but as long as you can find heavy enough dumbbells and push each set with intensity, you should see progress.
Another key to gaining strength is progressive overload — that is, performing more reps, sets, or lifting more weight than you did the week before. As long as you’re upping the weight or volume, you’ll gain strength.
Perform this workout twice per week. When you can comfortably reach the high end of the goal reps with more than the target RIR, increase to your next heaviest weight. You can increase volume by adding one total set each week. Deload every four to six weeks or when you’ve found you’re accumulating joint discomfort and fatigue. Stay on the program for a minimum of three months.
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat: 3 x 10, 3 x 3-6 (0-1 RIR)
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 5-6 (1-2 RIR)
- Bulgarian Split Squat: 4 x 5-6 per leg (1 RIR)
- Dumbbell Pistol Squat to a Bench: 3 x 5-6 per leg (2 RIR)
- Dumbbell Goblet Cossack Squat: 3 x 6-8 per side (1 RIR)
- Standing Single Leg Raise Raise: 4 x 10 (0 RIR)
First, you should know that fat loss is driven by nutrition. If you’re consistently cheating on your diet, no amount of high-intensity training will help you unearth that six-pack you’re yearning for. That said, your training routine doesn’t need to be completely overhauled to elicit fat loss. The workout below contains more volume, which should help you maintain muscle as you strip away fat, but rarely do you lift for more than 15 reps. And don’t lift featherweights, please. Of course, you’ll lift less weight relative to what you can for eight to 10 reps, but you still want each set to be taken to near-failure.
your plan below is simple: You lift relatively heavy weights for more reps and rest between sets for 30 to 45 seconds. You’ll also notice that this workout doesn’t contain any frilly isolation movements. By recruiting multiple muscles with each exercise, you’ll burn even more calories.
- Dumbell Goblet Squat: 4 x 10-15 (1-2 RIR)
- Walking Lunge: 4 x 12-20 (1-2 RIR)
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 10-15 (2+ RIR)
- Dumbbell Step-Up: 4 x 10-12 per leg (1+ RIR)
Beginners need consistency, fun, and a program they’ll turn into a habit. They benefit from easy-to-learn basics that keep them safe. They don’t need to be smashed with volume as they will make early progress with almost any training stimulus.
Beginners can start this workout once a week and work up to twice within a few weeks. Focus on making the workouts a little more challenging each week, with heavier weights, more reps, shorter rest, and added sets. Avoid training to failure as beginners will see more form breakdown near failure and won’t yet develop a good sense of how close failure is.
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat: 4 x 10-12
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 3 x 10
- Dumbbell Split Squat: 3 x 6-8
- Dumbbell Step-Up: 3 x 10 per leg
- Standing Calf Raise: 4 x 8-12
Maybe your gym is packed to the brim with dumbbell-happy bros, or maybe your home gym is slacking. Either way, you only need one — that’s right, one — dumbbell to get in an effective leg workout. Any movement that you can do with two dumbbells you can do with one. One hack is to hold the dumbbell in the goblet position (instead of holding a dumbbell in both hands). Another hack is to perform a movement on one side of your body and then repeat on the opposite side.
The significant limitation with a single-leg dumbbell workout is the weight you can use. Your load will be effectively cut in half. That said, you can still increase reps, slow down your lifting tempo, or shorten your rest periods. Feel free to perform this workout twice per week.
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat: 5 x 10-15 (1-2 RIR)
- Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift: 4 x 10-12 (1 RIR)
- Dumbbell Goblet Bulgarian Squat: 4 x 8-10 (1-2 RIR)
- Dumbbell Goblet Lateral Lunges: 4 x 10-12 (1-2 RIR)
- Standing Single-Leg Calf Raise: 4 x 10-20 (0 RIR)
The Major Muscles of Your Lower Body
Your quadriceps or quads are your primary knee extensor muscles. They power your walking strides, squats, lunges, and jumping. The rectus femoris quadriceps head is also a hip flexor muscle, pulling your knee toward your abs.
The three heads of your hamstrings are both hip extensors and knee flexors. The hamstrings cross both joints and play a huge role in your walking and sprint stride, deadlifting, and leg curls.
Your gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus comprise your glutes, the in vogue muscle for aesthetics and performance. The glutes are responsible for hip extension and hyperextension in conjunction with the hamstrings, plus hip abduction and external hip rotation.
The adductor magnus and the other muscles of the adductor group adduct your leg. The anterior fibers aid in hip flexion, while posterior structures contribute to extension. The adductor magnus is also a major pelvis stabilizer, especially when moving.
The gastrocnemius and soleus combine to form your calves. Your gastrocnemius is both a knee flexor and an ankle plantar flexor. Your soleus works with the gastrocnemius to plantarflex the ankle. Your calves are essential for walking, running, and jumping.
Located at the front and outside of your shin, your tibialis anterior dorsiflex your ankles. Without it, you couldn’t walk, run, or jump. It also inverts your foot.
Benefits of Dumbbell Leg Workouts
Dumbbells aren’t just a last resort for when your gym’s barbells and trap bars are unavailable. In fact, they offer a handful of benefits compared to other training tools.
More Even Muscle Development
When you train with equipment such as barbells and trap bars, you’re constantly engaging both sides of your body simultaneously. There’s nothing wrong with bilateral work (in fact, it’s great), but your dominant side will undoubtedly pick up the slack in certain lifts. For example, you may (and probably do) press harder with your right arm during the overhead press and bench press than your left arm. And because the barbell loaded with weight plates is a single unit, it’s not as easy to differentiate which side is working harder and then to shift the load to your weaker half.
You can train unilaterally (one side at a time) with dumbbells, however. Even though you’re often holding two dumbbells and moving all of your limbs in unison, each side of your body is still working independently to stabilize the separate loads. Over time, your weaker side should catch up to your stronger side and those unilateral strength gains will pay off big time in all of your lifts.
Dumbbells are easier to set up, use, and put away — plain and simple. (Kettlebells are also a convenient training tool.) Barbells require you to load them with plates, and, if you want to squat or press, you need to own some sort of power rack. Compared to cable machines, trap bars, and barbell, dumbbells also have a much smaller footprint, making them a great addition to apartment gyms or other small training spaces.
How to Warm-Up Your Lower Body
Warming up means increased blood flow to your muscles, elevating core body and muscle temperature, and lubricating joints in preparation for movement and loading. Warming up may include some static stretching to relax the neutral tension of tight muscles and tendons, temporarily allowing for more range of motion to train through safely during your workout. Dynamic (movement-based) stretching is more popular for warming up and mobilizing joints.
There’s a near-infinite array of stretches, exercises, and options for warming up. To keep it simple, you can focus on a short five to 10-minute moderate-intensity conditioning tool of your preference followed by light sets of the exercises you’re training in your workout. Treadmill, stationary or assault bike, rower, or favorite cardio well paired with a few sets of light or bodyweight squats, lunges, and hinges before loading heavier. If you have a history of injury, consult a qualified physiotherapist or strength coach about developing a specific warmup approach tailored to your needs.
There’s no way around it you: You should train legs. Routinely working out your legs means more lower-body strength, power, and that you don’t have to hide your getaway sticks under sweat pants. Not having access to a barbell shouldn’t be an excuse to miss out on leg day. Even if all you own is a single dumbbell, you can have a productive training session.
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