A solid dumbbell leg workout doesn’t involve pumping out endless squats: You want a lower-body routine that includes all the major movement patterns.
“The main thing is, in a good leg workout, you want to have all the basic compound movements,” says ACE-certified personal trainer Sivan Fagan, founder of Strong With Sivan in Baltimore, MD, tells SELF. tells SELF. “You want a hip hinge, a squatting pattern, a hip bridge pattern, and hip abduction.”
By incorporating these functional movement patterns into your leg workout, you’ll end up challenging muscles in the front of your lower body, like your quads, and in the back of your body, like your glutes and hamstrings. That makes it a comprehensive, intense lower-body workout.
But when we say intense, we don’t mean that you’ll be sweating all over the place. In fact, if you’re looking to get stronger (and maybe also build muscle), a leg workout that focuses on getting you sweaty isn’t going to be the best way to do it.
“If you’re focusing on speed, or doing as many reps as possible in a certain amount of time, and only taking a little bit of time to rest between sets, you’re not going to be able to lift as much weight, which is key to building strength,” says Fagan. “A workout that focuses on getting you as sweaty as possible or as fatigued as possible is not equal to an effective workout.”
That’s why in this five-move dumbbell leg workout from Fagan, you’re going to take the time for ample rest—1 to 2 minutes—between either straight sets or supersets (when you do two exercises back to back). This will give you time to recover, which will give your muscles the rest they need to be able to complete the same number of reps during your next set. Over time, you’ll notice you’re able to lift more weight or do more reps with the same weight. That’s progressive overload, and it’s vital to getting stronger.
You should rest long enough during your rest intervals for your heart rate to get back to near-baseline, but that doesn’t mean the workout will feel easy. You’ll be performing lots of compound moves—exercises that work multiple muscle groups across more than one joint—and sprinkling in a lot of unilateral, or single-legged work, too.
“When you are doing single-leg work properly and not rushing through it, it’s intense,” says Fagan. “It requires balance and core stability.”
The focus on unilateral work in this dumbbell leg workout is also particularly important now, as many of us are working out at home without access to our usual gym equipment. Unilateral leg exercises feel harder at lighter weights than bilateral exercises do, which make them super convenient for when you don’t have lots of weights at your disposal, says Fagan. (To continue to work on progressive overload when you can’t increase weight, you can slow down the tempo of the moves and add pauses—say, at the bottom of a lunge or top of a glute bridge—to increase time under tension for your muscles.)
Here’s what you need for a dumbbell leg workout that’ll smoke your muscles but rein in the sweat.
What you need: A pair of dumbbells. (If you don’t have weights, you can use objects around your house, like water bottles or laundry detergent bottles.)
- Single-leg deadlift to reverse lunge
- Single-leg glute bridge
- Weighted glute bridge
- 5 O’Clock Lunge
- Side-Lying Leg Raise
- For the straight set, complete 8-12 reps per side. Rest for 1-2 minutes. Complete 3 to 4 sets.
- For superset 1, complete 8-15 reps per side of the single-leg glute bridge, and 8-12 reps of glute bridge. Rest for 1-2 minutes. Complete 3 to 4 rounds.
- For superset 2, complete 12-15 reps per side of the 5 o’clock lunge and the side-lying leg raise. Rest for 1-2 minutes. Complete 3 to 4 rounds.
Demoing the moves are Amanda Wheeler (GIFs 1 and 4), a certified strength and conditioning specialist and co-founder of Formation Strength, an online women’s training group that serves the LGBTQ community and allies; yoga teacher Grace Pulliam (GIF 2); Rachel Denis, a powerlifter who competes with USA Powerlifting and holds multiple New York State powerlifting records (GIF 3); and Krystal Salvent (GIF 5), NASM-certified personal trainer in New York City.