April 12, 2021 9 min read

When you’re chasing gains, it’s easy to overlook the legs. Hiding under your pants and out of reach of squad selfies, they don’t have the immediate wow-factor of a chiseled six-pack, so you give them the same old squats and lunges you’ve been doing for years.

But seriously strong legs are vital for full-body fitness, and sometimes the leg day classics just aren’t cutting it. Adding dumbbells to your leg exercises will bring you a whole new world of leg strength, taking your workout to the next level and burning up those thighs, quads, and calves. If you’re ready to step up to the challenge, it’s time to get those gains.

Why Leg Day Matters

Your lower body does more than just carry your torso around. Strong legs are a necessity in a lot of sports and daily functional fitness - whether you’re running a marathon or walking up stairs, you’re not going to make it if you’re not regularly moving your lower body.

Your legs are also surprisingly active in a lot of upper-body lifts, providing a lot of the power and stability you need to pump iron, so you’ll need serious leg strength if you’re looking to lift heavier and go harder at the gym.

Together with your core, a strong lower body is important for balance and stability and will decrease your risk of lower-body injury and lower back pain. Firing up your leg muscles is also a great way to lower your body fat and build lean mass.

Your legs include the largest muscle groups in the body, so building strong legs will burn up calories and turn up the heat on your metabolism. And finally, chicken legs are just not a good look - there’s a reason we don’t skip leg day. 

What Muscles Are You Working?

Before you hit the dumbbells, it’s time to do some anatomy. Don’t worry, we’re not going to med school, just getting you the tools you need to get torching.The legs are made up of five main muscle groups:

  • Quadriceps
    Your quads are the large muscles on the front of your thighs. They’re one of the strongest muscle groups in the body, and work hard to straighten and stabilize your knees, flex your hips, absorb force, and get your legs moving. Each ‘quad’ is made up of four major muscles, hence the name. 
  • Hamstrings
    Your hamstrings do the opposite to your quads - they’re the big muscles on the back of the thighs, and work to bend your leg at the knee, extend your hips, and push your thighs back. Weak hamstrings are vulnerable to injury when running, so it’s vitally important to keep them strong. The hamstrings mostly work together with the glutes, so good hamstring exercises will burn up both. 
  • Adductors
    The adductors run from the lower side of the pelvis to your inner thigh and are active in hip flexion, extension, knee stabilization, and turning the thighs in and out. They may not be as bulky as the quads and hams, but they’re major multitaskers that get to work every time you move your legs. 
  • Abductors
    As the name might suggest, the abductors perform the opposite function to the adductors, pushing your legs out. The abductors run from above your pelvis to your outer thigh. Unlike the other muscles in the leg, you’re not going to bulk them out. Instead, focus on developing their stabilizing function in single-leg exercises. 
  • Lower leg
    The calf muscles extend your foot and the shin muscle flexes it. Your calves are active any time you move your feet - they allow you to walk, run, and generally get from point a to point b. These muscles also stabilize your feet, so strong calves will help prevent ankle injuries. 

Building Your Killer Leg Workout

So you’re ready to build muscle and power in your legs. But what’s the best way to grow those thunder thighs? Keep it varied. As your legs include a range of muscles performing different functions, you’ll see the most progress if your lower body workout uses all of them in a wide range of motion.

Mixing compound strength exercises in with your cardio and HIIT workout will bring you maximum gains in minimum time. This will also make sure you’re building functional strength, helping you perform with power in sports and daily life.  

Regular but rested is the way to go. Make sure you’re hitting your legs hard at least once a week, but give them rest and the fuel they need to recover to make sure you get gains, not pain.

Stay safe and shredded. Whatever exercise you’re doing, good form is important. Start with weights and a number of reps that allow you to maintain good form throughout a set. As you get more comfortable with the exercise, gradually increase the weight and reps to set your legs on fire.

Finally, you definitely can try this at home. You don’t need a leg press or step machine to build bulk in your lower body. But while bodyweight exercises are a good starting point, if you want to build serious strength you’re going to need some heavy metal.

All of the exercises below require only a pair of dumbbells, and will give your legs a challenge they won’t forget. A dumbbell leg workout also builds balance, core strength, and grip strength, benefiting every part of your strength program. Time to put your best foot forward.

10 Best Dumbbell Leg Exercises

  1. Bulgarian Split Squat
  2. Goblet Squat
  3. Calf Raise
  4. Lateral Lunge
  5. Reverse Lunge
  6. Dumbbell Step-ups
  7. Romanian Deadlifts
  8. Single-leg Deadlifts
  9. Dumbbell Thrusters
  10. Dumbbell Swing

 

1. Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian split squat will destroy your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, sending muscle growth into overdrive. Single-leg exercises are great for balancing growth, improving coordination, and building muscle.

  • Start standing around two feet away from a bench or step, holding a dumbbell in each hand. Face away from the bench.
  • Reach your left foot back and rest it on the bench. 
  • Bend your knees to lower your body as far as you can, or until your right thigh is parallel to the ground and your left knee is just above the ground. As you move down, keep your shoulders back and chest up. 
  • Pause for a moment, then press yourself back up into starting position, keeping your glutes engaged. 
  • Repeat, completing all reps on one side, and then switching to the other. 

 

2. Goblet Squat

Goblet squats get your whole body working, punishing your quads, calves, glutes, and core while also building arm and grip strength. They’re a great way to build muscle and increase mobility. Goblet squats can also be done using a kettlebell.

  • Start in a standing position, with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing slightly out.
  • Hold one dumbbell with both hands at chest height. 
  • Bracing your core, push your hips back and bend your knees to lower into a squat. Keep your back flat throughout the movement. Lower as deep into the squat as you can. 
  • Hold the low squat for 5-10 seconds, then push through your heels to come back up to starting position.
  • Repeat.

 

3. Calf Raise

No prizes for guessing what muscles this exercise works. The calf raise may be simple, but it’s an incredibly effective way to build strength and mobility in your calves and lower legs. If you don’t have an exercise step or suitable surface at home, calf raises can also be done with your feet starting on the floor.

  • Start with an exercise step, weight plate, or similar raised surface (2-3 inches off the ground) in front of you. Place your toes and the balls of your feet on the step while your heels remain on the floor. The arches of your feet should not be on the step. 
  • Hold a dumbbell in each hand by your sides. This is your starting position.
  • Push through the balls of your feet and contract your calves to raise your heels off the floor and as high as possible. 
  • Hold for a count of one, then slowly lower back to your starting position. You should feel a stretch in your calves.
  • Repeat.

 

4. Lateral Lunge

Exercises that work the legs individually might seem like they’re taking more time to get the same amount done, but they’re incredibly effective ways to build balance, strength and coordination.

Taking exercises one leg at a time increases the mass each leg has to handle, and is also a great way to correct muscle imbalances. Lateral lunges target your glutes, quads, and hamstrings, building tree-trunk thighs.

  • Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides.
  • Take a big step to the right with your right foot. Keep your arms straight and allow them to move in front of you. 
  • Bend your right knee while keeping your left leg straight, lowering until your knee and hip are at a 90-degree angle.
  • Straighten the right leg and shift your weight onto your left foot. Step your right foot back into starting position.
  • Repeat, alternating sides.

 

5. Reverse Lunge 

The reverse lunge will light up your quads, hamstrings, and glutes, while putting less stress on the knee joints than a standard lunge. It also challenges and develops balance and coordination.

  • Start in a standing position with your feet together, holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides. 
  • Step back with your right leg, landing on the ball of your foot, and bend your knees to lower into a lunge. Your front and back knee should be at 90-degree angles, and your front thigh should be parallel to the floor. 
  • Slowly raise yourself back up by extending your knees and hips and return to starting position.
  • Repeat, alternating legs.

 

6. Dumbbell Step-ups

Are you ready for a challenge? This exercise will set your quads, glutes, and hamstrings on fire while developing hip mobility and balance.

  • Stand behind a bench, box, or another stable surface that will put your knee at around a 90-degree angle when you step on it. Hold a dumbbell in each hand. 
  • Step your right foot onto the surface, straightening it and following it with your left foot into a standing position. 
  • Slowly lower your right foot back to the floor, and then your left.
  • Repeat.

 

7. Romanian Deadlifts

The Romanian deadlift works the posterior chain - your lower back, glutes, and hamstrings - and also builds core strength. Compared to a standard deadlift, this variation hits your hamstrings harder, growing big legs fast.

  • Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Hold a dumbbell in each hand at your sides, with your palms facing your thighs. 
  • Start pushing your hips back while keeping your spine neutral and squeezing your shoulder blades.
  • Lower the dumbbells in front of your shins. Once they have passed your knees, do not lower your hips any further.
  • Extend your hips and knees, pushing through your heels and squeezing your glutes, to return to starting position. 
  • Repeat.


8. Single-leg Deadlifts

The single-leg dumbbell deadlift strengthens your hamstrings and glutes while building balance and core stability. Good form is key, so practice these without weights and only add dumbbells when you can reliably maintain good form.

  • Start in a standing position, holding a dumbbell in each hand. 
  • Lift one foot slightly off the ground. 
  • Raise it behind you while tilting your upper body forwards, hinging at the hip. Allow the dumbbells to lower towards the ground.
  • Keep leaning forwards until your chest is almost parallel to the floor. 
  • Keeping your leg extended and back straight, reverse the movement to return to starting position.
  • Repeat, completing all reps on one side and then on the other.

 

9. Dumbbell Thrusters

A whole-body workout in just one move sounds too good to be true, but dumbbell thrusters are here to deliver. Combining a front squat and overhead press, thrusters are an insanely effective way to build strength and size in your lower body, core, upper back, and shoulders.

  • Start in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a dumbbell in each hand by your shoulders. Your palms should be facing inwards. 
  • Lower into a squat until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
  • Push up into standing position while extending your arms above your head.
  • Bend your arms to lower the dumbbells to starting position.
  • Repeat.

 

10. Dumbbell Swing

The dumbbell swing builds whole-body strength, attacking your glutes, quads, hamstrings, core, and shoulders. It’s simple but deadly, requiring strength, power, endurance, and speed. This exercise can also be completed with a kettlebell.

  • Start in a standing position, with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and your toes pointed slightly outward. Hold the end of one dumbbell in both hands.
  • Hinge from the hips and bend your knees into a squat, while moving the dumbbell back and between your legs.
  • Stand up, moving your hips forward and swinging the dumbbell to chest height.
  • Return to squat position.
  • Repeat.

 

Shred safely

The exercises are best used together with cardio or other strength training exercises. Pick a few to mix into your leg day routine. We do not recommend completing all of the moves in one session, as that’s likely to leave your legs shattered, not shredded.

As with any exercises, avoiding injury is critical. When you’re first trying out a new exercise, consider working with a personal trainer or coach to develop good form. If you experience pain while doing any of the exercises, stop immediately and speak to a health or fitness professional.

Choose weights that will allow you to maintain good form throughout a set. And with any exercise, make sure to warm up beforehand, cool down afterward, and give your muscles the rest and fuel they need to grow big and strong.

Legs go

If you’re looking to spice up leg day and supersize your legs pronto, you’re going to want to add a pair of dumbbells to your workout. Mixing the exercises above in with your cardio and strength training will help you to build muscle and strength fast, and take your functional fitness to the next level. It’s time to make leg day the best day of the week.


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