9 Leg Extension Alternatives 

Whether you want to lose weight, tone up, get stronger, or build muscle, strength training is a must. Lifting weights overloads your muscles and breaks them down, so they grow back stronger and bigger than before.

There are lots of different ways to overload your muscles, including freeweight, machine, body weight, and resistance band exercises. All of these methods work because your muscles have a hard time differentiating between them.

That said, many exercisers prefer to work out using machines because they’re generally safe and easy to use. In this instance, easy doesn’t mean low intensity. Instead, the machines themselves are straightforward and, with no weights to balance or tricky movements to coordinate, you are free to focus 100-percent on the muscles you want to work.

One of the most popular exercise machines is the leg extension, but what if you don’t access to this piece of equipment. What can you do instead? Maybe you train at home or are just bored of doing leg extensions and need something to shake up your lower body workouts.

In this article, we reveal the nine best leg extension alternatives.

Leg ExtensionLeg Extensions

A leg extension machine is a lower body exercise that’s a staple in most gyms. To use a leg extension machine, sit on the seat and adjust it so your knees are lined up with the lever arm pivot point, and the leg pad rests across your lower shins.

Once you are in position, you simply straighten your legs against the resistance offered by the machine.

Lower the weight slowly and repeat, taking care not to bounce the weights together. Leg extension machines vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but most have selectorized weight stacks and use cables and pulleys to connect the lever arm to the resistance.

The leg extension exercise is popular with beginners because it’s easy to learn. However, advanced exercisers like it too because you can lift heavy weights in safety and train to failure without needing a spotter.

What Muscles Do Leg Extensions Work?

Leg extensions are an isolation exercise, which means they involve movement at only one joint and use relatively few muscle groups. The muscles involved in leg extensions are:

Quadriceps – located on the front of your thigh, the quadriceps are a group of four muscles that extend your knee and flex your hip. The four quadriceps are rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius.

9 Alternatives to The Leg Extension Machine

Whether you are bored of leg extensions or don’t have access to a leg extension machine, there are lots of other exercises you can use to work your quadriceps. However, some of the following alternatives are compound exercises, which means they don’t just work your quads but involve several additional muscles.

1. Goblet squat

Goblet squatGoblet squats are a great way to learn and master squatting. This exercise forces you to maintain an upright posture, which increases quadriceps activation. Do this exercise with a dumbbell or kettlebell as preferred.

How to do it:

  1. Hold your weight in front of your chest and stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Brace your abs.
  2. Without rounding your lower back, bend your knees and squat down until your thighs are roughly parallel to the floor.
  3. Stand back up and repeat.

2. Cyclist squat

Cyclist squatCyclists are known for their impressive thigh development, and this exercise is part of the reason. It makes squats much more quad-centric and can be done with or without weights are preferred.

How to do it:

  1. Place two weight plates on the floor about hip-width apart. Stand with your heels on the plates.
  2. Squat down as far as you can without rounding your lower back.
  3. Stand back up but stop just short of locking your knees to keep constant tension on your muscles.
  4. Squat down again and repeat.

3. Front squat

Front squatWhile barbell back squats are best for lifting heavy weights, front squats emphasize your quads more. You can also combine front squats with exercise #2 – cyclist squats.

How to do it:

  1. Rest and hold a barbell across the front of your shoulders. Your upper arms should be parallel to the floor, with your elbows pointing forward. Stand with your feet about hip to shoulder-width apart. Brace your abs.
  2. Keeping your torso upright, bend your knees, and squat down as far as you can without rounding your lower back.
  3. Stand back up and repeat.

4. Bulgarian split squat

Bulgarian split squatWhile it’s not known what this exercise has to do with the country of Bulgaria, there is no escaping the fact that this is a very effective quadriceps movement. Because it works one leg at a time, it’s a good way to fix left to right strength imbalances, and it’s also excellent for hip mobility.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your back to a knee-high exercise bench. Bend one leg and place your foot on the top. Hop forward into a split stance.
  2. Keeping your torso upright, bend your legs, and lower your back knee down to within an inch of the floor. Stand up and repeat.
  3. Try to do the same number of reps on both legs.
  4. You can do this exercise with dumbbells or a barbell if preferred.

5. Hack squat machine

Hack squat machineThe position of your feet when using a hack squat machine means this exercise puts a lot of tension on your quads, which are the same muscles used in leg extensions. This exercise also provides plenty of support for your lower back.

How to do it:

  1. Stand on the angled footplate and place your shoulders under the pads. Lean back against the backrest. Unrack the weight.
  2. Bend your knees and squat down as far as your flexibility allows.
  3. Stand back up and repeat.
  4. Lock the weight back in place on completion.

6. Barbell hack squat

Barbell hack squatNo hack squat machine? You can replicate that exercise using just a barbell. In fact, this variation is the original way to do hack squats and is named after old-school weightlifter, wrestler, and bodybuilder George Hackenschmidt.

How to do it:

  1. Place a barbell on the floor and stand with your back to it.
  2. Squat down and hold the bar with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Straighten your arms, lift your chest, and brace your abs.
  3. Drive your feet into the floor and stand up, pulling the bar up the back of your legs as you rise.
  4. Lower the weight back to the floor and repeat.

7. Dumbbell leg extension

Dumbbell leg extensionJust because you don’t have a leg extension machine doesn’t mean you can’t isolate your quads. This exercise isn’t easy, but you’ll definitely feel it in all the right places!

How to do it:

  1. Sit on an exercise bench with the backs of your knees on the edge. Put your legs together and hold a dumbbell between your feet. Squeeze your feet together to keep the weight in place.
  2. Straighten your legs and lift the weight.
  3. Lower your feet back to the floor and repeat.

8. Straight leg lift

Straight leg liftThis exercise works your quadriceps isometrically or statically. This is a very knee-friendly quadriceps exercise, and while it won’t build massive muscles, it’s good for prehab and rehab.

How to do it:

  1. Sit or lie on the floor with one leg bent and one leg straight.
  2. Lift your straight leg up until your knees are aligned.
  3. Lower your leg back down and repeat.

9. Cable leg extension

Cable leg extensionYou can also do leg extensions using a low cable machine and ankle cuff. As an added benefit, this exercise also involves hip extension, which is another function of the quadriceps.

How to do it:

  1. Fix a cuff around your right ankle and attach it to a low pulley machine. Stand with your back to the weight stack and lift your right leg, so your thigh is roughly parallel to the floor.
  2. Keeping your leg up, extend your knee against the weight on the cable.
  3. Bend your leg and repeat.
  4. Do the same number of reps on each side.

Are Leg Extensions Necessary

There is no denying that leg extensions are a popular and useful exercise, but that doesn’t mean you have to do them or that you should feel deprived if you can’t. They’re just one of the many exercises you can do that work your quadriceps.

Leg extensions are arguably the best way to isolate your quads, but you don’t need to isolate them to reach your training goals. In fact, in nature, muscles don’t work in isolation, and there are very few movements that are anything like leg extensions.

So, don’t worry if you can’t do or don’t like leg extensions. Ultimately, while they are nice to do, they are not essential, and there are plenty of exercises you can do instead.

Bottom Line

Leg extensions are a very popular quadriceps exercise. Suitable for beginner, intermediate, and advanced users alike, leg extensions are arguably the best way to isolate your quadriceps. They target these muscles like no other, and there is no denying their effectiveness. A set of leg extensions will leave your quads burning and shaking. You’ll know this exercise works!

That said, leg extensions are not an especially functional exercise. There are very few movements like it in nature. In most instances, your quads work with your hamstrings and glutes rather than alone.

As such, while leg extensions are not a bad exercise and have their uses, they are not compulsory, and you can develop your lower body without ever using this common exercise. For example, hack squats, goblet squats, and Bulgarian split squats are just as good for building the quads, but they also involve several other muscle groups.

Leg extensions also put a lot of shearing force on the knee joints. If you have any ligamentous injuries, this exercise could make them worse. It’s also possible to kick the weight up instead of lifting it, which makes it less effective.

Whatever the reason, it’s good to know that you don’t have to do leg extensions if you don’t want to, and there are plenty of alternatives that are every bit as effective for developing your quadriceps. Visit the Fitness Equipment Reviews homepage for more workout ideas!


A certified personal trainer, Sarah is currently working towards a degree in dietetics and nutrition. Her passion lies in helping people to live up to their potential and achieve their fitness goals. With her ever-expanding knowledge, she happily shares the best information possible from top-rated supplements to workout gear & equipment.

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