If you’re going to be standing in a queue to use any machine at the gym, it’s likely to be the leg curl machine. Popular for building strong and shapely hamstrings, the leg curl machine never goes astray in any serious lower body workout regime.
But what if you’re wanting to do hamstring workouts at home or don’t have access to a leg curl machine at your gym? Are there leg curl alternatives that effectively target these major muscles? Rest assured, there are! And in this article, I’m going to be sharing a bunch of the best ones with you!
- The Benefits of Having Strong Hamstrings
- 13 Machine-Free Leg Curl Alternatives
- 1. Hip Extensions
- 2. Bent Leg Lifts/Donkey Kicks
- 3. Alternating Reverse Lunges
- 4. Sumo Squat to Stand
- 5. Hamstring Walk Outs
- 6. Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
- 7. Bent Leg Reverse Hyperextensions
- 8. Dumbbell Leg Curls
- 9. Romanian Deadlifts
- 10. Bulgarian Split Squats
- 11. Floor Hamstring Raises
- 12. Sliding Leg Curls
- 13. Barbell Sumo Deadlift
- Wrapping Up
The Benefits of Having Strong Hamstrings
Before we get into the list of leg curl alternatives, I want to shed some light on the importance of having strong and well-conditioned hamstrings.
When we think of hamstring training, the aesthetic benefits are quick to jump to mind. However, there is so much more to a good set of hamstrings than looking good! Our hamstrings form a major part of our posterior chain and the strength of our posterior chain is directly linked to our life-functionality!
Weak hamstrings can lead to a lot of issues, such as poor posture, sore knees and lower back pain, to name a few! Working on your hamstring strength not only improves your athletic performance but will assist in better biomechanics (keeping you comfortable in movement) and prevent injury.
13 Machine-Free Leg Curl Alternatives
When it comes to leg curl alternatives that you can do from the comfort of your home, you’re in luck, as there happens to be a few options! Below you will find a list of them, ranging in difficulty (something here for everyone) and requiring little to no equipment at all.
The ‘how to’ notes are important when it comes to getting the exercise technically right, so make sure you give them a read before trying any of these exercises out! Form is key!
1. Hip Extensions
Equipment needed: none
Hip extensions are a fantastic, technically easy, glute and hamstring exercise. By tweaking the exercise slightly, you can make it more glute focussed or more hamstring focussed. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to tell you about how to make it work for your hamstrings, primarily!
- Lie on your back with your knees bent just over 90-degrees and your feet flat on the floor.
- Note, the closer your heels are to your hips, the more tension you will feel on your glutes. The further your heels are from your hips, the more tension you will feel on your hamstrings.
- Pushing through your heels, lift your hips and back off the ground (as one unit) so that only your upper back and shoulders are left on the ground.
- At the top of the movement, squeeze your glutes and hold for a second or 2 before returning to starting position.
Suggested repetitions: 15 to 20
Pro tip: time under tension is everything. Keep your repetitions slow and controlled. And if that isn’t enough for you, give the unilateral version of this exercise a go by using only one leg at a time.
2. Bent Leg Lifts/Donkey Kicks
Equipment needed: none
Don’t let the ‘beginner’ status fool you. This exercise is easy to get right but is not easy on your hamstrings! You are going to feel the burn, that is for sure! If you haven’t done much hamstring work before, this is a great bodyweight exercise for building some base hamstring strength.
- Begin square on your hands and knees with a flat back.
- Beginning with your weaker side, have your leg bent at the knee and then you’re your thigh upwards until you feel your glute contract.
- Note, to keep the tension on your hamstring, your leg needs to remain bent at the knee throughout the movement.
- Hold at the top of the movement briefly before returning to starting position (without resting your knee back on the ground).
- This is a unilateral exercise that requires all repetitions to be done on one side before changing sides.
Suggested repetitions: 15 to 20 on each leg
Pro tip: the standard version of this exercise sees you lifting your bent leg from the ground until your thigh is parallel with the floor. To spice it up a little, once you have completed your rep range, add a few bonus repetitions that involve small pulse movements from parallel to the ground and upwards.
3. Alternating Reverse Lunges
Equipment needed: dumbbell/barbell (optional)
Ok, so lunges ain’t no leg curl. However, they essentially take your hamstrings through the motion of flexion and extension via bending the knee, as in the leg curl. Unlike the standard forward lunge, reverse lunges hit your hamstrings much harder given that the driving force of the movement comes from your back leg.
Mind to muscle connection is everything, and this exercise allows you the level of control and stability that promotes this connection.
- Begin standing upright with your feet together.
- Step into a wide stance backward step, starting with your weaker leg.
- Lower yourself down into a lunge by bending both of your knees – make sure your torso stays upright (that you don’t collapse through the chest)
- Maintain your weight in the heel of your front foot and keep your knee behind your toes.
- Return to starting position and then step backwards into your next reverse lunge on your other leg.
Suggested repetitions: 10 to 12 on each leg
Pro tip: load them up! Have a dumbbell in each hand or a barbell across your back for some added resistance!
4. Sumo Squat to Stand
Equipment needed: none
This exercise provides a great way to increase your level of flexibility through your hamstrings. Having very tight hamstrings is a major setback to training them effectively. So, whilst this is not a direct strength-building exercise, it aids the cause and has a place in your hamstring workout.
It’s important to take this one slow as it does take your hamstrings into full extension. An adequate warm up is required prior to testing this one out.
- Begin at the bottom of a full ass-to-grass squat. Your hands should be holding the front of your feet. If need be, tuck your fingers underneath the front of your shoes.
- At this point, you should be upright through your chest and have your spine neutral.
- Without moving your hands, extend through the knees, straightening your legs and sending your hips towards the ceiling.
- Once you reach full extension, or as much as your hamstrings can handle, return to starting position.
Suggested repetitions: 12 to 15
5. Hamstring Walk Outs
Equipment needed: none
Hamstring walk outs target your hamstrings through flexion of both the knees and hips. If you’re prone to cramping, this might not be an ideal exercise for you as it does maximize your hamstrings’ time under tension.
- Set up like you would for a glute bridge by lying on the ground with your knees bent and feet on the floor.
- Drive your hips upwards into full extension.
- You should have only your upper back on the ground at this point.
- Lift your toes off the ground so that you’re on your heels and then take small steps away from your body until your legs are almost straight.
- Once you reach your end point, start walking (on your heels) slowly back towards your body until you reach starting position.
- Don’t put your hips back on the ground in between repetitions. Keep them extended until you reach the end of your repetition range.
Suggested repetitions: 10 to 12 (each walk out and back in counts as 1 rep)
Pro tip: try these with your upper body elevated. You can achieve this by resting your upper back on a bench before driving your hips upwards into extension.
6. Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
Equipment needed: stability ball
As the name suggests, this one kicks your stabilizers into action! If you like the burning sensation experienced during exercise, then this exercise is for you! Stability ball hamstring curls follow the same movement pattern as the leg curl machine provides, and therefore, makes for a perfect at-home alternative.
You need a stability ball to perform this exercise. If you don’t already have one, they are an ideal accessory to any home gym, with a never-ending list of exercises that can be done! If you’re stuck for options, check these ones out here.
- Lie on your back with your arms resting on the floor by your sides, palms facing down.
- Have your feet, ankles and lower legs resting on the stability ball.
- From here, push your hips up and curl the stability ball towards you by simultaneously bending your knees, and pushing your hips upwards!
- Hold at the top of the movement for a second, and then in a controlled fashion, return to the starting position by straightening your legs.
- Keep your hips off the ground for the entire repetition range.
Suggested repetitions: 10 to 12
7. Bent Leg Reverse Hyperextensions
Equipment needed: bench/ledge
Reverse hyperextensions are an amazing accessory exercise that develop your lower back, glutes and hamstrings all at once! This bent leg version keeps your hamstrings contracted and, therefore, places a primary focus on them throughout the movement. Plus, all you need is a ledge to lie on and you can do them anywhere, anytime.
- Lie on a flat surface, face down. You should have the edge of the surface in the line with the crease of your hips, when bent.
- Starting position should have you lying on the flat surface with your hips hinged at 90-degrees over the ledge.
- Bend your knees to 90-degrees and maintain this throughout the exercise.
- From here, lift your knees until your thighs are parallel with the ground and your glutes and hamstrings are fully engaged.
- Hold here for 2 seconds before lowering your legs back down to create the 90-degree bend at your hips once again.
Suggested repetitions: 12 to 15
Pro tip: do the unilateral version to create equal and balanced strength through your left and right hamstrings.
8. Dumbbell Leg Curls
Equipment needed: dumbbell
This exercise makes for the perfect alternative to the leg curl machine. It exactly replicates the movement, but the resistance is applied differently (which makes it harder). You only need one dumbbell of appropriate weight to perform this exercise.
It’s important to get the movement right, moreover, the positioning of the dumbbell – as that’s an accident you don’t want to have!
- Lie on the floor with a dumbbell placed between your feet (hold the ‘bell’ of the dumbbell between the middle of your feet).
- Start with your feet close to the ground and from here lift the dumbbell, by bending your knees and contracting your hamstrings.
- Once you get to just over a 90º bend in your knees, lower the dumbbell back down to starting position.
- Complete your reps slowly, and make sure you always have a firm hold on the dumbbell.
If you’re in need of some dumbbells for your home gym to do exercises like these, you can have a look at some here.
Suggested repetitions: 10 to 12
Pro tip: if you’re up for an extra challenge, you can also try this exercise on an incline bench, for extra range of movement!
9. Romanian Deadlifts
Equipment needed: barbell
One of my personal favorites, the barbell stiff leg deadlift, aka the Romanian deadlift. I love this exercise, not only because it’s one of the best posterior chain strength exercises there is, but also because it provides endless room for progression. I would happily ditch the machines for this leg curl alternative.
This exercise is not preferable for beginners as it does require a significant amount of core and lower body strength to be able to perform it without injuring your lower back.
- Hold the bar in a neutral, overhand grip.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and a soft bend in your knees – this is your starting position.
- Without flexing further at the knees, keep a neutral spine and lower the bar down your legs by hinging at the hips.
- Your end of range is when you feel a stretch in your hamstrings, or you are unable to maintain a neutral spine (whatever comes first).
- From here, engage through your glutes and come back up to starting position.
If you’re on the lookout for some barbells to complete your home gym (and complete this exercise), here is some good advice.
Suggested repetitions: The reps you complete in this exercise would be specific to the weight you use, but commonly this exercise is performed for 8 to 15 reps.
10. Bulgarian Split Squats
Equipment needed: bench or a ledge and dumbbells/barbell (optional)
This exercise delivers. It’s going to work your hamstrings and work them hard! It will challenge you from various standpoints: strength, balance, muscular endurance and cardiovascular fitness! Whilst a few lower body muscles come into play with this exercise, your stabilization will come from your hamstrings.
- Lift one leg up onto a bench or ledge behind you (rest your foot on the ledge on your toes).
- Take a few hops forward to create a wide split stance starting position.
- Without collapsing through your chest (keep upright), engage your core and then bend both your front and back knee to lower yourself into a deep lunge.
- Hold for a second whilst in the bottom position of the exercise and then return to starting position by pushing back upwards through the heel of your front foot.
- Do all your reps on one side, then switch sides.
Suggested repetitions: If you’re using your bodyweight only, aim for 15 repetitions. If weighted with dumbbells or a barbell, try 8 to 12.
11. Floor Hamstring Raises
Equipment needed: BOSU ball (optional)
Not for the faint-hearted! This one is the biggest deal of all the leg curl alternatives that exist, in my opinion! And it’s best done with a friend… to hold your feet. Or you can anchor your feet under something stable, but where’s the fun in that?
This exercise is difficult. You may need to try it with a bit of assistance the first time round, which you can use a BOSU Ball for.
- Start in a kneeling position with your feet anchored down firmly.
- Without flexing through your hips or bending through your back, lower yourself towards the ground, holding your body weight on your hamstrings and core.
- Land with your hands on the floor.
- And then – yes, you don’t get to face plant now – you need to push yourself back up to starting position off your hands, pulling with your hamstrings, maintaining your straight body line.
To start with, this exercise is best done in partial reps or with the use of a BOSU ball positioned in front of you to reduce your range of movement.
Suggested repetitions: The amount of reps you perform would be entirely up to your current level of strength and conditioning. Start slow!
12. Sliding Leg Curls
Equipment needed: none (foot sliding pads if you want to get fancy)
Sliding leg curls, as the name suggests, are leg curls that are done via sliding your feet along a surface, rather than lifting a lever with your feet, as in the traditional leg curl. They will target your hamstrings in the exact same way as the leg curl, so this exercise is an ideal alternative. The best part about it, is that it challenges you adequately without placing stress on your knees or lower back.
This exercise won’t work on carpet or a rough surface. You need to have some sort of cloth under your feet and be able to slide it over the floor. Foot pads exist for this very purpose, but any material/cloth will do the trick!
- Start by lying with your back on the floor.
- Your legs should be extended in front of you and your heels should be on the slider pads or cloths.
- Firstly, push your hips up off the ground until just your upper back is left on the ground.
- Engage your hamstrings and curl your feet towards your hips, sliding the pads or cloths along the floor.
- Once you reach the end of your curl motion (beyond a 90-degree bend in your knees), straighten your legs to return to starting position.
- Keep your hips off the ground and your hamstrings under tension for the entire repetition range.
Suggested repetitions: 12 to 15
Pro tip: Roll up a towel and squeeze it between your upper thighs whilst doing your sliding leg curls. Another way of upping the ante is to use only one leg at a time, which can be done in an alternating fashion or by completing all repetitions on one leg then switching sides.
13. Barbell Sumo Deadlift
Equipment needed: Olympic barbell and some lifting pads/mats (optional)
This version of the Deadlift requires maximum output from your hamstrings (amongst everything else) and deserves the good wrap it has. This exercise is better suited to the more seasoned lifter, as it requires control and a general level of strength that is built over time. To get an in-depth insight into the Sumo Deadlift, check this out.
The Sumo Deadlift requires a wider stance than the traditional Deadlift, thus putting you in a position whereby you can create torque through your adductors and pull-power through your hamstrings.
- Have the barbell on the floor, loaded with weight plates.
- Begin with your legs touching the bar with your feet positioned wide – towards the collars.
- Note, your foot placement will depend on your level of mobility.
- Bend your knees and hinge forward at your hips.
- Grip the bar on extended arms, shoulder-width apart. You can use a pronated grip, or a mixed grip.
- From here, sit your hips further down, engage through your lats, drive through the floor, and lift the bar to your knees before starting to straighten out at your knees and hips.
- At the top of the movement, draw your shoulders back and squeeze your glutes.
- Then return to starting position by hinging at your hips, and then bending through your knees.
- Your head, neck, and back should remain neutral throughout the lift.
Suggested repetitions: 8 to 12
My hamstrings felt the burn just writing this! I hope you enjoyed this article and feel confident in trying out some of these leg curl alternatives in your next workout.
Remember, hamstrings form a crucial link in our posterior chain, which is vital for movement, and moreover, pain-free movement. It’s important to keep them strong and conditioned.
Weak muscles equal tight muscles, and tight hamstrings can inhibit you.
Not having access to a leg curl machine is no reason to neglect your hamstrings. As you can see, there are plenty of exercises worth noting, that will give your hamstrings a good run for their money and keep you busy for a while!