Strong muscles are essential for a healthy body. One way to keep your muscles strong and healthy is with strength training. However, performing the wrong muscle-strengthening exercises or performing the right exercises wrongly can do more harm than good. When done correctly, strength training can tone your muscles, help you lose fat, and improve your bone density.
If done incorrectly, strength training won’t give these benefits. In the worst-case scenario, these exercises can lead to lower body injuries. One of the widely debated topics in the strength training arena is leg extension exercises. Are these exercises safe? Are there better alternatives?
What are leg extensions?
These are resistance weight training exercises that target the quadriceps muscles in your legs. They are done using a machine known as the leg extension machine, which is available in most weight rooms and gyms.
This leg exercise shouldn’t be considered a total leg workout or lower body exercise such as deadlift and squat. It is an isolation exercise involving the movement at a single joint instead of several joints. An effective leg extension tension targets the quads, a muscle group comprising vastus lateralis, rectus femoris, vastus intermedius, and vastus medialis.
The quad leg muscles work together to extend to the knee, and the rectus femoris works with the iliopsoas to flex your hip. Although you can still get a great quads workout from various compound exercises, it is essential to target these muscles with effective leg extensions. This is particularly true if your quadriceps muscles are lagging behind hamstrings and glutes. These are the other muscles involved in many compound leg exercises.
Drawbacks of a leg extension machine exercise
There is no debate that a machine leg extension can place tension on your quadriceps muscles. After all, there aren’t many strength training workouts that mimic the quads-burn and isolated squeeze they’re known for. These exercises have been shown to captivate three of the quadriceps muscles but fall short in terms of activating the rectus femoris and other lower body muscles.
Note that leg extensions are sometimes hated by fitness professionals, especially those in the so-called ‘functional training’ camps. As always, context is crucial, and understanding both sides of the argument can better help you decide whether leg extension exercises have a place in your leg day workout routine.
Most leg extensions apply constant tension on your anterior cruciate ligament, which is why individuals with ligament injuries must avoid them. Also, leg extension exercises heighten the risk of lateral patellar. That means your knee cap can slide left or right unnaturally.
These workouts fail to engage hamstring muscles in supporting your knees and put a long of force on your knee joint. So, if you perform leg extensions with heavy weights, you increase the risk of sustaining knee injuries.
10 leg extension alternatives
Not everyone has the money and time to make it to the gym every time they want to work out. What if you choose to train in your garage gym and cannot access a leg extension machine? Or you realize that leg extensions cause unbearable knee pain. Maybe you dislike these exercises… what should you do?
Fortunately, there are many great leg extension alternative exercises you can do. Some replicate the leg extensions using different pieces of equipment. Others target your quadriceps muscles using different movements. You can choose any or a combination of the following leg extension alternatives that will strengthen and build your quadriceps.
1. Bodyweight leg extensions
Bodyweight leg extensions do an excellent job at activating the quadriceps in a unique way that compliments the lunges, squats, and other multi-joint workouts. Not all bodyweight exercise options are performed using a fixed machine. For instance, ‘pike’ leg extensions are widely preferred and require simple equipment.
How to do it
- Sit on a chair, plant your feet firmly on the floor (hip-width) apart.
- Keep your back straight.
- Extend the right knee to lift the right leg (front leg).
- Return to the original position.
- Begin with two sets of at least ten reps. Repeat with the other leg.
Bodyweight leg extensions help train complimentary leg muscles, are easy to progress, require no special equipment, and are suitable for your knee health.
2. Standing leg extension
This leg extension substitute provides a similar movement as the leg extension machine. However, it shifts the exercise from an “open-chain” to a “closed-chain” exercise. That means the supporting foot and leg are in a fixed position.
How to do it
- Stand firmly with your feet shoulder-width apart. Place your hands on your hips.
- Keep your core tight and raise your left foot off the floor.
- Send it (the left foot) back by bending the left knee.
- Extend the same leg (left) in front of you by straightening the left knee.
- Keep your abdominal muscles and quadriceps engaged throughout.
- Begin with eight to 12 reps and repeat the entire process with your right leg.
You can modify this exercise for more exertion using resistance cables or ankle weights. Although the traditional leg extension targets the quadriceps muscles, these exercises target the quadriceps and your core. It is also possible to do seated leg extension exercises.
3. Sissy squats
Despite the workout’s unique name, there’s nothing effeminate about this good leg extension substitute. In fact, it is an old-school strength training exercise that’s challenging. Sissy squats hammer your quadriceps and can be tough on your knees. So if you are looking for a way to finish your leg exercises, several sets of sissy squats are all you need.
How to it
- Stand firmly with your feet hip-width apart.
- Bend the knees and allow your upper body to lean back slightly.
- Gradually lower your upper body weight until the lower and upper leg forms a 90-degree angle.
- Flex your quadriceps as you raise your upper body up.
Sissy squats target your thigh or leg muscles and core (abdominal muscles). Generally, it is performed by simply squatting without bending hips, which emphasizes your knee extension.
4. Reverse lunges
Like leg extensions, reverse lunge tones and strengthen your quadriceps. Also, they activate your hamstrings, glutes, and core abdominal muscles. This makes a reverse lunge a more dynamic workout to add to your routine.
How to do it
- Stand straight with the feet shoulder-width apart.
- Step the right foot back, then lower your knee (right) to about 90 degrees.
- Push into the same foot (right) to return to your original position.
- Repeat this process with your left leg to complete one rep.
- You can start with at least ten reps.
Compared to basic lunges, this exercise places less strain on your knees while toning your legs. You can try this exercise with dumbbells or with your hands over your head.
5. Bulgarian split squats
The Bulgarian split squats are also good leg extension alternative exercises that involve a lot of quadriceps muscle activity. You can use a slightly shorter stance and keep your torso upright to make a Bulgarian split squat more quadriceps-centric. It’s also possible to do Bulgarian split squats with light weights. Remember, you need a sturdy chair or bench to complete a Bulgarian split squat.
How to do it
- Stand with your back to a bench, hold a dumbbell in each hand, and place your elbow on your side.
- Split legs into a lunge stance and rest the right foot on the bench (or chair). Then plant the left leg firmly on the floor for support.
- Bend the same leg to lower the right knew. Then lower your upper body until the left thigh is parallel to the floor while your right knee nearly touches the floor.
- Gently push into the left foot and return to your original position.
- Begin with two sets of at least ten reps.
- Switch your legs and repeat the process.
Keep in mind that these squats require outstanding balance. In case you are new to this workout, try it without weights first. Once you get used to it, you can add dumbbells.
6. Cyclist squats
Most avid cyclists are often renowned for their outstanding quadriceps muscles development. There’s a lot to be said about the cycling hobby in your quest for more developed quadriceps. The good news is that you no longer need to cycle up mountains if you don’t want to try. Instead, try cyclist squat exercises or bodyweight squat workouts.
How to do it
- Begin by standing upright with your feet side by side.
- Keep your back foot or heel rested on a curb or plate with your straight ahead.
- Brace your core muscles.
- Then bend the knees and sink your hips slowly into a deep
- squat until your hamstring muscles touch the calves.
- Stand up and return to your original position.
- Begin with two sets of at least ten reps.
A cyclist squat requires you to use a narrow stance, raise your heels on a block (or curb), and keep your torso upright. As you get stronger, try to do goblet cyclists squats or add dumbbells. Remember, raising your heels exerts more stress on your joints, which is why you should be careful if you experience knee pain or you have a history of a knee injury.
7. Dumbbell leg extension
If you don’t have a leg extension machine, don’t worry about keeping your quadriceps toned. Try dumbbell leg extensions. All you need is a chair (or weight bench) and dumbbells. Be sure to place a mat under your dumbbells to avoid damaging your floor if you accidentally drop a dumbbell.
How to do it
- Sit on a chair (or bench) with the back of your knees at
- level with the bench’s or chair’s end.
- Place dumbbells between your feet and hold them tightly.
- Extend both legs until they are straight.
- Return your legs to the starting position and repeat the process.
You can do this exercise while wearing light ankle weights. Remember, using a low chair or bench will limit your overall range of motion. So, raise your seat or bench to begin each rep with more bend on your knees.
8. Cable leg extensions
Cable leg extension workouts are common leg extension alternatives that involve knee flexion and hip extension. This combination produces an intense quadriceps. Although you may not go heavy with this exercise, you will feel it working on your quad muscles.
How to do it
- Please put on your ankle cuff and attach it carefully to a low pulley cable.
- Then stand with your back to your workout machine.
- Raise one leg, so your hip is level with your knee.
- Engage your core muscles and use your arms to maintain balance whenever necessary.
- Extend the leg (without lowering it) and bend it again.
- Do the same reps on each leg.
It’s important to mention that cable leg extensions hit the hamstrings, calves, glutes, and quadriceps from different angles without overstraining your spinal cord. Be sure to lean back as you extend the right or left leg to engage your quad muscle. Avoid locking out your knee in a top position.
9. Constant tension leg press
Did you know that you can apply the constant tension technique to nearly any leg exercise? But this approach is more effective and safe during leg presses. Note that the constant tension leg press involves stopping your reps just before lockout so that the dumbbells or weight you are lifting is supported by your bones.
How to do it
- Sit on a leg press machine and un-rack the right weight.
- Position your feet not more than hip-width apart and slightly lower on the footplate to ensure maximum quadriceps engagement.
- Bend both legs as far as possible without rounding your lower and upper back.
- Without bouncing at the bottom or pausing, drive the weight upwards and stop a couple of inches below lockout.
- Your legs should be steady and slightly bend.
- Lower the weight gently and repeat the entire process.
Generally, these steps make your preferred exercise more challenging because you do not get rest between reps. Also, your blood and lactic acid start to pool in your quadriceps or quad muscles, creating a muscle-building building pump. The exercise is still among the best leg extension alternatives you can try.
10. Kneeling leg extension workout
Kneeling leg extension is also known as a bodyweight leg workout. It is a simple exercise ideal for people who intend to work out at home. All you need is enough space to kneel down. This quadriceps builder can be hard on your knees and other joints. So, perform it gradually and stop whenever you feel back knee pain until you get stronger.
How to do it
- Start by kneeling down in a way that your femur is perpendicular to the floor.
- Use a folded towel of mater to keep your knees safe.
- Cross your hands in front of your chest.
- Sit back and gently lower your butt towards your feet without hip flexors.
- Lean back as far as your knee health and flexibility allow.
- Return to the starting post and repeat the steps once again.
Note that you can make kneeling leg extension exercise more challenging by raising your hands over your head or holding a weight on your chest.
Why alternative workouts are better
Leg extension workouts are recommended if you intend to focus on your quadriceps. However, if you intend to improve your overall leg strength, it is recommended to do the best leg extension alternatives such as banded leg extensions, guided squat movement, and any other leg extension variation that can tone your muscles and keep them stronger.
These alternative or other exercises engage more muscles such as the hamstrings, glutes, and sometimes the abdominal muscles. This is important to improve your overall balance and posture. Indeed, these options offer more functional and intense workouts than just leg extensions on a workout machine.
Suppose you are new to strength training. In that case, it is in your best to consult with an experienced personal trainer or physical therapist. The professional can help you create a strength training plan that is appropriate for your fitness level and overall health. He or she can also guide you on how to choose the best leg extension alternative to perform each exercise carefully to get the maximum benefits and prevent possible injuries during workouts.