15 Best Leg Workouts With Dumbbells for Strength and Mass

best leg workouts with dumbbells

Many people think they need to train their legs with either barbells or machines to get a good workout. This is far from the truth, as you can get a good training stimulus on your leg muscles with dumbbells, too, as long as you know which exercises to choose from.

So what are the best leg workouts with dumbbells?

  1. Dumbbell heel-elevated goblet squat
  2. Dumbbell wall reference Romanian deadlift
  3. Dumbbell offset goblet squat
  4. Dumbbell Camporini deadlift
  5. Dumbbell toe-elevated split squat
  6. Dumbbell heel-elevated split squat
  7. Dumbbell Bulgarian split squat
  8. Dumbbell front foot-elevated split squat
  9. Dumbbell ipsilateral loaded split squat
  10. Dumbbell contralateral loaded split squat
  11. Dumbbell reverse lunge
  12. Dumbbell Cossack squat
  13. Dumbbell step ups
  14. Dumbbell contralateral loaded lateral squat
  15. Dumbbell goblet box squat

You’ll want to understand all these exercises to choose the right ones for your goals. And avoid the common mistakes many lifters make.

In this article, we will go through the benefits of training legs with dumbbells, how to do the exercises, and what each exercise does. Then cover how you can avoid the popular pitfalls that can prevent you from reaching your lifting goals.

At the end, you will also find a sample leg workout with dumbbells.

5 Benefits of Training Legs With Dumbbells

Training legs with dumbbells can be more advantageous than training them with a barbell and machines. Understanding the benefits of training legs with dumbbells will help you determine which is right for your goal. Machines and barbells allow you to maximize the load going through your legs, but that might not be important for your specific situation.

Here are some benefits of training legs with dumbbells:

1. Start With Lighter Weights

With dumbbells, you can normally start with much lighter weights to help you get used to an exercise’s movement pattern. This makes it better than using barbells, which often weigh 45lbs or 20kg. 

2. More Accessible To Perform

Most gyms will have access to dumbbells, especially if they are a free-weight training facility like a Crossfit box. So if you train at different gyms frequently, it may be useful to choose dumbbell leg exercises since you can perform them at most gyms.

Dumbbell leg exercises are also ideal for people who work out in home gyms since dumbbells don’t take up much space.

3. Focus on Each Side of Your Body at a Time

A problem with barbells and some machines is that your stronger side might take over because both sides of the body are working at the same time. Dumbbells allow you to work on each leg individually, ensuring that each side of your body is trained equally in every workout.

4. Work on Asymmetries

Dumbbell leg exercises allow you to train asymmetrically, which can be useful if you have mobility or strength asymmetries. If your asymmetries give you movement issues in training, dumbbell leg exercises like the dumbbell offset goblet squat are one solution.

5. Train Through Longer Muscle Lengths and Range of Motion

When doing leg exercises with dumbbells, you can train the leg muscles through longer muscle lengths and ranges of motion. This is a superior condition for maximizing the stimulus for muscle mass. 

15 Best Dumbbell Leg Exercises

1. Dumbbell Heel-Elevated Goblet Squat

The dumbbell heel-elevated goblet squat is a great dumbbell leg exercise to train your quads, glutes, and adductors. It also works as a great warm-up exercise for your lower body dumbbell workouts if you struggle to squat deep or keep a neutral spine in squats.

How To 

  1. Stand on a heel wedge or elevate your heels with a pair of small weight discs.
  2. Hold a dumbbell in a goblet position at your chest with the palms cupping one head of the dumbbell.
  3. Keep your back flat and your head tall while facing forward.
  4. Keep the pressure on your feet as you squat down as low as possible and inhale as you descend.
  5. Stop before you feel like your pelvis is about to tuck under and your lower back is about to round.
  6. Stand back up and exhale as you straighten your legs.
  7. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Avoid relaxing into the bottom of the squat. Ensure you fully control your posture and keep constant tension throughout your range of motion. Do not relax and sit at the bottom of the squat.

Also, avoid overextending the lower back. You will naturally feel like you are more upright in this squat variation when compared to other squat variations. However, you do not need to over-emphasize sitting back or staying upright. This can cause you to overextend your lower back, which is not ideal for healthy movement at the hips.

2. Dumbbell Wall Reference Romanian Deadlift

The dumbbell wall reference Romanian deadlift is a great unilateral exercise, which trains one side of your body at a time. This variation targets the hamstrings and glutes well, stretching them to a long muscle length.

This exercise is also great at teaching you to hinge through your hips in deadlift-type movements. If you tend to round your lower back during lower body movements, this exercise works well as a warm-up exercise for your leg workouts with dumbells.

How To 

  1. Stand about one to two feet in front of a wall and place one foot against the bottom of the wall.
  2. Hold a dumbbell with the hand that is opposite your front leg.
  3. Keep a soft bend in your hips and knees, and hold the dumbbell in front of your hips.
  4. Push your hips back and bring your dumbbell down your front leg above your front foot.
  5. Make sure you keep your hips and knees bent and your front shin vertical.
  6. Stop when you feel like you reach your maximum range of motion before your hips tuck under.
  7. Stand back up and thrust your hips forward, stopping when you reach your starting position.
  8. Repeat the same process for the desired number of repetitions and do the same thing for the other side.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t lean forward too much during execution, and keep the focus on your center of mass in your heels. This helps to ensure that the activation is mostly in your hip muscles—namely the glutes, adductors (inner thighs), and hamstrings—as opposed to your lower back.

You also do not want to round your lower back, as you may risk injuring it. This may occur if you do not think about hinging through your hips enough or you go too far past your natural range of motion.

The dumbbell Romanian deadlift is great for training your glutes. But if your glutes are fatigued or you want to keep them out of the equation, try these leg exercises that don’t work the glutes.

3. Dumbbell Offset Goblet Squat

The dumbbell offset goblet squat is a good asymmetrical exercise that helps you load more into one side of your hips than the other. You will feel it more in one glute than the other.

If you shift your hips to one side in regular squatting exercises, this exercise can help you correct that issue.

How To 

  1. Hold a dumbbell in a goblet position at your chest with the palms cupping one head of the dumbbell.
  2. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart but with one foot about one to two inches behind the other.
  3. Keep your back flat and your head tall while facing forward.
  4. Keep the pressure on the heel of your back foot as you squat down as low as possible and inhale as you descend.
  5. Stop before your hip crease reaches below the top of your knee.
  6. Stand back up and exhale as you straighten your legs.
  7. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

This is not an exercise in which you want to exceed your natural range of motion. You need to keep your posture neutral throughout by keeping your back relatively flat.

You also don’t want to keep your feet too fat apart. Otherwise, you may not be able to get enough range of motion and execute this exercise properly. How far one foot should be behind the other is only about 1 to 2 inches.

4. Dumbbell Camporini Deadlift

The dumbbell Camporini deadlift is another useful asymmetrical hip hinge exercise that focuses on the glutes and hamstrings. The offset stance, where one foot is slightly behind the other, allows you to load into one side of the hip more than the other. The side you target more is the side where the foot is behind the other. 

How To 

  1. Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart but with one foot about one to two inches behind the other.
  1. Keep your back flat and your head tall while facing forward, and hold a dumbbell in the hand on the side of the front leg.
  2. Push your hips back and keep your knees bent as you bring the dumbbell toward the shin of your back leg.
  3. Make sure your shin is vertical throughout, and try to shift your whole center of mass onto your back foot.
  4. Once your torso is parallel to the floor, thrust your hips through and return your dumbbell to the side of your body.
  5. Repeat for the prescribed number of repetitions, then switch your foot position and repeat the same process.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

To get the most out of this exercise, think about constantly shifting your center of mass throughout. When you descend, it is important to shift your body weight sideways and backward onto the back foot, specifically the heel.

Also, as you rotate and shift towards one side of your body, be careful not to exceed your range of motion. Maintain good posture when you execute this exercise, so you do not compromise your lower back.

Wondering if you can safely train your legs on back-to-back days? Check out our tips for training the legs two days in a row.

5. Dumbbell Toe-Elevated Split Squat

The dumbbell toe-elevated split squat is another one of the best dumbbell leg exercises for unilateral training. It targets the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and adductors. The toe-elevated component of the exercise allows you to focus more on the hip muscles, specifically the glutes, hamstrings, and adductors (inner thigh muscles). 

How To 

  1. Set up a toe elevation with a heel wedge or a small weight disc to elevate the forefoot of your front leg.
  2. Stand in a split stance with a soft bend in both knees and your back knee directly underneath your hips.
  3. Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  4. Rotate your pelvis, so it points slightly towards the front leg rather than straight forward. This is called a forward hip shift.
  5. Inhale as you squat down as low as possible while keeping your back knee underneath your hips.
  6. Exhale as you stand back up and maintain a vertical front shin throughout the whole rep.
  7. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and repeat the same routine for the other leg.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t rotate your hips away from the front leg. Keep your hips rotated forward towards the front leg. Otherwise, you may risk losing balance during execution.

You should also avoid keeping too much pressure on the forefoot. You want to keep the pressure on your heels. If you go onto your forefoot too much, your heels may lift up, and you may activate your calf muscles instead.

6. Dumbbell Heel-Elevated Split Squat

The dumbbell heel-elevated split squat is another great exercise to add to any dumbbell lower body workout. By elevating the heel, you can emphasize the glutes and quads more.

How To 

  1. Set up a heel elevation with a heel wedge or a small weight disc to elevate the heel of your front leg.
  2. Stand in a split stance with a soft bend in both knees and your back knee directly underneath your hips.
  3. Hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  4. Inhale as you squat down as low as possible while keeping your back knee underneath your hips.
  5. Exhale as you stand back up and straighten your front knee.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and repeat the same routine for the other leg.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t elevate the heels too much to target the quads and glutes even more. You want to keep a small heel elevation of no more than one and a half inches. If there is an excessive elevation, you may feel too much pressure on your toes.

Also, avoid excess forward and backward motion because you take the pressure away from your back leg. You should ideally move in an upward and downward motion.

7. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

The dumbbell Bulgarian split squat is an exercise that should be included in any dumbbell leg workout. It’s a popular split squat variation with the rear foot elevated on a bench, box, or other station.

Elevating the rear foot tips the body weight forward, loading more weight onto the front leg. This increases the torso’s forward lean, allowing you to squat deeper in your hips and knees. It works the glutes and quads really well.

How To 

  1. Set up an elevation for the back leg with a bench, exercise step, or racked barbell with a foam pad on it.
  2. Place the top of your foot on the elevation and stand about two to three feet in front.
  3. Grab a pair of dumbbells of your chosen weight.
  4. Keep your back knee bent and glute squeezed to keep the hip extended.
  5. Keep your shoulders over the front foot and squat down while maintaining that relative shoulder position over the front foot.
  6. Stand up and repeat for the desired number of repetitions, then repeat the same process for the other leg.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

As you are tipped forward during a Bulgarian split squat, avoid the tendency to stay upright and consequently overextend your lower back. Instead, allow your torso to lean forward slightly and maintain a flat back.

I also recommend not leaning backward too much. The Bulgarian split squat is supposed to work the front leg. If you lean back too much, you take the pressure away from the front leg and make the exercise less effective.

If Bulgarian split squats are too easy or too challenging for you, try one of these Bulgarian split squat progressions instead.

8. Dumbbell Front Foot-Elevated Split Squat

The dumbbell front foot-elevated split squat is similar to the Bulgarian split squat, but the front foot is elevated. This tips your body weight backward onto your back leg more. It works the quads of your back leg more while working the hamstrings and adductors on the front leg more. 

How To 

  1. Set up an elevation for the front leg with a bumper plate or low exercise step.
  2. Place the top of your front foot on the elevation and your back foot about two to three feet behind.
  3. Grab a pair of dumbbells of your chosen weight.
  4. With your back knee bent, squeeze your glute to keep the hip extended and the knee underneath the pelvis.
  5. Keep your shin vertical over the front foot and squat down.
  6. You can allow your front shin to move forward slightly, but keep it behind the toes.
  7. Stand back up and repeat for the desired number of repetitions, then repeat the same process for the other leg.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t hinge your hips back too much. If you do, you will take the tension away from your leg muscles, particularly your quads. Instead, think about lowering your center of mass downward towards the floor.

Also, ensure that your knees don’t become misaligned with your toes. If you push the knees outward, you may lose your balance.

9. Dumbbell Ipsilateral Loaded Split Squat

The dumbbell ipsilateral loaded split squat is a split squat variation where you hold the dumbbell on the same side as the front leg. This encourages you to push away from the loaded side, improving that hip’s external rotation (i.e., turning your thigh outward). You’ll likely find that the glutes work harder in this variation.

How To 

  1. Stand in a split stance with both feet pointed forward, your back flat, and your back knee underneath the pelvis.
  2. Hold a dumbbell on the same side as the front leg.
  3. Inhale as you squat down until your knee reaches or comes close to reaching the floor while maintaining a vertical angle of your front shin.
  4. Stand back up and keep a soft bend in both knees.
  1. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, switch sides, and do the same on the other leg.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

You may be tempted to point your back foot outward, but this can easily throw you off balance.

You also don’t want to roll onto the side of your foot. Your whole foot should stay firmly planted on the floor throughout the movement to keep you stable during execution.

10. Dumbbell Contralateral Loaded Split Squat

The dumbbell contralateral loaded split squat is another excellent addition to any leg dumbbell workout. It’s a split squat variation where you hold the dumbbell on the opposite side as the front leg. This encourages you to load into the hip of that front leg, improving that hip’s internal rotation (i.e., turning your thigh inward). You may find that the adductors work harder in this variation.

How To 

  1. Stand in a split stance with both feet pointed forward, your back flat, and your back knee underneath the pelvis.
  2. Hold a dumbbell on the opposite side of the front leg.
  3. Rotate your pelvis slightly to point toward the front leg.
  4. Inhale as you squat down until your knee reaches or comes close to reaching the floor, and maintain a vertical angle of your front shin.
  5. Stand back up and keep a soft bend in both knees.
  1. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions, switch sides, and do the same on the other leg.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Avoid pointing your hips away from your front leg, as you may find yourself wobbling and wanting to fall sideways. Make a conscious effort to keep the hips pointed slightly towards the front leg to help keep you balanced.

Another common mistake to avoid is not using the other arm to counterbalance. If you don’t know what to do with your passive arm, place your hand on your hip or stick your arm out sideways. This will prevent you from swinging your arm aimlessly, distracting you from keeping balanced.

Split squat variations of any kind are excellent exercises because they work multiple lower body muscle groups. Check out my other favorite compound leg exercises in 7 Compound Leg Exercises That Should Be In Every Program.

11. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge

The dumbbell reverse lunge is a great lower-body exercise similar to a split squat but more dynamic in nature.

You can make it more quad- and knee-dominant if you lunge back with a lesser range of motion and allow your knees to travel forward more. You can also make it more hip-dominant and focus more on the hamstrings and glutes by keeping your front shin vertical for as much of the movement as possible.

How To 

  1. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and hold a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Lunge one leg back into a split stance and squat down.
  3. Keep your back knee bent and underneath your hips, and keep that side of your hip extended.
  4. Push yourself forward and return your foot back to the starting position.
  5. Repeat the same process for the other leg and complete the total number of desired reps for each leg.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

A common mistake is when people keep the back leg locked out, which also causes the lower back to overextend. To make the most of the reverse lunge, you need to bend your back knee when you lunge backward so you can work both the leg and the hip muscles.

Not stepping back to the same spot every time is another common mistake. You should visualize a rough area of where you are stepping to keep the movement quality consistent. It may be useful to use a mirror to aid your execution.

Wondering whether it’s better to step forward or backward during lunges? Check out Is It Better To Do Forward or Backward Lunges?

12. Dumbbell Cossack Squat

The dumbbell Cossack squat is a great hip-dominant leg exercise focusing on the inner thigh muscles. How much you benefit from this exercise depends on your current hip mobility levels. However, over time, you will be able to get more range of motion just by practicing this exercise often.

How To 

  1. Hold a dumbbell at your chest with your palms cupping one head of the dumbbell.
  1. Stand in a wide stance with your feet pointed out slightly.
  2. Squat toward one side and push your hips back while keeping your knee in line with your foot.
  3. Keep both feet flat throughout.
  4. Push yourself away from that side and return to the starting position.
  5. Do the same thing as you squat toward the other side.
  6. Repeat until you finish the prescribed number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Keeping the feet too narrow is one of the most common mistakes I see in people who do this exercise. If you do not step out wide enough, you will decrease the amount of meaningful range of motion because you can’t squat deep enough to lengthen the hip adductors.

Another common mistake is not keeping the knees in line with the feet when you squat onto the leg you are moving towards. However, this is important because it will help you open up your hips and train the adductors properly.

Want to add more leg work to your routine but not sure how to schedule it? Consider training the back and legs on the same day.

13. Dumbbell Step Up

The dumbbell step up is a good unilateral exercise focusing on the quads, hamstrings, and glutes. You can perform all reps on one leg first if you want to prioritize your strength and muscle development for that leg. Otherwise, you can alternate between legs during the set.

How To 

  1. Stand in front of an exercise step or bench with a pair of dumbbells in your hands.
  2. Step up onto the step or bench with one foot, keeping your shin at a slightly forward-leaning angle.
  3. Pushing through the foot on the step or bench, step up with the other foot.
  1. Return the foot you used for your initial step to the floor first, then return your other foot to the floor.
  2. Ensure that you control your speed as you descend.
  3. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and do the same thing for the other leg.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t rely on your bottom leg to push yourself up. When you place your first leg on top of the step, use that leg as much as possible to get your body weight up.

You also don’t want to descend too quickly. During the descent, you want to maximize time under tension by lowering yourself as slowly as possible.

14. Dumbbell Contralateral Loaded Lateral Squat

The dumbbell contralateral loaded lateral squat is another great hip-dominant leg exercise. It is similar to the Cossack squat but focuses more on the adductors and glutes.

How To 

  1. Hold a dumbbell in your right hand.
  2. Stand in a wide stance with your feet pointed forward.
  3. Squat onto the left side and push your hips back while keeping your knee in line with your feet.
  4. Keep your feet flat throughout as you bring the dumbbell towards the inner side of the leg you are squatting toward.
  5. Push yourself away from that side and return to the starting position.
  6. Repeat for the prescribed number of repetitions, then switch hands and repeat the same process for the other leg.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

It is easy to turn this into a hip-dominant movement by bending the hips back. Instead, you want to ensure you bend at the knee. You may benefit from a slight heel elevation if you have trouble squatting down and bending at the knees.

Another common mistake is not keeping the back flat. This exercise is meant to primarily work your leg muscles, so keeping your posture neutral throughout the execution is important. Otherwise, you may strain your lower back.

15. Dumbbell Goblet Box Squat

The goblet box squat is one of the best dumbbell leg workouts for beginners. The range of motion is standardized and regulated by the height of the box.

The box allows you to rely less on your stretch reflex to propel you from the bottom of the squat. It can also teach you to keep your center of mass further back on your feet. This makes it a great variation for people whose heels tend to rise when squatting.

How To 

  1. Hold a dumbbell in a goblet position at your chest with the palms cupping one head of the dumbbell.
  2. Keep your back flat and your head tall while standing in front of an exercise step or box.
  3. Inhale and keep the pressure on your feet as you squat down until your hips touch the box.
  4. Exhale as you stand back up and extend your hips and knees.
  5. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes to Avoid

You want to avoid dropping down fast onto the box because you can hurt yourself, particularly your hips or back, when there is a sudden impact. You also do not give yourself as much of a training stimulus if you lessen the time under tension.

You also want to avoid rocking too much back and forth when you are on the box. You may rock slightly as you sit on the box, but you should keep your body under voluntary control during the movement and not rely on momentum. 

Sample Leg Workouts With Dumbbells

Below are two sample leg workouts with dumbbells that you can perform in a home gym, hotel gym, or any other gym with limited equipment:

Dumbbell Leg Workout A

  • Warm Up
  • Dumbbell Goblet Box Squat 3×10 5 reps in reserve
  • Dumbbell Wall Reference Romanian Deadlift 3×10 5 reps in reserve
  • Dumbbell Heel-Elevated Split Squat 2×15 3 reps in reserve
  • Dumbbell Cossack Squat 2×15 3 reps in reserve

Dumbbell Leg Workout B

  • Warm Up
  • Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat 3×10 5 reps in reserve
  • Dumbbell Camporini Deadlift 3×10 5 reps in reserve
  • Dumbbell Heel-Elevated Goblet Squat 2×15 3 reps in reserve
  • Dumbbell Contralateral Loaded Lateral Squat 2×15 3 reps in reserve

Frequently Asked Questions

Can You Build Legs With Dumbbells?

Yes, you can definitely build legs with dumbbells. You do not need to move heavy weights with machines or barbells to stimulate lower body muscle mass. A key thing to remember is to train your muscles through a long range of motion and lengthen the muscle as much as possible.

What is the Best Leg Exercise With Dumbbells?

The best leg exercise with dumbbells depends on what muscle you want to target. The dumbbell wall reference Romanian deadlift is the best for the glutes and hamstrings. For the inner thighs, the Cossack squat is the best. For the quads, the dumbbell Bulgarian split squat is the best.

How Heavy Should Dumbbells Be for a Leg Workout?

To get the best leg workout with dumbbells, the dumbbells should be heavy enough for you to achieve 6 to 15 reps while leaving 2 to 5 reps in reserve (meaning you should feel like you can do 2-5 more reps at the end of your sets). This will allow you to develop strength and muscle mass with challenging enough sets.


About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting, and accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience coaching various lifters, from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Alongside coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com