Has it happened to you, too?
The leg extension used to be one of those exercises that I would look forward to on a leg day.
But then it just became so tedious… and painful.
I suddenly sought some alternatives.
Exercises that would replace the classic extension, be a little less tough on my joints, and be a lot more interesting.
I’ve not even told you the best part.
These workouts can be done at home, and produce better results that build your quads and define them into your desired shape.
It was a bit of a challenge, but after some trial and error, and thorough research, I found my top 5 leg extension alternatives you can do at home with as little equipment as possible!
What Are Leg Extensions?
A common exercise in a gym-goers leg routine, this exercise is performed on a lever machine.
You sit in a slightly inclined machine, with a cylinder-shaped pad above the ankles. This is the main mechanism.
The movement entices an extension of your legs, hinging at the knees.
The result is a pretty insane pump in the quadriceps (AKa the quads), located in the front of your upper legs.
As I said before, though, it isn’t all well and good with this exercise and has plenty of negatives that make it not the most effective quad workout.
Why You Should Avoid Machine Leg Extensions
Getting bored of an exercise is not my sole reason for swapping it out for an alternative (although it can be a pretty good one – what’s the point of working out if you don’t enjoy it?).
There are 2 main reasons I believe are crucial to why you should reconsider using a leg extension.
Too much pressure on your knee joints
An exercise that forces you to straighten your legs underneath a load is guaranteed to cause an unnatural amount of stress on your knees and ACL.
Although the ACL can withstand a lot more weight than a full-stack on the leg extension, it is almost guaranteed to cause some wear over time.
Compressive forces acting on the ankle, which only increase as your leg extends, result in the likelihood of an ACL or quadriceps tendon injury.
As the hamstrings aren’t working in support, the stress is therefore completely concentrated around the knee.
Related Post: Anterior Knee Pain Exercises
It isn’t a compound movement
Leg extensions are great for isolating your quads.
However, with your legs, it’s always a good idea to try to encourage more of your leg into the workout.
A lot of the reasons you are straining your ACL and hence damaging your knees is because your muscles aren’t working in tandem.
As stated prior, your hamstrings are lacking any sort of movement so all the pressure is on your knees.
The movement isn’t practical for real life, either.
Unless you are purely working out for aesthetics, then the exercise shouldn’t be your go-to.
For strength, we want movements that require stability, thus creating a requirement for your core, and other muscles to help in the workout.
All of the exercises listed below activate not only your quads but other muscles in your leg and core. Let’s get into it.
My Top 5 Leg Extension Alternatives
These exercises have been chosen with at-home workouts in mind. Equipment such as resistance bands may be required but nothing that will break the bank is necessary.
For any exercise that you may find too easy with a resistance band or your body weight, then there are multiple alternatives you can use that are just lying around your house.
Items such as milk jugs filled with water, or even a backpack with some books inside, are amazing substitutes.
One more thing before we get into the alternatives.
If you are tempted to find a few more workouts that you can do from home, be sure to check out my free Ebook here.
Train Wherever The F*ck You Want will open your eyes to a new journey where you can escape the grasp of those expensive gym memberships, and I’ve never believed in a truer message.
#1 – Standing Resistance Band Leg Extension
One of the most similar exercises that you can get to the machine leg extension, this exercise targets the quadriceps while also requiring stability and balance.
If you are looking for an out-and-out replacement for the leg extension, then this is the one for you.
It’s not as taxing on the knees and makes for a more complex movement, rather than the straightforward machine extension.
This exercise can be performed seated, or standing.
If you are finding the knee pain still occurs when seated, take it to a standing exercise to engage your hamstrings and glutes.
I’ll take you through the standing exercise here, but to perform it seated, just add a chair in front of the band.
How To Do It
- To set up, wrap the band tightly around a vertical bar, or something fixed to the ground. If this isn’t possible, just stand on it.
- Wrap the other end around your ankle, and lift your leg from the floor, bending at the knee.
- Extend your working leg until reaching full extension, and support your knee with your hands if needed.
- Hold this position for a second, and return slowly to the starting position.
- Repeat for 8-12 reps, resisting against the band as much as possible. Then, switch legs
If you have ever performed a wall sit, you’ll know how much of a quad burner it is.
A real staple in a strength and conditioning workout.
This exercise is not so much of a size builder, most use it as a muscle endurance exercise.
However, If you are adding weight over time and progressively overloading, there’s no reason you can’t increase your quad volume either.
I love this exercise for its simplicity.
As long as you are sitting with your back against a wall and your knees at a 90-degree angle, you’re going to feel it.
Try to time yourself each week and see if you can improve every time.
You’ll surprise yourself. I know I did.
How To Do It
- No equipment is required for this one, find some level ground and a sturdy wall you can lean against.
- Standing against the wall, place your feet shoulder-width apart. Engage your core and slowly bend at the knees until they are at a 90-degree angle.
- Adjust your position to make sure your ankles are placed directly beneath your knees.
- Hold this position for around 60 seconds, however, this can vary based on experience.
- Slide back up to your original position and rest for a short period, preferably less than a minute. Repeat 3 times.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Even thinking about them makes me shudder.
This exercise is tough.
The split-squat is an elevated, single-leg squat that focuses on your quads, as well as burning the rest of your legs and core.
A real test of balance, stability, and mental strength.
Developing proper form is extremely important for this exercise, as doing it incorrectly can cause more harm than good.
Try to focus on keeping your back straight, with your body upright, and having the correct foot placement on the chair behind you, as well as on the floor in front.
It truly does target each quad like no other exercise, increasing strength, size, and overall balance of your legs and core.
I recommend everyone to put this exercise in their leg day, with beginners starting at a lower elevation, and more advanced gym-goers attempting higher to maximize the burn.
How To Do It
- To set up, place an elevated surface behind you, such as a box or a chair.
- Standing with your back to the elevated surface, lift one leg onto the surface with a slight bend in the knee.
- Your working leg should be straight, as should your back. Engage your core and keep your hips square, slowly squat until your knee is at a 90-degree angle.
- You should now be in a position that looks sort of like a lunge. Hold for a couple of seconds. You should feel a burn in the quads and hamstrings of the working leg, as well as your core due to the extra stability required.
- With your heels planted, drive through to the original position.
- Repeat 8-12 times for hypertrophy, then switch legs.
Okay, I cheated a bit here.
The squat is the ultimate leg exercise that will work every muscle in your legs.
Even better, it’s one of the most important compound movements for increasing your core strength.
The reason I have chosen this movement is, in fact, not entirely for the squat part.
My main reasoning was for the jump part you perform after it.
This exercise not only increases your leg strength but is great for your cardiovascular health as well.
If you fully extend your legs during the jump and squeeze your quads, you will feel an incredible burn that replaces the requirement for leg extensions. It also helps build the glutes, which is also an excellent reason to do this exercise.
How To Do It
- Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, plant your heels, and engage your core.
- With your back straight, squat down as low as your knees will possibly let you, without losing any form. Depth with squats is very important.
- As you reach the bottom of your squat plant your heels and drive through with your glutes.
- Reaching the point where your legs are fully extended, jump up and squeeze your quads.
- Land as softly as possible, bending your knees softly, and repeat 8-12 times.
- If these feel a bit too easy, try adding some weight to your back.
Weighted Step-Ups (Front and Lateral Superset)
The step-up is a fairly simple motion that mimics natural movements, such as walking up the stairs.
I then decided to superset this movement with the lateral step up, due to this replicating a squatting motion.
Both will therefore require a different part of the quad to work, resulting in a different burn in the legs.
Adding weight to this exercise will then require a mix of leg strength and stability, making this an excellent leg extension substitute.
How To Do It
- Place an elevated surface on the ground in front of you, a solid box works best.
- With your back straight and core engaged, Place your left foot on the box and drive through so your whole body is on the box.
- Bring the right foot up and lift your knee towards your chest, holding this position for a second.
- In a controlled and safe manner, step down from the box.
- Repeat with the other leg, but this time as you step back down, change to the left-hand side of the surface.
- Replicate the step-up action standing next to the box this time. Perform this again from the right side of the box.
- Carry out this sequence 5 times for a set. Aim to accomplish about 4 sets. If this is relatively easy, try to increase the elevation or add a backpack with weight.
Benefits Of Leg Extensions At Home
- Working out from home is much cheaper than a gym membership.
- Compound movements improve balance and stability.
- Less stress on your knees.
- The alternatives will work more of your leg muscles at once, making your workout shorter.
- Commuting after a day’s work isn’t always possible, home workouts make your goals more achievable.
To wrap up, I encourage every single one of you to change your workout to include one of these leg extension alternatives you can do at home, rather than a machine leg extension.
The leg extension isn’t always a bad thing, it can be great for targeting the quads.
Problem is, it isn’t worth the potential injuries you can obtain in your knees, or the lack of compound movements.
The leg extension alternatives are all great for targeting the quads while improving other aspects such as balance, posture, and stability.
Ultimately, our goal is to improve our bodies in the safest way possible, and leg extensions are not the best way to do that.
I would love to hear your thoughts. Let me know what exercises you would use as an alternative to the leg extension, or if you agree with mine, in the comments below.