The Best Leg Workout With Dumbbells Only To Try In 2023
Full Workout + The 10 Best Dumbbell Only Leg Exercises
By: Zack Mathews, NASM - CPT, CES, & PES, PN - L1
It might come as a surprise that you can have a challenging yet effective leg workout with dumbbells only.
Many people will state that the barbell is the best piece of equipment, but I would say that dumbbells are. They are versatile, easy to handle, and don’t put unnecessary stress on your spine like the barbell can.
When it comes to an effective leg workout with dumbbells only, you want to have a balance of knee dominant exercises, hip dominant exercises, unilateral movements, bilateral movements, and exercises that move you in all planes of motion.
I’m going to provide you with a detailed breakdown of an awesome dumbbell only leg workout, give you a list of the best leg exercises do with dumbbells, and answer a few frequently asked questions.
- Full Leg Workout With Dumbbells Only
- The 10 Best Leg Exercises With Dumbbells Only
- Can Dumbbells Tone Legs?
- Can I Get Big Legs With Dumbbells?
- How Long Should A Leg Workout Be?
Full Leg Workout With Dumbbells Only
This workout contains a mix of leg movements that require dumbbells, body weight movements, and a little sprinkle of ab exercises to get that burn going.
One of the most common workout splits is an upper / lower / upper / lower program. This workout will fit nicely as one of your lower body days since you’ll be mixing in core exercises.
Here’s the breakdown of the workout. Exercises that are not linked are broken down in more detail under the 10 best leg exercises to do with dumbbells.
A1: Goblet squats - 3 x 6 - 8. Go heavy!
Rest 2 minutes after A1
B1: Dumbbell Deficit Reverse Lunges: 3 x 6 - 8 per leg
B2: Bodysaws: 3 x 10
Rest 90 seconds - 2 minutes after B2
C1: Single Leg Deadlift: 3 x 8 - 10 per leg
C2: Eccentric Sit-ups: 3 x 10
Rest 90 seconds - 2 minutes after C2
D1: Walking Lunges: 2 x 20 per leg
D2: Seated Calf Raises: 2 x 20
Rest 60 - 90 seconds after D2
This leg workout with dumbbells only will include a blend of multiple things including:
- A heavy compound, bilateral (both legs working) exercise that will improve strength.
- Two separate single leg exercises with one being a knee dominant exercise (reverse lunges) and the other being a hip dominant movement (single leg deadlift).
- Two different ab exercises where one bends your spine and other keeps it straight (sit-ups vs bodysaws). If you want to add more instability to your core exercise, try stability ball pot stirrers.
- A high rep finisher to fatigue you and get a great burn in your legs and calves.
Make sure to take the proper rest after each exercise or superset and always pick a weight that is challenging.
If you do your 8 goblet squats and you could have done 20, you’re not working hard enough! Bump that weight up!
Also, if your form starts to suffer because the weight is too heavy, be smart and go lighter.
Feel free to screenshot the workout below and use it as much as you want!
The 10 Best Leg Exercises With Dumbbells
You can never go wrong with doing a classic goblet squat when you are doing a leg workout with dumbbells only.
It’s a classic for a reason.
It can help build strength, muscle, and it’s easy to learn and the risk of injury is very low. Whether you are a seasoned lifter or a beginner, this is a great movement to have in your routine.
If for whatever reason you don’t have a dumbbell that is heavy enough, you can always hold a dumbbell in each hand and put them on your shoulder to turn it into a front squat.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Here we go with one of the most hated exercises. It doesn’t matter what variation you use; dumbbells, barbell, or body weight, the Bulgarian split squat is a doozy of a movement.
It requires you putting your rear foot on a bench and performing a squat on one leg. This will transfer the majority of the weight onto your front foot.
It requires a high level of stability and once you can comfortably increase the weight, you will notice the difference in your legs.
I love Bulgarian split squats because it’s much more jointly friendly than a barbell squat if you suffer from back or knee pain.
Learn about 11 additional exercises you can do to build a back-friendly leg workout.
Any variation of lunges is going to be a great knee dominant leg exercise that is perfect to execute with dumbbells.
If you have healthy knees, go ahead and perform forward walking lunges.
The one cue I always mention to my clients is when you take each step, make sure the weight on the front leg stays in the heel.
If you take a step and your front foot is planted and your heel is off the ground, you are driving your knee too far forward, causing unnecessary stress on your knee.
There is nothing wrong with your knee tracking over your ankle, but I usually start my clients on focusing on a vertical shin, where when you take your step, the front ankle is in line with your knee.
Most leg movements are done in the same spot or forward and back. But we as humans move in all directions so it’s important to move in different planes.
That’s what is great about lateral lunges. It’s done in the frontal plane, rather than saggital like most exercises, so you’ll get to recruit new muscles you don’t normally prioritize.
You’ll be working your adductor muscle, aka your inner thigh muscle, which is an important muscle that helps build strength in your legs and can help prevent back injuries.
Dumbbell Deficit Reverse Lunges
We already talked about walking lunges a couple exercises ago, but I had to add this one because I love it so much.
First off, lunging backwards is safer on your knees than forward so that’s a good advantage to start.
When you stand on a platform like you’ll see in the video below, you are creating a deficit where your glutes are going to have to work harder to perform the movement.
All you need is a platform that’s a few inches high and you’ll notice a big difference in the difficulty of this exercise. I’m standing on a foam pad to create more instability, but you can stand on a normal weight plate if you have more of a strength and muscle building goal.
The last of the knee dominant exercises is a step-up.
When performing step-ups you want to make sure you select a box that’s not too high.
There’s nothing worse than seeing someone trying to do step-ups at the gym on a 48 inch box.
20 - 30 inches is perfect and won’t put excess stress on your hip flexors trying to get to a high platform.
Always have control when you do step-ups. Make sure to watch the video to see what I do on the way down to ensure that I get the most out of each rep.
Single Leg Deadlifts
Switching over to hip dominant exercises, we’ll start with one of my favorites, the single leg deadlift.
Performing this exercise on one leg makes for added stability, which means you’ll have to go lighter with the weight as you learn the movement.
Start by having the dumbbell in your opposite hand from the planted leg, this is called contralateral.
This will help distribute your weight better and help with balance.
If you have trouble with your balance, it’s totally fine to turn your hip dominant unilateral exercises into bilateral exercises by keeping both feet planted.
If you’ve ever performed a barbell Romanian deadlift, this is the same movement but with dumbbells.
I like this exercise as part of a leg workout with dumbbells because you’ll notice that I end with the dumbbells on my side, allowing my upper back to get some added work, whereas a barbell won’t allow that.
Split Stance Dumbbell Deadlifts
If you’re somewhere between being able to do single leg deadlifts but can do regular dumbbell deadlifts with perfect form, try this exercise.
By setting your feet into a split stance position, you’ll be putting all the stress on your front foot, so it’s as if you are doing a single leg deadlift but without the added level of stability.
This one can be tough to do for a dumbbell only leg workout because you’ll be holding the weights for a long time since you have to do both sides.
Hand Supported Dumbbell Deadlifts
The last of the hip dominate exercises will be a hand supported SLDL. Holding onto something is going to take the balance element out so you can work on really loading up the weight here to stress those hamstrings and make them grow.
Don’t start with this movement unless you can do a normal single leg deadlift with perfect form.
Seated Calf Raises
You might think that you can only work your calves with machines at the gym, but a leg workout with dumbbells only can still target those muscles.
During quarantine, I would use this variation to target my calf muscles since I didn’t have access to a normal seated calf raise machine.
You can either elevate your feet on a low surface to get better range of motion or keep your feet on the ground.
One Leg Standing Calf Raises
When you perform a calf raise from a standing position, you’ll be targeting both of the muscles in your calf, whereas a seated position will only target one, the soleus.
I’ve always found it best to do one leg at a time with one dumbbell so you can use the other hand for support.
Can Dumbbells Tone Legs?
You can absolutely tone your legs with dumbbells only as long as you have proper exercise selection and pick a weight that stresses your muscles. “Toning” usually means you want to build muscle and lose fat in an area and that will come down to your nutrition so make sure to pair your dumbbell leg workouts with good nutrition.
Can I Get Big Legs With Dumbbells?
If you pick weights that get you near failure when you do a leg day with dumbbells, your legs will get bigger. If muscle building is your #1 goal, make sure to eat in a calorie surplus and eat enough protein so your workouts will be worth it.
How Long Should A Leg Workout Be?
Depending on your experience with working out, 30 - 75 minutes is a good range for how long a leg workout should be. Always make sure to perform a proper warm up before you get to your main lifts and take adequate rest between sets.
If you want to learn warm-up exercises for your leg day that stretch your hips and lower back, check out these two articles:
How To Stretch Your Hips For Strong, Pain Free, Flexible Hips
How To Stretch Your Back To Alleviate Back Pain
A beginner can see results with as little as 30 minutes in the gym and as you get more experienced in the gym, you’ll be able to handle more volume.
If your workouts are taking you 2+ hours, I would audit your workout and see if you are lifting with enough intensity and/or taking too long of rest periods between exercises.
Dumbbell Only Leg Workout Recap
You’ve been presented with the best leg workout with dumbbells only that will have great blend of knee dominate and hip dominant exercises, along with exercises for your calves and abs.
For the 10 best leg exercises with dumbbells only, pick exercises to fit your experience level and feel good.
Remember to never train through pain and always practice good form on your lifts.