It’s tempting to rely on clanking gym machines and heavy barbells on leg day, but you can use much lighter equipment and still challenge yourself – as proved by this simple legs workout which uses only dumbbell exercises. This six-move routine has been designed by personal trainer Cian O’Reilly, who is a huge advocate for glute workouts.
“Your glutes are crucial when performing lower-body exercise,” she says. “They are part of your ‘core network’, so building strength in these muscles is paramount for protecting you from injury and supporting safe movement – like when performing squats, for example.”
She advises that this workout is for people with a bit of experience with weights, but it can be modified for all levels. If you’re struggling with an exercise or aren’t sure your form is on point, try ditching the dumbbell and completing the movement with just your bodyweight. You’ll also find plenty of beginner-friendly moves with our picks of the best leg exercises and glute exercises for all levels.
The exercises target the glutes, quads and hamstrings, with the glutes and quads picking up most of the work during the concentric (lifting) phase of the movement. We recommend performing this home glute workout first to activate the muscles before you add weight.
You will need a pair of dumbbells (shop our recommendations for the best dumbbells to equip your home with some) and a box or bench.
There are a couple of ways to turn these dumbbell leg exercises into a workout. O’Reilly suggests a superset circuit format. Perform all the reps of exercise one, then all the reps of exercise two, then rest for 30 seconds. Move on to exercises three and four, and use the same format. Take 60 seconds rest after exercises five and six. That’s one circuit. Complete four circuits in total.
If you’re short on time, try performing each exercise as a circuit for 45 seconds with 15 seconds of rest for four rounds.
Reps 8-10 Rest 0sec
Stand facing away from a knee-high box or bench, holding dumbbells by your sides. Place one foot on the box. Your toes or the top of your foot can be resting on the box.
Keeping your back straight and ensuring your front knee doesn’t go further forwards than your toes, bend your front knee to lower. Drive through your front foot to stand for one rep. Do all your reps on one side then switch legs.
The depth of your squat will depend on your range of motion but aim for a 90° bend in your front knee. Try to avoid turning your back knee during the descent – keep your hips square. You can progress the exercise by pressing back up explosively to add a small hop.
2 Frog squat
Reps 10-12 Rest 30sec
Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing out at 45°. Hinge forwards at your hips and bend your knees into a low squat position; your back should be straight with your shoulders pulled back and bum low. Hook your elbows to the inside of your knees to prevent them from collapsing inwards, and hold one dumbbell in both hands. Slowly tilt your chest forwards towards the ground and lift your bum without fully extending your knees, then return to your starting position for one rep.
Continue in a see-saw motion.
Reps 8-10 Rest 0sec
Stand with your feet wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing out at 45°, with the dumbbells on the floor between your feet.
Hinge forwards at the hips and push your bum back, while keeping your chest up and back flat, and bend your knees to reach down and take hold of the dumbbells. Engage your core, move your shoulders back and down, then squeeze your glutes and drive through your heels to stand for one rep.
Thrust your hips forwards as you stand but not too far, otherwise you will overextend. Avoid any rounding through your spine.
4 Glute bridge with butterfly abduction
Reps 8-10 Rest 30sec
Lie on your back with the soles of your feet together, heels close to your bum and knees splayed to the sides. Tilt your pelvis towards your spine to flatten your lower back, and place a dumbbell on your hips.
Engage your core and glutes, then push through the sides of your feet to lift your hips until you form a straight line from your shoulders to your knees; you should feel your outer glutes engage. Pause at the top, then slowly lower back down.
To progress this exercise, place your feet on a box or bench to create a deficit and increase the range of motion through your spine. Try to keep your hips lifted at the top of the movement to prevent pressure on your lower back.
Reps 8-10 each side Rest 0sec
Stand in front of a box or bench at knee height, holding dumbbells. Engage your core, then place your right foot on the box and push yourself up to bring your left foot onto the box. Step down leading with your right leg for one rep. Repeat on the other side. To progress this exercise, choose a higher surface to step on.
6 Single-leg box squat
Reps 8-10 Rest 60sec
Stand facing away from a box or bench, holding a heavy pair of dumbbells close to your chest. Move your weight into your right leg and begin to lift your left leg out in front of you as if you were doing a pistol squat. Bend your right knee to lower your bum onto the box. Press through your right foot, keeping your left leg lifted, to stand for one rep. Do all your reps on one side, then switch legs.
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Sam is a personal trainer, reiki practitioner, and fitness writer at Future, the publisher of Coach. Having been trained to work with both the mind and body, Sam is an advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and aims to bring mental wellbeing to the forefront of fitness. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and how we can build more sustainable training methods. She writes about the importance of habit-building, nutrition, sleep, recovery and workouts.