When a trainer tells you to grab a set of dumbbells, you can pretty much guarantee that your arms are in for some serious burn. But while free weights tend to get a lot of credit for their role in strengthening your upper body, integrating them into your lower body moves through leg exercises with dumbbells is seriously underrated.
“Dumbbells are an incredibly versatile piece of equipment, and there are hundreds of different exercises that can be performed for the upper and lower body alike,” says Sean Alexander, ACE-certified personal trainer and the founder of Simple Approach. Read on to find out exactly how to add a dumbbell leg workout into your own routine.
Why should you use dumbbells for leg workouts?
According to trainers, there are a number of benefits associated with dumbbell leg workouts. First of all, building lower body strength is great, since it’s associated with longevity (here are some leg exercises for longevity, if you’re trying to make gains in your body and your life).
Adding weight is an easy way to up the ante on type of exercise, and dumbbells allow you to do it at home without having to invest in a pricey piece of gym equipment. In fact, dumbbells tend to get the job done better than the fancy machines and barbell racks. “While machines limit our range of motion to the predetermined track that they’re set on, and barbells are large, cumbersome, and generally awkward to move around with, dumbbells don’t have either of those limitations and allow for free-range on any plane of motion,” says Alexander.
Can you build legs with just dumbbells?
There are truly limitless ways to integrate dumbbells into your leg workouts, each of which allows you to target your lower body muscles from all different angles.
“Dumbbells are great for your lower body for many reasons,” says Rhys Athayde, a certified personal trainer and the co-founder of Phantom Fitness. “They are incredible to focus on unilateral strength as you may favor one side more than the other.” He adds that these types of free weights work your stabilizing muscles, which help to build your overall strength and balance. Plus, they’re versatile: You can use a set of heavies to add weight to basic strengthening moves or grab a lighter pair to up the ante on your lower-body based cardio moves like jump squats and skater lunges.
Building strength is all about progressively challenging your muscles, and dumbbells are certainly up for the job. You can do this if you have a set of dumbbells that increase in weight or adjustable dumbbells. Or, if you’re more limited, try variations on moves, such as these squat variations, to make staples more challenging.
How to choose the right weights for a dumbbell leg workout
Choosing the right weights for a dumbbell leg workout is what Alexander calls an “art form,” because you want to be sure you’re getting it exactly right. “While the goal of adding weight is to create resistance, we don’t want to unnecessarily increase the risk of injury,” he says. His tip? Abide by the rule that, “you should be able to control the weight, the weight does not control you”.
Do you have to lift heavy to build legs?
The weight you choose depends entirely on your movements. If you’re doing unilateral movements, like step-ups and lunges, Alexander suggests choosing a light-to-midsized weight. “Movements that sincerely challenge your level balance and proprioception should not be performed with heavy loads,” he says. For squats and deadlifts though, heavy weights are A-okay.
Of course, no matter what weight you’re using, you’ll want to start small and build up your load as you get stronger. “It’s important to understand the motion first, so start by performing the move without any weight, and from there, it’s always better to start with a lighter weight you think you can do,” says Athayde. “Safety is always the priority, so perform the motion and gauge your working set weight from there.”
How to integrate dumbbell leg workouts into your routine
Before you reach for the weights, you’ll first want to master your movements without any sort of load. “I would begin with basic bodyweight motions, such as squats, lunges, and step-ups, and build up your leg strength from there, then add in light weights when you feel you’re ready,” says Athayde.
When you are putting together your working set, there are a few weight training tips to keep in mind. Work in multiple planes of motion, which include front and back, side to side, and twisting. And include the primary movement patterns: squat, lunge, push, pull, hinge, twist, and gait. You don’t have to hit all of these planes of motion or movement patterns in one workout, but a well-rounded workout plan that you do over the course of a week should aim to incorporate all of these motions.
What leg workouts can I do with dumbbells?
You can add dumbbells to virtually any lower body move to add resistance, which is how your muscles will get stronger.
“When you use weights, you are actually breaking down the muscle fibers and when they repair themselves, they become . stronger and more resilient,” Theodore Savage, the fitness training director at Planet Fitness, previously told Well+Good.
This includes squats, lunges, thrusts, and all the glorious variations they contain. Here’s a lower body workout specifically made to be done with dumbbells:
10 dumbbell leg workout moves to try at home
When you are ready, grab your weights and cycle through some of these trainer-approved dumbbell leg workout moves.
1. Walking dumbbell lunge
Holding a dumbbell in either hand, step one foot forward and lower down into a lunge. Return to stand and step the opposite foot out into a lunge, using the movement as a way to “walk” across the room.
2. Dumbbell squat
With a dumbbell in each hand, palms facing toward your body, bend your knees to lower down into a squat so that your thighs are parallel to the floor. Keep your gaze forward and your chest proud, then push back up through your heels to return to stand.
3. Dumbbell hip thrust
Place your shoulders on an elevated surface (with your hips hanging off of the front), plant your feet firmly on the floor, and place a dumbbell on your hips. Slowly lower your hips down toward the floor, then drive up through your heels and squeeze your glutes at the top of the move. Engage your core to ensure your back stays straight throughout the entirety of the exercise.
4. Dumbbell curtsy lunge
To master a traditional curtsy squat, cross one leg back behind you and sink your body down while rotating your hips forward. When you’re ready to add weight, simply clasp a dumbbell in your hands in front of your chest.
5. Dumbbell alternating step up on a box
Holding a dumbbell in either hand with your arms by your side, step one foot up onto a box or bench, then step the other foot up to meet it. Slowly return back down to the ground in the same manner, then repeat the movement starting your initial step on the other side.
6. Dumbbell Romanian deadlift
To achieve this dumbbell deadlift, start standing with your knees slightly loose with a dumbbell held squarely in front of your hips. Focus on engaging your lats by squeezing your shoulder blades back and down. Initiate the movement by pushing your hips and glutes back and keeping your knees slightly bent. Keep the weight close to your body as you bend forward, and go as far down as you can without rounding your upper back in the process. Keep your gaze looking straight ahead to ensure you’re keeping your back straight as you bend over. Drive your hips forward and squeeze your glutes as you stand back up to start.
7. Bulgarian split squat
Stand a full stride’s length in front of an elevated surface (like a bench or chair), and place your sneaker laces on top of the surface so that your ankle is slightly hanging off of the edge. Hold the dumbbells down by your sides and tilt your torso forward 15 degrees, then lower down the same way you would if you were doing a stationary lunge.
8. Single-leg deadlift
Stand with one foot planted firmly on the floor, your knee slightly bent, and a dumbbell in the opposite hand. Square your hips to the mat and hinge at the waist (keeping your back flat) and lower the weight down to the floor while floating your opposite leg back behind you.
Hold a dumbbell in either hand and bend your knees to lower down into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor, keeping your chest proud and your gaze looking forward. Push up through your heels legs to return to stand, and extend your arms straight overhead. Return them back to your shoulders and repeat.
10. Dumbbell lateral lunge
Hold a dumbbell in either hand by your side. Move to the side with one leg, keeping the other leg where it is. Keeping your torso upright, let your upper body follow the leg to the side, and bend the side leg while keeping the dumbbells in either hand. Return to standing, and repeat either on the same side, followed by a set of the other side. Or alternate legs.