The Dumbbell Squat is a simple way to increase the challenge of your lower body training sessions. But a lot of people mess it up because they don’t understand the proper fundamentals of a good, safe squat…

It’s essential that you master unweighted bodyweight squats before putting this movement under any sort of load.

We like the Dumbbell Squat because it’s so easy to make this exercise “anytime, anywhere”. Your natural environment is likely full of dumbbell-substitutes just waiting to be called into action. You can use other fitness equipment, such as kettlebells (hold one in each hand, by your sides), two empty Olympic bars at the gym, or resistance bands wrapped under your feet. Or you can grab whatever happens to be nearby: suitcases filled with all your travel gear, pails filled with sand or stones, full jugs from the office water cooler, or odd objects with a sturdy rope wrapped around as a handle. The only limit here is your imagination!

The one caveat to using improvised gear is to make sure you start with items of equal weight, so the load is evenly distributed. You can experiment with one-sided lifting later on — suitcase-style deadlifts are great for the obliques! — but for now focus on mastering the basic version.

Check out the video for a primer on how to perform this movement.

Let’s review the main performance cues of the Dumbbell Squat:

  • Stand tall, with your spine long, core engaged, and feet about shoulder width apart.
  • Try to keep your feet straight and parallel, but don’t worry if you can’t. It’s okay to turn up to 15 degrees to the outside. Just make sure your knees track in the same direction as your feet.
  • Keep your shoulders pulled down away from your ears — your hands are just hooks for holding the dumbbells
  • Break at the waist first. Imagine you’re sitting on a chair placed behind you.
  • Squat to the point where you can maintain a flat back. That’s your current range of motion.
  • Press through your heels to return to standing.

It’s a simple movement, but the cues are important.

So where do you go from here? How can you incorporate the Dumbbell Squat into your program?

The obvious thing is to swap in Dumbbell Squats anytime Bodyweight Squats are called for. But you can also play with protocols a bit…

If your goal is strength, go hard and heavy for sets of 6 to 8 reps.

If your goal is muscular hypertrophy, you can work the weight up and down in a pyramid. So lets say you’re going to do 6 sets. Do your first set with a weight that you can lift 15 times. Then bump up the weight and do a set of 12. Increase the weight again and do a set of 10. Increase again and lift it 8 times. Increase again — it should be getting pretty heavy by now — and lift it 6 times. Finally, pick up a set of dumbbells that’s getting close to your max and perform 4 reps. If you’ve still got some gas left, work your way back down those same steps in reverse. That’s your pyramid. It’ll let you lift heavier for longer, which absolutely rocks when it comes to packing on beef.

Finally, those of you who are great at Jump Squats can start adding weight to the exercise. The same cues apply, except you’re driving even harder through your heels from the bottom of the squat and snapping your hips forward hard as you leave the ground. Catch yourself in a nice soft squat at the bottom and immediately reverse the movement. Just make sure you start light and increase the weight very gradually.

Give this simple but versatile movement a try, and let us know how you did in the Comment section.

Want to take your training from conventional to ‘odd exercises’ using your own bodyweight? Check out my Forbidden Fitness program, it’s filled with functional exercises drawn from more than two decades of real ninja training.