The best replacements for leg curls in your exercise routine are:
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Swiss Ball Hamstring Curls
- Single-Leg Deadlifts
- Nordic Hamstring Curls
- Good Mornings
Each of these exercises targets the same primary muscle as leg curls—the hamstrings. So, you’ll be able to build lower body strength effectively by using these movements to replace leg curls in your program.
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What is the Purpose of Leg Curls?
Leg curls are meant to strengthen the hamstring muscles, which are located at the back of your thighs. Additionally, leg curls engage the calf muscles, particularly the gastrocnemius, to assist in the movement. Leg curls also work your glutes and lower back to a lesser extent, because these muscles help stabilize your body during the curling motion.
- Build muscle strength, tone, and mass in your hamstrings.
- Work the calves, glutes, and lower back as secondary muscles.
- Strengthen the knees to prevent injury.
Overall, leg curls are an effective way to develop the muscles at the back of your legs for improved strength, stability, and performance. You can even use leg curls to strengthen your knees. So, when we are looking for alternatives to leg curls, we need to choose exercises that have very similar benefits.
The 5 Best Alternatives to Leg Curls
You can get an excellent leg workout that builds hamstring muscle without doing a single leg curl. In fact, hamstrings can be activated through several different movements. The most effective exercises for your hamstrings are:
Romanian deadlifts are a classic exercise for targeting the hamstrings and lower back. They’re an excellent alternative to leg curls because they work multiple muscle groups and can be performed with dumbbells, a barbell, or kettlebells. To do this exercise:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, holding a barbell or dumbbells in front of your thighs.
- With a slight bend in your knees, hinge at the hips and lower the weight down toward the floor.
- Keep your back straight and core engaged as you lower the weight.
- Lower the weight until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
- Reverse the movement, squeezing your glutes and hamstrings as you straighten upright and return to the starting position.
- Perform 3–5 sets of 8–12 reps.
Leg curls work the hamstrings by adding resistance to knee flexion (bending your knee). Meanwhile, Romanian deadlifts require eccentric contraction of the hamstring, where it contracts as it lengthens. This results in an incredible hamstring workout that takes the stress off your knees.
Swiss Ball Hamstring Curls
Work your hamstrings without a leg curl machine by performing Swiss ball hamstring curls. In addition to a leg workout, this movement also builds core stability. For this exercise, follow these steps:
- Lie on your back on an exercise mat.
- Extend your arms and place them palm-down on the ground for support.
- Place your heels on top of a Swiss ball (or another type of exercise ball).
- Lift your hips off the ground until they form a straight line from your shoulders to your heels.
- Slowly bend your knees, rolling the ball toward your glutes using your hamstrings.
- Extend your legs back out, maintaining your elevated hip position throughout the movement.
- Complete 3–5 sets of 8–12 reps
Swiss ball hamstring curls allow you to add resistance to knee flexion without a traditional leg curl machine. So, you can get the same results with far less expensive equipment.
You can replace leg curls with single-leg deadlifts because both exercises target your hamstrings as the primary muscle. However, I prefer single-leg deadlifts because they work to build balance and stability—you won’t get this benefit from leg curls. You can perform single-leg deadlifts with a dumbbell or your bodyweight, depending on your comfort and fitness level. Here’s to do them:
- Stand on one leg, keeping a slight bend in your knee for stability.
- Hold a weight (dumbbell, kettlebell, or barbell) in the opposite hand of the standing leg.
- Hinge at your hips and lower the weight towards the ground, extending your free leg behind you to counterbalance.
- Engage your core and maintain a straight back throughout the exercise.
- Keep your gaze focused on a point on the ground a few feet ahead to maintain balance.
- Lower the weight as far as your flexibility and balance allow, without rounding your back.
- Slowly return to the starting position, driving through your standing leg’s heel and engaging your hamstrings and glutes.
- Perform 5–10 reps on one leg before switching to the other leg.
I’ve used single-leg deadlifts in bodyweight circuit training routines, as well as in weightlifting programs. They’re an incredibly versatile exercise that I recommend to anyone looking to improve hamstring strength equally in both legs.
Nordic Hamstring Curls
Replacing leg curls with Nordic hamstring curls allows you to use your bodyweight to get an excellent hamstring workout. If you have a workout partner, you don’t need any special equipment for this exercise. Just follow these steps:
- Find a partner or an anchor point to secure your ankles, such as a heavy weightlifting bench or a weighted barbell on the ground.
- Kneel on a soft surface like a mat, with your ankles secured under the anchor point or held by your partner.
- Engage your core, glutes, and hamstrings to maintain a straight line from your head to your knees throughout the exercise.
- Slowly lean forward, tilting your body toward the ground while keeping your hips extended and your back straight.
- Use your hamstrings to control the descent, resisting the pull of gravity.
- Go as low as you can while maintaining control, ideally until your chest or nose almost touches the ground.
- Contract your hamstrings and use them to reverse the movement, pulling your body back up to the starting position.
- Perform 3–5 sets of 5–10 reps.
Nordic curls are a challenging but rewarding exercise. Studies have even proven that they help prevent hamstring injury. So, it’s a good idea to include them in your lower body workouts.
At first glance, you might think good mornings are a back exercise. However, they’re actually great for strengthening your hamstrings and glutes. Follow these steps to perform this exercise:
- Position a barbell on your upper back, resting it across your shoulder blades. You can use a squat rack or a power rack to help you get the barbell into position safely.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes pointing forward, and knees slightly bent.
- Engage your core and maintain a straight back throughout the exercise.
- Keeping a slight bend in your knees, hinge forward at the hips, pushing your glutes backward and bending forward.
- Bend forward in a “bowing” position until your torso is almost parallel to the ground.
- Straighten back to the standing position by driving your hips forward and engaging your hamstrings and glutes.
- Perform 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps.
It’s essential to start with a low weight with good mornings. Maintaining a straight back is essential to proper form and injury prevention. When done correctly, good mornings are a very safe exercise that builds excellent strength in the posterior chain.
What Exercises are the Best Replacements for Leg Curls?
Leg curls can be replaced by several other exercises that target the hamstrings as the primary muscle. Romanian deadlifts, single-leg deadlifts, and good mornings all work the hamstrings without knee flexion, so they are an excellent choice if you have knee pain or a history of knee injury. Also, you can mimic the same motion and benefits of leg curls by performing Swiss ball hamstring curls and Nordic hamstring curls. Both of these alternatives can be done with much less specialized equipment than leg curls. So, they are excellent substitutes if you don’t have access to a leg curl machine.