Leg Curl Alternatives: Ways to Engage the Hamstrings

Published by Debbie Luna
Last Updated: October 18, 2021

Isolation exercises are popular means to train a singular muscle or muscle groups in the body. Leg curls are one of the most effective in training the hamstrings and the glutes as the major muscles of the lower posterior chain. Leg curls are beneficial so long as you have the equipment necessary to isolate them.

Some of the best alternatives for leg curls include the Single Leg Hip Extension, Kettlebell Swings, Good Mornings, Alternating Reverse Lunges, as well as squats and deadlifts and their respective variations.

Leg Curl Muscles Worked

leg curl benefits

Leg curls, also known as hamstring curls, are an isolation exercise that aims to strengthen the hamstring and gluteal muscles. It is one of the best exercises for improving balance and strength of the lower body as well as biomechanical functions. For people who do not perform compound exercises to improve overall body strength and function, leg curls provide sufficient training to improve the functionality of the lower body posterior chain.

Leg curls rely on the curling motion to activate the hamstrings and glutes. Two variations of the leg curl are the seated leg curl and lying leg curl. Seated leg curls activate these muscles by curling the legs towards the gluteal muscles while leg curls activate these muscles by lying face down and curling the legs upwards.

Leg curls not only improve the aesthetic features of the lower body. It also strengthens these posterior chain muscles to improve posture and alleviate lower back pain due to weak and unstable hamstrings. It can also improve kinesthetic performance by engaging the stabilizing muscles of the lower body as well as the core muscles, which protects the lumbar spine.

The hamstring muscles are usually not prioritized over the biceps or the abdominal muscles. They are often noted as the being the "forgotten muscle group" despite their importance in avoiding injuries and maintaining balance and stability.

As far as lower body strength and stability is concerned, many people choose to strengthen and improve the quadricep femoris muscles. The hamstring muscles are more difficult to train and require specific movements to engage thoroughly.

Leg Curl Alternatives

Bodyweight alternatives, or at least free weight alternatives to leg curl machines, do not require the use of machines to train the glutes and the hamstrings.

Single Leg Hip Extension

The Single Leg Hip Extension is similar in terms of being an isolation exercise for the hamstrings and gluteal muscles.

Performing a single-leg hip extension can stretch and contract the hamstring and gluteal muscles similar to leg curls. It is also possible to change the mechanics of performing this exercise by stretching the bent leg away or towards the body to make it more hamstring or glute-dominant, respectively.

Kettlebell Swings

Kettlebell swings are a popular compound exercise for training the upper and lower body muscles. Some of the most targeted muscles when performing this exercise are the glutes, hamstrings, shoulders, and pecs. This exercise is a good alternative to leg curls since it also trains some of the prominent upper body muscles.

It can be performed in a squatting or standing position. For the standing position, the feet should be placed at shoulder width with the elbows locked while swinging the kettlebell forwards and backward.

It can be used as an endurance exercise or a strength exercise depending on the volume and weight of the kettlebell.

Good Mornings

barbell good morning

Good Mornings are another basic compound exercise along with squats and deadlifts. It can be performed with or without free weights. Performing good mornings with free weights such as barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells can engage more of the hamstrings and glutes.

This exercise is a good alternative to leg curls since it is easy to perform. The lifter places the free weight on the upper back and then executes hip and lumbar extension.

It resembles getting out of bed in the morning, hence the name.

Alternating Reverse Lunges

Alternating reverse lunges train the hamstrings and glutes through the flexion and extension of the knees. The reverse movement from the traditional lunge, which targets the quadricep muscles, hits more of the hamstring muscles.

Performing the exercise with free weights can significantly increase the impact on the hamstring muscles. The reverse lunge relies on the back of the leg for executing the movement.

It is important to maintain one knee in a static position while the other leg extends backwards and then assumes an upright position.  

Squats

Squats are a good alternative to leg curls. It is one of the basic compound exercises that mostly engages the lower body muscles. Adjusting the squat stance into several variations can increase the engagement of the hamstrings and the gluteal muscles.

The lateral squat is a good exercise for hitting the adductor muscles of the inner thigh along with the hamstrings and the glutes. It is considered to be one of the best exercises for building the lower body's posterior muscle chain as well as hip mobility and range of motion.

The sumo squat also hits the same muscles as the lateral squat due to the wider placement of the feet when compared with the conventional squat. Slow repetitions through the eccentric and concentric motion can put pressure on the glutes and hamstring muscles while also engaging some of the upper body muscles like the core and lower back.

Lastly, the Bulgarian split squat is an isolation variation of the conventional squat. It requires training one leg at a time. This exercise requires placing the foot on an elevated surface behind the individual. This requires the other foot to balance the weight as the exercise moves from the eccentric to the eccentric motion. Tweaking the exercise by moving forward and increasing the distance to the elevated surface at the back will target more of the glutes and hamstring muscles.

Deadlifts

barbell deadlift

Deadlifts provide ample engagement of the glutes and hamstrings. While the conventional deadlift is a good alternative to leg curls, other deadlift variations can provide better engagement for the glutes and hamstrings.

The barbell sumo deadlift is one variation of the deadlift that extracts greater pulling strength from the hamstring muscles when compared with the conventional deadlift. The wider stance reduces the pressure from the quads while engaging more of the inner and rear thighs and gluteal muscles.

Final Thoughts

The hamstring muscles are a crucial muscle in the lower posterior chain of the body, especially for people who rely on lower body strength for explosive movements.

Having more exercises than leg curls to engage and challenge the hamstrings as well as the glutes can help prevent muscular imbalances, optimize the use of muscle groups in both the upper and lower body, and also help to avoid injury.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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