Leg Workout for Beginners

A basic leg workout can go beyond squats and wall sits. Including a dumbbell in your routine is a simple way to add a bit more weight to your leg exercises, strengthening everything from your calves to your hips to your glutes. We teamed up with Downtown Nashville YMCA personal trainer Reece Royster to get your legs warmed up and ready to build endurance. If you're not sure how many repetitions to do, Reece recommends starting with 2 sets (or rounds) of 10 exercises (also known as reps). This will give you a good idea of your level. If the reps seem easy, try picking up some heavier weights!

Before you go into these exercises, try the motions a few times without dumbbells. Form is much more important than adding weight, so if you're struggling to balance and think a few more practice repetitions will help you improve, start there.

Time to get warmed up!

Straight Leg Deadlift

  • Keep your legs as straight as possible, but don't lock your knees. You'll get the most pull out of your hamstrings through your glutes with straight legs.
  • Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider.
  • Bend forward, keeping your back and legs straight, and try to get a good reach. 
  • Come slowly back up to standing position.
  • Control the weights as you bend down to avoid any strain on your lower back.

Split Lunge

  • Step backward with one leg until you're in a comfortable split stance.
  • In a lunge, you never want your knee to go past your toe (this introduces the risk of ligament damage).
  • If you need to, bring your back and front feet farther apart to make sure your knee ends up in the right place.
  • Hold two dumbbells, one on either side of your body, and hold your chest nice and tall.
  • Bring your back leg down into a lunge, coming back up and straightening your front leg without locking your knee.
  • Try to get as close as you can to the floor without your knee touching.
  • Do not lock your front knee as you come up—this is not good for your joints. Straighten your knee as much as you can while still keeping it loose and flexible.

Standing Side Leg Raise

  • Start with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding one dumbbell with both hands.
  • Cross one foot in front and bring up a strong, straight leg to the side, stretching your hips.
  • This works both your adductor and abductor muscles.
  • If you're losing your balance, add a foot tap at the bottom to reset after each repetition.
  • To make the exercise more dynamic, use a resistance band around your calves to add tension to the side leg raise. The band should not bungee you back; control the downward motion to resist the band's pull.

Hamstring Curl

  • You'll need one dumbbell for this exercise. 
  • If you're just getting started, you may want to recruit a partner to help stabilize the dumbbell between your feet until you're comfortable on your own.
  • Lay flat on a mat, with the dumbbell between your feet. Hold it firmly.
  • Bring the dumbbell up as you bend at the knee into a 90-degree position.
  • Slowly bring the weight back down to the mat, tap it, and move into another repetition.

Let's challenge your balance.

Straight Leg Hand Pull

This exercise is the more dynamic cousin of the Straight Leg Deadlift. It challenges your balance and stability. 

  • Start with your feet straddled.
  • Hold one dumbbell with two hands on either side of the weight.
  • Keep one leg straight and strong on the ground. You'll be coming forward with a reach, keeping a straight back.
  • Keep your back leg straight with a pointed toe and lift it up as you bend forward.
  • You can focus on one leg or alternate legs with each bend.

Raised Split Lunge

This dynamic version of the Split Lunge works on your balance and core.

  • Push a bench against a wall so that it is secure and won't move backwards.
  • Your back foot should be pushing against the edge of the bench. This allows you to control the exercise and relieves any stress on your back ankle.
  • Come back into that comfortable split stance, making sure your knee won't bend past your front foot.
  • Lunge back, pushing into your back foot, bringing your back knee as close to the floor as you can. 
  • You'll find more mobility and a deeper stretch with the elevated leg.

Single Leg Squat

If you've had a knee injury, skip this one!

  • First, you may want to practice the motion with a TRX band. You can hold onto the band as a stabilizer, sitting back onto the bench. When you're ready, try the motion without the band and without weight.
  • Ready to add weight? Hold the dumbbell in a goblet (vertical) position, with both hands grasping the top, in the middle (symmetrical line) of your body.
  • Stand tall on one leg, and then, in a slow and controlled motion, sit back onto the bench.
  • When you lift yourself back up, try to use your leg strength (not just your core strength) to stabilize back into that single leg squat and then come up to standing position.
  • Alternate legs.

Engage your arms.

Dumbbell Squat

You may recognize this squat, often seen with a barbell.

  • When you're keeping the weight in front of your body with dumbbells instead of relying on weight resting on your back, you engage more stabilizing muscles to keep your core straight.
  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. The weight should not pull you forward. If it does, pick up lighter dumbbells.
  • If you're new to squatting, start with a bench below you and make it a goal to touch the bench every time.
  • This is a progression exercise, so once you're comfortable with the depth of your squat, remove the bench.

Reverse Lunge with Curl, Press & Raise

  • Start in a straddle stance. 
  • Step back—making sure that your back leg is coming far enough that your front knee doesn't pass your foot.
  • Bend your back knee until it almost touches the ground.
  • When you're ready, add in a curl at the bottom of your lunge. Alternate with adding an overhead press.
  • Once you've done a few reps of curls and presses, drop one of your dumbbells and hold the weight in front of you. Add a raise as you step back into the lunge.

Now that your legs are nice and stretched out, how about a little core workout? Keep those dumbbells handy and try our abs workout for beginners.