The leg extension machine might be one of the most popular exercises for the lower body in your gym, but that doesn’t mean you should do them in every training session. Below are 5 of the best leg extension alternatives for your workout.
Whether you don’t have access to a machine or if you would just like a more functional exercise, any of the movements below can serve as a good replacement. They will work similar muscles while forcing you to use others, such as your core, for stabilization.
This list is assuming you are using the leg extension machine for supplementary quad work and you are looking for substitutes other than traditional squats and deadlifts. If they are your primary lower body exercise, you would be almost certainly be better off using back squats, front squats, or deadlifts for size and strength development.
These exercises are great “closers” to end your leg workout on. They are great substitutes for the leg extension machine because they can use similar set and rep schemes while still primarily working your quads. Some of these lifts involve the hamstrings and glutes more than the leg extension, but the primary muscle group used is the quadriceps.
Step ups are one of the best exercises to mimic the emphasis on the quads that a leg extension machine does. They are also one of the most common lower body exercises you will see performed in a gym, because they are so simple and effective.
The video below demonstrates weighted dumbbell step ups on to a weight bench. It can be done on really any surface – a box, bench, or even sturdy chair – and can be done with no resistance, dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell. As you can see, you simply step up onto the surface with one leg and then return to the lowered position. You can either alternate legs or perform all of your reps with one leg and then rotate.
For this exercise, higher is not always better. If you are looking to specifically hit the quadriceps muscles, a low to moderate height may be best. Higher heights force you to activate more of your hamstrings and glutes.
Related: 5 Great Leg Press Alternatives
If your gym has one, the hack squat machine can be a great alternative to leg extensions. While these come in many different shapes and sizes, the basic layout is the same. You will be lying in a reclined position, with the weight on your back and your feet on a platform.
The setup of this really isolates your quads better than almost any other exercise on this list. While it might not be the most functional lift, as the machine does most of the balance and stabilization work for you, it does really force you to work on your quadriceps.
The video below shows what good hack squat technique looks like. While the setup of the machine doesn’t leave much open to interpretation, there are little technical things you can do to change the emphasis. Similar to the leg press, the further in front of your body that you place your feet, the more work your hamstrings and glutes will do. Placing your feet underneath you more will force the quadriceps muscles to do more of the work.
Goblet squats are still an unknown exercise in large pockets of the fitness community, but they have gained popularity in recent years. These are best performed with a kettlebell, although a dumbbell could also be used.
To perform this lift, you grip the sides of the handle of the kettlebell with each hand. Your elbows should be pointed down and just slightly out. With good posture and a solid stance, you squat down, with your elbows going inside your knees into a deep squat position, before rising up.
You can see what a goblet squat looks like in this video. These are great for not just your quadriceps, but your hamstrings, glutes, and lower back as they force you to be stable and flexible in your lower body.
The reverse lunge is a variation of the traditional lunge exercise that may put less stress on your knee. Like regular lunges, they can be done with no resistance or with dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell on your back.
As the name suggests, this exercise is just a lunge but rather than stepping forward, you step backward. Again, foot placement here is important as changing the distance you step will tweak the muscles that are targeted. This is a simple, but powerful exercise, as you can see in the video below.
Related: 8 Alternatives to Lunges
Bulgarian split squats share some similarities to reverse lunge, except the back foot is left in a fixed position rather than stepping back on each rep. The rear foot is also slightly elevated. These can also be done with dumbbells, kettlebells, or a barbell.
For this lift, you will need some sort of platform to place your back foot on during the movement. It can be anything from a short box all the way up to a weight bench. With your rear foot stable on the platform, you squat down with the front leg and then rise up. You can see what the exercise looks like in the video.
This is a tricky lift for beginners as it requires excellent strength and balance. If you haven’t tried these before, begin with a very light weight and low surface and make sure you have spotters around to help if you get into trouble.
Any of the exercises above can make great leg extension alternatives. All of them will work your quad muscles and most of them have added benefits of activating other muscle groups during the movement. Assuming you are healthy, any of these can be substituted into your training program with similar set and rep numbers to help you develop muscular size and strength in you lower body.