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April 27, 2020 11 min read

Are you one of those people who says, “I should work out more,” but gets lost when they arrive in the gym, wondering what exactly to work out? It’s better to arrive at the gym with a clear goal in mind. What part of your body do you want to work out? If you’re looking for leg curl alternatives, you probably want to work out your legs, but may not realize it also targets your core. 

When we say it targets your legs, what does that mean specifically?

Specifically, it improves flexibility and strengthens your hamstrings. Flexibility in your hamstrings is important because they are often some of the tightest areas when running or doing other agility exercises. It’s always recommended that you stretch out your hamstrings before and after a long run. When you do leg curls, you expedite that process and make them more able to endure an intense cardio workout. 

With strong hamstrings, you can gain serious explosiveness and power that contribute to many other exercises.

They will help you get a foundation for lower back exercise, especially if you strengthen your glutes at the same time. With that, on top of preventing injury and gearing up for a great workout.

Why People Do Leg Curl Alternatives

One of the main reasons is some people prefer to do their workouts at home rather than getting a gym membership. The most standard way to do a leg curl is through a leg curl machine, which is an investment most people don’t want to make for their home gym. It makes much more sense to invest in kettlebells, sandbags, or even a barbell with some plated weights. So there are lots of leg curl alternatives you can do. 

How to Do the Original Leg Curl

To do a standard leg curl, you’ll lie down on the bench with your face directed toward the floor and your lower body at the end of the bench. You can stabilize yourself with your hands on the ground or you can lay on them on your sides, palms facing up. That will be slightly harder, but you have to make sure you don’t use them to help force the weight up as you lift! 

Reach your legs underneath the bar and hold the weight just above your ankles. While lying flat, lift the leg curl bar upward, until your legs reach all the way back, causing the padded part of the bar to touch your buttocks. Lower it back down again, but don’t let it completely touch the floor. Right before it hits the floor, go right back into the next curl. 

Inhale as you release the weight and exhale as you go into the hardest part. The important thing is to make sure you feel the focus in your abs in the back, the upper part of your thighs, which are your hamstrings. 

A girl doing a leg curl workout in a gym.


8 Best Leg Curl Alternative Exercises 

The main thing to consider when looking for leg curl alternatives is to find something that works these two main areas: your core and hamstrings. Here are some of the best options that will meet that requirement:

1. Stiff Leg Deadlifts

With normal deadlifts, you have to bend your knees so that you can safely lift the weight, but stiff leg deadlifts do it a little differently. If you’re using a barbell, find a bench or a stool that is sturdy enough not to slide around. Then, rest the barbell on the stool so that it reaches your shins at mid-height. 

Reach down and grab the barbell as you would with a normal deadlift (arms hip-width apart, and palms facing down), lifting it up to your waist and lowering it back down again. Breathe in while you’re lowering the weight and breathe out while you’re lifting the weight. During the entire movement, make sure your core and hamstring muscles are activated. 

To focus your body on one muscle group can be tricky if you haven’t gotten the hang of it yet. One way to get it done is by squeezing that part of the body. If you’re not used to feeling when a certain part of your body is activated, squeezing it can help to make you more aware. As a bonus, it also makes the exercise more intense and helps you get the maximum strength and benefits out of the move.  

You can actually improvise the stiff-leg deadlift with the Romanian deadlift easily. All you have to do is turn your hands so that your wrists are facing the barbell instead of facing away from it. Doing both deadlifts helps your lower-body strength.  

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2. Kettlebell Swings

Kettlebell swings are a fantastic exercise and actually target even more muscle groups than the hamstrings. The kettlebell swing is a full-body workout, which is important, even when you're mainly focused on leg exercises.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart with the kettlebell on the floor slightly in front of you.
  • Hinge at your hips and with your knees slightly bent and grab the handle and tilt it towards you. (Never start the swing from a standing position with the kettlebell between your knees, it is a recipe for injury.)
  • Now this is the crucial part: Engage your lats similar to how you would in a deadlift. (It may feel a little awkward because the bell handle forces your hands closer together). This will engage your shoulders and keep your entire torso moving as one unit.
  • To begin the swing, 'hike' the bell between your knees and when you feel the weight of the bell begin to come forward, pull it through your knees by powerfully extending your hips, glutes, and quads forward. The whole exercise is done with one powerful movement, so keep that in mind. 
  • Swing the kettlebell up until both of your arms are straight in front of you, fully extended. (At the top of the swing, the bell should feel like it's floating momentarily until the momentum naturally starts to bring it back down in the same arc pattern)
  • Don’t set the weight down. Go directly into the next swing. Keep doing so for 5-10 reps.
  • When you are done with your reps, set the bell back in the same postion on the floor from which you started.
  • For this move, it’s easy to let your momentum carry the weight, rather than your muscles. Don’t let that happen. Be sure to activate your core, lats, and hamstrings. Make sure the weight is appropriate to your strength level. Don’t make it too heavy or you could end up pulling a muscle or losing the weight. 

3. Single-Leg Hip Extension

This is a bodyweight exercise. It’s great for doing at home, even if you have no equipment. 

  • Lie flat on your back on the floor. Your feet will be flat on the floor so that your knees are slightly raised. 
  • Raise one leg up into the air so it’s fully extended. If it’s closer to the floor, the exercise will be harder. If it’s higher up in the air, the exercise will be easier. Raise your hips up into the air until it’s straight and even with your body. Then lower it back down to the ground. 
  • As for your hands, you can either hold them behind or have them lying flat against your sides with your palms facing the floor. As with all movements, just make sure you don’t use them to propel your body. While you’re extending your hip, make sure you feel the pull in your core and hamstrings. If you’re feeling a strain on your neck, that means you’re lifting it wrong! 
  •  If you want to do a harder version, you can do it as a warm-up and then add weights. You’ll take a barbell, load it up with plated weights, and let it rest on the front of your body on your hips. It’s pretty challenging with both feet firmly planted on the floor, so it’s recommended to lift one leg. Do the hip thrust like you would without any weights. Just make sure it’s a powerful, explosive movement

Since this movement is not a high risk of pulling muscles or getting injuries, you can load up as much weight as you can handle. Do as many reps as you can. Rest for two minutes, then do another set. Try to do three sets per workout. 

4. Good Mornings

Good mornings also work your core and hamstrings, but you do it using the upper body. To do these, you’ll need a barbell and plated weights for added resistance. To get into position, it’s best to start under the barbell rack so that you can easily transfer that weight from the bar to your body.

The advantage of transferring directly from the rack to your body (as opposed to picking it up off the ground or a bench) is you can handle much more weight this way. Your whole body is much better at holding heavy objects than just your arms are. So duck underneath the barbell and take the barbell off the rack and onto your shoulders.  Make sure it doesn’t roll up onto your neck but stays on the shoulders. 

The movement itself is simple:

  • Bend down so your stomach is parallel to the floor, then raise your upper body back up to standing in a straight position.
  • If you use a heavy weight you can do an explosive, power move to get your body standing back up straight again. If you use a slightly lighter weight, you can raise your body slowly. Both are beneficial for different reasons and require different levels of technical proficiency to perform the exercise safely.

Explosive movements are great for quick acceleration and high power output which reduces the risk of injury and helps your body learn to be more adaptable. 

Slow and steady weight lifting is great for intense strength building. When you move more slowly, it forces your body to focus only on lifting the weight; it doesn’t give you any room to depend on momentum or force to help you raise the weight. 

A girl working out.

5. Russian Leg Curl

You don’t need any tools for the Russian leg curl. This one is almost directly opposite from the traditional leg curl because it moves your body and keeps your legs still. It’s a cross between a leg curl and a push-up. 

  • For the starting position, get in kneeling position with the tops of your feet touching the ground. Then, lower your upper body to the ground (like a push-up) until your hands touch the floor. Use them to push yourself back up to the starting position and do as many reps as you can. 
  • Make sure to activate your core during the move and to keep your back straight. Don’t let it hunch over or you will be putting a strain on your back rather than on the core and hamstrings where you want the action. 
  • Keep in mind this exercise is super hard! If you want a variation to make it more manageable Put an exercise ball or a low bench in front of you. When you go down, you can land on the ball or the bench and push yourself up from there. The bench (or even a chair) is the better option since the ball could move or roll around, and you will have to deal with keeping it in place. 
  • For another variation, you can simply cross your arms in front of you and just lower yourself as far as you can go. You don’t have to touch all the way to the floor. Each day, try to go a bit lower until you can make it all the way to the floor. 

6. Donkey Kicks

This is another bodyweight exercise you can do at home. 

  • For starting position you’ll be on your hands and knees on the floor (like you’re about to crawl). Keep your core tight and your back straight. Be sure to look straight ahead, not up or down. 
  • Lift one leg up into an extended position. Just remember, this is called a “kick,” not a “slow raise.” so kick it with force. Alternate between legs. 
  • This move works your core and hamstrings, but to get more out of it, some people turn it into the Superman move. That just incorporates your arms. So when you kick your right leg, your left arm will push forward until fully extended. When you kick your left leg, you’ll extend your right arm.  
  • You can also add weights for extra resistance. You can hold dumbbells in your hands. That will work out your arms and make it harder for your core. You can also strap on weighted bands to your ankles. Most people don’t have these lying around the house, so a good alternative would be resistance bands. 
  • If you use the bands you won’t use your hands. You have to hold the bands down with your hands to stretch the band to its fullest extension. 
  • For another variation, you can do the Donkey Kick with your hands raised, either up on a bench or on blocks. This will make the kicks harder because you’ll be focusing more pressure on the core. 

7. Stability Ball Hamstring Curls

As you may have guessed from the name, you will need an exercise ball (some call it a stability ball) for this one. 

  • Lie flat on your back with your arms at your sides, palms facing downward. Put both feet flat on the exercise ball, with your knees bent so the ball is close to your body, almost touching your buttocks. 
  • In one movement, extend your hips fully and extend your legs fully, so that the ball moves away from your body and your legs straight out. Be sure to extend your hips as far as they’ll go. The higher they go, the more muscle building you’ll get. 

Why is the stability ball hamstring curl different from doing it with no ball? When your legs are raised from the floor, you can’t rely on them as much. You are putting all the responsibility on your hamstrings and core. It’s harder, but putting the pressure on them will make them stronger and burn more fat at the same time.  

8. Reverse Lunges

While regular lunges tend to get your quads a little better, reverse lunges really pack a punch for the hamstrings. It’s much better to do lunges with some type of weight, rather than just bodyweight. Whether that may be a kettlebell, barbell, sandbag, or even a baby (if you have one), try to add weight to your reverse lunges. 

  • To do the reverse lunge, start in standing position, take a step backward as far as you can go, then dip down till your knee is just barely above the ground. 
  • Keep your back straight and your core tight. Make sure your toe is pointed straight forward and doesn’t move to the left or right. Keep your leg and knee aligned with your body so it doesn’t go too far outside your shoulder width or inside it. Having everything aligned and even will focus the move and make it the most effective possible.  

Which of These Moves is Right for You?

All eight of these hamstring exercises will get you the effects and results you're looking for. You don't have to do all of them in one go, but choose which ones work for you. What equipment do you have and prefer? Go with that. It's that simple. Give one or two a try, and then try out a couple more in your next routine. Your body is adaptable. Just let it try out different ones and see which one you enjoy, and which one helps you feel the burn. When it's all said and one, that's what it's really about. That, and getting ripped

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