The barbell squat and deadlift, along with machine exercises like leg press, leg extensions and curls are staples in many a mass-building leg routine. For this reason, you might think a barbell and machines are essential tools for building bigger legs, but this isn't the case. Dumbbells can be a surprisingly effective tool for increasing the size of your quads and hamstrings, provided you know what exercises to pick to create maximum muscle growth.
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Dumbbell Leg Workouts: What Not to Do
Deadlifts and squats with a barbell are widely regarded as the two best leg-building exercises, due to the fact they work a large number of muscle groups, which means you can lift a lot of weight on them. Dumbbell squats are performed like a regular squat, but holding dumbbells at your sides or at shoulder height, while dumbbell deadlifts use the same movement as barbell deadlifts, only with a dumbbell in either hand. The trouble with these moves, however, is that neither particularly stimulate your legs in the way the barbell versions do. You'll spend more time trying to hold the weights and balance yourself, which will work your core muscles and forearms, but leave your legs lagging behind.
A Better Alternative
When targeting your quads and glutes using dumbbells, a better alternative is to focus on single-leg exercises. Perhaps the most challenging and potentially the most effective is the split squat. These are performed with a dumbbell in either hand and your back foot on a bench or box. From this position, you squat down, keeping the weight on your front foot and using your back leg for balance, and then you push back up. You can safely take split squats to failure, which gives you the opportunity to destroy your quads, notes trainer Nick Nilsson on the Critical Bench Website. Strength coach Ben Bruno also recommends variations of the split squat, as well as single-leg pistol squats with dumbbells. Bruno does admit, however, that you may spend a little time having to learn technique and balance with these exercises before you can add weight and start getting bigger and stronger.
Dumbbells Over Deadlifts
When taking barbell deadlifts out of your routine, you need something to replace them with -- enter the dumbbell stiff-legged deadlift. These are more hamstring dominant than regular deadlifts, which means you can't use as much weight, but they're still an effective thigh-builder. You may need to use wrist straps to help you grip the dumbbells once you start going heavier though. Alternatively, strength coach Jim Smith suggests adding dumbbell swings to your routine. Much like a kettlebell swing, these call your hamstrings and glutes into play to generate that hip snap.
Building Bigger Legs
Switching your leg training so you're exclusively using dumbbells doesn't have to limit your gains. In fact, if you've been used to using machines and barbells, the change in stimulus could even spark new growth. Be sure to utilize progressive overload, use heavier dumbbells and perform more reps and sets or more total exercises each workout to stimulate your muscles to grow. A higher-calorie diet is also essential for optimal muscle repair, recovery and growth.