Today, I want to show you some highly effective leg curl alternatives you can use to build bigger, stronger hamstrings.
IIf your gym doesn’t have a leg curl machine, or you want some hamstring exercises to do at home using a bench, a dumbbell or even just your own bodyweight, this page will show you what to do.
Leg Curl Exercise: Muscles Worked
The are three main variations of the leg curl exercise, all of which work the hamstrings:
- Lying Leg Curl
- Seated Leg Curl
- Standing Leg Curl
The hamstrings isn’t just one muscle, but a muscle group found in the back of your thigh that flexes the knee and extends the hip. The muscles that make up the hamstrings are:
- Biceps femoris
The semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and the long head of biceps femoris are bi-articular muscles, which means they cross two joints (the hip and knee) rather than one.
The short head of biceps femoris is shorter than the other hamstring muscles, hence the name, and crosses only the knee joint. Unlike the other hamstring muscles, it’s not involved in extending the hip.
Along with the hamstrings, your calf muscles are also involved in the leg curl. Your calves are comprised of two muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus. Gastrocnemius crosses the knee, and assists the hamstrings in flexing the knee.
The 17 Best Leg Curl Alternatives
Here are some highly effective replacements for the leg curl that you can use to train your hamstrings without the need for a seated or lying leg curl machine.
They use resistance bands, a suspension trainer, dumbbells, valsliders, or your own bodyweight to really challenge your hamstrings and make them grow.
Dumbbell Leg Curl
Sliding Leg Curl
One of the most effective ways to train your hamstrings at home without a leg curl machine is with an exercise known as the sliding leg curl.
If you have a wooden or tiled floor, you can put a towel, valslide or even just an old bit of carpet under your heels and slide them back and forth. As well as the hamstrings, the sliding leg curl also hits the glutes.
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Towel Leg Curl
Valslide Leg Curl
Single-Leg Hip Extension
If you don’t have a wooden or tiled floor, the single-leg hip extension is another option for working your hamstrings.
This is one of those exercises that doesn’t look like it’s doing much. But if you get your foot positioned in the right place, you will feel your hamstrings working pretty hard.
So play around with the position of your foot – as you move it further away from your body, you’ll feel it more in your hamstrings.
You can also do the single-leg hip extension with your front foot on an elevated surface like a bench, which allows you to work the hamstrings/glutes through a larger range of motion.
Hamstring Walk Outs
Glute Ham Roller
As the name suggests, the glute ham roller hits both the glutes as well as the hamstrings. It’s a variation on the sliding leg curl, but eliminates the need for a wooden or tiled floor.
TRX Hamstring Curl
Stability Ball Hamstring Curl
Nordic Curl (AKA Russian Leg Curl)
The Nordic curl is a tougher version of an exercise known as the glute ham raise, which requires a glute ham developer (a piece of equipment relatively few gyms have).
Studies show that the glute-ham raise is a highly effective way to train the hamstrings, with some research showing that it hits them harder than the lying leg curl.
If you find the Nordic curl too difficult, you can do it with a Swiss ball, as shown in the video below:
Banded Leg Curl
Sitting Leg Curl
Gliding Leg Curl
Barbell Stiff-Leg Deadlift
The barbell stiff-leg deadlift looks nothing like the leg curl, but it is actually an effective way to train the hamstrings.
Because the hamstrings cross two joints, you can train them with exercises like the stiff-legged deadlift (which involves hip extension) and the leg curl (which involves knee flexion) .
Barbell Romanian Deadlift
Although the barbell Romanian deadlift and stiff-legged deadlift look very similar, there are some important differences between the two.
From the starting position, the Romanian deadlift is initiated with a backward movement of the hips, whereas the stiff-legged deadlift involves more of a forward bend.
With the stiff-legged deadlift, the bar comes down closer to the ground, while the Romanian deadlift stops roughly at the midpoint of the shin (or the point where you reach the end of your hamstring flexibility).
If you have very tight hamstrings, the end point may be just below the level of your knees.
During the Romanian deadlift, as you lower the barbell, it stays closer to your lower body than it does during the stiff-legged deadlift.
Given a choice between the Romanian and stiff-legged deadlift, I prefer the Romanian deadlift, as I feel it much more in my hamstrings and less in my lower back.
In fact, some research shows that muscle activity in the hamstrings was actually greater with Romanian deadlifts than it was with the leg curl .
The kettlebell swing is similar to the Romanian deadlift in the sense that it targets the hamstrings via hip extension rather than knee flexion.
Studies show that it’s a medial-hamstrings dominant exercise, meaning that it works semitendinosus harder than biceps femoris..
45-Degree Hip Extension
Another effective exercise for the hamstrings, which trains them via hip extension rather than knee flexion, is the 45-degree hip extension.
There was an interesting study done by a team of Australian scientists, who used MRI scans to look at changes in hamstring muscle size with the Nordic curl versus the weighted 45-degree hip extension .
After 10 weeks of training, hip extension training led to faster growth in the biceps femoris long head and semimembranosus than the Nordic curl, which preferentially develops the semitendinosus and the short head of biceps femoris.
Modified Razor Curl
Are Squats a Good Substitute for Leg Curls?
Although squats are sometimes recommended as an effective alternative to the leg curl, they’re not a very effective way to stimulate growth in the hamstrings.
The barbell squat hits mainly the quads, glutes and adductors. While the hamstrings are involved to a degree, they’re not going to grow much from squats alone.
In one study, researchers looked at muscle growth in the lower body after ten weeks of squatting twice a week .
Several of the muscles that make up the quads grew by around five percent. The adductors and glutes grew by 6-7%. The hamstrings, on the other hand, didn’t grow at all.
How to Structure Your Lower Body Workout
In general, if you want your hamstrings to grow, it’s a good idea to incorporate exercises that involve both hip extension and knee flexion into your workout routine.
For example, let’s say that you’re following a 4-day upper/lower split, training your legs twice a week. Here’s what a lower body workout, working the quads, glutes and hamstrings, might look like:
- Barbell Squat 3 sets x 5-8 reps
- Romanian Deadlift 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Bulgarian Split Squat 3 sets x 12-15 reps
- Banded Leg Curl 3 sets x 8-12 reps
- Standing Calf Raise 4 sets x 5-8 reps
The Romanian deadlift targets the hanstrings via hip extension, while the banded leg curl involves knee flexion.
If you want to train your hamstrings at home, or your gym doesn’t have a leg curl machine, there are plenty of alternatives out there that do a very similar job. While they don’t match a leg curl machine for convenience and ease of use, they’re a surprisingly effective way to train your hamstrings.
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