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More Training Info > Free Weight Leg Alternatives

Free Weight Leg Alternatives to Leg Extensions and Leg Curls

Q: I hear that machine leg extensions and curls aren't the best for sport training; what would some free weights alternatives be?

A: The leg extension machine (which targets the quadriceps) and leg curl machine (which targets the hamstrings) are both popular pieces of equipment at nearly any gym because they are fairly easy to learn how to use and isolate the large muscles in the front and back of the thighs. However, because you are seated or prone (lying on your stomach) these machines do not have as much direct carry-over into three-dimensional sport as you might want as an athlete. The free weight alternatives we prefer are abundant, but we'll share two to replace each. Instead of leg extensions, try the Reverse Step up (left; for description see our Knee Test page), which hits the quadriceps muscles (particularly the vastus medialis obliquus, or VMO) or any variations on a lunge (here, a version we like which is described elsewhere as a 1-legged squat pictured right) which will also give you a really good hip flexor stretch.

To replace the leg curl machine, by far our favorite exercises are the Glute-Ham-Gastroc performed on a special bench (not available in most gyms, so not illustrated) or the stiff-legged deadlift, pictured below.

Barbell Stiff-Legged Deadlift

To perform this exercise properly, you need to be sure to keep your back flat, legs bent about 15-20 degrees to keep the IT band and hamstrings contracting simultaneously (you want to avoid pulling a hamstring at all costs, as they take forever to heal!) Keep chest pressing forward, head and neck neutral, arms directly under shoulders. As you slowly lower forward, you should feel the work primarily in your hamstrings, not the lower back. Do this sideways in a mirror to watch the lower back -- as soon as you start to round, you've gone too far. Exhale on the way up. Perform 3-4 sets of 6-8 repetitions, as the large hamstring muscles are fast-twitch and can handle a substantial amount of weight. HOWEVER, when first learning this exercise, stick to a light weight until you're comfortable with the form.


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