5 Great Leg Extension Alternatives

The 5 Best Leg Extension Alternatives

When it comes to isolating the quadriceps, you cannot find a better exercise than the leg extension. The reason is simple – this exercise perfectly simulates the biomechanical action of the quadriceps, which is an extension of the knee joint.

As a result, the leg extension should play a pivotal part in any leg training program. What, though, if you don’t have access to a leg extension machine? Here are 5 great leg extension alternatives which come close to providing the same benefits.

1. Reverse Lunges

The reverse lunge provides a knee extension that is similar to the leg extension to fully activate the quads. Doing this exercise in reverse fashion, put more emphasis on the quads and less on the glutes.

How to perform a reverse lunge:

  1.  Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and a pair of dumbbells in your hands at your sides.
  2. Take a large step back with your right leg and, keeping your upper body upright, power down until the rear knee is just a few inches from the floor.
  3. Push through the front heel to return to the start position. 

2. Bulgarian Split Squat

The Bulgarian Split Squat is an advance from the reverse lung which ramps up the intensity slightly with a greater range of motion.

How to perform a Bulgarian split squat:

  1. Stand in front of a bench with a pair of dumbbells in your hands.
  2. Place your right foot on the bench behind you.
  3. Descend down to bring the rear knee to a position a few inches from the floor.
  4. Push through the front heel to return to the start position.

3. Step Ups

Step-ups provide the knee extension that is the basic biomechanical movement of the quadriceps. Do this one at the end of your quad workout at a fast pace. As you progress hold dumbbells in your hands and then increase the height of the bench. 

How to perform a step up:

  1. Stand in front of a bench that is about 16 inches in height.
  2. Step your right foot on top of the bench.
  3. Follow through with your left foot to stand on the bench.
  4. Reverse the motion to return to the start position.

4. Sissy Squats

Sissy squats may sound like child’s play but, when you do them right, they are anything but. This is an awesome move to isolate the quads. They eliminate hip involvement by keeping the same hip angle throughout the movement. That puts all of the stress on your quads, which is exactly where you want it. 

How to perform a sissy squat:

  1. Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and your heels on a two-inch block 
  2. Grab a rail or post with your right hand for balance.
  3. Lean back as you bring your torso, keeping your hips in the starting position.
  4. In the bottom position, your body should form a straight line from your neck to your knees.
  5. Push through the quads to return to the starting position. 

5. Cyclist Squat

If you thought you’d come across every variation of the squat out there, here’s one that you may not be familiar with. The Cycle squat places specific and direct emphasis on the quads, taking the glutes largely out of the picture. It’s an awesome move to finish your leg workout with. Rather than replacing standard squats, use it as a finishing exercise to blast your upper legs into oblivion. You can’t use as much weight as on back squats, but you don’t have to.

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How to perform a cyclist squat:

  1. Set the appropriate weight on an Olympic bar and load it on a squat rack.
  2. Place a 45-pound plate on the floor a couple of feet back from the squat rack.
  3. Get under the bar, unrack it and step back so that your heels are on the plate, with your feet together.
  4. Hinge at the hips to descend down into a parallel squat.
  5. Push through the heels to return to the start position stopping just short of lockout.

Are Leg Extensions Bad For Your Knees?

Some people claim that leg extension is a bad exercise because it shears the knee. Shearing in this sense refers to a separation of the upper and lower leg bones at the knee. The belief is that the leg extension makes those two bones come apart, causing trauma to the knee joint. 

The reality is that the leg extension does not result in knee shearing. The anchoring effect produced by the upward pulling quadriceps tendon is much greater than the perpendicular resistance applied at the front of the ankle by the machine’s lever arm. This prevents any possible leg bone separation.

The reality is that the leg extension is a tremendous quadriceps exercise. It is a better pure quad exercise than the squat. Yet, most people do not appreciate its value, simply considering it to be an isolation finishing exercise to throw-in at the end of their leg workout. 

When performing leg extensions, do not lock your legs out at the top of the movement. This may cause some knee strain because, in that final 10 percent of the movement, the tibia (lower leg bone) and femur (upper leg bone) move differently. The tibia slightly rotates to accommodate the closing of the space between the upper and lower leg bones. If you extend fully, the condyles at the end of the two bones could be eroded by friction and pressure.

Bottom Line

The leg extension is one of the very best exercises that exist to develop the quadriceps. Forget about it being an isolation exercise, this is a serious mass builder! In fact, if you could only do one quad exercise, then this should be it. But if you don’t have access to a leg extension machine or the one on your home gym doesn’t give you the range of motion you need, use any of the five exercises outlined above to provide you with a thigh quivering experience that is almost as good.

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This article was last updated on February 2, 2022 .

Written by
Steve Theunissen

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