Aditya Sahu ‧ CPT & Head Coach
Aditya is an ACSM certified personal trainer and exercise physiologist with more than 7 years training various people and transforming people's lives. He has written various publications for various sports and fitness magazines.
Leg extensions are one of the most essential workouts for any gym-goer. Leg extensions help strengthen the thigh muscles (5), known as quadriceps. They also help reduce the effects of any leg or knee injuries by strengthening them.
Usually, leg extensions can be pretty difficult to perform. They could also be impractical because they require a special leg extension machine. Hence, many people opt for alternatives to make the leg extension exercises easier and more doable.
Leg extension alternatives are the way to go if you want to work on your legs while you are at home using minimum machinery. They are great for targeting many leg muscles at once and excellent in reducing the risk of knee injuries.
In this article, we will be talking about fifteen alternatives to leg extensions and much more. So keep reading this article till the end!
Muscles Targeted By Leg Extension Exercises
Five types of muscles target any leg extension exercise and successfully isolate the knee extension movement.
These muscles are:
- Vastus lateralis
- Vastus Intermedius
- Rectus Femoris
- Vastus Medialis
Among the muscles mentioned above, quadriceps muscles (1) are the primary target. These muscles are divided into four parts and are present on the front side of your thighs or upper legs.
The Best 15 Leg Extension Alternatives
Below is a list of the fifteen best alternatives for leg extension exercises. These alternatives can be performed with dumbbells, barbells, bands, or your bodyweight. You do not require expensive, special machinery and do not necessarily have to be at the gym to perform these.
To learn clear instructions and some training tips, keep on reading below!
Bodyweight Leg Extensions
The bodyweight leg extension is one of the best and easiest leg extension alternatives because it just requires you to sit on a chair. This exercise helps you build more muscular legs without using weights.
It is also great for people with knee pain or arthritis, as it applies significantly less pressure on the knees.
Equipment Required: None
- Sit on a chair with your back straight and feet planted firmly on the floor.
- Open your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Now, slowly extend one of your knees to raise your leg.
- Gradually, return to the starting position after lifting it till you can feel the muscles stretch.
- Repeat these movements for the other leg as well.
- Check out this video for more training tips.
Do not lift your feet off of the floor during the duration of this exercise, as it will reduce its effectiveness.
They are very similar to the movements of a leg press, applying significantly less pressure on the lower back. Squats are an easy alternative for people with back pain or injuries.
Squats specifically target the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. It is also quite usual to feel stress in the muscles of your back, abs, and calves after doing squats.
Equipment Required: None
- Stand on a plain surface, with your legs shoulder-width apart.
- Keep your toes completely straight. Start performing the squat by lowering your hips and bending your knees. Your chest should be lifted, and your back should be straight throughout the movement.
- Your squat is completed once the thighs are parallel with the ground and the knees align with the feet.
- To return to the starting position, stand by pushing up your heels.
- Repeat until your rep is completed.
- Watch this video to verify whether you are doing the exercise correctly.
For good balance, extend your arms straight in front of the chest and clasp your hands together before doing the squat.
Split squats are an excellent alternative for leg extensions. They target different muscles like the glutes, hamstring, and quadriceps.
The split squat requires single-leg movement, which means that it equally strengthens and stabilizes each of your quadricep and knee joints. (6) This exercise also reduces the risk of knee injuries.
Equipment Required: None
- Stand with one foot at the front and the other one at the back.
- Apply most of the weight and pressure of your body on the foot at the front.
- Now raise the back foot’s heel. Keep your toes straight and clasp your hands for balance.
- Now you should start bending your knees and lowering your hips.
- Keep lowering your body till your knee is slightly away from the floor. Squeeze your glutes and quadriceps at this point.
- Repeat the same movements with the other foot on the front.
- Watch this instructional video to learn more.
To avoid any back pain, keep your back straight throughout the exercise.
A reverse lunge only requires a barbell. It helps induce constant tension in the quadriceps. Reverse lunges can also be performed using different equipment like bands and dumbbells.
This leg extension alternative can be easily performed with the weight plate of your choice. It is an excellent alternative because it works effectively in building strong quadriceps and knees. (4)
Equipment Required: Barbell
- Set the barbell with the weight plate of your choice.
- Put the bar on your back. This helps build proper tension in your back.
- Gradually stand with the weight of the barbell on your back.
- Now, take a big step back to perform the lunge.
- Hold this position and sit back by bending your knee until your thigh is parallel to the floor. At this point, the heel of the foot at the back should be raised, and the knee should be perpendicular to the floor.
- Return to the starting position with the help of your back foot.
- Keep performing these movements alternatively with both legs.
- Check your formation here.
Stand such that you have enough space to perform the lunge properly.
Step up is a great leg extension alternative that helps improve hip flexors (2), mobility, and body balance. The main targets of this exercise are the glutes, quadriceps, and hip flexors.
This exercise requires single leg movement and is easy to do at home as only a bench is needed to perform it.
Equipment Required: Bench or a box that will give height to your knees.
- Stand in front of the bench, facing it, with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Keep your back straight and put your hands on your hips.
- Start this exercise by putting your right foot on the bench. Your knee should be completely perpendicular to the foot.
- Now, place your left foot beside the right and stand on the bench.
- Keep the left foot back on the ground.
- Do the step-ups alternatively with both right and left foot.
- Check your formation here.
Keep your knees and back straight; otherwise, they may get strained.
Heel Raise Squat
The heel raise squat is a leg extension alternative for beginners or people suffering from hip or back pain. This exercise works by transferring your load to the foot’s heel. This, in turn, reduces ‘dorsiflexion,’ the backward bend of the foot.
Equipment Required: Weighted plate or any object to raise your heels.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and place the heels of your feet on a weighted plate. Your toes should be touching the floor.
- Keep your back straight and slowly start squatting by bending your knees and lowering your hips as if you're going to sit on a chair. Try to squat until your hips are below or in line with the knees. Squeeze your glutes and thigh muscles at this point.
- Hold this position for about 5 seconds, and then slowly stand up with the help of your heels while exhaling.
- Repeat this leg extension movement to complete the sets.
- Learn more by watching this excellent instructional video.
Make sure to pick a weighted plate that you can handle.
Cable Leg Extension
Cable leg extensions are an excellent alternative for leg extensions. You can do them easily, either sitting or standing. It minimizes machinery use and also targets the quadriceps effectively.
This alternative is also a good choice if you suffer from knee pain or injury.
Equipment Required: Cable Machine
- Sit on a bench facing away from the cable machine.
- Lower the position of the cable on the machine and strap it to your ankle. Your knee should be at a flexion of 90 degrees with the floor.
- Slowly kick or extend your knee until your lower leg is completely straight and extended.
- Now gradually bring your leg back to the starting position.
- Repeat with the other leg as well.
- Verify your formation with this video.
Take special care about keeping your knees and back straight; otherwise, it can cause painful muscle stress.
Banded Leg Extensions
The banded leg extension is an effective alternative for targeting your leg and thigh muscles when you can't go to the gym. This exercise can be easily performed at home with a band; you do not need any particular leg extension machine.
This leg extension alternative uses a band to provide the leg with elastic tension and resistance, which helps improve muscle endurance and strength.
Equipment Required: Band
- Fasten one side of the band to any hook or an anchor point behind you and tie the other end to your ankle. You can do this exercise either sitting or standing; it is your choice.
- If you are sitting, make sure your knee is perpendicular to your ankle. Now, kick your left foot upwards by extending your knee. Return to the starting position and repeat alternatively with both legs.
- Keep your back straight for standing leg extension, slowly take your foot backward, and then swing it forward. Repeat with the other leg as well.
- For visual instructions, watch this video for seated leg extension and this one for standing leg extension.
Invest in a high quality resistance band to aid this exercise.
Sissy squats are another leg extension alternative that is quite popular because they target the quadriceps directly.
You can perform this exercise by using just your body weight. For variations, you can add weights with dumbbells or barbells.
Equipment Required: None
- Stand with your back completely straight, feet shoulder-width apart, and toes pointing straight.
- Start the sissy squat by bending your knees and leaning your torso backward. You can allow your heels to rise during this.
- You should try to go down backward the lowest you can without falling.
- Return to the starting position by lowering your hips and pushing your heels upwards.
- Watch this video for more instructions.
Do not jump while standing up; instead, try to stand up by squatting.
Lateral Steps Down
Lateral step-downs require a great deal of attention and focus on strengthening the quads, making them an excellent leg extension alternative. It also does not require any particular leg extension machine.
Equipment Required: Bench or a box for height.
- Start by standing straight beside a bench or a box.
- Now place one foot, either right or left, on the box/bench while keeping the other in the air.
- Gradually push your torso back as if you're going to sit. Continue this until the foot hanging on the side almost touches the floor.
- Keep repeating till your set is complete, and then perform with the other leg on the box.
- Learn more by watching this tutorial.
If you want to target your hips or the hamstrings more, try to hold and concentrate more on the sitting position.
Banded Front Squat
Banded front squat only requires a band to be placed on your shoulders, held by your feet and hands. This exercise requires forward knee translation and good posture. (7) This exercise helps get stronger quadriceps, ankle mobility, and hip flexibility without using any leg extension machine.
Equipment Required: Band
- Fix the band on your shoulders and hold it with your hands and feet so that the band almost forms a rectangular shape around your body.
- Now, start squatting by bending your knees and lowering your torso.
- Continue to squat until your thighs are parallel with the floor.
- Stand back up with the help of your knees and feet.
- Repeat these movements to complete a set of banded front squats.
- For visual instructions, watch this tutorial.
For variation, elevate your heels by putting a plate underneath.
Barbell Front Squat
Barbell front squat is one of the best leg extension alternative exercises to target your lower body. They specially strengthen the glutes and quadriceps.
Equipment Required: Barbell
- Stand straight with your feet shoulder-width apart.
- Hold the barbell with an underhand grip in front of your chest.
- Now slowly squat by lowering your hips and bending your knees. Try to go as low as possible or until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Squeeze your quads and glutes at this point.
- Stand back up without moving your elbows or lowering your back. Repeat this movement until your set is done.
- Check this video for more instructions and training tips.
Do not force yourself, always practice a few reps first.
Elevated Heel Goblet Squat
If you do not have access to the gym, barbells, or dumbbells, go for this leg extension. It is perfect for effectively targeting your quadriceps and reduces the risk of knee injuries.
Equipment Required: Any object that raises your heels, kettlebell/dumbbell.
- Step on any object that raises your heels while your toes are touching the ground.
- Stand with your back straight and hold a dumbbell or a kettlebell in your hands.
- Start squatting until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Stand back up and repeat these movements to complete a set.
- To learn more about elevated heel goblet squat, watch this.
Do not drop the weight or push with the help of your upper body during the squat.
Close Stance Hack Squat
This variation helps increase the squat’s motion range while putting good pressure on the quadriceps. This exercise improves leg mobility and strength, making it an excellent leg extension alternative.
Equipment Required: Machinery
- Stand on the machine with your feet close together, weights on the shoulders, and toes pointing straight.
- Now, lower your body or sit back till you have properly squatted. Squeeze your glutes and thigh muscles at this point.
- Stand back up to the original position with the help of shoulder weights.
- Repeat this movement until your set is done.
- Here is an instructional video for the close stance hack squat.
Keep your back straight to avoid strain.
Close Stance Leg Press
The close stance leg press is yet another excellent leg extension alternative. This exercise targets the hips, quadriceps, and glutes.
Equipment Required: Adjustable bench and platform.
- Start by adjusting your bench to a comfortable position such that your back is in an inclined position.
- Put your feet firmly on the platform and move them back until your legs are completely stretched.
- Now, pull your knees back until they are slightly away from touching your chest.
- Repeat this movement until a set is completed.
- Watch this tutorial.
Practice a few reps before indulging in proper exercise.
Advantages Of Leg Extension Alternatives
- Alternative leg extension exercise helps improve the overall health of your legs by working on other leg muscles.
- They also work on your core muscles and help improve balance and posture.
- The exercises require almost no machinery, just bare gym essentials like dumbbells, barbells, and bands.
- These exercises are also less painful and exert much less pressure on the knees, helping heal knee injuries (3).
In short, these alternatives help strengthen your lower body by targeting muscles like the glutes, core, and quadriceps. They also prepare your body to run and jog without damaging your knees.
We hope that now you are properly aware of everything related to leg extension and its alternatives. Remember to always prioritize your safety and health first in your fitness journey. Good luck!
- Boudreau, S. N., Dwyer, M. K., Mattacola, C. G., Lattermann, C., Uhl, T. L., & McKeon, J. M. (2009). Hip-muscle activation during the lunge, single-leg squat, and step-up-and-over exercises. Journal of sport rehabilitation, 18(1), 91-103.
- Cannell, L. J., Taunton, J. E., Clement, D. B., Smith, C., & Khan, K. M. (2001). A randomised clinical trial of the efficacy of drop squats or leg extension/leg curl exercises to treat clinically diagnosed jumper's knee in athletes: pilot study. British journal of sports medicine, 35(1), 60-64.
- Keogh, J. (1999). Lower-body resistance training: Increasing functional performance with lunges. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 21(1), 67.
- McNair, P. J., Marshall, R. N., & Maguire, K. (1996). Swelling of the knee joint: effects of exercise on quadriceps muscle strength. Archives of physical medicine and rehabilitation, 77(9), 896-899.
- Schoenfeld, B., & Williams, M. (2012). Are Deep Squats a Safe and Viable Exercise?. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(2), 34-36.
- Fry, A. C., Smith, J. C., & Schilling, B. K. (2003). Effect of knee position on hip and knee torques during the barbell squat. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 17(4), 629-633.