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The 6 Best Options for a Leg Curl Alternative

A lot of gym machines can be intimidating — especially for beginners.

The leg curl machine is no exception.

There are several variations to the exercise and it’s hard to know which one is best.

And there’s also the question of whether or not leg curls are effective or if they might even be bad for you.

We understand the intimidation factor and why you might be searching for a leg curl alternative.

So, we’ve put together this guide as a resource for leg curl substitutes and options to perform leg curls at home.

Table of Contents

What are Leg Curls?

Leg curls are an exercise that isolates the hamstrings. They may also be referred to as hamstring curls.

In a gym setting, leg curls are often performed using machines in one of three common variations:

  1. Lying leg curl (traditional)
  2. Sitting leg curl
  3. Standing leg curl

If you’re not sure exactly which machine at your gym is used for leg curls, here is an image of a traditional lying leg curl machine:

What Muscles Do Leg Curls Work?

We’ll discuss the pros and cons of leg curls (and alternative leg curl options) in detail shortly. First, let’s take a closer look at the muscle groups targeted by leg curls.

Leg curls primarily isolate your hamstrings, working to strengthen the muscles, and improve flexibility.

Strong, flexible hamstrings will positively affect your body’s overall:

  • Strength
  • Balance
  • Injury risk
  • Health as you age

Including hamstring exercises in your strength training routine will benefit your day-to-day life. Your posture will improve and your risk of a knee injury and back pain will decrease.

In addition to your hamstrings, leg curls also target other muscle groups on a smaller scale. These muscle groups include your:

Are Leg Curls Effective?

Leg curls are especially effective for bodybuilders because they increase muscle mass.

But, they can also cause a tightening and shortening of the hamstring muscles which can be a detriment — especially for athletes and flexibility enthusiasts.

While leg curls will strengthen your hamstrings, there are leg curl alternatives (see below) that will not only make them stronger but also increase flexibility and prevent you from “overtraining” your hamstrings.

Are Leg Curls Bad?

Leg curls are not necessarily bad — if performed properly with minimal risk of injury.

While it is important to keep your hamstrings healthy, you don’t want to overexert them. Doing so will make it difficult to perform other exercises and daily activities without pain.

Leg curls can also be “bad” if you are not stretching properly afterward. Leg curls repeatedly contract your hamstring muscles. If you don’t stretch, you will lose flexibility.

If you’re unsure how to perform leg curls properly, consult with a fitness coach at In Motion O.C. We’re dedicated to helping our members reach their fitness goals safely.

Are Leg Curl Machines Bad?

The answer to this question will be different depending on who you ask. We often find that inadvertent mistakes are made when performing leg curls with a machine.

These mistakes include:

  • Using too much weight
  • Lifting your hips 
  • Flexing the muscles in your lower back

Rather than risk injury, especially for a beginner, consider trying our leg curl substitute exercises below.

Can You Do Leg Curls Without a Machine?

You can absolutely do leg curls at home or at the gym without a machine. In fact, at In Motion O.C. we highly recommend doing functional hamstring exercises without a machine.

Each leg curl alternative we discuss below can be performed without a machine — some require no equipment at all.

6 Leg Curl Alternative Options

The following leg curl alternatives can be modified both for beginners and advanced fitness enthusiasts.

#1: Lying Leg Curl Alternative: Single-Leg Hip Extension

Single leg hip extensions are a great option to use at home. They don’t require any equipment and can be performed on any type of flooring surface.

Follow these steps to perform single-leg hip extension with proper form:

  1. Lying on your back, you’ll begin in a pelvic lift position: 
    1. Knees bent
    2. Feet flat on the floor and hip-width apart
    3. Arms at your sides
    4. Buttocks lifted off the floor
  2. Fully extend one leg and hold it off the ground
  3. With your leg extended, slowly lower your hips to the floor
  4. Using your stabilizing leg, push your hips back up to the starting position

Things to remember:

  • Keep every rep slow and controlled — this will really put your hamstring to work
  • Count three seconds down and three seconds up for each rep
  • Start slowly and build yourself up to 15 reps on each leg

Why is the Single-Leg Hip Extension a Good Leg Curl Alternative?

Single-leg hip extensions are a good alternative to the leg curl for several reasons, including:

  • No equipment required
  • Utilizes partial bodyweight to contract the hamstring muscles
  • Modifications allow for beginner to advanced variations

Like traditional leg curls, single-leg hip extensions support the formation of strong hamstrings and glutes.

Unlike traditional leg curls, single-leg hip extensions rely only on partial bodyweight. This is important because you don’t run the risk of triggering injury with the use of too much weight.

#2: Lying Leg Curl Alternative: Physio Ball Leg Curl

Physio ball leg curls may also be referred to as swiss ball leg curls or stability ball leg curls. The only equipment required is an exercise ball.

Follow these steps to complete physio ball leg curls correctly:

  1. Begin in the supine position:
    1. On your back
    2. Arms at your sides
    3. Palms down
  2. Extend your legs completely and place your feet on your ball
  3. Lift your buttocks and lower back off the floor — your body should be in a relatively straight line from shoulders to feet
  4. Keeping your core tight and your back straight, bend your knees, press your heels in, inhale and roll the ball toward your buttocks
  5. Exhale and roll the ball back to a full leg extension

Things to remember:

  • Don’t let your hips sag during the roll in
  • Keep your core engaged

Why is the Physio Ball Leg Curl a Good Leg Curl Alternative?

The physio ball leg curl exercise is a good traditional leg curl alternative because, in addition to working your hamstrings, it also targets your:

  • Core/abs
  • Glutes
  • Quads
  • Calves

It is a great foundational workout that can be one part of a full-body training routine.

#3: Seated Leg Curl Alternative: Hip Bridge

Also known as a hip lift or pelvic lift, the hip bridge is a great exercise to do at home. You don’t need any equipment and it’s an excellent option for beginners.

A hip bridge is essentially a single leg hip extension (reviewed above) without the leg extension:

  1. Begin in the pelvic lift position:
    1. On your back
    2. Knees bent
    3. Soles of your feet flat on the floor
    4. Arms stuck to your sides, palms down, fingers stretched toward your toes
  2. Press into your heels, raising your hips off the ground — form a straight line from your thighs to your trunk
  3. Relax. Lower your hips back down. Repeat.

Why is the Hip Bridge a Good Leg Curl Alternative?

As a traditional leg curl substitute, the hip bridge also isolates the hamstrings and glutes.

Although it may not seem like a challenging exercise, when performed correctly it delivers a few additional benefits:

  • Core stability
  • Strengthening lower back muscles
  • Stretching and opening up your hip flexor muscles

#4: Seated Leg Curl Alternative: Sliding Leg Curls

You may know this exercise as the slick floor bridge curl or the bodyweight hamstring curl.

This is also an exercise that can be performed at home, but it does require a smooth floor surface with low friction and resistance (like hardwood) and a towel:

  1. Starting position — on your back with your legs bent and arms at your side
  2. Keeping your legs together, place a small towel under your feet
  3. Flex your feet so only your heels are on the towel
  4. Lift your hips and slide your feet toward your buttocks until they are right under your knees
  5. Slowly extend your legs, using your heels to slide the towel
    • Your hips and buttocks will lower, but don’t allow them to touch the ground
  6. Slide your feet back to the starting position under your knees

Remember to:

  • Keep your core tight
  • Engage your glutes and hamstrings

Why are Sliding Leg Curls a Good Leg Curl Alternative?

Sliding leg curls are a good seated leg curl alternative because, in addition to targeting the hamstrings, they engage your core and glutes.

Your own body weight acts as resistance during this exercise which is a great option for beginners or anyone recovering from an injury.

#5: Standing Leg Curl Alternative: Romanian Deadlift

The Romanian deadlift is a deadlift variation that allows for maximum hamstring stretch and strengthening by removing the squat from the traditional deadlift motion.

To perform this variation of the deadlift, follow these steps:

  1. Hold a barbell or dumbbells against your thighs in a standing position
  2. Keep your feet hip-width apart
  3. Roll your shoulders back to keep your back straight throughout the motion
  4. Lower your weight to just below the knees where you feel your hamstrings engaging fully
  5. Return to standing

When performing this leg curl substitute there are a few important things to remember:

  • Do not round your back as you lower your weight
  • Naturally bend your legs without squatting
  • Keep the weight right against your legs as you lower and return to standing

Why is the Romanian Deadlift a Good Leg Curl Alternative?

The Romanian deadlift is a great leg curl alternative because while it targets the hamstrings, it also helps you work your whole body in a functional way.

There are many natural motions that require us to bend at the waist or reach down.

This deadlift variation allows you to strengthen all the muscles required to perform those motions — making it less likely that you will injure yourself doing day-to-day activities.

#6: Standing Leg Curl Alternative: Resistance Band Hamstring Curl

This hamstring curl alternative can also be done at home, but you will need a resistance band and ankle strap.

Follow these steps to complete this exercise:

  1. Anchor your resistance band in the hinged side of a closed door
  2. Attach your ankle strap to the band and secure it around your ankle
  3. Stand far enough away from the door to allow the band to extend fully (without creating resistance yet)
  4. Keep your body upright and bend your knee pulling your foot toward your buttocks
  5. Hold your foot up for a moment and slowly return to the starting position

Things to remember:

  • Beginners can start with their hands on the wall for balance
  • Increase difficulty by moving away from the wall to create more resistance
  • Keep your core tight throughout the motion

Why is a Resistance Band Hamstring Curl a Good Leg Curl Alternative?

This exercise is a good leg curl substitute because, in addition to isolating the hamstrings, it also helps improve balance.

It is also:

  • Compatible with beginner workouts
  • Good for injury recovery and prevention

In Motion O.C.