leg curl alternatives

what can i do instead of leg curls? 10 Simple alternatives

There are many exercises you can do instead of leg curls to work your legs. Squats, reverse lunges, donkey kicks and dumbbell leg curls are all examples of leg curl alternatives.

Most who workout in a home gym eventually ask the question: What can I do instead of leg curls? Not everyone has a leg curl attachment on their bench. The good news is that you can do leg curls without a machine.

The better news is that some of the leg curl alternatives I’m going to show you are better than the ones you see everyone doing at a gym. Some of them don’t even require any weights. Any exercise that works the hamstrings and calves can be considered a seated leg curl alternative, and you'll see some of those here.

The Best Leg Curls Without A Machine

Leg curls on a machine work the calves and hamstrings. Some of these alternatives work those same two muscle groups, but why stop there? Here I’ll explain which muscles each alternative to leg curls work, what equipment if any is needed, and then I’ll explain how to do them correctly.

1 – Dumbbell Leg Curl

  • Closest exercise to lying machine leg curl
  • Beginner to intermediate
  • Works hamstrings and calves
  • Requires one dumbbell

You’ve probably seen lying leg curl machines at a gym. You may have even considered buying one of the home versions that go on a bench. But this alternative exercise is even more effective because the resistance is applied in a slightly different way.

Lay flat on your chest and stomach on the floor or a bench. Hold a dumbbell between your feet. This sounds dangerous, and it actually can be. Just make sure you are holding the dumbbell between your feet very securely.

Start with the dumbbell touching the floor or bench. Slowly raise it by bending your knees and moving your feet and dumbbell toward your butt. Stop when your knees are bent just a bit more than 90 degrees. Then return to your starting position by extending your legs slowly until the end of the dumbbell touches the floor or bench again.

Here's a good example of a correct dumbbell leg curl.

Try 10 reps per set and three sets per workout.

2 – Squats

  • Familiar to almost everyone who likes to workout
  • Beginner to advanced
  • Works hamstrings, calves, quads, glutes, abs and back
  • Can be done with or without weight

Squats are very versatile. They’re great for working your lower body. You can use weight if you want to. Beginners may want to eschew the weight, but you’ll likely want more of a challenge as you progress.

Here’s how to do a squat as an alternative to a leg curl:

Stand straight and tall with your feet pointing forward. Hold your hands straight out in front of you with your arms extended for balance. Alternatively, you can put your hands on your head or cross your arms over your chest. Do whatever feels the most natural to you.

Keep your shoulder back so your chest stays lifted. Stick your butt out and bend at your knees and hips until you are down in a full squat. Immediately go up the same way you went down.

The whole time, your shoulders should be back, your chest and head raised, your butt sticking out and your spine neutral.

See if you can do 10 reps per set. Three sets per workout would be awesome.

To throw weight into the mix, hold a kettlebell or set of dumbbells while you do the squats. Start light with five pounds.

3 – Lateral Squat

  • Simple and effective
  • Beginner to intermediate
  • Works quads, glutes hip adductors
  • No equipment needed

This squat variation targets two muscle groups that are often neglected: the gluteus medias and the hip adductors, which are your inner thigh muscles. They’re also good for hitting your quads.

Stand with your feet and knees pointing forward. If it’s more comfortable for you, you can point your left foot toward 11 o’clock and your right to 1 o’clock.

Put your weight on your right heel, shift your hips back and bend your right knee, keeping your left leg straight. The goal is to get to where your thigh is parallel with the floor, but go down as far as you can.

Reverse that movement to return to your starting position to complete one rep. Repeat in the opposite direction, bending your left knee and keeping your right leg straight, for your second rep.

12 reps per set is good. See if you can do four sets per workout.

4 – Hip Bridges

  • Enhance core stability by strengthening abs and lower back muscles
  • Beginner to intermediate
  • Works hamstrings and glutes
  • No equipment needed

Hip bridges are so simple that my toddler sometimes do them for fun or out of boredom. What’s amazing is that she uses the proper form. That’s a testament to how intuitive this exercise actually is.

Lie on your back with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, Your arms should be at your sides with your palms flat on the floor.

Engage your core and glutes, and exhale as you push up on your heels until your body is straight from your mid-back to your knees. Hold this upper position for a moment, and inhale you you lower yourself back to your starting position.

Beginners can rest flat on the floor for just a moment between reps for just a moment until proper form becomes a habit.

See if you can do ten reps per set. 15 would be a better staring point. At any rate, go for three sets per workout.

5 – Donkey Kicks

  • Great for toning the legs and butt
  • Beginner to intermediate
  • Works glutes and adductors
  • No equipment needed

This is a blend of donkey kicks and donkey sidekicks. They’re not really for bulking, but they are good for toning and flexibility.

Get into position on your hands and knees with your back straight. Look forward at a point on your wall about as high off the ground as your eyes. This will keep your neck straight.

Now do a donkey kick by quickly raising your right knee while straightening the same leg as straight as you can get it. Return to your starting position. Make sure your knee touches the floor, then lift your leg like a dog peeing on a tree. Try to get your thigh parallel with the floor. This is one rep.

Repeat this using your left leg. And remember to keep your back straight and your core and butt engaged.

Shoot for 15 reps per set and two sets per workout.

6 – Hamstring Walkouts

  • Easy to transition to or from hip bridges
  • Intermediate to advanced
  • Works hamstrings, glutes, hip flexors and lower back
  • No equipment needed

These are tougher than they may appear. You should master the hip bridge before moving on to walkouts. But they are pretty simple, and require no equipment or weights.

Start out on your back with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Raise up into a hip bridge. Remember that in a proper hip bridge, your body should be in a straight line from the middle of your back to your knees.

Now “walk out” by alternately moving each heel outward as to get you completely flat on your back with the backs of your legs touching the floor. To complete one rep, walk yourself back into a full hip bridge.

Start with five reps per set. It would be nice to progress to ten. Two sets per workout is plenty.

7 – Russian Hamstring Curls

  • Really hits your hammys
  • Intermediate to advanced
  • Works hamstrings, calves and quads as well as core muscles
  • Only a pillow or other small padding material is needed

Many have never heard of this tough hamstring workout. It’s great for hammys, but it also works your quads if you do it right. A workout partner is helpful, but not necessary.

Get into a kneeling position with something thin and soft under your knees. This is crucial to prevent soreness or even injury. If you have a buddy, they’re there to hold your feet and calves against the floor. Alternately, you can hook your feet underneath a very heavy barbell with plates, a cable machine or anything else you have in your gym that will work.

Keep your back straight. Engage your core and glutes. Lean forward and let gravity pull your torso down toward the floor. Your role is to slow your descent, using your legs. Rest for just a second when your chest hits the floor.

Now return to your starting position, again using your leg muscles.

It may help to see it done here in this short video.

It is possible to pull a hamstring here, so start with just two or three reps per set, if you can do that many. Progress to five. Try to do two or three sets per workout.

8 – Reverse Lunges

  • One of the most useful, yet overlooked, exercises
  • Beginner to advanced
  • Works hamstrings, glutes and quads
  • No equipment needed, but a set of dumbbells add to the intensity

You should definitely consider adding reverse lunges to your lower-body workouts. They work your entire thighs. You can also build better balance and stamina if you make them a regular part of your routine.

To begin, stand straight with your hands on your hips. Take a huge step backward with your right foot. Bending at your knees, lower yourself until your right thigh is parallel to the ground. Your left knee should be near the floor with your left heel raised off the floor.

Lift yourself while keeping with the same form and movement you did on the way down. Step forward with your right foot so your feet are side by side again. That is one rep. Repeat by taking a big step backward with your left foot and working that side.

Start with ten reps per set and two or three sets per workout.

9 – Kettlebell Swings

  • Gets your shoulders and chest in on the action
  • Works hamstrings, quads and glutes, aside from the upper body
  • Beginner to advanced
  • Requires a kettlebell or heavy dumbbell

This is technically a full-body workout, but there is enough emphasis on the hamstrings and calves that I consider it a pretty good seated leg curl alternative.

You may be thinking that this must be an arm exercise, because you swing a ‘bell with your arms, right? Usually, yes you do. But in this exercise, you’re going to be holding the kettlebell in your hands while you swing it with your legs and hips. Pay attention here.

Place your kettlebell on the floor about a foot in front of the middle of your feet. Bend your knees slightly. Stick your butt out a bit. Bend at your hips, reach for the kettlebell and grab the ‘bells handle with both hands. “Hike” the kettlebell backward between your legs as if you were hiking a football. When the ‘bell reaches its furthest point back, hinge forward at your hips to swing the kettlebell up and out in an arc, keeping your arms relatively straight. Guide the bell as it falls to about the same place you hiked it from. It takes some practice. Check out this video for a good example.

Start with 10 reps per set and three sets per workout.

10 – Romanian Leg Curl

  • Works the whole body with particular attention on the legs
  • Intermediate to advanced
  • Works hamstrings, glutes, quads, calves, adductors and core
  • Barbell and plates needed

This one is similar to the kettlebell swing in that it uses weight to indirectly work the legs and works the whole body with special emphasis on the leg muscles.

Start with your bar on the floor. Grip it with your hands facing down about shoulder-width apart or slightly wider. Bend at the knees to grip the bar, and exhale as you lift, hinging your hips forward. Inhale as you bend at your knees to place the bar back on the floor.

Keep your spine in its natural position, with a slight curve at the small of your back. Your back and arms shouldn’t move much during this exercise. It’s your legs that should be doing the work. Your calf muscles more or less work as balancing and stabilizing muscles.

Start small. Use light weight until you perfect your form. Pay attention to your back’s position and make sure your legs are doing most of the work.

Begin with just two or three reps per set and two sets per workout. Progress as you like, but always pay attention to your form.

Leg Curl Alternatives Conclusion

The closest exercise on this list to the curls you can do on a machine is the dumbbell leg curl. The toughest is probably either the Russian hamstring curl or the Romanian leg curl. As far as simplicity goes, I’d have to say the easiest is the hip bridge or the squat.

All of these are great alternatives to leg curls. Decide what muscle groups you want to work, and put your leg workout together with the exercises above.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments. And if someone asks you “What can I do instead of leg curls,” share this post with them.

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