The leg extension is the purest test of the strength of your quads. No other exercise can isolate them like leg extensions – it’s a tried and tested isolation exercise for leg growth.
But what if you can’t use it? What if your gym doesn’t have a leg extension machine and you still want to improve the strength and health of your legs? This is the problem we will address today.
Stay tuned and we will share essential techniques to develop quad meat and strengthen the joints around the knees. This means better legs, stronger squats, better performance, and less risk of injury!
The leg extension is your daily leg workout to build big quads. It is the best isolation exercise for muscle growth and strength gains in the quadriceps. However, your gym might not have a leg extension machine?
Or do you want to add something new to your workout routine? What exercises would be a viable alternative to target the quadriceps muscles (quads)?
Fortunately, there are many exercises that will stimulate the quad muscle without having to use fancy machines. Perfect if you’re training at home or at the CrossFit gym.
Leg extension alternatives exercises can be applied to any of your workouts, whether it’s a lower-body workout or a full-body workout, they have a place to build muscle and strength.
Pick and choose which exercises fit your goals and equipment accessibility. Personally, I use these alternatives when the gym is full and there is no leg extension machine.
What Muscles Does Leg Extension Work?
The key muscles you will use in leg extension are, of course, the quadriceps. They lengthen the knee but are also necessary for movement in the hips. The rectus femoris is a muscle in the quadriceps that also flexes the hip – making it a little more complicated than just moving your knee.
It is unique in that this exercise hits almost only 4 muscles of the quads. Whatever your favorite leg exercise, there’s a good chance it’ll stimulate the glutes and hamstrings—even just for stability.
It’s not a leg extension: it’s a complete isolation move that has no real impact on training the hamstring or hip muscles. You can try to stretch the hams and quads at the same time as a way to improve hamstring control, but it won’t load them. This is totally unique in lower body training!
Leg Extension Movement
One of the reasons the leg stretch is so popular and effective is because it works a movement not seen anywhere else in sports and exercise. It suspends the hips and loads your legs with a pad right at the end.
For example, the difference between knee extension and squat is that the squat involves a “push” motion across the entire lower body. The leg extension is a completely synthetic movement that has no parallel in sports or other exercises.
This is also the challenge of changing the leg extension. If nothing else in change can produce the same action, what do we do to change it? Well, we’re going to focus on training the muscles for the same adaptation and holding back a bit in positions where leg extension develops.
With this approach, you’ll get the same thigh enhancement we talked about, but you’ll also spend time and effort on the same positions and low-grade operations that have made leg stretches so popular.
10 Best Leg Extension Alternatives You Can Try At Home
The leg extension or knee extension is a type of strength training exercise. It’s a great move to strengthen your quadriceps muscles in the front of your upper legs.
10 Best Leg Extension Alternatives You Can Try At Home
- Resistance Band Leg Extensions
- Bulgarian Split Squats
- Dumbbell Leg Extensions
- Bodyweight leg extensions
- Sissy Squats
- Wall Sits
- Close Stance Hack Squat
- Cyclist Squat
- Leg Press
- Step Ups With Dumbbells
- Dumbbell Goblet Squats with Elevated Heels
In this article, I will break down each of these exercises, including why it might be a better leg extension alternative, how to do it properly, and some tips to get the most out of the exercise.
Leg Extension Alternatives At-Home, Bodyweight, or Without Equipment
1. Resistance Band Leg Extensions
Resistance band leg extensions provide exactly the same stimulus and movement pattern, eliminating the need for a leg extension machine. All you need for this move is a resistance band and a bench or Glute Ham Developer (GHD), common devices found in an average CrossFit gym.
- Start by attaching the resistance band to an ankle-high anchor.
- Sit on a bench or Glute Ham Developer machine, then wrap the tape around your ankles so you can feel some tension in the tape.
- Extend your legs close to locking before returning to a bent position.
- Perform 12-15 reps.
Resistance bands are available in a variety of voltages, so you can play with the load by using different resistance bands.
2. Bulgarian Split Squats
The Bulgarian split squat is a one-leg move that targets your quadriceps, hip flexors, glutes, and hamstrings. The Bulgarian split squat is an excellent leg extension alternative as it uses the height of the rear leg to give your quads a greater range of motion to provide maximum stimulation.
- Start by holding a dumbbell in each hand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Take a long step forward with your left leg while placing your right foot on a bench behind you.
- Push through your left heel to lift your hips and stay in a split stance.
- Perform 8-12 reps on each leg.
3. Dumbbell Leg Extensions
Although this is a leg extension variation, it is quite different from its machine counterpart. You can do dumbbell leg extensions anywhere with just one dumbbell, making this a good replacement for leg extensions on the go or at home.
- For this exercise, you will sit on a bench or a stable surface.
- Squeeze a dumbbell just above both ankles.
- Keep extending both legs until your knee is fully extended.
- Return to the starting position by controlling the weight.
Because you are using dumbbells for this exercise, you cannot load it like a machine. To get the most out of this exercise, choose three different weight dumbbells to do drop sets.
You can make the most of the equipment’s limitations by doing a set of 10 at a heavier load and then descending alternately to the lighter loads.
4. Bodyweight leg extensions
You can do leg extensions while sitting in a regular chair. This will strengthen the quads without using additional weights. It’s also less stressful on the knees. If you have knee problems, bodyweight leg extensions without a machine may be an ideal alternative.
- Sit on a chair. Place your feet on the floor hip-width apart.
- Straighten your back.
- Extend your right knee to raise your right leg.
- Return to the starting position.
- Start with two sets of 10 to 12 repetitions. Repeat with left leg.
5. Sissy Squats
Putting a huge demand on the quads, the funky squat is one of the least used leg extension alternatives.
This exercise starts with bodyweight only but can be advanced to a dumbbell, barbell, and safe squat bar variation.
- Begin standing upright with a stiff torso by pulling your traps down with your shoulders down and back and pulling your toes out with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Start by bending the knees forward while allowing the heels to rise.
- Allow your torso to drop as low as possible without falling back.
- Finish the rep by extending the knees, returning to the starting position in a controlled manner.
Try adding a tempo and a pause to this exercise to increase the burn and fatigue built into the quads.
If you’re having trouble doing this exercise properly, adding a band can guide you through and encourage quality of movement and more repetitions.
6. Wall Sits
While this exercise is primarily a core activity, it has a strong quad stabilization component that makes it a great leg extension alternative at home/on the road.
- Put your complete back and hips on the wall.
- Sit in a squatting position, increasing the depth to the point where the thighs are parallel to the floor, or higher if it’s too challenging.
- Hold the squat position for a challenging time.
To further this exercise, you can hold a plate in front of you, like a steering wheel. This will involve core stabilizers to a greater extent while also targeting quads. keep your back and hips against the wall.
Focusing on full extension from the top of this exercise is important to replicate the full extension you get in a leg extension. This is not included in the final range of a squat – the extension is not hard or loaded.
Step-ups are a great way to train the upper half of the squat, as well as build athletic strength and actively load the extension that is lacking in many other leg exercises.
How to perform:
- First set up a box just below knee height.
- Stand with feet hip-width apart in front of the box.
- Place your left foot on the box, then push through your left heel to step up, bringing both feet on to the box.
- Step down with your right foot, controlling your movement to the floor.
- Once your right foot is on the floor, step down with your left foot.
- Perform 8-12 reps on each leg.
Leg Extension Alternatives with Equipment
8. Close Stance Hack Squat
The close stance hack squat increases the range of motion of the squat while placing more emphasis on targeting the quads. Not only does this make the close stance hack squat a great leg extension alternative, but it’s also great for building mobility and strength in the squat position.
- Adjust the machine height so that the rack opens when you stand up.
- Keep the toes close together with the toes pointing outward.
- Sit back until you reach the desired depth of the squat.
- Maintain proper tension in the hips, hamstrings, and quads
- Then stand up with the weight on your shoulders.
As with many other exercises, you can wear high heels to prioritize the quads. Lifting the heels decreases the hip’s range of motion while increasing the knee’s range of motion and demand.
In turn, this will work the knee extensors/knee flexors (quads/hamstrings) on the muscles while placing less emphasis on the hip muscles.
9. Cyclist Squat
Do you use the leg extension machine as a finishing touch for your leg day? Trying to squeeze out every last drop of growth?
The cyclist squat can do the same. It is a squat variant that is all quads. It is a great finisher and can be done with light weights for tremendous results. The name alone should point out that it’s one of the most common exercises used by cyclists to build muscle and strength in the lower body (and these folks have big quads).
The cyclist squat raises the heels and changes the angles of the exercise to increase the role of the quads in the movement. All the movement can be performed without any change in the hips and all the change comes from a bend in the knees. Avoid locking in at the beginning of the exercise to increase the difficulty and really encourage the quads.
You can’t do this exercise particularly heavily, so you should focus on getting the reps. Aim for 12-15 reps with appropriate weight and keep your heels as high as possible. These two factors will make sure you get stimulating reps and keep your knees healthy.
10. Leg Press
The leg press is a machine-based exercise that provides significant stimulation to the quads. If you prefer the weight to be on your spine, the leg press is a suitable alternative to leg extensions. The leg extension places it to load on your quads, which some find uncomfortable. Loading your spine works the muscle groups in your legs while keeping the weight in a comfortable position.
- Start with feet hip-width apart, place on the plate.
- Push off your back, hips, shoulders and return to the machine pad.
- Start with your legs at a 90-degree angle, then press into the plate and extend your legs outward.
- Extend your legs until they’re almost locked, pause, and then slowly return to the 90-degree position.
- Keep your core engaged throughout the press.
- Perform 8-12 reps.
11. Step Ups With Dumbbells
Box step-ups are good for building knee and hip stability while strengthening the quads making it a good therapeutic leg extension substitute.
- Keep your head up while maintaining a neutral spine.
- Make sure the box height is just below the knee.
- Stand in front of the box with your hands holding dumbbells by your side.
- Put your foot on the box.
- Drive yourself into the box as you lift your opposite knee up.
A higher step will produce more tension on the upper thighs (hip flexors) and quads. This type of modification can improve knee and hip stability and mobility while challenging you to go higher.
However, if you choose to increase the height of the box, I recommend using lighter loads. This way you can focus on movement quality, quad activation, and effective reps.
12. Dumbbell Goblet Squats with Elevated Heels
You may not be able to do barbell squats or have access to full gym equipment, but a high-heel dumbbell goblet squat can be done in more places and has been modified to target the quads, making it a great at home or hotel leg extension alternative
- Wear heels or elevate your heels on 5-pound plates.
- Hold a kettlebell or a dumbbell on the heels of your hand.
- Start with the hips and lean back until the thighs are parallel to the floor/or down.
- Try not to allow the weight to drop or the rib cage to collapse during the rep.
- Stand up until your hips and knees are fully extended.
Adding a pause or tempo can make this exercise more effective at building dimension in quads. If you’re a powerlifter or Olympic lifter, tempos can also encourage greater control, which can provide a good transition to increasing squat ability.
Here are some examples of how you can program the cyclist move:
- 3 Seconds Pace Cyclist Lunge: 3 x 8 @60-70%
- 2 Second Pause Cyclist Lunge: 3 x 5 @65-75%
Why are the leg extension alternatives better?
Leg extensions are ideal if you want to focus on your quads. But if you want to increase overall leg strength, it’s best to do alternatives.
Leg extension alternatives work more leg muscles, such as the hips and hamstrings. Some exercises even work your core, which is important for good posture and balance.
These options offer a more functional workout than leg extensions on a machine. In addition, alternative exercises reduce the risk of injury as they place less stress on the knees. This may be ideal if you have a knee condition such as knee arthritis.
The bottom line
The leg extension is a common lower body exercise that is performed in most athletes’ exercise plans. However, you may not have access to a leg extension machine or you may find the movement repetitive. Don’t be a threat, there are many leg extension alternatives that provide the necessary stimulation for muscle growth and strength gain.
Leg extension work isn’t the only way to target the quads. Most lower body exercises will stimulate the leg muscles to some degree, including the quadriceps. If you don’t have access to leg stretchers, don’t worry, there are lots of moves you can do with little or no equipment, leaving you with no excuse to skip another leg day.
The leg extension works the highest quads of any other leg exercise. But leg extension cannot be as loaded with exercises like Bulgarian split squats or leg presses.
Depending on the equipment and environment, each of these band, barbell, cable, machine, and home workouts can be an effective alternative to leg lengthening.
Frequently Asked Questions
Improper leg extensions can cause knee injuries, so leg extensions need to be done correctly. Begin the starting position by sitting on the leg extension machine with your knees in line with the pivot point of the machine. Rest the front of your ankles on the pad, then perform the leg extension by extending your legs almost to the lock. Perform 12-15 repetitions of 2-3 sets.
Leg curls can be done using a resistance band and a bench. To perform the resistance band leg curl, start by attaching the resistance band to an ankle-high anchor. Lie facedown on the bench, then wrap the band around your ankles so you can feel some tension in the band. Start by extending your legs, then bend your legs to bring your feet to your hips. Slowly extend the legs back to the starting position. Perform 12-15 repetitions of 2-3 sets
Quadriceps and knee extension play a major role in vertical jumping. The leg extension exercise primarily focuses on the quadriceps muscle and knee extension, so it’s a great exercise to increase vertical jump.
You’ll also like:
- 10 Best Tricep Pushdown Alternatives for Boulder muscles and Strength
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- 9 Best Cable Machine Exercises for Bigger, Stronger Arms
- 12 Most Effective Leg Press Alternative Exercises for Home Workouts
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