A movement that activates muscles in the hips and legs, the dumbbell squat is classic foundational exercise to build strength and power in the quads, hamstrings and glutes.
Dumbbell squats might not look as impressive as squatting a heavy barbell, but they are the perfect exercise to practice good form, as they tend to utilize lighter weight as resistance for a higher number of reps.
What’s also great about dumbbell squats is there is minimal equipment needed: Just a pair of dumbbells at whatever weight you find is comfortable.
Why should you be doing dumbbell squats?
The squat is a classic exercise that you’ll learn in your very first workout class. It’s a movement for the lower body, and builds strength in some of the vital muscles we use for movement and explosivity. No matter what kind of athlete you are, squats benefit a range of sports. Run faster, jump higher, lift heavier.
When performed correctly, squats help prevent injuries, strengthens your core, improves your balance and posture, and increases calorie burn.
Why add weight?
Adding weight to your squats in the form of dumbbells (or barbells and kettlebells) is how you increase intensity and resistance, strengthening the lower body.
In the beginning is if very important you nail your bodyweight squat before adding weight. This will prevent injury further down the line when you start experimenting with different weight loads. Master the technique first.
What are the benefits of dumbbell squats?
The dumbbell squat is a beginner movement that builds muscle in the lower body and has a ton of benefits for general functional fitness. This movement mainly targets the quadricep muscles in the front of your thighs and the gluteus maximus found on the buttocks. Dumbbell squats help build stability in the calves and activates the hamstrings in the back of the thighs.
Dumbbell squats a great functional exercise in teaching the body how to lift heavy loads correctly to aid movement in all aspects of day-to-day life.
- Gluteus maximus
The gluteus maximus is the largest and heaviest muscle in the body, and is responsible for powerful lower limb movements such as stepping, climbing and running — but is not greatly used during regular walking.
This large muscle rotates the hip joints, and due to its size it generates a lot of force, which is vital to develop over time as it aids many functional fitness movements, and especially in CrossFit. The muscle’s function is associated with the erect posture and changes to the pelvis, it also serves in stability. It functions to maintain the erect posture as one of the muscles that extends the hip joint.
All variations of squat are some of the best exercises to target this muscle.
Your quads are located in the from section of your thigh, and are a large muscle group made up of four smaller muscles known as ‘The Heads.’ These muscles are:
- Rectus femoris muscle (occupies the middle of the thigh, covering most of the other three quadriceps muscles)
- Vastus lateralis muscle (on the outer side of the thigh)
- Vastus medialis muscle (on the inner part thigh)
- Vastus intermedius muscle (on the top or front of the thigh)
The quads are another powerful muscle group responsible for force and forward motion. They are powerful extensors of the knee joint, and keep your kneecap stable and posture upright. These muscles are vital in walking, running, and squatting.
Because we use our quads so much, they are prone to injury. Strength training and exercises like dumbbell squats are a great way to keep your quads injury-free.
Dumbbell Squats: Correct Technique
There are a couple of different dumbbell squat variations you can try for this movement, but in both instances the squat movement stays the same.
If you are not yet comfortable with the squat movement, practice first using your body weight, or against a wall. And don’t forget to warm up.
Variation 1: Dumbbells down by your sides
Start out by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart. Holding a pair of dumbbells at your sides. Have your feet facing straight ahead, but keep your toes pointed slightly outwards. This will help with your balance and to put less pressure on the knees.
Brace your abdominal muscles and lock your back at a slight angle forward. You will want your back to remain rigid throughout the exercise letting your abs, glutes, and quads do all of the work.
Then you’ll want to bend your knees and slowly lower into a squat. Push your hips back so your knees come slightly forward. Stop when your hips are about parallel to the floor. Do not round your spine but keep your trunk tight. Your knees will want to be in a straight line with your toes to do be doing the squat correctly.
Slowly stand back up and make sure you don’t lock your knees at the top. You’ll want to repeat this movement for 10-12 reps, and you should feel it in your glutes and quads.
Variation 2: Weights at the shoulders
The second variation of a dumbbell squat takes the dumbbells from your sides and moves them onto your shoulders.
Bring the dumbbells up to your shoulders and rest them there with your elbows pointing forward. Repeat the same movement as you would if you were doing a bodyweight squat.
Keeping the weights at your shoulders means that the extra weight is a little more centralised and might help you feel more stable. It might also help with you move up to heavier dumbbells.
Variation 3: Single weight dumbbell squat (Goblet Squat)
The third variation of a dumbbell squat uses a single dumbbell held at your chest to create resistance. This is a good dumbbell squat variation to try if you want to try with lighter weight or find that this variation if the most comfortable.
To do this variation, take one single dumbbell and hold it at chest height. It’s important you hold the weight close to your chest and not out in front of you. This will cause unnecessary strain on your shoulders and arms which means you’ll get tired faster.
How do I know when to add more weight?
As you get stronger, you’ll want to add more weight to your squat. But how do you know when it’s time? And how much weight should you bet adding to your dumbbell squats to make sure they are both safe and effective?
There are a few questions to consider if you want to move on to heavier dumbbells.
- Are you able to complete 15 reps with good form and a decent amount of effort?
- Do you feel like you’re plateauing and want to challenge yourself? How do you feel after each set?
- Have you tried increasing the weight but completing less reps? Think 6-8 instead of 10-12.
Source: Courtesy of CrossFit Inc.
A good rule of thumb is to increase each weight by 10%: If you start your dumbbell squat using 10kg (22lbs) per dumbbell, try increasing each one to 12kg (26lbs) and so on. This will protect your muscles from overloading and gently increase the resistance, helping avoid injury.
Dumbbell Squat Workouts
Now you’ve mastered the dumbbell squat, here are 5 workouts that incorporate the movement to add a powerful lower body exercise to your workout.
1 “Speed Demon”
3 Rounds for Time:
- 30 Dumbbell Front Squats (35/25 lb)
- 30 Up-Downs
Use a single dumbbell and hold it in a front rack or Goblet Squat position. For each Up-Down, start standing tall, then drop your hands to the floor and kick your feet out into the Plank position.
Immediately hop your feet back up to your hands and stand tall again to complete the repetition.
2 “The Gentleman”
AMRAP in 22 minutes:
- 22 Dumbbell Snatches (22.5×15 kg)
- 4 Man Makers (2×22.5/15 kg)
- 20 Burpees
- 20 Single Dumbbell Front Squats (22.5/15 kg)
On a 22-minute clock, perform as many rounds and repetitions as possible (AMRAP) of the prescribed work in the order written.
Score is the total number of rounds and repetitions completed before the 22-minute clock stops.
10 Rounds For Time:
- 11 Chest-to-Bar Pull-Ups
- 22 Front Squats (75/55 lb)
4 “Eric Allen”
5 Rounds for Time:
- 5 Front Squats (135/95 lb)
- 10 Burpees
- 20 Double-Unders
With a running clock, as fast as possible perform the prescribed work in the order written for 5 rounds. Start the front squat from the ground (no rack).
Score is the time on the clock when the last round of Double-Unders is completed.
5 “Taylor 91”
For Time (with a Partner):
- 91 Pull-Ups
- 91 Shoulder-to-Overheads (95/65 lb)
- 91 Front Squats (95/65 lb)
- 91 Burpees
With a running clock, with one partner working at a time, perform the prescribed work in the order written as fast as possible. Partners switch as needed.
Score is the time on the clock when the 91st Burpee is completed.