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.
The quadriceps consists of four main muscles:
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 . 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
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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 . Here’s how to Bulgarian split squat:
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:
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:
It’s important to reduce the involvement of the back leg and try to use mainly the front leg.
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 .
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:
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:
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:
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:
Quad Workout With Dumbbells For Mass
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.
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.
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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.