Hamstrings can be tricky to train — but that doesn’t mean you should ignore this important muscle group. Sure, the quads and glutes get more love! But failing to train muscles at the back of your legs can cause these other muscle groups to falter.
If you wish to build a stunning physique, don’t sleep on leg curls! The leg curl machine isolates the hamstrings and allows the user to zone in on this muscle group. Trying to do that big leg workout and your gym does not have a machine, no worries — you can still isolate and train these muscles with the following leg curl alternatives.
They work just as well, if not better!
Why Do We Need an Alternative to Leg Curls?
The leg curl machine isolates your hamstrings. This allows you to focus all of your energy on that specific muscle group. You can perform this exercise seated or in a prone position. The use of your quadriceps and glutes is rendered unnecessary, as you’re not performing a dynamic exercise that utilises several muscle groups at once — squats and deadlifts, for example.
Isolation exercises are important for overall muscle growth, but some argue the leg curl machine is not as effective as other hamstring exercises. After all, it’s an exercise machine and thus, forces your body into a fixed plane of motion, which can be pretty limiting.
Therefore, it’s wise to know leg curl alternatives whenever you hit the gym to provide your body with this supplemental training.
Are Leg Curls Bad for You?
Any exercise can be damaging to the body if done incorrectly. The same logic applies to the leg curl machine. The exercise can place a large amount of strain on the lower back if you ‘cheat’.
To avoid placing stress on the wrong muscles (which can lead to serious injury), start at a low weight. Avoid cheating by moving slowly and intentionally, and not jerking the weight around.
Moving the load from point A to point B means nothing if you fail to make the mind to muscle connection. You must perform the movement gradually, concentrating on firing that specific muscle group. Don’t let your lower back take over — this tends to happen if the muscle is weak or untrained.
Lastly, we want to note that leg curls are a fantastic exercise, but they may feel uncomfortable to some. Ensure you’re using a machine that feels most comfortable to you. Seated or lying leg curls both work fine, but explore some other exercises to add more variety into a tired routine.
The Benefits of Strong Hamstrings
There are several benefits to having well-trained and strong hamstrings!
Let’s review the most obvious — you’ll perform better in the gym with a well-trained physique. If you’re skipping training crucial muscle groups, you’re robbing yourself!
The legs are complex and made up of several muscle groups.
Think of it this way — you’re cooking a meal, but to save time, you skip out on using spices. It may taste unbalanced and undone. Therefore, to unlock the true value of the dish, you can’t take shortcuts. The same logic applies to weight training.
To lift heavier weights and hit personal records, all muscles must be accounted for.
Having strong hamstrings can also improve your cardio. Building more powerful legs means you can beat your personal best on the treadmill.
Your balance and stability can also improve when you incorporate a full hamstring-focused workout into your routine. The hamstrings stabilise the knee joint. The muscle also affects your hip and torso alignment, and the body’s centre of mass.
Lastly, having strong hamstrings can also help your legs LOOK stronger. If you’re training to achieve a more aesthetic physique, leg curls and similar exercises are a must, as failing to train the back of your legs can result in an uneven appearance.
Understanding the Hinge Motion for Optimum Hamstring Activation
Before crafting your exercise routine for your hamstrings, you must master the hinge motion necessary for completing most (if not all) exercises for this muscle group. If you don’t get this movement down, you may activate the wrong muscles during your workout, risking injury and muscular imbalances.
Start with zero weight. Place the palms of your hands at the top of your thighs. Now, slowly inch your palms down your legs. Keep your back straight and your chest up. Avoid curving your spine. Continue sliding down your leg until you feel a pinch at the back of your legs — this means you’ve fired up your hamstrings!
Practice this movement often if you feel certain exercises in your lower back.
12 Great Leg Curl Alternatives
Don’t have a leg curl machine at your gym? Here are the top exercises you can perform with alternative, zero or limited equipment!
1. Dumbbell Leg Curls
This exercise is similar to the leg curl machine. It’s more challenging to set up, but it allows for a better range of motion. Let it be known that this exercise is for intermediate weightlifters, as it requires a level of stabilisation and strength many novice gym goers may not possess right away.
It involves mimicking the same movement pattern as the leg curl machine, however, with free weights.
What You Need
You will need a pair of moderate to heavy dumbbells.
How to Perform Dumbbell Leg Curls
- Place a light to moderate dumbbell on the floor at the end of a short bench
- Lie prone (on your stomach) on the same bench and make sure your feet are positioned towards the dumbbell
- Inch down the bench and use your feet to nestle the dumbbell in between your left and right foot (this can be tricky!)
- Stay lying down and bring both legs up towards your tailbone with the weight tucked between your feet
- Slowly lower the weight back down until your legs are levelled with your body and the bench
- Complete another rep by bringing the weight towards your tailbone once again
2. Yoga Ball Curls
This exercise is one of the best movements for beginners. It’s also a beneficial strengthening motion for the core. You simply need a large exercise/stability ball. Use your legs to roll the ball towards and away from your body. The positioning of your body and the ball targets your hamstrings in the same way a leg curl machine would.
What You Need
You will need one large stability ball that measures 65 cm in diameter.
How to Perform Yoga Ball Curls
- Start by lying on your back with an inflatable exercise ball near
- Ensure you’re wearing sneakers, so your feet don’t slip off the ball
- Place both feet near the top of the ball and keep your knees bent towards your chest
- Straighten and extend your legs out, moving the ball away from your body
- Bring them back in towards your body to complete the rep
3. Stiff Leg Deadlifts with Barbell
Have access to a barbell?
The following barbell exercise is one of the best free weight exercises for the hamstrings. The deadlift is a compound movement, meaning it works several muscle groups like the legs, glutes, and even the core.
This variation, however, places most of the emphasis on the back of the leg, working out the hamstrings better than the standard deadlift.
Use these tips and steps to master the exercise.
What You Need
You will need one pair of moderate to heavy dumbbells and weighted plates.
How to Perform Stiff Leg Deadlifts
- Stand in front of a barbell with your toes directly under the bar
- Hinge your hips back and grab the weight with both hands
- Bring the barbell upwards, keeping your legs straight — the barbell should follow a fixed and straight line close to your shin
- Pause when the barbell is at hip height and begin to lower the bar
- Hinge your hips back while lowering the barbell, following the same fixed path
- Tap the barbell to the floor to complete the rep and repeat the motion
4. Stiff Leg Deadlifts with Dumbbells
Don’t have access to a barbell? You can swap out the barbell for two dumbbells instead. Follow the exact instructions previously listed. However, since dumbbells aren’t nearly as large as a loaded barbell, don’t tap the weights to the floor to complete your rep. Simply stop the movement around your ankles before coming back up to restart the rep.
5. Loaded Cable Curls
Cables offer a better range of motion than most machines, and for this reason, we had to include cable curls on the list for optimal hamstring exercises! You can perform these standing or while lying on a bench, though we recommend standing cable curls as they are easier to set up.
What You Need
You will need a weighted cable machine and an attachment for your ankle.
How to Perform Loaded Cable Curls
- Ensure you have a cable attachment for this specific exercise before starting — it should fit snuggly around your ankle
- Take a step back, so you’re a few feet away from the machine
- Face the front of the machine, where the weight stack is located and grab the metal holding for additional support
- Hinge your knee and kick your heel back towards your glutes
- Unhinge your knee and bring it back to your centre to complete the movement
- Switch legs to complete the set
6. Kettlebell Swings
Are you looking to squeeze in some additional cardio? This exercise will have your hamstrings burning and your body sweating!
Grab a heavy kettlebell and follow these steps to work out this muscle group until you’re limping out of the gym.
What You Need
You will need a heavy kettlebell to complete this exercise.
How to Perform Kettlebell Swings
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a kettlebell in between both legs
- Reach down and grab the handle with both hands
- Hinge your hips back and swing the kettlebell back through the legs
- Come back up with the swinging kettlebell and repeat this motion for multiple repetitions
7. Back Extensions with Modification
The back extension is a piece of equipment that can target more muscles than just the lower back. It can also work your hamstrings with the proper modifications. Therefore, try this exercise if the leg curl machine is taken.
What You Need
You will simply need a back extension machine to complete this exercise — they are typically placed with the ab-machines, so look for this piece of equipment on your next leg day.
How to Perform Modified Back Extensions
- Situate yourself onto the machine, so your thighs are touching the padding — your feet should be hooked through the lowest set of padded rollers at the bottom
- Move your feet, so your toes are facing outwards
- Hinge your hips and lower your body towards the floor
- Come back up, using your hamstrings to pull your entire body back to starting position
8. Good Mornings
This is an intermediate exercise for weightlifters looking for a challenge. Good mornings are hard to master but incredibly effective for hamstring growth. Consider these a close relative to the squat, as it’s a free weighted exercise that utilises the barbell and tests your stability.
What You Need
You will need a barbell, a squat rack and weighted plates.
How to Perform Good Mornings
- Load your barbell on a squat rack
- Step up to the rack and ensure the barbell is resting on your upper shoulder blades
- Unrack the barbell and take a step back
- Push your hips back until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings
- Keep your chest up, knees and back straight and don’t bend your knees — remember, this is not a squat!
- Come back up until your back is straight to complete the repetition
9. Cable Pull-Throughs
Here’s another easy cable exercise to train your hamstrings — the cable pull-through. You will need a pull-through attachment; you’ve likely seen individuals use these during tricep pull-downs.
What You Need
You will need a rope attachment and a cable machine with a heavy weight stack.
How to Perform Cable Pull-Throughs
- Clip the appropriate attachment to the cable machine
- Lower the hook attachment to the lowest setting on the cable machine
- Stand facing away from the cable machine and loop the rope through the middle of your legs
- Grab both handles of the rope attachment and pull through, as if performing a kettlebell swing
10. Slider Leg Curls
Short on equipment? We highly recommend this exercise! Use ab sliders or paper plates to allow your feet to glide across the floor seamlessly. Take the same principles as the stability ball curl, but use a different modality.
What You Need
You will need two paper plates or a pair of ab-sliders.
How to Perform Slider Leg Curls
- Start in a glute bridge with one slider underneath each foot — keep in mind, your back should be flat on the ground, but your hips should be raised
- Slide one foot out in front of you until your leg is straight
- Bring the same leg back towards your body
- Alternate your legs and perform the motion again until you’ve met your target number of repetitions
11. Nordic Hamstring Curls
You can perform these with a friend. This exercise is for intermediate gym-goers but can be attempted at home, as long as you perform this on a softer surface.
What You Need
For this set of exercises, you will need a partner and a padded yoga mat.
How to Perform Nordic Hamstring Curls
- Get onto your knees and have a partner ready behind you to steady your body
- Ask them to place light pressure on your calves as you perform the motion
- Have your hands in front of you and lower yourself towards the ground
- Have your hands catch you and use them to push back to your starting position
12. Single-Leg Hip Thrust
Lastly, we’ve added an excellent exercise for beginners! The single-leg hip thrust works the hamstrings and glutes but it can also improve your balance.
What You Need
For this last exercise, you will need a padded bench.
How to Perform Single-Leg Hip Thrust
- Place your back on the length of a padded bench
- Bend your knees, so you’re in a table-top position
- Bring one leg up and use your other leg to stabilise your body
- Thrust upwards, keeping one leg in the air
- Bring your body back down to starting position to complete the repetition
- If the exercise seems too easy, add a dumbbell to increase the level of resistance
Make Sure You Stretch Afterwards
Additionally, you want to ensure you’re stretching after your hamstring workouts.
Stretching can alleviate any tension from the workout and ensure you’re ready to train this muscle group again without nagging muscle soreness. A foam roller and low-resistance exercise bands are perfect for this type of cool-down.
Stretching assures your hamstrings aren’t too tight — which can affect other vital exercises such as squats, deadlifts, and even essential cardio!
Start by placing your hands behind your body. Then, insert your foam roller underneath your legs where your glute meets your hamstring.
Slowly roll back and forth, running the roller underneath the entire length of the muscle. Try a one-legged variation by placing one leg over your knee and switching legs after a few minutes.
The hamstrings are powerful muscles that don’t tend to receive as much attention as the quads.
However, they are just as important, so think of this when approaching your training routine. Leg curls are excellent! But if you’re looking for more dynamic exercises, try our list of leg curl alternatives. These movements are excellent for strengthening the hamstrings, and thus, your whole body!