When it comes to isolating the quads, few exercises do it better than leg extension. But what if you work out at home or maybe your gym doesn’t have a leg extension machine, that’s the problem that we’re going to tackle.
In this article, we are going to give you the 10 best leg extension alternatives that you can do instead or just add to your leg workouts. Let’s get started.
- What Are Leg Extensions?
- Muscles Worked In Leg Extensions
- Why Is the Leg Extension Exercise Important?
- 10 Best Leg Extension Alternatives
- Are Leg Extensions Bad For Your Knees?
- Leg Extension Alternatives: FAQs
What Are Leg Extensions?
Leg extensions are resistance weight training exercises done with a lever machine. It’s the best way to target the quadriceps muscle in the legs.
The reason you see the traditional leg extensions on so many workout plans is that it’s performed on a very common piece of equipment that most gyms simply have. In addition, it’s great for both beginners and advanced lifters. And when it’s done correctly, it will kill your quads. But it’s hard to replace the machine leg extension if you don’t have a leg extension machine.
Let’s look at how to isolate the quads with leg extension alternative exercises. But before we dive into that, let’s take a quick look at some basic quad anatomy first.
Muscles Worked In Leg Extensions
The leg extension is a single-joint exercise. It works the quadriceps which are on the front of the thigh.
The quadriceps, as the name implies, consists of four muscle heads going from inside to outside or medial to lateral. You have:
- the vastus medialis or tear-drop muscle;
- the vastus intermedius;
- the vastus lateralis or outer quad sweep;
- and then lying on top of those is the more superficial rectus femoris muscle. It is the only head of the quads that crosses both the hip joint and the knee joint.
The 3 vastus muscles perform only one function to extend the knee. But the rectus femoris head has two functions: hip flexion and knee extension as it crosses both the hip joint and the knee joint.
You probably feel the rectus femoris head of the quads getting a pump when you do hanging leg raises.
Why Is the Leg Extension Exercise Important?
When it comes to hitting the quads since all four heads contribute to knee extension the best thing to do is use exercises that train the extension.
In general, we recommend kicking off any quad-focused workout with some kind of heavy compound multi-joint movement.
The leg extension only acts on one joint and has a limited capacity for overload. So, it should be loaded in a higher rep range around 12 to 20 reps. And since the ability to overload is limited, we’re going to focus on progressively overloading through three other ways:
- improving technique;
- improving the mind-muscle connection;
- and improving the pump over time.
So, let’s focus on how to isolate the quads properly with a leg extension alternative at home.
10 Best Leg Extension Alternatives
1. Bulgarian Split Squat
Find a bench and put your foot on it. Do 2-3 steps forward. Keep your chest up and find that focal point ahead. You don’t want to be leaning all over. And then squat down.
- Shoulders should be above hips;
- Keep your body upright, do not lean forward;
- Aim for just about the right angle of the knee.
You can perform it with a dumbbell or a barbell once you’ve mastered this variation. Perform whatever works best for you. If you’re new to this exercise, try some lunges.
1. Improper distance
There are two ways to do this improperly. If you put your foot too close, you put a lot of strain on your knees. If you go way too far, it’s going to strain your hip flexors and it’s uncomfortable.
2. Poor foot placement
If you have your foot too far back all the way to the end of the bench. Although this will help with balance, it will limit your range of motion.
3. Too high or too low of a bench
It’s going to make it awkward and cause you lean way forward or lean way back.
2. Platz Squats
Tom Platz is a bodybuilding legend. He is “The Quad Father.” The Platz Squat is a highly effective exercise that targets a lot of body muscles, especially the quads. Squats will help to strengthen your knees. But this happens with the correct form.
How to Do the Platz Squats
Your feet should be shoulder-width apart. Toes are facing outward. Focus on sitting instead of bending. Lower yourself down in a seating position using your hamstrings. It’s okay if your knee passes your toes. You are going to rise your chest and hips at the same rate. Using your quads, you want to get tall until your legs are extended.
Practice this exercise in front of a mirror or take a video to assess your results.
3. Cable Leg Extensions
How to Do the Cable Leg Extension
Use a cable crossover machine this time. You can perform it standing or sitting. If you do it standing, you can use an inclined bench to support yourself. This exercise has two parts: the stretch and then the extension. Make sure that you squeeze your quads and exhale at the top.
Benefits of the Cable Leg Extension
The bonus of this exercise over regular leg extension machines is that it allows you to get a full stretch of your quads. It’s an excellent way to start your quad training.
4. Close Stance Leg Press
How to Do the Close Stance Leg Press
You want your feet to be about the middle of the platform. You can do close, regular or wide stances. Your toes are going to be pointed straight up.
Push up with your quads. Hamstrings stretch all the way down. Make sure that your pelvis doesn’t move. Feel it also in your hamstrings.
Benefits of the Close Stance Leg Press
It’s a perfect exercise to isolate your quads. By the way, a single-leg press hits quads better than a double. And the lower your feet, the better you target your quads.
5. Step-Ups With Dumbbells
The step-up is a great exercise for your lower body, in particular, your quads, hamstrings, and glutes. It’s also going to engage your core.
You can either hold some dumbbells or put a barbell on your back, but the key is quality primary movement.
The starting position
Stand about hip-width apart with your toes pointing forwards. Leave a couple of inches between the step and the front of your feet.
You’re going to lift one of your feet and put it onto the step. Make sure that your whole foot is on the step, so your heel is not hanging off. That’s very important.
Your hip, knee, and ankle are all aligned, so they’re in a straight line. That’s the start position.
How to Do the Step-Ups With Dumbbells
For going up, you’re going to use your front leg to drive you to go up, whilst keeping your body in an upright position.
Once up, you’re going to put your foot that has just come up down, and then lower yourself in a controlled way with good posture.
The first one, if you put your foot on a step, is losing this alignment. You loose the hip, knee, and ankle alignment, so the knee comes in. And that can be at any point of the exercise. And we want to avoid this because it’s going to put excess stress on the inside of the knee. Also, it won’t engage the glute properly. So, we want to make sure this is a nice straight line. So that’s the first mistake we often see.
The second one is as people push up, they use their back leg rather than their front leg. Whereas what we want to see is all the work coming from the front leg. The back leg is not doing anything, it’s all from the front leg.
Once you’ve mastered that, you can add some weight.
6. Dumbbell Goblet Squats With Elevated Heels
The heel-elevated goblet squat is an exercise we can do to increase strength in the quads as well as improve our positioning in a squat. We do need to use plates. If you’re at home, you can use books or anything that is about an inch or two high. So, put them down.
How to Do Dumbbell Goblet Squats With Elevated Heels
You’re going to stand about hip-width making sure the back quarter or back third of your heel is firmly planted. And then you want to make sure that your toes are down to the ground.
You’re going to allow your ankles and knees to flex a little more forward and allow yourself to stay upright. You pick the weight up and hold it in front of you.
As you squat down, you want to think about keeping your heels down squeezing your toes to the floor, and dropping into your squat. Make sure that when you’re down, your knees are pulled open, your toes are down, and your chest is up.
As you come up, you push through the feet flexing the quads. And again, you’re down sitting nice and low into that squat.
7. Banded Front Squats
How to Do Banded Front Squats
The front squat is super easy to set up. All you need is a single 41-inch loop resistance band.
You can start by standing in the band. To do the front squat, you’re going to get a shoulder-width squat position. Your toes pointed straight forward. And then all you have to do is drop down and get this band right up onto the base of your shoulder muscles or your front delts. Then stand back up.
If you’re doing this with a barbell, it’s the same way. You position the bar right across the front delts. However, it’s a little bit easier and more comfortable with a band.
You want to get as low as you can and then stand back up. And again you’re going to drop down keeping that spine in a nice neutral position.
Benefits of the Band Front Squat
The front squat is a great exercise to help teach you good squatting form because this position, especially with the band, keeps everything in line.
Another benefit of doing resistance band front squats is that you can get very explosive with these especially if you’re just standing on the band. So, if you’re doing athletic training or speed and power training, these are great for developing strong quads and that explosiveness.
8. Lateral Step Downs
How to Do Lateral Step Downs
Firstly, you need an elevated surface or a step. You may just be starting off on a plate or something that is one inch tall.
You’re going to put one foot up. You don’t want to be right on the edge. You want a good stable foot. You want to make sure that you have that tripod foot pressure under the heel. And you are going to put all the weight on the foot that is on top of the step. The opposite foot is hanging off the edge. Keep your chest as vertical as possible.
It’s okay that your knee is coming forward over your toe. That’s going to have to happen in order to achieve a pistol squat.
Then you’re going to bend your knee and hip. The opposite heel will tap the ground. Make sure you’re controlling your knee and getting a good glute squeeze.
The movement should be slowed and controlled. Then stand back up into the starting position.
Benefits of Lateral Step Downs
This is a great exercise to train single-leg stability and hip mobility. It’s really hard to maintain that stability in the foot. And if you’re trying to achieve that pistol squat, this is a great introduction to get you ready to perform it. It’s also a good supplement to your training if you need a let extension alternative at home.
9. Reverse Lunges
Benefits of Reverse Lunges
The reverse lunge is probably the single most underrated exercise. While squats and deadlifts get a majority of the clout for being the best developers of functional lower body strength and even hypertrophy. Rightfully, because those exercise varieties are usually bilateral in nature meaning both legs work at the same time.
The lunge is fantastic because it’s more unilateral in nature. It provides an element of instability, the opportunity to potentially address muscle imbalance as well as to load the lower body.
If you are looking to develop your lower body and you’re already doing squats and deadlifts, lunges make a great addition. And if you’re somebody who is struggling with squatting, lunges can be an excellent opportunity to improve that musculature.
How to Do Reverse Lunges
You are starting in a traditional position with your feet shoulder-width apart. Comfortably from here, you’re going to step back allowing both knees to bend to at least 90 degrees. You can go so far as to let the patella of the posterior back leg hit the ground.
If you need to regress, you can actually use something to hold on to like a TRX. Perform around 10-15 repetitions per leg to start. Make sure you’re doing 2-3 sets. If you’re squatting and deadlifting, do lunges after. That way you have adequate energy and time to supply to those potentially larger more likely-to-be-loaded movements.
10. Reverse Nordic Curl
Benefits of Reverse Nordic Curl
It’s a safe and effective exercise to target the rectus femoris muscle. This muscle doesn’t contribute very much to compound exercises like the squat that involves simultaneous hip and knee extension.
The rectus femoris is the most commonly injured. The reverse nordic reduces your risk of this quad risk of injury.
How to Do Reverse Nordic
The first way is to tuck your toes underneath you. And the second way is to keep your feet flat. In that way, you might feel a large stretch in the front of the ankle. This is largely based on your preference and comfort.
Make sure you set up on a pad, a pillow, or a towel. You want to make sure that your knee, hip, and shoulder stay in a straight line throughout. Meaning that you don’t want to flex forward at the hips and you don’t want your low back to arch. If you need to, you can perform a strong glute squeeze to set yourself up in a nice position for a straight line between your knee, hip, and shoulder.
There are three ways you can perform this movement:
- Isotonic or going through the full range of motion;
- Isometric or holding your body in position;
- Eccentric where you just lower yourself down and then restart.
Are Leg Extensions Bad For Your Knees?
The knee is actually composed of two joints, the tibiofemoral joint and the patellofemoral joint. There is a fairly common phrase: leg extensions are bad because they place too much stress on your knees.
We can look at two primary research studies to see if that statement is true.
In 1993, Steinkamp and colleagues compared the amount of patellofemoral joint stress at 0, 30, 60, and 90 degrees of knee flexion between an isometric leg press and leg extension at comparable loads.
The authors found that the stress on the knee was similar between the two groups. However, as expected, stress was highest at 90 degrees of knee flexion in the leg press but highest toward terminal knee extension in the leg extension. The peak patellofemoral joint reaction force also referred to as the compressive force was significantly higher for the leg press.
In 2014, the researchers compared the amount of patellofemoral joint stress between squats, seated leg extensions with a variable resistance via an ankle weight, and seated leg extensions with constant resistance using an isokinetic dynamometer.
The authors also did their best to ensure a consistent effort, tempo, and range of motion between the groups to control for as many variables as possible.
Similar to the previous study, stress was highest at 90 degrees of knee flexion in the squat but highest toward terminal knee extension for both leg extension exercises.
Additionally, as expected, stress decreased toward 90 degrees of knee flexion when using the ankle weight but remained fairly consistent throughout the range of motion with the constant resistance of the dynamometer.
Overall, the peak stress on the patellofemoral joint was highest for the squat.
Based on their research, we can confidently state that leg extensions do not inherently create more stress at the knee than squats or leg presses. In fact, they might create less.
Is this Physical Stress Actually Bad?
Not necessarily, because if we want to improve our bone density, we stress our bones. If we want to stimulate hypertrophy, we stress our primary muscles. If we want to improve cardiovascular function, we stress our hearts. So, what makes leg extensions different?
If you take a few months off, your capacity is going to decrease and your ability to withstand stressors is going to decrease. However, if you train regularly over time, your capacity should increase and with it your ability to handle more stressors.
What If You Have Pain?
Some physical therapists recommend doing half squats or partial leg extensions to minimize the range of motion that’s most stressful on the patellofemoral joint if you’re in pain. But it’s not the only option. You can alter volume, load, tempo, rest times, etc, but having pain with an exercise doesn’t make that exercise bad.
Leg extensions aren’t good or bad. They simply create stress at given tissues that may contribute to beneficial or detrimental adaptations based on the same factors that drive the adaptations for any other exercise such as intensity, volume, and frequency.
If leg extensions don’t contribute to your personal goals, you don’t have to do them. But if they do contribute to your goals or you do enjoy them, they should not be feared at all.
Leg Extension Alternatives: FAQs
How can I do leg extensions without a machine?
There are a lot of leg extension alternatives to incorporate into your workout routine. You can perform cable leg extensions or banded leg extensions.
What can I do instead of leg extension with a dumbbell?
The dumbbell goblet squat and step-ups with dumbbells can easily be alternatives to dumbbell leg extensions. If you don’t have dumbbells, the reverse lunge is a fantastic leg extension alternative at home.