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13 Lying Leg Curl Alternatives

Squats are arguably the most popular lower body exercise, closely followed by lunges. But, as important as both these exercises are, they do have an obvious drawback – they’re very quadriceps dominant.

The quadriceps are the muscles on the front of your thighs. They’re responsible for extending your knees and also flex your hips. When you do squats, lunges, leg presses, etc., it’s your quads that do most of the work.

However, the quads are just one group of lower body muscles. Located on the back of the thigh, there are the hamstrings too.

The hamstrings flex your knee and extend your hip, so they’re basically the opposite of the quads. However, in squats and lunges, the hamstrings play a very secondary role. That means, if you rely on squats to work your legs, you may end up training the front of your thighs more than the back.

The most obvious solution to this imbalance is adding a few sets of lying leg curls to your lower body workouts.

But what if you train indoor at home and don’t have access to a lying leg curl machine? Or maybe you just don’t like this exercise? The good news is there are plenty of lying leg curl alternatives.

In this article, we reveal 13 of the best that either use different exercise equipment or use alternative movements to train this all-important muscle group.

Lying Leg Curls

What Is A Lying Leg Curl?

Woman on lying leg curl machine

Lying leg curls are an isolation exercise for your hamstrings. That means they involve movement at just one joint and relatively few muscles.

The lying leg curl is a machine-based exercise, and most gyms have them.

The muscles involved in lying leg curls are:

Semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and biceps femoris: These are the three muscles that make up the hamstrings.

They have two functions – flexion of your knees and extension of your hips. Leg curls involve knee flexion and not hip extension.

Gastrocnemius: Your calf muscles play a small but important role in knee flexion. The gastrocnemius is the larger, uppermost calf muscle. It crosses both your ankle and your knee joint, which is why it’s involved flexion of the knee.

13 Alternatives to Lying Leg Curls

No lying leg curl? Or are you just bored of this exercise? No problem; there are plenty of exercises you can do instead!

1. Seated Leg Curls

Old man on seated leg curl machine

If there is a seated leg curl machine in your gym, you may find this variation more comfortable as you don’t have to lay on your stomach to do it.

Also, it saves you from having to present your butt to the world!

How to do it:

  1. Sit on the machine and adjust the backrest so that your knees are in line with the lever arm pivot point. Adjust the leg pad, so it’s behind your lower calf. Lock the thigh restraint bar in place.
  2. Starting with your legs straight, bend your knees and pull your feet down and back toward your butt.
  3. Extend your legs but do not allow the weights to touch down.

2. Standing Leg Curls

Standing leg curl machine

Although not as common as either seated or lying leg curl machines, some gyms also have standing leg curls.

This exercise is a comfortable alternative to lying leg curls and is done using one leg at a time.

How to do it:

  1. Stand on the footplate, so your knees are in line with the machine’s pivot point. Adjust the leg pads so they’re resting against your lower calves. Brace your upper body.
  2. Bend one leg and curl your foot up toward your butt.
  3. Lower the weight without letting it touch down.
  4. Always complete the same amount of reps on the other leg.

3. Standing Cable Leg Curls

No standing leg curl machine at your gym? No problem; you can also do standing leg curls using nothing other than an ankle cuff and an adjustable cable machine.

How to do it:

  1. Put a cuff around your ankle and attach it to a low cable machine. Facing the machine, brace your arms against the frame and stand on one leg.
  2. Bend your knee and curl your heel up and into your butt. Keep your thighs together or, if you prefer, extend your loaded leg slightly behind you.
  3. Lower the weight and repeat.
  4. Always make sure you do the same number of reps on each leg ( or one leg will end up stronger than the other!)

4. Dumbbell Leg Curls

Dumbbells on a rack

Before leg curl machines became commonplace, this was how most boxers and exercisers trained their hamstrings. All you need is a bench and a dumbbell.

How to do it:

  1. Lying down on your front on a bench with your knees close to the end. Hold and squeeze a dumbbell between your feet.
  2. Bend your legs and curl your feet up until they’re directly over your knees.
  3. Extend your legs and repeat.
  4. Make this exercise more effective by doing them on an inclined bench with your head uppermost.

5. Plate Drags

Woman holding a 5kg plate

This is a very low-tech but effective hamstring exercise. The only equipment you need to do it is a standard weight plate.

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back with your legs straight. Place the heel of one foot on a weight plate.
  2. Bend your leg and drag the plate in toward your butt.
  3. Push the weight away and repeat.
  4. You can also do this exercise using both legs at the same time.

6. Stability Ball Leg Curls

Woman on stability ball

This exercise uses nothing but your body weight for resistance. As well as working your hamstrings, this lying leg curl variation also involves your glutes.

How to do it:

  1. Lie on your back and place your feet on a stability ball. Lifting your hips up, so your body is straight.
  2. Bend your legs and roll the ball into your butt. Push your hips up at the same time.
  3. Extend your legs and either lower your hips back to the floor or keep them up before repeating. 
  4. You can also do this exercise using just one leg.

7. Suspension Trainer Leg Curls

TRX training

Suspension trainers, such as a TRX, add an extra dimension to bodyweight workouts.

Using a suspension trainer, you can replicate almost every barbell, dumbbell, and machine exercise using just your body for resistance.

How to do it:

  1. Adjust your suspension trainer so that the handles are about knee height. Lie on your back and put your feet in the handles, toes pointing upward. Lifting your hips off the floor, so your body forms a straight line.
  2. Bend your legs and pull your heels into your butt. Push your hips up higher.
  3. Extend your legs and repeat.
  4. You can also do this exercise using just one leg.

8. Hip Bridge

Hamstring exercises don’t come much simpler or more accessible than hip bridges. NO equipment required for this one, so it’s perfect for home exercisers. However, you can also make it more challenging by resting and holding a barbell across your hips.

How to do it:

  1. First lay on your back with your legs bent, feet flat on the floor.
  2. Push your feet into the floor and lift your hips as high as you can without extending your lumbar spine.
  3. Lowering your butt to the floor and repeat.
  4. You can also do this exercise using just one leg.
  5. Increase your range of motion by resting your shoulders and upper back on a stable exercise bench.

9. Romanian Deadlifts

woman-romanian-deadlifting

Romanian deadlifts are so-called because they were popular with the Romanian Olympic weightlifting team.

They don’t involve knee flexion but, as hamstring hip extension exercises go, they’re tough to beat.

How to do it:

  1. Whilst holding a barbell with an overhand, shoulder-width grip. Standing with your feet approximately hip-width apart, with knees slightly bent. Brace your abs.
  2. Without rounding your lower back, lean forward from your hips and lower the weight down the front of your legs as far as your mobility allows.
  3. Stand back up and repeat.

Note: The barbell can be replaced with dumbbells.

10. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts

single leg romanians

Most hamstring exercises are bilateral, which means they work both legs at once.

Unilateral or single-leg exercises are often useful because they allow you to identify and fix strength imbalances. Single-leg Romanian deadlifts are also good for improving your balance.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your feet together. Hold a dumbbell in one or both hands, or use a barbell. Bend your knees slightly for balance. Brace your abs.
  2. Shift your weight over onto one leg and then hinge forward from your hips. Lower the weight all the way down the front of your leg as far as you can.
  3. Then extend your opposite leg out behind you to act as a counterbalance.
  4. Stand back upright and repeat. Complete the same number of reps on each leg.

11. Kettlebell Swings

Woman Swinging Kettlebell

Kettlebell swings involve a similar hip-hinging movement to Romanian deadlifts.

However, unlike Romanian deadlifts, swings are performed at speed. This is both a good hamstring exercise and a useful cardio workout.

How to do it:

  1. Hold your kettlebell in both hands, and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent.
  2. Lean forward from your hips and lower the weight between your knees.
  3. Drive your hips forward and swing the weight out and up to shoulder height. Keep your arms straight.
  4. Lower the kettlebell and repeat.

Note: You can do this exercise with a dumbbell.

12. Nordic Curls

Nordic curls are a very challenging hamstring exercise. You only use your body weight for resistance but, despite this, Nordic curls are best left to advanced exercisers.

How to do it:

  1. Kneel down to your thighs and body is vertical, and your legs are bent to 90-degrees. Anchor your feet and extend your arms out in front of you.
  2. Using your hamstrings, lean forward and lower your body down toward the floor. Keep your body straight and use your arms to stop yourself from falling too fast.
  3. With your arms for assistance if necessary, bend your legs and pull yourself back up to vertical. 
  4. Work up to doing this exercise without using your arms.

13. Reverse Deficit Lunges

A group doing reverse lunges

At the beginning of this article, we told you that lunges are a quad-dominant leg exercise.

However, by doing them backward and off a step, they become much more hamstring-centric.

How to do it:

  1. Stand on a 4 to 6-inch platform with your feet together and your arms by your sides.
  2. Take a large step back, bend your legs, and descend until your rear knee almost touches the floor. 
  3. Step forward and back onto your platform.
  4. Do another rep on the same leg, or alternate sides are preferred.
  5. Make this exercise harder by holding dumbbells by your sides.

Are Lying Leg Curls Necessary?

Lying leg curls are a very popular exercise and provide a convenient way to work your hamstrings. That doesn’t mean they are the only or best way to work the muscles on the back of your legs; there are plenty of alternatives you can use.

This is nothing inherently wrong with lying leg curls. But if you don’t have access to the necessary machine, you’re bored of using it, or you just don’t like it, you can still train your hamstrings without relying on leg curls, just make sure you stretch out properly!

Leg curls are NOT compulsory, but hamstring training probably should be! 

Bottom Line

While the muscles on the front of your body are undoubtedly important, those on the back of your body are arguably more so.

The muscles you can’t see in the mirror are responsible for driving you forward when you walk, run, and jump, play a crucial role in lifting-type movements, and also hold you up against the pull of gravity.

Your hamstrings are crucial for lots of reasons. For starters, they work with your glutes to extend your hips, which is an essential joint action. A powerful hip extension will help you run faster, jump higher, and kick harder.

Also, your hamstrings are directly opposite your quadriceps, both anatomically and in terms of the movements they control. If one is allowed to become stronger than the other, hip and knee pain could be the result.

With so many quad-dominant exercises to choose from, it would be easy to over-train the muscles on the front of your thigh and neglect those on the back.

Lying leg curls are a beneficial hamstring exercise, and they’re comfortable and easy to perform. However, that doesn’t mean they’re the only or the best hamstring exercise around.

Use the exercises in this article anytime you don’t have access to a lying leg curl machine or simply need an alternative.

Patrick

Patrick Dale is an ex-British Royal Marine and owner and lecturer for a fitness qualifications company. In addition to training prospective personal trainers, Patrick has also authored three fitness and exercise books, dozens of e-books, thousands of articles, and several fitness videos.

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