One of the most popular exercises for gaining leg and glute definition are leg curls. They are simple, easy for beginners to do with proper form, and really are just plain effective.
Both seated leg curl exercises and lying leg curl exercises can be done on a machine found in nearly any gym you visit.
Seated leg curls are popular with new gym-goers while lying curls are somewhat more advanced, though they work slightly different muscles in the legs, thighs and hamstrings.
Despite being very effective exercises variety is the spice of gym life, and trying some alternatives can really round out your whole workout regimen.
Here are the top four leg curl alternatives that nearly anyone can do safely and successfully.
Kettlebell swings are slightly more advanced, and therefore you should start off carefully with them. A surprising number of people do not do this correctly and the range of motion involved makes it easy to injure yourself. That being said, with proper form kettlebell swings are incredibly useful as an alternative to leg curls.
There are two main positions in a kettlebell swing – the squat-like start and the erect finishing position with arms out.
Swings begin in the finishing position. Here you will stand with feet apart, wider than hip-width and closer to outside the shoulders. Toes can be pointed straight or slightly out depending on comfort. You will hold the kettlebell in your hands firmly but with a loose grip to allow the kettlebell handle to move in the fist. You will hold your arms out in front, parallel to the ground.
Elbows should be locked. As you do this you will want to pull your shoulders down towards your hips to engage your lats.
Be sure you tighten your abs, but keep your back straight. During this position, you will also engage your glutes (alternative to glute ham raise or hamstring curl) and hamstring muscles.
From here you will fold into your hips, while still looking straight ahead and keeping the back straight. Knees will naturally bend slightly but you should be feeling the stretch in your hamstrings. If you feel it more in your quads it’s like that your knees are bent too much. While doing this the kettlebell will naturally swing down between the legs. It can’t be stressed enough that only your arms should be moving during the swing, with the rest of the body tense.
You’ll want to transition from finish to start very smoothly and consecutively, only a second within each position. This is because kettlebell swings are a very explosive movement. Not only are they going to give your hamstrings a great workout, but also your entire body. If you’ve never tried the before you’ll be surprised at how you’ll get winded quick and really feel it in your whole body.
If you have access to a dumbell bar but not a leg curl machine you can give Good Mornings a try. These are essentially a stiff legged barbell movement (without the leg curl machine), similar to stiff legged deadlifts. The name was given to it for resembling standing up out of bed in the morning.
This movement is very simple but effective. It does require a bar, so many beginners can still enjoy this exercise, even if they need to use a bare bar to begin with. The average bar is about 45lbs and since your core muscles are supporting this weight, most should be fine with possible assistance to begin with.
You will start this exercise standing in a rack or simply over a mat, depending. Beginners may want to try a rack if you they aren’t confident they can safely pick up the bar from the ground and position it on their back properly. The barbell will be behind the head, resting on the back of your shoulders rather than on top of the shoulders. If you’ve done or seen a power squat, you’ll want this starting position to resemble that.
With feet firmly placed into the ground about hip-width apart, you will now bend forward from the hips, pushing them backwards as you move.
Keep looking forward and maintaining a slightly curved back. You will move down in the position until your back is roughly parallel to the floor. When moving back to start be sure you do so by engaging the hamstring and glute area to push you back up.
This exercise shouldn’t be rushed and you should really feel your muscles work. Good Mornings are a great variation to other barbell work and a nice change of pace from squats and deadlifts.
Stiff Leg Deadlift
If you like Good Mornings or barbell work in general, another leg curl alternative would be the stiff leg deadlift (sometimes called the Romanian deadlift). Think of it as the dumbbell leg curl.
To a beginner, it may seem like deadlifts target the arms and upper body more, but this simply isn’t true. With the stiff leg deadlift, you are going to give your hamstrings a killer stretch while also mixing glutes (and the general glute area) and lower back in.
You will start with the barbell on the ground in front of you, either bare or loaded with however amount of weight you’re comfortable with. Feet should be shoulder width or less apart and you should be looking forward. Keep your torso straight, engaging your abs to help.
Your knees will be slightly bent. From here you will bend down from the hips, grabbing the barbell in an overhand grip. Grasping the barbell firmly, you will rise back up to start.
Your back must remain straight, as it is easy to round the back without realizing it. Also, be sure you are bending from the hips and not over-extending the knees.
Remember, this is a stiff leg lift so they should remain stationary.
You feel definitely feel a pull in the hamstrings for this exercise. It’s easy to get a little ambitious and want to add more weight but proceed carefully. Always be sure proper form is being practiced as a lower back injury is possible if you add too much weight and have sloppy form.
*Note: If you don’t have access to a barbell you can still imitate this movement with dumbbells or adjustable dumbbells.*
Sliding Leg Curl Leg Exercises
So let’s say you are at home or away traveling and have no access to weights of any kind but you still want to work on those hamstrings with hamstring curl variations.
The sliding leg curl (or lying leg curl) is challenging but does the job perfectly. Plus it requires nothing but a slick floor and a small towel. It’s a great leg deadlift, dumbell leg curl, lying leg curl alternative.
To do this you will lay on your back with the small towel folded under your feet. Next, you will move into a glute bridge position but thrust up the hips and slide your feet towards your glute region. The towel will assist with gliding but you may notice that you can’t get completely into a bridge position at first.
This is fine, and you will be able to once your body is accustomed to this movement. Even though it seems easy, the sliding leg curl is really going to work your muscle groups as you bend your knees.
If you find that it isn’t enough you can use resistance bands in conjunction to really work out the hamstrings (hamstring curl).
These four alternatives are incredibly useful when combined in a routine with a lying leg curl set leg exercise. They allow you to workout different muscles in the legs (calf muscles, knee flexion, lower leg muscles, etc...), glute muscles, and some even work on core strength simultaneously.
If you’re serious about really defining and gaining strength in your lower body, or you simply don’t have access to a leg curl machine, these can easily fill in your gym time.