April 12, 2021 10 min read
Leg curls are a common exercise used to build strength in the calves and hamstrings. While it may be a key component of many leg day workout routines, the leg curl has some shortcomings. For instance, it’s an isolation exercise that requires a specific machine.
Luckily, there are plenty of leg curl alternatives that build strength in all the key lower body muscle groups with very little additional gear. Grab a resistance band and try out some of the 10 best leg curl alternatives for functional strength and a toned lower body.
It’s true that lying leg curls involve your glutes more than seated leg curls and as such have a lower risk of knee and hamstring injuries. If you are convinced a leg curl exercise needs to be part of your exercise routine, the lying leg curl is the one you should go with.
However, there are better hamstring exercises out there that also incorporate the glutes and calves. Some popular leg curl alternatives that will give your hamstrings and calves a great workout include kettlebell swings, good mornings, lunge variations, Romanian deadlifts, and glute bridges.
As you can see, they range from technically complicated to simple and straightforward. You can use these leg curl alternatives to build a routine that not only hits your glutes, hamstrings, and calves, but also your hip adductors, quadriceps, and core.
The exercises in this guide not only mimic the strength-building benefits of a traditional leg curl, but they do so in a more functional way. Many are compound exercises that target more than just the calves and hamstrings. In some cases, they target muscle groups throughout your whole body.
You can use a lighter weight or rely strictly on body weight if your goal is functional strength and not huge muscles. Resistance bands are a great way to keep tension on your muscles throughout an exercise.
Some of the exercises, such as the Norcid hamstring curl, require almost no additional equipment. Mix exercises that are done in a standing position with those done in a prone position to hit your leg muscles from every direction. Don’t forget to move laterally and not just in a straight line to build athletic ability and pivoting strength.
If you want to give your hamstrings a real workout, you have to move your knee joint through its whole range of motion. Don’t settle for simple lunges where the knee bends to a 90-degree angle and back.
Standing, walking, balancing, and moving your ankle joint will bring the calves into the mix. Check out these 10 leg curl alternative exercises to build lower-body strength with minimal equipment and a greatly reduced risk of injury.
This exercise mimics leg curls in a certain way and does engage your glutes and hamstrings. But the movement requires your hamstring muscles primarily for hip extension, which is different and less risky than their performance during leg curls, even stability ball leg curls.
If you want to build strong hamstrings, nothing beats the stability ball hamstring curl. You can use the stability ball for a host of other hamstring exercises and build your core strength by balancing on the ball during arm isolation workouts as well.
To get into the starting position for a stability ball hamstring curl, lie flat on your back with the bottom of your calves and your heels resting on the ball. Stabilize yourself a bit better by placing your arms out to the side with your palms down. Clench your glutes, engage your core, and lift your hips off the floor so that a straight line runs through your torso.
Don’t drop from this position throughout the exercise. Pull your heels toward you so that the stability ball rolls. When you can’t move the ball any further, reverse the movement until you’re back in the starting position.
For this exercise to be as challenging as possible, you’ll need either a resistance band or a pair of dumbbells. Otherwise, no equipment is necessary. Using one leg at a time not only engages your core and stabilizer muscles but also works each leg more per rep. The movement for this deadlift is much easier than its compound namesake. You can use it as a warm-up, cooldown, or to fill intervals in a HIIT routine.
Start in a standing position with the dumbbells in each hand. If you’re using a resistance band, wrap it around your thighs above the knee. You can also use a resistance band that attaches to each ankle, just make sure it’s elastic enough to get the full range of motion out of this exercise.
Slightly bend one knee and then move the opposite leg up behind you. This should cause your torso to lean forward. Continue moving until your body is in a straight line parallel to the ground, except for your supporting leg.
Your arms should be holding the dumbbells just above the ground if you’re using them. You’ll feel some hip flexion at the bottom of the move. Hold it there for a second or two before rising back to the starting position.
The kettlebell swing uses momentum to exercise your entire posterior chain, which is the name given to all the muscle groups on the backside of your body. Leg curls might isolate the hamstrings and even incorporate the glutes, but few exercises bring the whole system together for realistic movement quite like kettlebell swings.
Begin in a standing position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the kettlebell with two hands in front of your waist. Make sure you have room to swing it behind you and in front of you without hitting anything.
If you don’t have experience with kettlebell swings, start slowly with light weights to reduce the risk of injury. Lock your shoulders and lift the kettlebell so it’s in front of your chest, then drop it down between your legs and out behind you.
Lift your heels and use the momentum to swing the kettlebell back up to chest level and repeat this pendulum motion 10 - 15 times. You should feel a bit winded afterward since the kettlebell swing does bring a bit of cardio into the routine.
Good mornings are another good stretch-exercise hybrid that can be used during your warm-up to prime your muscles for the rest of the routine or cool down when everything else is finished. There is a bodyweight version of good mornings with no equipment required, but you can also use a resistance band or hold a barbell on your shoulders.
With a resistance band around your legs or a barbell on your shoulders, stand with your feet hip-width apart. Hinge at the hips to lean your torso forward until your body is as close to a 90-degree angle as you can get it.
You should feel the burn in your core during a set of good mornings. Rise back to the starting position to complete one rep. Make sure you keep your back straight throughout the exercise.
Lunges are a classic exercise with a ton of possible variations. To get the most out of the exercise, we recommend performing walking lunges. Rather than walking forward in big steps, take one forward step and then move back into a reverse lunge on the same leg.
Holding dumbbells will help put more strain on your body. You can also do bodyweight lunges or wrap a resistance band around your legs. Any way you do them, these lunges are perfect for home gym workouts and you can target your hamstrings, glutes, quads, calves, back muscles, and abdominals.
Most people are probably familiar with the traditional lunge. These aren’t much different. Start in a standing position with a dumbbell in each hand and then take a big step forward with your right foot. It should be a bit larger than a normal stride.
Once you plant your right foot, bend your right knee so that your torso moves toward the ground. Your left knee should bend also. Keep dropping until your knees are at 90-degree angles and your front thigh is parallel with the floor. Your left knee should be just above the ground but not touching it.
Rather than rising back to the starting position, move your right foot behind you and bend the left knee to complete a reverse lunge. Continue going back and forth like so for 10 reps on each leg.
Your upper and lower back work together to stabilize your upper body during Nordic curls. It’s an isometric exercise for your calves but it primarily activates the glutes and hamstrings. Many people who experience back pain during deadlifts or other compound exercises enjoy the Nordic hamstring curl because it places much less stress on the lower back.
Although these two names technically describe different exercises, the only difference is that the glute ham raise uses a specific machine to get the user in the right position. Nordic hamstring curls can be done from pretty much anywhere as long as you have something solid to hold your feet down. They’re one of the best leg curl alternatives but also one of the hardest.
Make sure you warm up your knees and prime your core muscles before jumping into this exercise. When you first start, you’ll probably be doing a small number of these just because of the difficulty.
Find a stationary object or use a spotter to hold your feet. Once your feet are secured, get into a kneeling position on both knees. Lower yourself toward the ground until your body forms a straight line. Try to think of the bottom of the movement as a plank rather than going all the way down to the ground.
Reverse back to the starting position to complete one rep. You may find that you can’t get down at first, but keep at it and you’ll build the strength required to do so.
Single-leg hip extensions are a bit like the stability ball hamstring curls we went over earlier in this guide. If you don’t have a stability ball, this bodyweight exercise is an ideal replacement. Just like other single-leg exercises, this one works each leg harder.
The single-leg hip extension is essentially a single-leg version of the classic glute bridge, which means it’s a great hamstring workout in addition to being a stellar booty builder.
Lie flat on your back and place the soles of your feet flat on the floor by bending your knees at a 90-degree angle. Straighten one leg out and hold that foot aloft throughout the exercise. Slowly raise your hips off the ground until your torso forms a straight line.
Hold that top position for a few seconds and then lower back to the ground. Continue lifting your hips 5 - 10 times depending on your ability. Make sure you switch legs and do the same number of reps on each leg to build balanced strength.
This simple exercise is perfect for home workouts. It gives your hamstrings a unique workout because it allows them to move in a direction that they probably don’t very often. Your adductors, abductors, calves, and lower back muscles are all involved in this straightforward exercise.
You can accomplish this move with socks and a hardwood floor or you can use sliders. Anything that allows your feet to slide across the floor is fine, but it doesn’t have to provide any elevation.
Lie on your back and engage your glutes and core, then lift your hips slightly off the ground. Slowly slide your heels toward you until they can’t move up any further, then return to the starting position.
Add another dimension of movement to this exercise by sliding your heels out to each side rather than up toward your body. These sliding leg curls would benefit greatly from a resistance band wrapped around your thighs or heels.
Another bodyweight exercise that you can use for a warm-up, donkey kicks might be a little embarrassing to do at the gym but they have huge strength-building capabilities for your glutes and hamstrings.
The most important safety tip for donkey kicks is to make sure you keep your back flat and don’t hyperextend your lumbar spine, which could cause some pain or injury.
Start in a kneeling position with both your knees on the floor. Lean forward and place your palms flat on the ground. Make sure your wrists are stacked, which means they’re directly underneath your shoulders and your arms are a straight line. Your hips should also be directly above your knees.
Lift your right leg toward the ceiling without losing the 90-degree angle in your knee. Your thigh should make a straight line with your torso at the highest point, but be careful not to overextend. Lower the right leg and repeat 10 times. Move to the left leg after to make sure you build strength evenly. In both legs.
This exercise isn’t for people brand new to fitness, but you can use the other exercises in this guide to build up your deadlift strength until you can do the Romanian variation without any issues.
You will need a barbell or at least a bar for this exercise, although there are some DIY workarounds. Don’t throw this exercise into your daily routine. Try to keep it to 2 - 3 times a week so your muscles have time to recover.
Start with the barbell at your feet and your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold your chest up and sit your hips back slightly. Hinge at the hips and bend over so you can pick up the barbell.
Rise to a standing position with the barbell in front of your thighs. Slowly sink by moving your butt backward like you were squatting or about to sit down. Bend your knees until you’re low enough to put the barbell back on the ground, but keep it in your hands to continue through as many reps as you can do.
There are many ways to mimic the strength-building capacity of leg curls without depending on a leg curl machine. You can reduce your risk of injury and build other nearby muscle groups with any combination of the exercises in this guide to build functional strength and toned muscles throughout your lower body.