11 Best Quad Exercises With Dumbbells For Massive Quads

May 6, 2022

Just because you’re stuck at home or on the road with dumbbells as your training partner doesn’t mean you can’t crush your quads in an epic workout. While you may not get the loading of a barbell back squat, there are methods you can use to get similar loading on the quads.

Further, many dumbbell exercises allow ultra-high rep training giving you a ridiculous quad pump to stimulate new muscle growth. But to have complete quad development, we must have a basic understanding of the quadriceps anatomy.

Quadriceps Anatomy

The quadriceps consists of four main muscles:

  • Vastus lateralis (outer quad)
  • Vastus medialis (inner quad)
  • Vastus intermedius (middle quad underneath)
  • Rectus femoris (middle quad on top)
Anatomy Quadriceps

The vasti muscles are knee extensors and cross only the knee joint. The rectus femoris is also a knee extensor and a hip flexor that crosses the knee and hip joints. Different exercises preferentially target the vasti or rectus femoris muscles, so for complete quadriceps development, you must address this.

Closed chain exercises (feet on the floor or against a platform) target the vasti muscles [1]. Open chain exercises (e.g., leg extensions) target the rectus femoris primarily [2,3]. When training the quadriceps with only dumbbells, typically, you can only perform squatting movements that emphasize the vasti muscles of the quads.

But you can use a few exercise variations to target the rectus femoris with only dumbbells at your disposal.

11 Best Quad Exercises With Dumbbells

Goblet Squat

The goblet squat is often prescribed to teach beginners how to squat. The goblet squat can be used as a primary quadriceps builder for your training at home with only dumbbells. Unfortunately, it is difficult to load heavy enough to fatigue the quads before the arms, shoulders, and back give out.

Other equipment like a weighted vest can help increase the loading on your quads, turning the goblet squat into a genuine mass builder. Here's how to do it:

  • Hold a dumbbell in front of your chest in your palms. Your fingers will be pointing up as you wrap them around the end of the dumbbell. Your elbows will point down.
  • Sit between your legs with your feet slightly outside, hip-width apart, and toes pointing slightly out. Maintain a big chest as you descend.
  • Keep your elbows tucked, pointing down; otherwise, they will hit your legs, stopping your squat.
  • Push through your entire foot to return to the starting position.

Dumbbell Front Squat

The dumbbell front squat is similar to the goblet squat, except you will hold two dumbbells on each shoulder. Again, you will be limited by the weight you can support in your hands and arms, so it might be worth super setting heavier goblet squats with lighter dumbbell front squats to fatigue the quads. Here’s how to do it:

  • Swing two dumbbells to your shoulders. The end of the dumbbell will rest on your shoulder with your elbows high. This will help you maintain a big chest position as you squat.
  • Sit between your legs with your feet slightly outside, hip-width apart, and toes pointing slightly out.
  • Maintain the high elbow position and push through your entire foot to return to the starting position.

Dumbbell Squat

The dumbbell squat is more challenging than the goblet and dumbbell front squat, in my experience. You have no counterbalance as the dumbbells hang at your sides. It can feel awkward when descending to the bottom of the squat. Nevertheless, it's still an excellent option to hit your quads if you only have dumbbells. Here’s how to dumbbell squat:

  • Hold the dumbbells by your side.
  • Sit between your legs with your feet slightly outside, hip-width apart, and toes pointing slightly out. Maintain a big chest as you descend.
  • Push through your whole foot to return to the starting position.

Elevate your heels slightly on small plates to make these easier and hit your quads, placing more significant stress on your quads.

Dumbbell Walking Lunge

The dumbbell walking lunge is absolutely killer. If you only have dumbbells, I rate this as the best exercise you can do to blow your quads up. You can do very high reps and take shorter steps to emphasize your quads.

Holding dumbbells enhances the muscle-building stimulus from the walking lunge. Try lunging a whole football field, and you'll feel what I mean. Here's how to walking lunge:

  • Holding the dumbbells at your side, step forward with your right leg. In one smooth motion, your foot will hit the ground, and you will descend simultaneously.
  • Once your left knee is just above the floor or lightly touches the floor, push through your front leg and bring your left next to your right leg.
  • Continue the same pattern with your left leg and repeat.

Shorter steps, allowing the knee to travel forward, and keeping an upright torso will emphasize the quads during the walking lunge.

Dumbbell Split Squat

If you don’t have much space to move, the dumbbell split squat is an alternative to the walking lunge. The movement is relatively the same but with added stability. This means you can use heavier dumbbells for this exercise than the walking lunge. Here’s how to do it:

  • Stagger your feet so that your front shin is relatively vertical when in the bottom position. Your knee can travel slightly forward, which is better for quad development.
  • Your feet should be hip-width to have a stable base. Don't split your legs like you're on a tightrope; otherwise, balance becomes challenging.
  • With your bodyweight evenly distributed between your legs, hold dumbbells by your side and low your back knee to the floor. Essentially, you’re moving your hips vertically.
  • Push back to the starting position, emphasizing the front leg.

Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

The dumbbell Bulgarian split squat is another exercise you can perform very high reps to grow your quads. Because your back leg is elevated, you place more weight on your front leg forcing it to work more.

In contrast, the lunge and split squat have the back leg on the ground, which help significantly with the exercise. If you have bad knees, keeping a vertical shin can reduce the stress on the knees [5]. Here’s how to Bulgarian split squat:

  • Using a bench, place one foot on the bench with your shoelaces down. You will need to experiment with how far forward your stance leg is. Still, the bottom position should have the shin relatively vertical.
  • Holding dumbbells at your side, descend until your back knee is close to the floor.
  • Drive-up with the front leg to the top position.

Like the split squat, don't put your back leg on the bench directly behind you like a tightrope. Move your foot away from your body to provide a bigger base.

Dumbbell Supported Bulgarian Split Squat

The dumbbell-supported Bulgarian split squat is a better variation in my experience. You are more balanced by supporting yourself with one hand, making it easier to perform more reps and use heavier weights. A great recipe for growing those quads. Here's how to do it:

  • You will only need one dumbbell for this variation. Set your bench by a sturdy structure you can hold (power rack, chair, couch).
  • Hold the dumbbell contralaterally (opposite hand to the leg in front) and support yourself with the freehand.
  • Descend until your back knee is close to the floor.
  • Drive-up with the front leg to the top position.

Dumbbell Step Up

The dumbbell step-up is another quad exercise with dumbbells. In my experience, it targets the glutes harder than the quads but still is an excellent exercise to have in your toolbox. I’d recommend using a box that isn’t too high. Having your thigh parallel to the floor is the highest I’d go. Here’s how to do it:

  • Holding dumbbells by your side, step onto a box and drive with the leg until you’re standing tall.
  • Slowly lower yourself back to the floor.

It’s important to reduce the involvement of the back leg and try to use mainly the front leg.

Pistol Squats

The pistol squat is the most advanced quad exercise using dumbbells. You have no supporting leg placing all of your bodyweight on one leg. When squatting on two legs, the bodyweight above the hips equals 68% of your total bodyweight [4].

This increases to 84% being supported on one leg when on one leg. Interestingly, a bodyweight pistol squat is equal to performing a barbell back squat with your bodyweight on the bar.

Adding 50% of bodyweight during the pistol squat is equivalent to a 2x bodyweight back squat. Holding 100% of your bodyweight is equal to a 3x bodyweight squat.

This is what makes the pistol squat such a potent yet advanced exercise. Here’s how to perfect it:

  • Stand on an elevated surface. It’s much easier to have your leg hanging off the edge of a box vs. being on the floor.
  • Hold light dumbbells by your side to use as counterbalances. As you descend, perform a front raise with the dumbbells to counterbalance.
  • Get to the bottom position, so your bum is against your calves. Drive back to the top.

You will likely need to elevate your heels to make this doable, especially if you don't have the mobility.

Dumbbell Leg Extensions

All of the above exercises target the vasti muscles. The dumbbell leg extension is a dumbbell exercise to target the rectus femoris for complete quadriceps development. Unfortunately, there is not much resistance at the bottom of the exercise due to the strength curve.

The portion of the exercise with the most resistance is from halfway to the top. Here’s how to do it:

  • Sit on the edge of a high box, so your feet are off the ground. Put your legs together and place the dumbbell between your ankles.
  • Extend your legs and squeeze your quads at the top.

Dumbbell Sissy Squats

The dumbbell sissy squat is a very advanced quad exercise. The video details how to go from beginner to advanced, so master the beginner variations before loading the exercise with a dumbbell.

If you have bad knees, this exercise may be challenging. But easing into it can potentially relieve knee pain. It differs from a typical squat being a hybrid between the leg extension and the squat. Here’s how to do it:

  • Holding a dumbbell in the goblet position, push your knees forward as you lean back. Come onto your toes as you get deeper.
  • Push back to the top position.

Start with the unweighted supported variation at shallow ranges of motion to prepare your knees.

Dumbbell Reverse Nordic Curl

The reverse Nordic curl is a challenging exercise. It is even harder when holding a dumbbell. I wouldn’t advise using a dumbbell until you can do these with a full range of motion. If you are looking for a quad exercise for bad knees, the reverse Nordic curl can cure knee tendon pain due to the extreme eccentric contraction.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Kneel on a soft pad. Maintain a straight line from your knees to your head as you slowly fall backward. Control yourself as deeply as possible.
  • Bring yourself back to the starting position once you feel the stretch getting too intense.

Quad Workout With Dumbbells For Mass

Exercise

Set/Rep

A1) Heels Elevated Dumbbell Squat

4 x 20

B1) Dumbbell Walking Lunge

3 x 10/leg

C1) Dumbbell Leg Extension w/ Pause

3 x 15-20

D1) Supported Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

1 x 50/leg

Can You Get Big Quads With Just Dumbbells?

You can get big quads with only dumbbells. It will take some creativity, patience, and high pain tolerance as you venture into the 30+ rep range. You may get interesting looks as you walking lunge down your street, but the amaze and awe from your significant other when they see your quads is worth it.

Summary

These are the best quad exercises with dumbbells to grow and sculpt massive quads wherever you have dumbbells available. You will need to hit the higher rep range since you can't load as heavy as you would with a barbell, but you'll see excellent results with enough effort.

References

1. Zabaleta-Korta, A., Fernández-Peña, E., Torres-Unda, J., Garbisu-Hualde, A., & Santos-Concejero, J. (2021). The role of exercise selection in regional Muscle Hypertrophy: A randomized controlled trial.

2. Mangine, G. T., Redd, M. J., Gonzalez, A. M., Townsend, J. R., Wells, A. J., Jajtner, A. R., ... & Hoffman, J. R. (2018). Resistance training does not induce uniform adaptations to quadriceps. PLoS One, 13(8), e0198304.

3. Ema, R., Sakaguchi, M., Akagi, R., & Kawakami, Y. (2016). Unique activation of the quadriceps femoris during single-and multi-joint exercises. European journal of applied physiology, 116(5), 1031-1041.

4. Dempster, W. T. (1955). Space requirements of the seated operator, geometrical, kinematic, and mechanical aspects of the body with special reference to the limbs. Michigan State Univ East Lansing.

5. Mackey, E. R., & Riemann, B. L. (2021). Biomechanical Differences Between the Bulgarian Split-Squat and Back Squat. International Journal of Exercise Science, 14(1), 533.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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