BlogPhysical Activity10 Easy Leg Workouts with Dumbbells at Home

10 Easy Leg Workouts with Dumbbells at Home

Mariia Roza
Written by Mariia Roza on November 11, 2021

Table of contents

Never ever skip the leg day if you want to have a well-balanced good-looking physique. You can become stronger and more athletic, work on your lower back, and build muscles even if the gyms are closed, or you don’t want to buy a gym membership.

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We’ve gathered ten exercises that will help you tone your legs at home. Some of them are pretty classic and easy to follow, and some of them are more challenging and will incorporate your core and lower back to stabilize your body. Choose what works for you, don’t forget about the proper technique, and improve your body even if all you have is a pair of dumbbells.

Types of leg workouts to do with dumbbells

There are several categorizations of leg workouts with free weights. According to the form, there are:

  • Lunges (backward, forward, on the side)
  • Squats (narrow stand, wide stand)
  • Deadlifts (single leg, both legs)
  • Jumps, and
  • Thrusts

If we look at the type of muscle exercises work on, we can divide workouts into:

  • Gluts exercices (working on gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and gluteus minimus, aka the buttocks).
  • Quads exercises (working on rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius, aka front sides of your thighs).
  • Hamstrings exercises (working on the long head of the biceps femoris, the short head of the biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus, aka back sides of your thighs).
  • Calves exercises (working on the gastrocnemius and the soleus, aka the below the knee part of your legs).

When we talk about functional differences between leg exercises, we can set apart these types of workouts:

  • Strength exercises focused on making your muscles stronger
  • Hypertrophy exercises, aimed at muscles growth
  • Power exercises that improve your athleticism and focus on the explosiveness of your moves, and
  • Corrective exercises that work with the weakest muscles to improve your balance or create security bondage around your knees or hips

Exercises with dumbbells for a leg day at home

Before we get to the exercises, here is a quick reminder. You might have found a ton of “bro-science” recommendations stating that you will get bigger muscle if you do fewer reps with higher volume. However, there is no scientific evidence(1) whatsoever proving that this approach is accurate. What science proves is that progressive overload(2) works great for muscle hypertrophy and muscle growth. 

What does it mean? Always try harder than the last time. To build muscle efficiently, increase your volume, the number of sets or reps every week or two.

Another important rule is that you should be consistent in your workouts! Muscle building is not an easy process. You will need at least eight weeks to see your first results. 

With all this being said, here are our top ten exercises for the lower body.

Dumbbell front squat

How do you do the dumbbell front squat?

Put dumbbells on or near your shoulders. If you use one dumbbell, hold it in front of your chest. When you do squats, try to get to the parallel with the ground. If you feel some discomfort in your hips or knees, find the squat depth that is comfortable for you.

Dumbbell front squats | Unsplash
Dumbbell front squats | Unsplash

What muscles does the dumbbell front squat activate?

Squats are one of the compound exercises that train several muscles of your body. Dumbbell front squats will primarily work on your quads, partially on your glutes, and on your calves as you use them to stabilize your position when you go up. Studies(3) show that if you do narrow stance squats, you activate the inner part of your quads more, and if you choose a wide stance for squats, your glutes are activated. 

Is there something else?

Along with muscle activation, squats add flexibility to your calves and hips, so it’s a great exercise if you do some sports and want to increase the strength of your lower body.

Some people cannot do squats because of knees or hips injuries. Don’t push yourself if this exercise isn’t comfortable for you. If you’re at the gym, you can easily replace squats with machines, for example, a leg press machine.

Reverse lunge dumbbell

How do you do the reverse lunge dumbbell?

Take dumbbells in your hands and make lunges backward. Don’t put both your feet on one line; the leg that’s going back should be placed a little bit out. 

Reverse lunge dumbbell | Shutterstock
Reverse lunge dumbbell | Shutterstock

What muscles does the reverse lunge dumbbell activate?

The main focus is on your hamstrings. If you don’t feel them after making several reps of this exercise, try to make a wider step or take heavier weights. Reverse lunges also activate your core as your back and abs are working to stabilize your movements. You also work on your calves with this exercise, though there is little focus on these muscles.

Is there something else?

This form of lunges is believed to be less challenging for your joints, especially your knees comparing to other types of lunges, like the walking lunges(4). However, if you like it more, you can try ordinary lunge dumbbells and progress to the dumbbell stepping lunge in several weeks to make your workouts more challenging.

Romanian deadlift

How do you do the Romanian deadlift?

You can do this exercise with a barbell (a more traditional version) or two dumbbells. You can use a narrow or a medium stance. Start with two dumbbells in your hands pulled down. Push your hips straight back and lower the dumbbells below your knees. Your back should be straight (don’t round your back!), and your knees should stay almost at the same point through all the exercise.

When you push your hips forward, your chest should go a bit up, and you can do so by putting your shoulder blades together.

It is great if you have a large mirror. Stand sideways to it so you can see that the dumbbells are at the same vertical line through all the exercise, that your hips go backward, that your knees don’t go forward, and that your back is straight.

Romanian deadlift | Shutterstock
Romanian deadlift | Shutterstock

What muscles does the Romanian deadlift activate?

The main focus of this exercise is a hamstring, though, as Romanian deadlift is a compound movement, you will also feel the tension in your glutes, lower back, and maybe even in your upper back, forearms, and trapezius.

Is there something else?

One of the most common mistakes in this exercise technique is when people make a kind of a semi-squat by pushing their knees forward. This might be the result of too heavy weights. Start with lower weights to get the proper technique first.

Dumbbell squat jumps

How do you do dumbbell squat jumps?

Hold weights by your sides. Use a medium stance, don’t place your feet too narrow or too wide. Descend into a squat, and when you’re in your lower position, just above the parallel, push yourself explosively with heels upwards. During the whole repetition, hold dumbbells in straight, tense hands.

What muscles do dumbbell squat jumps activate?

Dumbbell squat jumps are the aerobic exercise that makes you use your muscles to the maximum in a short period. It increases your heart rate more than any other of these exercises and works on all the muscles in your lower body, including quads, glutes, and calves. It also includes your abs and lower back needed to stabilize your body.

Is there something else?

This exercise is focused on making you more explosive and adding power to your movements and your muscles. Dumbbell squat jumps are a great exercise to improve your overall athleticism. One study(5) shows improvements in maximal strength vertical jump and sprint performance among athletes who’ve tried this exercise.

Dumbbell adductor lunge

How do you do the dumbbell adductor lunge?

You will need a slidable surface, shoes, or socks, or a specific something that will make sliding easier. In this exercise, you will need to make a lunge by sliding with one leg aside.

Hold a dumbbell in front of your chest, and start sliding with one leg aside, simultaneously pushing your hips backward. Stop in a semi-squat when your knee is just above your ankle. Slide back with your leg. To do so, you will use muscles inside your thighs.

Dumbbell adductor lunge | Shutterstock
Dumbbell adductor lunge | Shutterstock

What muscles does the dumbbell adductor lunge activate?

The main focus of this exercise is adductors, the muscles inside your thighs. They’re responsible for your hips’ mobility. Hips mobility is essential as it helps you avoid lower back and knee injury. Dumbbell adductor lunge also incorporates your glute medius.

Is there something else?

If you’re in a gym, choose an adductor machine. It was specifically designed to hit that specific inner hip muscle.

Lunge to curtsy

How do you do the lunge to curtsy?

Put one leg on to a side, make a squat by pushing your hips back and placing your knee above your ankle. After you stand up from the squat, you put the leg round to another side of your body and back behind you, where it performs a curtsy lunge. For a curtsy lunge, sit straight down on a leg that is behind you.

Lunge to curtsy | Shutterstock
Lunge to curtsy | Shutterstock

What muscles does the lunge to curtsy activate?

Though it’s a single-leg exercise, it incorporates thigh muscles in both legs. You will feel all the thigh area, especially the quads and the glutes. Lunge to curtsy also works on your abductors, the outer part of your thigh.

Is there something else?

This exercise might be quite challenging for people with ankle, knee, hip, or lower back injuries. Don’t force yourself into doing it if it makes you feel uncomfortable.

Standing calf raises

How do you do standing calf raises?

Take dumbbells and stand on something that elevates your toes. Raise all the way up on your toes, hold that position for several seconds, and then go down until your heels hit the floor.

Standing calf raises | Shutterstock
Standing calf raises | Shutterstock

What muscles do standing calf raises activate?

Standing calf raises work on the calves muscles (gastrocnemius) and the inside muscles attached to the knee joints.

Is there something else?

Some people have asymmetrical bodies. For example, one of your calves can be 0.5-1 inches wider than the other one. With this exercise, you can correct such an asymmetry by working on the lagging leg a bit harder than on the other one. 

Single-leg deadlift

How do you do the single-leg deadlift?

Standing straight, lower dumbbells in front of you, simultaneously lifting your back leg in parallel to the floor. Your head, back, and back leg should form a straight line. Your hips should be in parallel with the floor. Don’t bend your knees, and don’t hunch over. 

Single-leg deadlift | Shutterstock
Single-leg deadlift | Shutterstock

What muscles does the single-leg deadlift activate?

The main muscles activated by the SLDL are the gluteus and hamstrings. However, your ankles, core, and lower back also participate in this exercise. 

Is there something else?

If you have trouble stabilizing your body after lifting your leg, you can hold dumbbells in one hand. The dumbbells are used as a counterbalance to help your body stabilize. If your left leg is floating, take a dumbbell in your left hand. If your right leg is floating, hold a dumbbell in your right hand. Doing so will help your hips stay in parallel with the ground and make the exercise less challenging.

Bulgarian split squat

How do you do the Bulgarian split squat?

Put one foot on a bench (so that there’s around a 90-degree angle in the knee) and step forward with another foot. Your shoulders should be above your hips, and your chest should be up. You can take one dumbbell and hold it in front of your chest. You can use two dumbbells and place them on your shoulders, choose what works for you. Make a squat all the way down so that your knee touches the ground, and then go all the way up. Don’t lean forward while doing squats. 

Bulgarian split squat | Shutterstock
Bulgarian split squat | Shutterstock

What muscles does the Bulgarian split squat activate?

Bulgarian split squat activates all the legs, including quads, calves, glutes, and hamstrings. You can focus more on the quadriceps by placing your standing leg closer to the bench. If you step forward a bit more, where your knee doesn’t go beyond your foot, you work harder on your glute. As this is a single-leg exercise, your body needs to stabilize, so this exercise will also include your lower back and core.

Is there something else?

There are several variations of the Bulgarian split squat. For example, you can add some intensity to it by choosing the one-and-a-half technique, when you go down to the bottom, then halfway up, and then back down again as one rep. Not all variations to the already good exercise boost its efficiency, though. For example, making a suspended lunge (using unstable surfaces, like TRX bands) does not increase hypertrophy and is even proven(6) to decrease the load on the muscles-in-focus. 

Dumbbell hip thrust

How do you do the dumbbell hip thrust?

You will need a bench or a well-fixed chair or sofa. Sit next to it and make sure that when you make a thrust, your upper back and shoulders will be on a bench. Holding a dumbbell on your lower stomach (or on your hip bones if you use two dumbbells), make a thrust. Hold the upper position for a while and then go back down. You should be a straight line: Do not through your head back and do not hyperextend your spine.

There should be 90 degrees in your knees in the upper position, and your back should be as straight as possible. 

Dumbbell hip thrust | Shutterstock
Dumbbell hip thrust | Shutterstock

What muscles does the dumbbell hip thrust activate?

According to one research(7), hip thrust with weights (barbell or dumbbell) is one of the most efficient exercises for upper gluteus, lower gluteus, and hamstrings. However, this doesn’t mean that it is perfect for muscles hypertrophy.

Is there something else?

One study(8) found that back squats are double as effective as the hip thrust for muscle growth. However, one of the essential benefits of hip thrust is its low impact on the lower back. So, if you feel pain or discomfort in your lower back when performing back squats, hip thrust might be a good exercise you can do instead.

Some basic recommendations on leg workouts

  • Most of the exercises described above are compound movements that incorporate many muscles in your body. Compound movements should take a significant part of your workout routine if you want to get maximum results in a short period of time.
  • If you aim to build new muscle, you have to rest. Make more extended interset resting periods(9) and don’t train legs every single day.
  • On the other hand, having only one leg day a week might not be enough for maximum results. A 2016 systematic meta-analysis(10) has demonstrated that training a muscle group twice a week compared to once a week almost doubles the hypertrophy results.
  • When performing single-leg exercises, always start with the lagging body part first.
  • If some of the exercises are painful for you (like squats or lunges), skip them for a while and strengthen your muscles and joints with other exercises or machines first.
  • Usually, personal coaches recommend the beginners start with three to four sets of 12-15 repetitions of one exercise. For maximum hypertrophy, at the end of the set, you have to feel as if you almost can’t do this anymore. Choose weight accordingly: Not too heavy so that you can perform all reps and all sets; not too light, so you feel tired after the exercise.

Sources:

  • Mangine G. T., Hoffman J. R., Gonzalez A. M., et al. (2015, August). The Effect of Training Volume and Intensity on Improvements in Muscular Strength and Size in Resistance-Trained Men. Physiological Reports. DOI: 10.14814/phy2.12472
  • Peterson M. D., Pistilli E., Haff G. G., et al. (2010, November 27). Progression of Volume Load and Muscular Adaptation during Resistance Exercise. European Journal of Applied Physiology. DOI: 10.1007/s00421-010-1735-9
  • Paoli A., Marcolin G., Petrone N. (2009, January). The Effect of Stance Width on the Electromyographical Activity of Eight Superficial Thigh Muscles during Back Squat with Different Bar Loads. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. DOI: 10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181876811
  • Stastny P., Lehnert M., Zaatar A. M. Z., et al. (2015, November). Does the Dumbbell-Carrying Position Change the Muscle Activity in Split Squats and Walking Lunges? Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000976
  • Vanderka M., Longova K., Olasz D., et al. (2016, August). Improved Maximum Strength, Vertical Jump, and Sprint Performance after 8 Weeks of Jump Squat Training with Individualized Loads. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine. PMCID: PMC4974862
  • Aguilera-Castells J., Busca B., Morales J., et al. (2019, August). Muscle Activity of Bulgarian Squat. Effects of Additional Vibration, Suspension, and Unstable Surface. PLoS One. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0221710
  • Contreras B., Vigotsky A. D., Schoenfeld B. J., et al. (2016, February). A Comparison of Gluteus Maximus, Biceps Femoris, and Vastus Lateralis Electromyography Amplitude in the Parallel, Full, and Front Squat Variations in Resistance-Trained Females. Journal of Applied Biomechanics. DOI: 10.1123/jab.2015-0113
  • Barbalho M., Coswig V., Souza D., et al. (2020, May). Back Squat vs. Hip Thrust Resistance-training Programs in Well-trained Women. International Journal of Sports Medicine. DOI: 10.1055/a-1082-1126
  • Schoenfeld B. J., Pope Z. K., Benik F. M., et al. (2016, July). Longer Interset Rest Periods Enhance Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001272
  • Schoenfeld B. J., Ogborn D., Krieger J. W. (2016, November). Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Medicine. DOI: 10.1007/s40279-016-0543-8