7 Best Dumbbell Leg Exercises (Builds Lower Body Strength)

Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT
Published by Lisa Lorraine Taylor, BSc, CPT | Staff Writer
Last updated: December 28, 2023
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My fitness clients are often skeptical when I tell them that they only need a pair of dumbbells to complete leg-day exercises.

Many people think that effective leg exercises require barbells and machines, but dumbbells can be used for a variety of leg exercises that target diverse leg muscle groups.

So, I’ve combined what I know from my experience with what I’ve learned from a recent talk with a physical therapist to give you the best dumbbell leg workouts.

Here’s what we found.

Quick Summary

  • To build lower body strength effectively, incorporate dumbbell exercises like lunges, squats, and deadlifts into your workout routine.
  • Dumbbell lunges not only target major lower body muscles but also stretch hip flexors, countering the tightness from prolonged sitting.
  • Research from the University of Toronto indicates that dumbbell lunges challenge stabilizer muscles in the back and legs, enhancing overall muscle coordination.
  • As a seasoned fitness trainer, I've discovered that combining dumbbell workouts with a protein powder supplement is a powerful strategy for efficiently strengthening and toning the lower body, suitable for both beginners and advanced athletes.

How Do You Build Leg Strength With Dumbbells?

Dumbbell leg exercises to strengthen and build physique

Dumbbells aren't just for arm day; they're key for leg strength too. You can beef up your lower body with lunges, squats, and deadlifts, using dumbbells to add that extra oomph.

They're perfect for a range of leg muscles, from the quads to the calves.

1. Dumbbell Lunges

A favorite among runners, dumbbell lunges work almost every lower body muscle, including quads, glutes, hamstrings, and calves. They stretch and improve hip flexor flexibility, countering the tightness from long sitting periods.

In addition, according to University of Toronto research, the stabilizer muscles of the back and legs are also challenged when performing the dumbbell lunge [1].

How to Do It

Start by selecting a pair of dumbbells according to your level of fitness. You should start with some light weights if you're a beginner.

  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand in a hammer grip stance while standing up straight.
  • Now, take one big step forward with your right leg and bend your knees until the right thigh is almost parallel to the ground.
  • Straighten your knee to return to your standing position before bending the knee, then step back on the right foot.
  • Do the same with your left foot.

Other variations include dumbbell walking lunges and dumbbell split squats.

I often incorporate these dumbbell leg exercises into my clients' HIIT routines to not only strengthen your lower body but also boost cardiovascular health and accelerate their fat loss.

2. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squats

Close-up of a Bulgarian split squat

This one-leg squat variation, with one foot elevated, hones in on quads, hamstrings, and glutes, ensuring muscle balance.

It's a go-to for endurance athletes to ramp up stamina and efficiency.

How to Do the Dumbbell Bulgarian Split

As usual, start with a pair of dumbbells on both arms with an elevation (chair or bench) behind you.

  • Take one step in front of your chair or bench, keep your feet shoulder-width apart, and place a back foot on the elevation.
  • Bend the front knee and descend until the back knee touches the ground.
  • Repeat the motion about 12 times before placing your other feet on the bench.

3. Dumbbell Goblet Squats

The goblet squat is an exercise that I always recommend to my clients, newbies and advanced alike.

The good thing about this dumbbell leg workout is that it's a full-body workout, although it primarily targets the lower body muscle groups in a compound manner.

“The goblet squat works all the major muscle groups of the lower body, including the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves.”

- Laura Williams, Certified Exercise Physiologist 

How to Do the Dumbbell Goblet Squat

Pick one dumbbell, and lift it at chest height with your hands placed on the inner edge of one side of the dumbbell.

  • With your feet wider than shoulder width and toes pointed slightly outward in a standing position, bend your knees to descend to a lower position.
  • Go as low as possible and hold for about five seconds, then push down to straighten up to your starting position.
  • Repeat for about 12 repetitions for a complete set.

You can further enhance your athletic performance by turning this movement into jump squats, a plyometric exercise to develop explosive power and improve fast-twitch muscle response.

4. Dumbbell Lateral Lunge

Doing dumbbel lateral lunges

The dumbbell lateral lunge works legs individually and is incredibly effective in building muscle for strength, balance, and coordination.

This leg workout targets the glutes, hamstrings, quads, adductors (inner thighs), and abductors (outer thighs).

It's possible to perform the dumbbell lateral lunge using two variations:

  • While holding a dumbbell in each hand
  • Using one dumbbell at chest height, like the goblet squat

Here’s how to do it while holding two dumbbells.

How to Do the Dumbbell Lateral Lunge

Start in a standing position, shoulder-width apart, with both dumbbells hanging on each arm.

  • Now take a big step to your right with your right foot while allowing your arms to move in front of you.
  • Bend your right knee while going as low as possible while keeping your left leg straight.
  • Now, shift your weight to your left foot and straighten your right foot.
  • Alternate your left knee and repeat for about 12–15 repetitions.

5. Calf Raise

Simple yet mighty, calf raises strengthen your lower legs, enhancing balance and stability.

They're especially beneficial for older adults, focusing on joint health and muscle tone, and I've seen them reduce foot and ankle injury risks in my clients.

How to Do the Calf Raise

You can do it on a flat or raised surface about 2–3 inches off the ground, which is a little more advanced variation of the exercise. Today, we’ll be doing the former.

  • Start by holding the dumbbells on each arm in your starting position.
  • Now, raise your heels slowly and keep your knees extended.
  • Hold for one or two seconds, then slowly lower back to your starting position.
  • Repeat about 12–15 times for a complete set.

6. Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

Dumbbell Romanian deadlift indoors

The Romanian deadlift is a simple dumbbell leg workout that effectively works the lower region and core muscles.

Plus, you only need a pair of dumbbells and enough space to do it.

As an experienced trainer, I’ve also found it helpful in alleviating back pain since the exercise also partly targets the lower back.

Other muscles the Romanian deadlift works on include the hamstrings and glute muscles.

How to Do the Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift

As aforementioned, you only need a pair of dumbbells. Hold them with your palms facing your thighs.

  • Stand with your feet hip-width apart, chest up, and knees slightly bent.
  • Now push your hips back while keeping your spine neutral and squeezing your shoulder blades. Bend till the dumbbells go below the knees.
  • Upon reaching a low point, pause and engage the glutes and hamstrings to hinge back to your starting position.
  • Repeat about 12 times for a complete set.

Also Read: How to Do Dumbbell Deadlifts

7. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge

The dumbbell reverse lunge works the quads, hamstrings, glutes, hips, core, and upper back muscles—the same major muscle groups the standard lunge targets.

The difference with this particular variation is that it does not stress the knee joint as much as the standard lunge does.

Performing this exercise also improves your balance and hip mobility.

How to Do It

You will need to hold a pair of dumbbells in each hand.

  • Stand with your feet wide apart and your torso upright while holding the dumbbell pair as your starting position.
  • Now, step back with your right leg and land with the ball of your foot.
  • Bend your knees in a lunge position to lower your upper body. Your back and front knees should be at a right angle, with the front thigh parallel to the ground.
  • Straighten your legs to raise yourself up and return your back leg to your starting position.
  • Do the same with your left leg and keep alternating.

Can You Build Legs With Just Dumbbells?

Showing leg muscles

Yes, you can build legs with just dumbbells.

Dumbbells target key leg muscles like hamstrings, quads, and glutes.

They're crucial for maintaining strong, active leg muscles, boosting metabolism, and burning calories. Pair these workouts with a balanced diet, sufficient sleep, and a protein powder supplement to maximize gains.

FAQs

Do Dumbbell Squats Build Mass?

Yes, dumbbell squats can help you build muscle mass in your lower body, especially the quads. Additionally, dumbbells don’t put pressure on your spine and are considered much safer than using barbells.

What Weight Dumbbells Should I Use for Legs?

The size of weight dumbbells to use for legs depends on your fitness level and goals. If you’re a beginner, start with light weights (up to 5kgs) and move up with experience. Heavy weights are great for muscle building, while light weights are great for toning.


References:

  1. https://utpjournals.press/doi/10.3138/ptc.2013-51
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