How do dumbbell squats compare to barbell squats when it comes to building muscle? Not very well.
Both the dumbbell and barbell squat work many of the same muscles, most notably the quadriceps and glutes. However, the barbell back squat is by far the better option when it comes to stimulating growth in those muscles.
That’s not to say dumbbell squats are a complete waste of time. They’re certainly better than nothing.
But if all you have is a couple of dumbbells, there are far better ways to train your legs than dumbbell squats.
Dumbbell Squat vs Barbell Squat: Pros & Cons
One of the few benefits of dumbbell squats is the fact they don’t require much in the way of equipment.
All you need is a couple of dumbbells. This makes them ideal if you want to train at home, and there’s no room in your house for a lot of gym equipment.
You just pull the dumbbells out from under your bed, or wherever they’re stored, and start training.
The same can’t be said of the barbell back squat. This type of squat requires a barbell, weight plates and a squat rack.
However, the benefits of the dumbbell squat end there, and the cons far outweigh the pros.
Dumbbell Squat Variations
There are several different types of dumbbell squat, with each variation having its own strengths and weaknesses.
- Dumbbell Suitcase Squat
- Dumbbell Goblet Squat
- Dumbbell Front Squat
Dumbbell Suitcase Squat
The first downside with the dumbbell suitcase squat is that it’s an awkward movement. As you squat down, the dumbbells can end up hitting your knees or rubbing against your thighs.
This isn’t necessarily a deal breaker, but it’s far from ideal.
For an effective lower body workout, you’re also going to need some fairly heavy dumbbells.
The back squat works a number of large muscles in your hips, thighs, and lower back. To make your leg muscles grow, they need to be challenged with a relatively heavy weight. Squatting with a couple of 5-pound dumbbells isn’t going to do the job.
Which brings me to the next problem with dumbbell squats, namely that grip strength can be a limiting factor. That is, your forearm muscles will fatigue before your legs do, which makes it very difficult to deliver an effective training stimulus to your legs.
Dumbbell suitcase squats might be adequate for complete beginners who are just starting out.
For the complete novice, virtually any stimulus represents an unusual challenge to muscle tissue, which will adapt to that challenge, in part at least, by getting bigger.
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But for intermediate and advanced lifters, the muscles will already have adapted to such a low level of stress, and the dumbbell squat is unlikely to provide much of a stimulus for growth.
Dumbbell Goblet Squat
The dumbbell goblet squat involves holding a single dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest.
This solves the problem of the dumbbells hitting your legs on the way down. It also allows you to work your quadriceps and glutes through a relatively large range of motion.
Some personal trainers also use the goblet squat as an introduction to squatting, as some people find it easier to master than the barbell back squat.
However, one downside of the goblet squat is that holding the weight in front of your chest requires a lot of upper body strength.
Compared to the barbell back squat, this is going to limit the amount of weight you’re able to lift and how hard you can work your legs.
Dumbbell Front Squat
Next is the dumbbell front squat, which involves having the dumbbells rest on your shoulders. This solves the problems with grip strength. It also means the dumbbells don’t end up hitting your legs on the way down.
One other benefit of the front squat is that you get similar levels of muscle activation in the quads as you do with the back squat, but with less weight, meaning smaller compressive forces on the knee [1, 2].
However, it does introduce a new problem, which is getting the dumbbells into position in the first place.
Not everyone possesses the strength required to hoist a couple of heavy dumbbells from their sides onto their shoulders, then hold them in place for the duration of a set.
How to Train Your Legs with Dumbbells
If you don’t have room in your house for a squat rack, and you don’t fancy joining a gym, don’t despair.
You can still get an effective lower body workout with nothing more than a couple of adjustable dumbbells and a few other bits and bobs.
Here are two of my favorite exercises for training your legs with dumbbells.
Bulgarian Split Squat
First up is the Bulgarian split squat, also known as the rear foot elevated split squat.
Because you’re working one leg at a time, it’s easier to challenge the muscles in your hips and thighs without having to terminate the set because your grip isn’t strong enough.
The Bulgarian split squat works some of the same muscle groups as the barbell squat, namely the quads and glutes [7, 8].
It also allows you to train your lower body with minimal load on the spine, which makes it ideal if a bad back stops you doing barbell squats.
The split squat is also a good choice if your left leg is stronger than your right leg, or vice versa, and you want to correct any muscle imbalances that might exist.
The main downside is the lack of stability.
Because you’re working one leg at a time, balance can be a problem for some people. It can take a few weeks of regular practice before you’re able to do the exercise without wobbling around.
Grip strength can also be a limiting factor, albeit not to the same degree as it would be with the regular dumbbell squat.
One solution is to get some lifting straps, which allow you to hold on to a heavier weight for longer.
Personally, I like Harbinger Big Grip Lifting Straps. They’re a lot better than lifting straps made from cotton, mainly because they have a rubber strip that prevents the bar from slipping.
You can also wear a weighted vest, which typically adds between 10 and 30 kilograms (22-66 pounds) in load.
Combining a couple of heavy dumbbells with a weighted vest means you can still work up to some very heavy weights, making them ideal for intermediate and advanced lifters.
To get an idea of how heavy it’s possible to go with Bulgarian split squats, take a look at the video below. It shows strength coach Ben Bruno performing the Bulgarian squat with 335 pounds (152 kilograms). That’s a lot more than some people can squat with.
Alongside a couple of heavy dumbbells, Ben is wearing a weighted vest, as well as two heavy chains wrapped across his torso.
So don’t think that Bulgarian split squats are some kind of easy option, because they’re not.
A few heavy sets of split squats will give the muscles in your thighs and hips a solid workout, as well as leave you gasping for air.
- Place the rear foot on something stable like a bench.
- Practice doing the exercise without dumbbells using your body weight for resistance until you get the hang of the technique.
- Start off by positioning your feet shoulder-width apart. Play around with the placement of both feet until you find a stance that allows you to perform the exercise without losing your balance.
- The foot in front of your body should point straight ahead.
- Maintain a vertical torso or lean slightly forward throughout the exercise.
- As you squat down, make sure the front knee tracks in the same direction as the foot.
- Straighten your front leg to return to the starting position.
Dumbbell Hack Squats
Another effective way to train your legs with a couple of dumbbells is the dumbbell hack squat.
Here’s what it looks like:
Unlike the Bulgarian split squat, balance isn’t too much of a problem, because you’ve got the foam roller to lean against.
The fact your knees are out in front also means the dumbbells don’t hit your thighs on the way down.
Because there’s a wall behind you acting as support, you’re able to squat down into a relatively deep position, working your quadriceps and glutes through a full range of motion.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do dumbbells build more muscle than barbells?
Dumbbells don’t build more muscle than barbells, and barbells don’t build more muscle than dumbbells. One isn’t better than the other, they’re just different tools for different jobs. Some exercises are a better fit for dumbbells, and some are better done with barbells.
Do heavier dumbbells build more muscle?
You can build muscle with both heavy and light dumbbells, just as long as you train hard and push yourself in each set.
In fact, most studies show very similar gains in muscle size across a variety of loads, from light to medium to heavy.
That being said, there are limits to how light you can go and still stimulate an equivalent amount of muscle growth.
If the dumbbell you’re lifting is so light that you can do 40 reps or more, you’re better off using a heavier dumbbell, or switching to an exercise that allows you to challenge the same muscles in a lower rep range.
Can dumbbell squats build muscle?
Dumbbell squats can build muscle, particularly if you’re relatively new to lifting weights, where your muscles are highly responsive to any type of resistance training. However, most people are going to see faster gains with barbell squats.
Are dumbbell squats harder than barbell squats?
Dumbbell squats are certainly more awkward to do than barbell squats. They’re also harder on the forearm muscles, as you have to hold on to the dumbbells for the duration of the set. However, barbell squats are a far more effective way to train your legs.
Do squats work the hamstrings?
Hamstring muscle activation during the squat is relatively small. If you want to train your hamstrings, your workouts will need to include exercises like the Romanian deadlift or leg curl.
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