Leg Extension Alternatives for Stronger and Bigger Legs

A leg extension alternative is a different approach to leg extension, which is a strength training exercise. A leg extension focuses on strengthening your quads, the front muscles of your upper legs. You need a machine to do proper leg extensions, so many people seek alternatives that they can do at home.

Many bodybuilders, weightlifters, and athletes prefer leg extension alternatives to work other muscles. The following alternatives are popular because they don’t require as much repetitive knee motion. For athletes who need to keep their joints flexible without causing strain, a leg extension alternative is better than the real thing.

Leg extension alternatives for your glutes include the Bulgarian split squats, step-ups, reverse lunges, and hack squats. Some alternatives even work your abs and core, like the L-sit and leg raise. There are even bodyweight leg extension alternatives where you don’t need any equipment to get started, so you can focus on your form. 

These leg extension alternatives are great for the home. As you become more experienced, you can add weights into the mix to get even more from each alternative. Options include a kettlebell leg extension alternative and a barbell leg extension alternative.

1. Bulgarian Split Squats

Bulgarian split squats are a leg extension alternative focused on the quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes. This is an intermediate exercise for bodybuilders and weightlifters. It’s important to have to practice proper form or else you can damage your muscles and joints.

Bulgarian Split Squats
Bulgarian Split Squats

This exercise works one leg at a time, so you’ll need precise balance. Be sure to keep your core engaged to get even more benefits from the movement, such as hip mobility and a stronger core. The Bulgarian split squat is a fairly easy leg extension alternative for anyone because it won’t strain your lower back. All the work is solely on your leg muscles.

Stand in front of the weight bench and take a step away from it. Stretch your right leg back so the top of your foot rests on the bench, and laces down. Keep your legs shoulder-width apart the whole time. Tighten your core, push your shoulders back, and lean forward slightly as you bend your left knee to lower your leg. Stop the bend before your knee extends over your toes. Use the power of your left leg to push yourself back up to standing. Do several reps on this leg before changing positions to alternate legs.

One common mistake is jumping in too quickly. Start by doing two sets of six reps so you can make sure you’re following proper form. If you start slow and don’t feel especially sore, you can step up to doing three sets of 12 reps on each leg.

One tip to improve the efficiency of this exercise is to hold dumbbells in your hands as you do it. The added weight resistance makes your leg muscles work even harder. Another way to improve split squat is to push your body even harder. For a glute-centric workout, do the exercise but keep bending until your thigh is parallel to the ground.

2. Cyclist Squat

The cyclist squat is a leg extension alternative focused on the vastus medialis muscles in your legs. These are the teardrop portions of your quad muscles near your knees. This is a beginner exercise for athletes experiencing knee pain.

Put the heels of your feet on an elevated surface, like a step, barbell plate, or wedged board. Your feet should be four to six inches apart, not shoulder-width like a lot of these alternatives. Keep your chest up as you lower yourself into a squat, pushing your knees forward over your toes.

One common mistake of the cyclist squat is to position your feet too far apart. When your feet are four to six inches apart, your quads are more engaged and can better support your knees. If you stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, your knees will turn outward as you squat, and you’ll risk tearing them.

One tip to improve the efficiency of the cyclist squat is to hold dumbbells at chest level as you do it. This way, you’re not only working your vastus medialis but also your biceps. It’s good for intermediate weightlifters or athletes who need to make the most of their workout time.

Another way to improve this exercise is to add more weight to your body while you squat. Hold a barbell behind your shoulders as you raise and lower your body. Make sure you have a good balance before adding the weight because it can throw off your center of gravity.

The cyclist squat has many variations, so the basic version is pretty easy for anyone to do. You can add weights to it to make it more challenging for experienced weightlifters.

3. Step-Ups

Step-ups are a leg extension alternative focused on your quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings. The basic method is so simple that anyone can do it, and you can add weights to make it more challenging for athletes and bodybuilders.

Beginners can do step-ups using a step, wooden box, or low bench. Step up onto the surface with your right foot and push through your leg to straighten it. Then lift your left leg onto the box as well. Bend your right knee, step down your left foot, and then bring your right foot beside it. Alternate the starting leg each time.

One common mistake is thinking that you can tackle several reps of step-ups or weighted step-ups without easing into it. People with strong legs think their quads can handle this exercise. However, there’s so much repetition that it might wear your muscles out quicker than you expect. Doing too much can cause knee pain.

One tip to improve the efficiency of the step-up is to use weights. When you hold dumbbells in your hands, more of the muscle work goes to your quads to strengthen your thighs and keep your knees flexible.

Another way to improve this exercise is to push yourself to complete the explosive step-up. Start with your right leg on the step, but launch yourself into the air when you push your body up. Land on the step with both beet, then step down as you do in the basic version. Alternate the starting foot to build more muscle.

The basic version of this exercise is easy; anyone can do it because you don’t need any equipment. You should be at least a beginner weightlifter if you add in weights.

4. Side Lunges

Side lunges are a leg extension alternative that focuses on quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, abductors, and adductors. Anyone can do these exercises, but they’re especially beneficial for athletes because they make you stronger and more mobile.

Side Lunges
Side Lunges

Stand tall with your feet shoulder-width apart. Step your right foot as far to the side as you can. Push through your right heel as you widen your hips. Keep your left leg straight to feel the stretch in your groin. Bend your right knee, keeping it over your foot. Push up through your right heel to launch yourself back to a standing position. Complete 10 reps before alternating legs.

One common side lunge mistake is bending the knee on your straight leg while you’re lunging. If you do that, you risk causing pain to both knees. The knee of your lunging leg should only bend when you’ve widened your stance. The other leg should always stay straight.

One tip to improve the side lunge’s efficiency is adding weights. Like the other leg extension alternatives on this list, using your body weight gives you a solid foundation to learn the proper form of the exercise. When you add weight, you push your body harder to get stronger and more defined leg muscles.

Another way to improve this exercise is to hold the side lunge position when your knee bends over your foot. You’ll have to engage all your leg muscles to hold your body steady. After you master this version, you can add weights and hold the lunge for even more muscle development.

Side lunges are an easy exercise for any type of person. Athletes like using them to increase their flexibility and mobility, but weightlifters can also benefit from this exercise. Add dumbbells or a kettlebell to increase the weight, and you’ll develop strong leg and arm muscles in one exercise.

5. Reverse Lunges

Reverse lunges are a leg extension alternative that focuses on your glutes. A traditional lunge will work your quads, so if you need something gentler on your knees, this alternative works best. Beginners can easily do this exercise, but bodybuilders and athletes like how it works other muscles that some workouts can miss.

Stand up straight with your hands on your hips. Keep your feet close together, then take a huge step back with your left foot. Lower your hips until your right thigh is parallel to the floor. Your right knee should stay positioned over your ankle.

In proper position, your left knee will bend at a 90-degree angle and point toward the floor. Keep your left knee off of the ground. Push through your right heel to lift your body back up, and bring your left foot back to your starting position. This is one rep, and you should alternate legs each time.

One common mistake in reverse lunges is not to bend your back knee enough. If you try to keep the leg too straight, you’ll strain your hip flexors. A good way to remember is to start bending your knee as soon as you take the big step back; just lower yourself carefully and keep your knee off the ground.

One tip to improve the efficiency of the reverse lunge is to hold the lunge when you step your leg back, and your thigh is parallel to the floor. You have to activate your glutes to hold the pose so you’ll feel the burn. Hold while you count three beats per rep when you first try this, but you can hold it for longer once you’re used to it.

Another way to improve this exercise is to add weights instead of keeping your hands on your hips. You can move the weights as you lunge or hold them at your chest to strengthen your biceps. Keep your core engaged when you add weights so they won’t strain your lower back.

Reverse lunges are easy enough for anyone to do, especially since they don’t strain your knee joints. When you add weights and keep your core tight, it’s a solid full-body workout for beginner and intermediate athletes and weightlifters.

6. Hack Squat

The hack squat is a leg extension alternative focused on the glutes, quads, and calves. This method is great for people who don’t have much experience with squats because it will help them build that general leg strength. Beginning bodybuilders and weightlifters use this exercise to give a solid foundation for the rest of their workout.

You have to use a machine for the hack squat, so this is an exercise to do on gym days. Put an appropriate amount of weight on the machine. If you’re new to this exercise, start with a low amount of weight so you can focus more on your form. You can always add more weight after you’ve built up strength.

Step into the machine until your shoulders touch the pads. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and lower yourself until your knees are at a 90-degree angle. Hold this position before pushing back up to the starting position. Try two sets of 10 to 12 reps as a beginner. Add a third set, and once you’ve mastered that, you can start adding more weight to the machine.

One common hack squat mistake is spreading your feet farther apart. You’re doing this exercise because you want to work your legs, and a wider stance means you’re going to feel more in the quads, but it could strain your back.

One tip to improve the efficiency of the hack squat is to reverse it. Step into the back face-first, instead of with it against your back. The weight against your chest and shoulders works your glutes more than the other option.

Another way to improve this exercise is to keep your feet close together in a narrow hack squat. It builds your quads even more than the original alternative because your feet are just inches apart instead of wider.

The hack squat is an intermediate exercise for people who use weight machines. They might not have the leg strength needed for other squat methods. More advanced bodybuilders can level the exercise up by adding weight to the machine.

7. L-Sit

The L-sit is a leg extension alternative that focuses on your core, hip flexors, quads, triceps, shoulders, and lats. This is a good option for bodybuilders and weightlifters wanting a full-body isometric exercise. It will help them better complete the rest of their workout.

The basic version of an L-sit needs no equipment, but you can do them on parallel bars, hanging rings, or two benches positioned side-by-side. If you’re a beginner, you can do them on the floor to ensure you get the right form.

Sit on the floor with your legs stretched out in front of you. Keep your arms straight as you press into the floor on either side of your hips. Lift your legs, keeping them straight, until you’re parallel to the floor—your body makes an L shape, hence the name. Hold yourself in this position with your spine straight and core engaged. 

One common mistake when doing an L-sit is to let yourself look around. If you don’t keep your gaze straight ahead, you risk letting your shoulders slump, and your neck gets weak. This, in turn, messes with the rest of your form, so the exercise won’t deliver the results you want.

One tip to improve the efficiency of the L-sit is to try doing it in a tucked position. Keep your knees bent and held close to your chest so you look like a ball instead of an L shape. Lift yourself and see if you can hold yourself off the ground for a longer time than with your legs extended. Your center of gravity changes, so you work your arms more with this option.

Another way to improve this exercise is to hold yourself in the air for as long as possible. It requires so much strength and concentration that most people can’t keep themselves up for long. Even if you’re a push-up or pull-up master, the way the L-sit works your muscles is entirely different and poses a good challenge.

The L-sit requires a fair amount of arm and core strength, even though it will help you build more. It’s pretty tough for beginners, but people who have already been working out will find them to be an intermediate exercise.

8. Leg Raise

The leg raise is a leg extension alternative focused on the lower abs and core. It also improves your hip flexibility while alleviating strain on the lower back. Bodybuilders and athletes enjoy this intermediate exercise because it allows them to work out without causing strain.

Leg Raise
Leg Raise

Lie down on the floor with your legs stretched out straight and your arms flat beside you. Raise your legs over your hips, holding them as straight and steady as possible. Point your toes to the ceiling to stretch the muscles.

Lower them carefully back to the ground, keeping the same pace you did as you lifted them. Don’t let them touch the ground, but let them hover an inch above to push your muscles to the limit.

One common leg raise mistake is letting your back arch too much off the ground. When you let your lower back move, you’ll strain it as well as decrease the efficiency of the exercise itself. Your core won’t stay engaged if your back arches, so keep it pressed against the mat. 

One tip to improve the efficiency of the leg raise is to try the hanging leg raise on a pull-up bar. Get into a pull-up position and raise your body off the ground. Keep your core engaged as you lift your legs out straight in front of you.

Another way to improve this exercise is to add weights. You can grip a barbell between your feet or put on ankle weights. Don’t add too much weight because you don’t want to risk it slipping while your feet are up in the air.

This is a good exercise for beginners because you can adapt it to suit your needs and you don’t need any equipment. You can make it easier on you by bending your knees and doing one leg at a time. More advanced athletes and weightlifters can grip medicine balls between their feet to make the exercise harder.

9. Sissy Squats

Sissy squats are a leg extension alternative focused on hip flexors and your core. When you master these squats with proper form, you’ll notice that your balance is also heightened. Bodybuilders and athletes like this option because it doesn’t stress the knee joints and alleviates back strain.

Traditional squats have you bend at the hips and sit, but a sissy squat has you lean back and bend at the knee. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and put your heels on a raised surface like a barbell plate or a step. Lean your shoulders back and put your hands on your hips.

Bend your knees and start leaning back more, following your shoulders. You should feel the tension in your quads. Keep your spine straight, so your body makes a diagonal line from your knees to your head. Pause when your body leans back, then slowly bring yourself back to an upright position.

One common mistake in the sissy squat is to lock your knees. You always need to keep the bend soft, so you don’t hurt your joints when you’re lowering or raising your body into position.

One tip to improve the efficiency of the sissy squat is to move as slowly as possible and hold the position before returning upright. This slow-motion requires a great deal of core control and will help develop those muscles.

Another way to improve this exercise is to hold barbells while you do it. You need to be a master at the traditional sissy squat before adding weight to the mix, though. Make sure your quad muscles can handle the extra strain, and you have a good sense of balance during each portion of the exercise.

The sissy squat is an advanced exercise, despite how its name sounds. Bodybuilders and athletes can manage it, but people starting to work out should try some other alternatives on this list first.

What to Know About Leg Extension Alternatives?

Leg extension alternatives have many benefits if you want to work other muscles or not strain your knees with leg extensions.

  1. Strengthens More Muscles: Leg extension alternatives benefit more than just the quads. Some options focus on your glutes, hip flexors, and calves. Some even help strengthen your core and define your abs.
  2. Improves Posture and Balance: Leg extension alternatives that also work your core will improve your posture and balance. These are crucial for other exercises in your workout, so you’ll get long-lasting benefits.
  3. Home-based Exercises: Most of the leg extension alternatives on this list don’t require machinery, so you can do them on days you’re not at the gym. A few require equipment that you’ll have around the house, but most only use your body weight.
  4. Less Injury Risk: Leg extension alternatives are better for your knees, so you’ll have less risk of injury. Many options benefit your knees and improve hip joints as well.

The leg extension is a good exercise to focus on building your quads on gym days. You can use alternative movements to strengthen other leg muscles for working out at home.

Which Leg Extension Alternative Is Beginner Friendlier?

The most beginner-friendly leg extension alternative is the cyclist squat. It works the vastus medialis muscles near your knees to prevent joint pain and strain.

When you put your heels on an elevated surface, you’re already engaging your muscles, so beginners get a little boost before they even start. You can keep your feet closer together, which feels more comfortable for many beginners.

Which Leg Extension Alternative Is Better for Legs?

The best leg extension alternative for legs is the Bulgarian split squat. This method works your quads, hamstrings, calves, and glutes. Since you work one leg at a time, you’ll also develop your balance and hip mobility. You need a weight bench for this one, but you can find a work-around to do it at home or elsewhere.

You can stop the squat before your knee extends over your toes to feel the strain in your quads. If you push yourself to hold your thighs parallel to the ground, you’ll feel the strength in your glutes. As you raise and lower your body slowly, you’re going to feel the burn in more leg muscles than any other alternative on this list.

Which Leg Extension Alternative Is Better for Quads?

Most people think that leg extensions are the best way to work your quads, but the step-ups are the best alternative exercise for quads. Anyone can do step-ups, so people just getting started can develop their quads without the demands of leg extensions or the need to use a machine.

All you need is a box or low bench to step up and off of, alternating legs each time. The repetitive motion can wear you out more than you’d think, so you’re going to feel the burn in your quads with this alternative.

Which Leg Extension Substitute Is Better for Strength?

The L-sit is the best leg extension substitute for strength. You have to have plenty of arm and core strength to even attempt it, and as you practice it, you’ll develop those muscles even more. You’ll feel empowered when you’re lifting your body off the floor.

Keeping your spine and neck aligned and your arms straight also helps your balance and posture. If you’re having trouble with the alignment, the tucked version can still help you develop the arm strength you need as you work your way up to a true L-sit.

When Should an Athlete Use Leg Extension Alternative for Exercise?

Leg extension alternatives are a good way to exercise for athletes that are experiencing knee or lower back pain. These adaptations give you a chance to still strengthen your legs without causing more harm to your joints. 

What Are the Advantages of Diversifying Leg Extension?

Doing leg extensions over and over is repetitive. You’re only working your quads but you’re risking your knees in the process. Mixing up your routine with leg extension alternatives puts you at less risk of injury while working other leg muscles—win-win.

Can Leg Extension Alternatives Replace the Leg Extension?

Yes, you can do leg extension alternatives instead of leg extensions. Leg extensions work your quads, but most of the alternatives work the quads along with other muscles. You won’t miss out on key exercises by switching to an alternative.

Are Leg Extension Alternatives Good for Knee Health?

Yes, leg extension alternatives are good for knee health because they don’t use weights as a leg extension machine does. With a leg extension machine, the weight is on your lower legs, so your knees have to strain to lift it all while they’re bending. Most alternatives don’t use weights in that manner.

What Are the Leg Extension Variations?

Leg extension variations like forward lunges, switch lunges, and knee get-ups are other ways to work your quads. They involve more motion than leg extensions, so they’re a good way to add variation to your workouts.

Forward lunges are great for beginners because they use body weight, and you can do them at home. Take a big step forward and lower your back leg until your knee is just above the ground. Push into your front heel to lift yourself back up. You can do these in place or walk around and alternate legs as you do. These aren’t conventional leg extensions because weight isn’t added.

Switch lunges are an intermediate leg extension variation that works your quads and other leg muscles. Lunge forward with your right leg until your thigh is parallel to the floor. Swing your arms for momentum as you jump and switch which leg you put forward. Try not to rest between each rep. These aren’t conventional leg extensions, but they work the same muscles.

Knee get-ups are an advanced exercise that works your core along with your leg muscles. You lie on a bench with your knees bent and your feet flat. Raise your legs in the air with your toes pointing up as you lift your hips off the bench. You’ve done one rep when you lower your hips to touch the bench. These aren’t conventional leg extensions, but they strengthen leg muscles.

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