Curated By Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need a gym full of equipment to build leg size and strength. Sure, it’s great to squat and deadlift heavy weights and set powerlifter-level PRs. But there’s more to training legs than that, too.
And you can get more done with a pair of dumbbells than you think. Grab a challenging pair of dumbbells and you can push your legs to the limit, relying on principles of time under tension and tempo. And there’s an underrated beauty to dumbbell leg training too: Because you’re not limited by a restrictive barbell (and a heavy load dominating your thoughts), you can focus on the muscles you’re targeting, keeping constant tension on them and hitting higher-volume rep numbers.
Do enough sets like this, and you’ll find yourself drenched in sweat and have a vicious leg pump, too. And your upper body will get taxed, as well: Almost every leg exercise challenges you to maintain rigidity through your core while holding heavier weights than you’d ever biceps curl or bench press. Your entire body benefits from dumbbell leg training.
The key: Focusing on the right dumbbell leg moves. You want exercises that allow you to use heavy weights, and moves that challenge your largest leg muscles (think: hamstrings, quads, and glutes) over large ranges of motion. These five moves do that. Integrate them into your regular training, or do them together once a week for a vicious leg workout.
1. BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT
The king of all dumbbell leg moves is this devilish squat. By putting one foot on a bench, you place a great majority of the load on your other leg. also an ever-present balance challenge, which forces your glutes and abs to shift into overdrive, fighting to keep your hips square. Do this with a challenging weight, and add a split-second pause to the bottom of each rep, and your quads and hamstrings will be on fire.
Start with 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps, pushing to hit 10 every time.
2. ROMANIAN DEADLIFT
You won’t want to do traditional deadlifts, which have you lifting a weight from the ground, with dumbbells; they’re so close to the ground that most people can’t position themselves without rounding their backs. But you can do Romanian deadlifts, which challenge you to be in control of the eccentric, or “negative” portion of each rep, when you lower the weight. This is a great way to bulletproof your hamstrings and glutes against injury, and it also challenges your core muscles more than you may think. Start standing, then push your butt back and slowly lower your torso until you feel tension in your hamstrings. Then stand back up and squeeze your glutes.
Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 and focus on lowering slowly on every rep.
3. GOBLET SQUAT
Meet the most underrated of the squat variations. The goblet squat, which has you holding a dumbbell at your chest, is actually the best squat variation if you’re just starting a fitness journey, because it challenges you to keep your chest up on each rep. But veteran lifters can still benefit from this move too, using it to blast their quads. A bonus: It’ll leave your abs on fire, too, largely because your core kicks into overdrive to hold your torso upright.
Start with 3 sets of 10 to12 reps.
4. REVERSE LUNGE TO KNEE DRIVE
One of the best lower-body exercises for runners, the reverse lunge to knee drive has you shifting one foot behind you, lowering into a reverse lunge, then standing explosively. As you stand, you’ll drive your back foot into a high knee position, firing up your abs, hip flexors, and squads – and essentially simulating the top of each running stride. Holding this high-knee position also challenges your glutes to keep you balanced for a split second.
Start with 3 sets of 10 to 12 reps on each side, and focus on moving powerfully on every rep.
5. DUMBBELL THRUSTER
The dumbbell thruster is widely considered a total-body move, but it’s also one of the best exercises you can do to blast your quads and hamstrings. That’s because it starts with a squat: You hold dumbbells at your shoulders and lower into a squat. Then you stand and press the dumbbells overhead – and because you’re pressing overhead, you’ll be that much more explosive driving up from your squat.
Start with 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.
Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., is a certified trainer with more than 10 years of training experience. He’s logged training time with NFL athletes and track athletes.
His current training regimen includes weight training, HIIT conditioning, and yoga.
Ebenezer has had multiple prestigious positions including serving as a sports and tech columnist for the New York Daily News.