Best Leg Curl Alternatives – How to Stay Injury-Free

Jeff Baldelli
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Are Leg Curls Bad for You?

There are many valuable exercises that can be added to a fitness routine. The leg curl is one of those exercises. It’s an isolation exercise that can isolate the hamstrings, which is important in targeting certain muscles, changing the angles, and intensifying an exercise.

Because it’s an isolation exercise, it’s also one that has a tendency to do some serious damage. This exercise puts a lot of stress on the spine due to the nature of the position of the exercise.

Because of that spinal stress, the leg curl can be harmful if performed incorrectly. You also don’t want to overdo it. You can do very few leg curls and obtain a great benefit.

Add too many leg curls to your routine, and it’ll lead to pain. This is especially true if you’re not used to doing that type of movement or your body isn’t positioned in the correct place to perform the movement correctly.

When considering leg curl alternatives, it’s important to consider your own body and how it reacts to certain movements and exercises. For many people, their bodies aren’t equipped to handle the stress of the leg curl exercise. Because of that, they should limit their leg curl or leg curl supplement use.

What is a Leg Curl Good for?

Most people already have a very clear idea of how leg curls can benefit them, but if you’re totally new to strength training, allow me to introduce you to this popular and very effective exercise.

Curls are a type of resistance exercise in which you use only a part of your total body weight, such as your arms or your legs. These isolated weights are then curled, either up or down.

Leg curls are a lower leg exercise that targets your hamstrings, a group of muscles that you want to keep healthy.

Explosive or fast movements increase the risk of hamstrings injuries. Therefore, if you are seeking to improve your running performance, you should not rely on leg curls for building your hamstrings.

This is why leg curls are mostly suggested for bodybuilders or recreational weight lifters. However, bodybuilders and recreational weight lifters often neglect the fact that the hamstrings have a multi-joint function.

The hamstrings also support your pelvis, back, and spinal function. So, while leg curls are not efficient at strengthening your hamstrings for athletic performance, they are crucial for healthy body posture.

How do I Protect My Hamstrings?

The way that your posterior chain is naturally designed, the hamstrings contain the most leverage of any muscle in the body. They are positioned to be your body’s back-up brake system, and, in conjunction with your glutes, they provide directional control.

Unfortunately, a big cause of hamstring injuries is due to incomplete warm-up and stretching routines.

The good news is that in order to minimize the risk of hamstring injuries, you can take prevention measures to help you last through your toughest workouts without having to sit out during your next leg day.

One option is to increase your calf flexibility.

If your calves tend to be tight, you may be more prone to stretching the hamstrings too much when lifting, which leaves you more susceptible to injury. In order to avoid potential problems, you can lengthen the soleus muscle using the following stretches:

Raise one leg and bend the knee with the foot flat.

Hold the position and raise your upper body as well.

Hold this extended position for 30 seconds, breathing normally the whole time.

Repeat this movement for a total of at least three repetitions with 30 seconds of rest between each set.

If your calves are already flexible, one of the best options for removing the strain from the hamstrings is to perform dumbbell leg curl variations instead.

Best Leg Curl Alternatives for Home Workouts and the Gym

The leg curl machine is one of the best and most common machines in the gym when it comes to developing quadriceps. It might seem like a lot of work to do leg curls with weights, but it’s not. In fact, leg curls are really only half the battle. These machines are very effective, but they are also the most common way of producing quadriceps strains and tears. A simple way to avoid this is to do the leg extension.

The leg extension machine is to the quadriceps what the leg curl machine is to the hamstring muscles. They are complete opposites in the way that they work and should never, ever be used by someone who is not knowledgeable of proper exercise technique. Leg extensions have the potential to do just as much damage as leg curls can, but in a very different way.

When you extend your leg on the leg extension machine, the patella tendon is in a vulnerable position to overstretch. If there is too much weight or the weight is too high, it can cause that tendon to endure an undue amount of stress. In theory, it doesn’t take a lot of weight to cause this same overstretching of the patella tendon in either the leg curl or the leg extension.

Stiff-legged Deadlift

Another exercise that targets the hamstrings is the stiff-legged deadlift.

Performing this move is a simple process.

Stand tall with your feet under your hips and knees slightly bent.

Hold a dumbbell in your left hand and place it above your left shoulder.

Your knees should remain perfectly straight throughout the entire exercise.

Next, lower the weight toward the back of your left foot.

Pause, return to the top, and repeat.

Do one set using each leg.

Make sure to maintain control of the weight throughout the entire range of motion.

To increase the effectiveness of this exercise, do not allow your back to round as you lower the weight, and remember to keep your knees pointed forward.

This will help you strengthen the thigh muscles, and it will also help you maintain ideal posture. The stiff-legged deadlift is a highly effective exercise, but be careful not to perform it with so much weight that you end up leaning forward. This can cause undue hip strain, and it’s one of the most common causes of back pain among lifters.

Glute Ham Raises

Glute Ham Raises, or GHRs, are, hands down, one of the best glute exercises to hit the gym floor. The problem is this: many athletes are forced to reduce or even eliminate GHRs from their routine because they can’t do them without significant spinal loading or pain.

A pain-free GHR is a rare and beautiful thing. It’s a testimony to the immaculate design of the body and the perfect alignment between our muscles and bones.

However, many of us lack this perfect alignment, and this leads to a dangerous “domino effect” of muscle imbalances which throw off our posture and cause chronic muscle injuries.

GHRs fix these imbalances because they strengthen our glutes in extreme ways. The main reason many athletes avoid performing GHRs is because the heavier loads they produce put the lower back and spine at risk.

Donkey Kicks

For me personally, I use donkey kicks in my leg workouts all the time. This is mainly because I don’t have a leg curl machine or a seated leg curl machine readily available at home. So from time to time it’s nice to have an option to use a donkey kick that you can do on the floor.

You can use this exercise as a way to help isolate and build up your hamstrings. One way to do this is to maintain a flat back and keep your body in the form of a bridge. As you kick one head up in the air, you slowly lower it back down to the ground, then pull it up again.

Suddenly you’ll notice that you’re at the point where you’re continuously kicking and lowering without having to use momentum.

As with any exercise, it’s important that you maintain proper form. Watch your back as you kick your leg up in the air. You want to try to keep a comfortable arch in your back and make sure that your knees aren’t falling out to the side. You also want to make sure that you keep your heels on the ground as opposed to lifting them up.

This is a great exercise that you can incorporate into your leg workouts to help build up your glutes.

Bulgarian Split Squat

This is a great alternative for people who have lower back problems and can’t perform a standard leg curl, or who want to focus more on their quads than their hamstrings.

The Bulgarian Split Squat is a simple and effective way to strengthen your quads while also doing a great job at working on your balance.

Before you get started, make sure that you set up the weights correctly and that you are safely secured on the ground.

Now, if you already have significant weight or this is the first time you’re performing this exercise, I would suggest that you use only your body weight as resistance and do multiple sets to failure.

If you want to intensify the exercise, grab a dumbbell and do pairs for 12-16 sets of 8-10 reps on each leg.

The key is to keep your torso upright and position yourself so that your front knee is almost at a 90-degree angle.

You want to make sure that you are putting most of the stress on your quads and less on your knees.

For the most part, you can do this by keeping your torso upright and by positioning your knees forward. This will put your quads on stretch while keeping the stress off of your knees.

It is also important that you keep your upper and lower body stationary by holding onto weight that is strategically placed or a set of dumbbells.

Exercise Ball Hamstring Curl

One of the most highly recommended alternatives to the leg curl machine is the exercise ball hamstring curl. The exercise ball hamstring curl allows you to target your hamstrings in a variety of different, fun positions.

Before you get started: Remember that the exercise ball hamstring curl allows you to perform a much deeper hamstring stretch than would be normal for you. Keep this in mind before you begin your sets. You’ll want to actively concentrate on keeping your muscles relaxed during this exercise.

To perform this exercise, place your back onto the back of an exercise ball and place your feet flat on the floor in front of you. Keep a slight bend in your knees and relax your arms to the side of you. Pretend that you are sitting in a chair behind you.

Now, slowly lower yourself until there is a little bit of a stretch in your hamstrings. Hold yourself in the stretched out position for a moment. Now, raise yourself back up to the starting position. For maximum results, keep your arms out to your side.

Tip: To keep your posture in check when doing the exercise ball hamstring curl, make sure that your back stays flat against the ball.

Single-leg Hip Extension

This exercise was shown to us by our clinical supervisor at Strive! It really forces people to stabilize the core by forcing the spine to be in a neutral position.

This also promotes good shoulder mechanics. Since the arms are allowed to be stable, the shoulders are in a healthier position. It also does not put strain on the shoulder joint. The most common problem that people have with leg curls is the engagement of the posterior shoulder.

Stand facing away from the bench. Hold the bar with a double overhand grip. Bend your leg so that your thigh is parallel to the floor. The upper leg should be nearly perpendicular to the floor.

Keeping your hips square, bring your knee up to the bar.

Keeping the leg at 90 degrees throughout the movement, bring your knee to the bar and then keep it there for a count of two.

Bring it back out to the starting position and repeat for ten to twelve repetitions.

If your dominant leg is not stronger than the other one, stay near the wall as your grip will not be as strong. If you do want to go further, you can place a dumbbell between your feet. Keep your knees at a 90° angle.

Eccentric Single-Leg Sliding Leg Curl

Performing Eccentric Single-Leg Sliding Leg Curls is ideally done with a 45-degree back extension station that's loaded with weight. This can be added to your gym if you don't have access to one.

To begin, set up on the back extension station, with both of your ankles hooked under the padded bar (if using 45-degree back extension).

Once set up, slide the heels down toward the floor. Once they get to a foot above the floor, inch them back up, and repeat for 1-3 sets of 8-12 reps.

The eccentric phase of this exercise is where you're feeling the greatest amount of muscle damage, so you want to take your time going back up. It's also important to go slow coming down so your weight doesn't slam on to your back. This can cause injury.

We're not really targeting overall hypertrophy with this exercise, we are only looking to develop solid isolation of the hamstrings. The key with this exercise is to slowly lower the heels down, and with control, raise them up.

Eccentric Single-Leg Sliding Leg Curl Progressions

It's natural to be intimidated by this movement and hesitant to perform it. But if you take it nice and slow, you'll build that confidence and skill.

Kettlebell Swings

A strong kettlebell swing can help you eliminate feel soreness, prevent injury and build muscle, according to Men’s Health.

Kettelbells can be used to improve lower body strength. One study published in "The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" in 2008 found that just 20 weeks of kettlebell training helped subjects develop more power, speed and strength, as well as a lower opponent’s resistance index.

This also helps to build lean muscle, which strengthens bones. And, as an added plus, the exercise doesn’t put too much stress on the joints, making it more friendly to those who suffer from joint pain, such as the back, knee or ankle.

So how does this work? Stand with feet about shoulder-width apart. Bend your knees so they are forward but can still support your body. Bend over, making sure to keep the back straight.

The kettlebell should be kept close to the body. Make sure that your arm stays straight as if you were holding the kettlebell with a hook grip.

While maintaining this hold, swing the kettlebell between the legs, and then let it go upwards as you shift your weight onto your back foot. The other foot should remain flat on the floor.

Good Mornings

The movement pattern is very similar to a glute-hamstring raise with the upper body remaining down throughout. It’s performed with the barbell resting in front of the body and the knees flexed in a partial squat position.

Performing it with heavy weights exhausts the lower back and places enormous amounts of stress on the spine.

It’s much more efficient to perform it with a band instead…and safer.

Simply wrap the band above the knee and keep it taut throughout the movement. For variation, you can also perform it with the upper body in a hunched position.

Perform 1-3 sets of 15 repetitions for best results.

Deceleration Leg Swings

Deceleration leg swings are also known as walking lunges. You need to start in a normal lunge position with your back knee on the floor but your front foot up on a step like a stair.

This time, however, you are going to swing your back leg forward and your front leg back. All the way up to a 90-degree angle from the floor. You’re going to be swinging your leg forward at full speed when you do this so that it decelerates and you can feel it.

Make sure that you do this one at a time because if you try to go both legs at once, you’ll end up falling over.

This is a great exercise for strengthening the shock absorption muscles in the hamstrings.

You can also do this with a resistance band tied around your foot in place of holding it behind you.

This is a great exercise for your hamstrings.

Perform squats on a stair, on an elevated surface, or in an offset squat machine.

When you are in the position, you’re not going to go all the way down. You’re going to stop just above parallel. Then you’re going to return backwards to the same position you started in.

Final Words

Leg curl machines are great, but they have their shortcomings. That is why there are also other great ways to achieve the same results, and with those legs exercises that are safer and more effective.

They are effective because they effectively hit all of the muscles that you need to work to obtain that sexy calf without wasting time at the gym.

You don’t need to visit the gym or buy expensive equipment. All that you need is a pair of dumbbells or cans of water.

They are safer because you don’t have to rely on gravity. You have more control when using free weights, so you don’t have to worry about getting injured during the leg exercise.