Leg extensions are one of the best ways to strengthen your quadriceps. This workout puts your quadriceps to the test and promotes muscular growth, strength, and tone despite its seemingly easy appearance.
It’s a great way to round out your leg workout, however recently more and more people have been doing it first to pump up their quads before attempting squats, which is a smart move.
But what if you’re quarantined or otherwise unable to leave your house and make it to the fitness center? What do you do if your gym doesn’t have a leg extension machine, or if you plan to work your legs on Saturday (International Leg Day) and the equipment is in use?
Good thing we’ve got a solution (or rather, 10 of them) for you. In this piece, you’ll find the top 10 alternatives to leg extensions that will hammer your quads and help you grow leg size and strength. But first, let’s talk about the muscles leg extensions target and whether or not they’re bad for your knees.
What Muscles Do Leg Extension Work?
To begin with, leg extensions are an isolating exercise that primarily targets the quadriceps. In contrast, your preferred leg exercise is probably going to involve some form of glute and hamstring stimulation, if only for stability purposes.
As a result, the quadriceps which are the biggest muscle group in the human body are the primary muscle group recruited during this exercise.
The quads are comprised of
- Rectus femoris
- Vastus lateralis
- Vastus medialis
- Vastus intermedius
Though primarily known for their role in knee extension, hip mobility is also greatly facilitated by these muscles. Walking, squatting, and maintaining an upright posture all require strong quads.
Are Leg Extensions Bad For Your Knees?
Knee pain is a common side effect of doing leg extensions or Leg extensions are bad for your knees because they put too much stress on them, these are some of the most common arguments against leg extensions that I’m sure we’ve all heard at some point.
Using a leg extension machine for too long or in the wrong way can cause knee injuries like:
So why does the leg extension machine get so much negative feedback? The main arguments against open-chain exercises like leg extensions are that they are not useful and that they put too much “unnatural” stress on the patellofemoral joint or ACL from 30 to 0 degrees of knee flexion.
Let me tell you that we use the word “stress” in a bad way for no good reason. How? Research shows that you have to stress your muscles and bones if you want them to get stronger.
Stress itself is neither good nor bad. It can lead to both positive and negative changes. For example, if you don’t use your muscles enough, this can lead to atrophy. If you put too much strain on your muscles, You might get hurt, but if you stress your muscles just right, you can make them bigger and stronger.
My point is, as long as quad isolation exercises like leg extensions use the correct form and a steady, progressive overload, the end result will be stronger quads.
Top 10 leg Extension Alternatives
Here are some of the best quad exercises you can do at home, on vacation, or in a gym that doesn’t have a leg extension machine. It is also possible to use specific exercises as part of larger, preexisting workout circuits.
1. Reverse Lunges
Your quadriceps will get a workout from reverse lunges, as they work in a similar way to leg extensions. Without the hassle of a squat, they are a simple yet effective way to strengthen the quadriceps.
They provide a very dynamic workout by engaging the glutes, hamstrings, and core.
How To Do Reverse Lunges
- Place your feet hip-width apart or shoulder-width apart. Engage your core and place your arms in a comfortable position. You can keep your hands at your sides, on your hips, or in front of your chest in a double fist.
- With your right leg, take a step backward. The distance will vary from person to person, but you should step back far enough so that your knee does not extend too far over your toes and near enough so that you can fully extend your back knee.
- Lower your body by planting your rear foot. Allow your knee to contact the floor lightly, or stop just short of it, making a 90-degree angle with your front leg. Avoid slamming your knee into the ground.
- Maintain the majority of your weight in your front leg and utilize it to bring your body back to the center. Keep your knee in line with your toes and drive through your heel.
- Repeat the action with your opposite leg until you’ve completed your set.
2. Bulgarian Split Squat
The Bulgarian split squat is a single-leg squat that is sure to improve your lower body. This exercise, performed with one leg behind you and elevated off the ground, targets many of the same muscles as a regular squat, but with a focus on the quadriceps.
Incorrect execution of the Bulgarian split squat is possible despite its seemingly simple movements. Although it may take more time than you anticipate to do this exercise correctly, in the end, you will be much better off for it. This variation to traditional leg extensions will test your strength, coordination, and range of motion in addition to your legs.
It is recognized as the king of single-leg exercises by those who are familiar with it because of its capacity to improve control, balance, power, and strength.
How To Do Bulgarian Split Squat
To get started, follow these steps:
- Stand 2 feet in front of a knee-level bench or step, this will be your starting position.
- Place the top of your right foot on the bench by lifting your right leg up behind you. Your feet should still be shoulder-width apart, and your right foot should be far enough in front of the bench to allow you to lunge comfortably – hop around a bit to find the proper location. If a closer foot position works for you, just make sure your left knee doesn’t go over the line of your toes as you lower down.
- Roll your shoulders back and lean slightly forward at the waist while engaging your core. Begin to descend down on your left leg, bending the knee.
- Stop before your knee falls over your toes if you’re doing a quad-dominant Bulgarian split squat. Stop when your left thigh is parallel to the ground if you’re doing a glute-dominant Bulgarian split squat.
- Return to standing by pushing up through your left foot, utilizing the strength of your quads and hamstrings.
- Repeat on this leg for the appropriate amount of reps, then swap and place the left foot on the bench.
3. Bodyweight Leg Extensions
Leg extensions can be done in a regular chair. The quads will be strengthened without any additional weight being used.
As a bonus, it’s easier on the knees. Leg extensions performed without the use of a machine may be preferable for those with knee issues.
How To Do Bodyweight Leg Extensions
- Sit down in a chair. Put your feet on the floor, hip-width apart, and straighten your back up.
- Extend your right knee to lift up your right leg.
- Return to the starting position, this marks one rep.
- Start out with two sets of 10 to 12 reps. Repeat with your left leg.
When performed with proper intensity and volume while maintaining a mind-muscle connection, squats are one of the finest exercises for developing toned and strong quadriceps.
Squats, like leg extensions, are done to strengthen the legs, especially the quadriceps. They provide a tremendous full-body bodyweight workout by working not only the quadriceps but also the core, hips, butt, and calves.
How To Do Squats
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing forward.
- Keep your chest out and your back straight.
- For balance, put your hands straight in front of you.
- Bend your knees and put your hips back like you’re sitting in a chair.
- Keep your back straight as you move down until your legs are at a 90-degree angle to the floor.
- Stop the movement at the bottom.
- To get back to where you started, push your feet into the floor. this marks one rep.
The step-up is another exercise that only uses one leg. This exercise is hard, which is great for working on stability and getting better at extending.
Focusing on driving through the top of this exercise to full extension is important if you want to get the same full extension as in a leg extension. This is not part of the end range of a squat, because the extension is not hard or loaded.
The step-up is a great way to work on the top half of the squat, build athletic power, and load the extension, which is something that many other leg exercises don’t do.
How To Do Step-Ups
- Stand facing a step, a chair, a box, or a bench. Place your entire right foot on the step.
- Shift your weight onto your right foot to step up onto the bench. Bring your left foot up to meet your right so that you are standing with both feet on the bench.
- To get back to the starting position, step down with the right foot, then the left, so that both feet are on the floor.
- Do 10 steps leading with the left foot, and then 10 steps leading with the right foot.
6. Sissy Squats
Don’t be fooled by the sissy squat’s innocent-sounding moniker; it’s one of the toughest (and most humbling) workouts around. Sissy squats are one of the most underappreciated alternatives to leg extensions because of the emphasis they place on the quadriceps.
This move can be performed with no weight at all, and then progressed to using a barbell, dumbbells, and even a safety squat bar.
How To Do Sissy Squat
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart on the platform of a sissy squat bench. You should put the tops of your feet under the padded foot support bar.
- Set your calves on the adjustable leg pad to lock your feet in place.
- Pull your shoulder blades back and put your hands on the outside of your hips to feel more stable and connect your mind and muscles.
- Squat by bending your knees and leaning back as far as you can without losing your balance and control.
- Put a lot of pressure on your quads to lift your body weight back up to where it was at the beginning.
- Repeat until you’ve done as many reps and sets as you want.
7. Cyclist Squats
The cyclist squat also called the quad squat, is another way to work your quadriceps. It’s a great way to finish a set, and you can get big results with light weights. Just by looking at the name, you can tell that this is one of the most common exercises cyclists do to build muscle and strength in their lower bodies.
In the cyclist squat, the heels are raised, which changes the angles of the exercise and makes the quads work harder. The whole movement can be done without moving the hips at all. Instead, the knees are bent to make the movement happen. Don’t stop moving at the top of the exercise to make it harder and really work the quads.
How To Do Cyclist Squats
*You will need a weight plate or curb that is about three inches high.
- Stand with your feet next to each other.
- Put your heels on the curb or plate. Hold your hands together or in front of you.
- Brace your core.
- You should bend your knees and slowly lower your hips until your hamstrings touch your calves.
- Stand up to get back to where you started.
- Start with two sets of ten to twelve repetitions.
8. Banded Front Squats
Banded front squats only need a band and can be done anywhere. This makes them a great leg extension alternative you can do at home or on the go.
By putting the band on the front of the shoulders and upper chest, we put the main load on the front (anterior chain) of the body, which will require a more upright posture and a forward knee translation. This will make your quads work harder and test both your hip flexibility and ankle mobility.
How To Do Banded Front Squats
- Put the band across your upper chest, right in front of your shoulder, and stand on top of it.
- Start with your hips. Sit back and let your knees move over your second and third toes.
- Sit back until the tops of your thighs are parallel to the ground or below.
- Stand up again until your knees and hips are fully straight.
- For the next repetitions, do the same steps as before.
9. Dumbbell Leg Extensions
This is a unique take on the standard leg extension exercise, but it still provides a number of benefits above the machine version. Dumbbell leg extensions may be done anywhere, using just a dumbbell, making them a convenient alternative to traditional leg extensions when you’re traveling or at home.
How To Do Dumbbell Leg Extensions
- A bench or other solid surface will serve as your seat during this workout.
- Tighten your abs and squeeze hold a dumbbell that’s resting over your ankles.
- Keep extending your legs until your knees are fully extended.
- Bring the load back to its original location under control, this marks one rep
10. Banded Leg Extensions
This variant can be a suitable replacement for traditional leg extensions both at home and when traveling.
In contrast to the leg extension machines and dumbbells, the banded leg extension offers a progressive increase in resistance across the whole range of motion.
How To Do Banded Leg Extensions
- Put a band around an anchor point right behind you.
- You can do this exercise either sitting or standing with the band around your ankle.
- If you are sitting, make sure there is space under you so that you have room to kick into extension.
- Keep the focus of the movement on the knee by kicking out the foot until the knee is fully extended.
- Then return to the starting position with the knee bent 90 degrees.
The popular belief that leg extensions are harmful to the knees is unfounded; on the contrary, robust quads lead to enhanced knee joint stability. Leg extensions can be used for a wide variety of purposes, from developing strong quads to rehabilitating injured knees. How you can best replace the leg extension in your routine depends on why you’re utilizing it in the first place.
The key to choosing an effective leg extension alternative that you can do at home is to choose different exercises that use the same biomechanics, complete the desired stimulus based on your program goals, and use exercises that fit your abilities.
Adding different kinds of leg extensions to a program adds new challenges and helps build overall strength and neuromuscular connection. These alternatives to traditional leg extension machines provide a more practical and effective workout. Other than being easier on the knees, alternative workouts also lessen the likelihood of injury. If you suffer from a knee ailment like arthritis, this could be the best solution for you.
Rahul is a sports and performance consultant. Over the course of his 15-year career in the fitness sector, he has held positions as a strength and conditioning instructor, gym owner, and consultant.
He is deeply committed to assisting people in finding happiness and feeling good about themselves.
Rahul has a master’s degree in exercise science and is a certified NSCA CSCS and CISSN.