Looking for a cost-efficient, simple way to train your lower body? Enter: dumbbells, one of the easiest ways to give your legs a workout—that won’t require a gym membership or a $40 workout class.
Dumbbells offer so many benefits when it comes to building strength in your legs, says certified personal trainer Kristina Earnest, AFAA, NASM. For example, working with dumbbells allows you to touch on a wide variety of muscle groups such as quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes, Earnest says. Plus, when you use different weights of dumbbells, you can tone and build more muscle mass as you increase your skills.
“Dumbbells are really a way to take your workouts to the next level,” Earnest says. When you use dumbbell leg workouts, you’re helping improve your coordination, strengthen connective tissues, as well as amp up the stability of your muscles and joints, Earnest explains.
And don’t think that dumbbell leg workouts are only applicable to people who focus on strength work for exercise—building leg muscle is essential for cardio-related sports, too, such as running, biking, swimming, and the like, Earnest says. You’ll want to incorporate strength days into your regimen so that your muscles can support you while in an aerobic and anaerobic state.
On top of all this, dumbbell leg workouts are conducive to working out in small spaces and at home, Earnest notes. All you need to do these workouts is a set of weights or, if you don’t have access to those, you can use household items that are heavier and similarly shaped: soup cans, wine bottles, a reusable bottle filled with water, textbooks, and more.
Now that you have the basics down, let’s get into some more specific questions you might have related to dumbbell leg workouts…
Can you *really* build lower-body muscle effectively with dumbbells?
In short, yes! You can totally strengthen your legs effectively with dumbbells. That said, you’ll want to start out by trying your movements without dumbbells to test your range of motion and prepare your body for load, Earnest says.
Then, when adding in the dumbbells, you’ll increase the intensity and further activate your muscles as you progress, Earnest says. Over time, as you regularly incorporate leg dumbbell workouts into your weekly routine, you’ll boost your metabolism, burn more calories, and increase your strength, Earnest says.
And yep, dumbbells strengthen and challenge your stabilizing leg muscles, too. In fact, when looking at muscle activity during leg strengthening exercises using dumbbells versus resistance bands, dumbbells displayed a significantly higher level of perceived loading, one study found.
Why? “Dumbbells require more stabilization, since they activate more muscle fibers,” Earnest explains. Basically, dumbbells give you that extra oomf of tension, mentally and physically, which will help you build strength and contribute to your overall health over time, studies show.
How heavy should dumbbells be for a leg workout?
“This is entirely dependent on where you are on your fitness journey,” says Earnest, who also stresses “form over everything.” This means that when you choose weights, you shouldn’t compromise your ability to do the move properly just to go heavier.
Since there’s no way to tell *exactly* how heavy you should be lifting, try paying attention to how you feel during the workout. “A good rule of thumb: Towards the end of your set, you should feel fatigued, but not so much that your form breaks down to exhaustion,” Earnest says. If you’re breezing through 12 to 15 reps in under one minute, you might want to up your ante. “You want a productive struggle to build strength,” Earnest says.
So take your time, slow the exercises down, and feel what’s right for you. The following are the 15 best lower-body dumbbell exercises you can do to level up that leg strength.
Time: 20 to 30 minutes
Equipment: Dumbbells, mat (optional)
Instructions: Choose 5 to 6 exercises from the roundup and do the indicated number of reps. Complete three or four sets total. (If one of the exercises displayed uses a kettlebell or body weight, you can sub or add in a dumbbell!)
How to: Holding the dumbbells in your hands, palms facing your legs, stand with your feet hip-width apart and knees slightly bent. Keeping the knees bent, press your hips back as you hinge at the waist and lower the dumbbells toward the floor. Squeeze your glutes to return to standing. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps, then move on to your next move.
How to: Start by standing with dumbbells in either hand. Step your left foot back, dropping the left knee to just-barely touch the ground. Press through the right heel to return to standing, keeping your head and chest up the whole time. Repeat on opposite side. Complete 10 reps each side, then move on to your next move.
How to: Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart, holding a dumbbell in front of your chest, with your elbows pointing toward the floor. Push your hips back and bend the knees to lower into a squat. Press through heels to return to start. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps, then move on to your next move.
How to: Holding a dumbbell in each hand, rest the weights lightly on your shoulders. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Sit with your hips back, and lower down until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Return back to start. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps, then move on to your next move.
Single Leg Dead Lift
How to: Stand with a dumbbell in each hand. Then, balancing on your right leg, lean forward, extending your left leg straight behind you, until your torso is parallel to the floor. Drive into your left heel to return to the standing position. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps each side, then move on to your next move.
How to: Start by standing with your feet hip-width apart, dumbbell in each hand, elbows bent and close to body. Take a big step back with left leg, crossing it behind the right side. Bend your knees and lower the hips until your right thigh is nearly parallel to the floor. Keep your torso upright and hips and shoulders as square as possible. Return to start. Complete 10 reps each side, then move on to your next move.
Isometric Calf Raise
How to: Hold a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Keeping the rest of the body still, lift up onto the tips of your toes. Hold for up to 30 seconds. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps, then move on to your next move.
How to: Stand with your heels shoulder-length apart, then turn your toes open slightly. Hold a dumbbell in front of your hips. Bend your knees, reaching the hips back, and lower down into a squat. Allow your arms to hang so that the weight remains under shoulders. Lower your body until the hips are slightly below the level of the knees. Pause at the bottom for two seconds, then drive into heels to return to standing. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps, then move on to your next move.
Bulgarian Split Squat
How to: Start by standing two feet in front of a step, holding one weight in each hand. Extend your left leg back and place the left foot on the step. Bend your knees to lower the body as far as you can (or until the knee hovers right above the ground), keeping the shoulders back and chest up. Pause, then press through your right heel to return to start. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps, then move on to your next move.
How to: Start by standing facing a box or step, holding the dumbbells in each hand at your sides. Place your left foot on the bench and right foot on the floor. Pushing through the left foot, then lift your body up until standing on top of the bench. Drive your right knee up until it forms a 90-degree angle. Pause, then return to the start. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps each side, then move on to your next move.
How to: Hold a dumbbell at your pelvis. Lie on your back with your knees bent, feet on the floor about a foot from your butt. Engage your core, then press into your heels and squeeze the glutes to raise your hips toward the ceiling, pushing your upper back into the ground. Pause at the start, then return to start. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps, then move on to your next move.
How to: Hold a dumbbell firmly in each hand. Start with your feet wider than your hips, knees and toes pointing forward. Shift your weight into your right heel, then push your hips back, thigh parallel to the floor, and bend the knee while leaving your left leg straight. You can bring your arms in front of you as a counter balance or clasp them at your chest. Then, drive through your right foot to reverse the movement. Pause at the top to squeeze your glutes and stretch the front of your hips forward. Repeat on the other side. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps each side, then move on to your next move.
Squat To Press
How to: Start by standing with your feet under your hips, holding a pair of dumbbells at shoulder height, arms bent and elbows by your sides. Sit your hips back and lower yourself down into a squat. Push through the heels to lift up, pressing weights overhead and rotating your torso to the left side. Lower your back into a squat, then repeat, twisting to the opposite side. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps each side, then move on to your next move.
Alternating See Saw Lunge
How to: Holding a dumbbell in each hand, start by standing with your feet below the hips and hands at your sides. Take a big step back with your left foot, engaging your core. Bend both of your legs until the left knee taps the floor. Push through your feet to reverse the move, and return to standing, stepping the left foot forward instead of stopping at the center. Plant the left foot in front of your body and bend both legs until your right knee now taps floor directly beneath right hip. Drive through your left foot and return to start. Complete 10 reps each side, then move on to your next move.
How to: Hinge your hips back, knees slightly bent, torso leaned forward at 45 degrees, holding the edge of the dumbbell with both hands, arms extended straight toward floor. Then in one motion, squeeze the glutes, straighten your legs, lift your torso, and thrust your hips forward, swinging the weight to chest height. Keep your arms straight and core tight as your move. Reverse the movement, bringing the dumbbell between the thighs when you hinge. That’s one rep. Complete 10 reps each side, then move on to your next move.
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