Athlean-X founder Jeff Cavaliere C.S.C.S. has dedicated an entire series on his YouTube channel to highlighting the best dumbbell exercises for training specific parts of the body. Here, he lays out the moves that you can use to maximize your gains on leg day, providing alternatives to bilateral moves like barbell squats while focusing on goals like building strength, power, and hypertrophy.
When it comes to building strength, Cavaliere recommends two exercises. First is the reverse lunge, which engages the anterior chain. Having the correct form here is important: When stepping back, you can keep your balance and maintain a wide base of support by also stepping out slightly.
Second is the Romanian deadlift, which works the posterior chain. This move is performed in much the same way that you would with a barbell. As you lower the dumbbells, the main focus of the move is allowing the hips to hinge backwards, as far as your hamstrings will allow, then using the glutes to drive your movement back to an upright position.
“If you’re limited in here in the depth that you can go because of the flexibility of your hamstrings, it shouldn’t compromise the fact that you can still overload them with as heavy dumbbells as you can possibly hold here, and still get great benefits from the exercise,” says Cavaliere.
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Cavaliere’s choice for the best dumbbell exercise for achieving hypertrophy in your legs is the Bulgarian split squat. It can be used to engage the anterior or posterior chain, depending on the alignment of the torso. Front-loading this exercise while standing upright will work the quads, while back-loading it and leaning forward will focus on the glutes.
Cavaliere’s choice for power is the jump squat. By fully extending your ankles, knees and hips, he says that you allow the kinetic chain to pass that energy from the ground up into the jump. The key to this explosive movement is, quite logically, selecting weights that aren’t too heavy. “I like to aim for a weight that’s combined to be about 25 to 50 percent of your bodyweight,” says Cavaliere. “So if you’re a 200 pound person, you’re looking at a combined weight of 50 pounds, so 25 pounds in each hand.” This will help you achieve high quality, powerful repetitions. If you’ve never done jump squats before, start without dumbbells, then work your way up to carrying the load.
Fifth is a metabolic dumbbell exercise, walk the box. This exercise is all about using 3-dimensional movement to maximize the burn and train to metabolic fatigue, which creates a stimulus for muscle growth. “We really focus on the proper placement of the hips, you don’t want your knees caving in,” advises Cavaliere. “You want to be able to stay down in the bottom of this squat, maintain proper form and good thoracic extension through your upper back, and be able to walk around… You’re going to light up your legs in ways you never have before.”
For total body engagement, try squat cleans. This move builds power and strength for the entire kinetic chain as you clean the dumbbell from the floor to your shoulders. This exercise can also be expanded to include an overhead press at the upper end of the clean, for maximum upper body engagement.
The often overlooked adductor muscle group, which strengthens hip movement, is the aim of the corrective exercise. The muscles can be trained with the goblet adductor lunge, which involves sliding one foot away from the body, while the other remains fixed on a more stable surface. “You’ll realize that these muscles are pretty damn weak,” says Cavaliere, “so the purpose of the corrective exercise is to allow us to attack that weakness with a very specific attack plan.”
Cavaliere’s final choice, a miscellaneous move, is the offset dumbbell lunge. You’re doing this to target the glute medius, which the trainer says is just as overlooked as the adductors. The exercise is simple: Just hold a dumbbell in one hand, then lunge forward using the opposite leg. Your glute medius will work to prevent the weight from pulling you off balance, maintaining a level torso and pelvis.
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