The Only 8 Dumbbell Exercises You Need for Powerful Legs

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Your legs power many of your everyday movements; keep them strong with dumbbell exercises like weighted lunges.
Image Credit: milanvirijevic/E+/GettyImages

Here's a good reason to never skip leg day: "Think of your legs like the foundation of a house," says Mike Donavanik, personal trainer and creator of Sweat Factor. "The stronger your legs, the more stable your entire body."

Plus, your legs are a huge muscle group, making up around half of your body. Because of that, he says, "when you work your legs, you're burning major calories — way more than if you just work arms."

Body-weight leg exercises are an important first step in perfecting your form and preventing injuries. But when you're ready to graduate to a new challenge, add a set of dumbbells to your lower-body routine. "By having extra resistance, you're placing a greater demand on the body, so you'll get stronger and burn more calories," Donavanik says.

Try these eight moves either as a complete workout or by adding your favorites to your next leg session.

How Much Weight Should You Lift?

"Don’t be afraid to go heavy," Donavanik says. "The mistake a lot of people make is choosing too light of a weight. In order to really see the benefits from training your legs, go heavier than you think you need to. You’re strong enough and your legs will be able to handle it."

1. Dumbbell Calf Raise

Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Legs
  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart with a dumbbell in each hand.
  2. Lift up onto your toes and pause.
  3. Lower your heels down slowly until your heels hover just about the ground.
  4. Repeat.

Tip

"Make sure you keep the knees soft, not locked out," Donavanik says.

2. Dumbbell Deadlift

Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Butt and Legs
  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart holding a dumbbell in each hand in front of your thighs, palms facing your body.
  2. Hinge from the hips, softening your knees as your hips sink enough to lower the weights toward the middle of your shins.
  3. Check your posture: Your spine should be straight and long, chest up and open, shoulders back.
  4. Engage all the muscles of your core to maintain this position as you push your feet into the floor, as if you were trying to push the floor away from you using your glutes and hamstrings, to pull the weights up and return to standing.
  5. Reverse the motion to lower the weights with control and repeat.

Tip

"Keep your spine neutral, not overly arched or rounded," Donavanik says. During the movement, think about pushing your hips to a wall behind you. And at the top of the movement, squeeze your quads and glutes without hyperextending your hips or overarching your lower back, he says.

3. Single-Leg Dumbbell Deadlift

Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Butt and Legs
  1. Start standing with a dumbbell in your right hand, feet planted about hip-width apart.
  2. Engage your core as you begin to raise your left leg straight behind you, hip hinging with your right leg and bending the right knee.
  3. At the same time, lower the right dumbbell toward the ground, keeping the weight relatively close to your body and your back flat.
  4. Once your torso is parallel to the ground, push your hips forward and reverse the motion to return to standing.
  5. Perform all your reps, then switch sides.

Tip

Focus your energy here on keeping your hips square to the floor, Donavanik says. Don't let your hips open up or rotate toward the lifted-leg side.

4. Dumbbell Lunge

Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Butt and Legs
  1. Start standing, holding a dumbbell in each hand. The weights can hang at your sides or you can lift them up to your shoulders.
  2. Step a few feet forward with your left foot.
  3. Lower into a lunge until both knees are bent to 90 degrees. Your back knee should hover just above the ground, and your front knee should be stacked over your ankle.
  4. Hold for a beat before pushing through your front foot to return to standing.
  5. Repeat on the other leg.

Tip

"Don’t be afraid to slightly lean forward," Donavanik says. This way, you engage more of your glutes. "By staying too upright, the lunge becomes very quad dominant," he says.

5. Dumbbell Reverse Lunge

Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Butt and Legs
  1. Start standing, holding a dumbbell in each hand. The weights can hang at your sides or you can lift them up to your shoulders.
  2. Step your left foot back a few feet, keeping the right foot planted.
  3. Lower into a lunge until both knees are bent to 90 degrees. Your left knee should hover just above the ground, and your right knee should be stacked over your ankle.
  4. Hold for a beat before pushing through your right foot to return to standing.
  5. Repeat on the other side.

Tip

If you have knee pain, opt for reverse lunges over the standard version, Donavanik says. Stepping backward allows you more control over how much (and at what angle) you're loading the front knee.

6. Dumbbell Side Lunge

Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Butt and Legs
  1. Stand with your feet together, holding a dumbbell in each hand at your sides.
  2. Root your right foot into the ground and step your left foot out to the side.
  3. Sit your butt back and down as you bend your left knee, keeping it in line with your left foot. The weights should frame either side of your left shin and your back should be flat.
  4. Press through your left foot to return to standing.
  5. Do all your reps on the left leg before doing the same number of reps on the right leg.

Tip

"Keep all 10 toes facing directly forward," Donavanik says. "The lunge should only be wide enough that you can control the movement. The inside leg should remain straight; it shouldn't bend during the movement."

7. Dumbbell Sumo Squat

Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Butt and Legs
  1. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart and your feet turned out at 45 degrees.
  2. Let your arms hang directly in front of you between your legs, holding a dumbbell in each hand.
  3. Bend your knees to lower yourself down into a squat. Keep your chest up, back flat and knees in line with your toes. The weights should almost touch the floor.
  4. Press through your heels to return to standing.

8. Goblet Squat

Activity Dumbbell Workout
Body Part Butt and Legs
  1. Hold a heavy dumbbell by one end at chest-height.
  2. Begin with your feet just wider than hip-distance apart. (Toes can face forward or turn out slightly.)
  3. Keeping your chest tall and core tight, hinge your hips back and down to sink into a squat so your upper legs are parallel with the floor (or as low as you can comfortably go with good form).
  4. Press through all four corners of your feet to return to standing.
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