leg extension alternative exercises front squat quad strength training gym

The 5 best leg extension alternative lifts for bigger quads

Nothing screams a strong, athletic and impressive physique as loudly as having big, impressive and well-defined quads. It proves you know how to train, and that you’re not afraid to put in the hard yards to develop a powerful lower body. Maximise the size and strength of your quads with these best leg extension alternative exercises and get the results you want fast, says New Body Plan creator and Men’s Fitness cover model Jon Lipsey

Some gym machines are more divisive than others. You rarely find someone who has an issue with the lat pulldown machine, for example. But the leg extension machine is different. The most common issue that people have with it is knee discomfort. More specifically, they often experience pain across the top of the knee.

If that sounds familiar, or you just don’t have access to the machine, you may be looking for a leg extension alternative. The good news is that there are a few great options to choose from. Some mimic the movement of the leg extension. Others focus in on the quads – the muscles on the front of the thigh that are used in the exercise. We’ve identified the key leg extension alternative exercises so you can choose the right one for you and your quad-building goals!

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Best leg extension alternative for home workouts

Dumbbell leg extension

This leg extension alternative is a good way of getting close to the movement with minimal equipment.

• Sit at the end of a bench with your knees bent at 90 degrees, holding a dumbbell between your ankles.
• With your heels off the floor, extend your legs until they are straight.
• Slowly lower back to the start and repeat without letting your feels touch the floor.

Key benefit: This is a simple and effective way of mimicking the leg extension movement.
Limitations: It can be awkward getting into a good start position. If your bench isn’t high enough you can prop it up until you reach a sufficient height. Holding the dumbbell in place can also be tricky. If you don’t have a bench, you could improvise with a chair or box.

Best leg extension alternative for versatility

Resistance band single leg extension

This is a great leg extension alternative because you can pretty much do it anywhere. All you need is a resistance band and an anchor point.

• Secure the band around the base of a door or a low anchor point.
• If you have a cuff attachment, use that and secure it around your ankle.
• If you don’t have a cuff, wedge your foot into the handle of the band.
• Start with tension in the band and the knee of your your working leg bent at 90 degrees with your thigh horizontal.
• Extend your working leg until it is straight, squeezing the quads hard at the top of the rep.
• Return to the start slowly under control and repeat the exercise.

Key benefit: There are a couple of plus points for this variation. You can do it anywhere, which makes it versatile and accessible. It also mimics the movement of a leg extension.

Limitations: The band’s resistance changes throughout the rep. You start off with minimal resistance and it gets more challenging the more you stretch the bend. It’s therefor great for the top of the move but less useful for the initial phase.

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Best leg extension alternative for gym training

Cable leg extension

This is similar to the resistance band movement but the cable machine keeps the tension constant.

• Set the cable to its lowest height.
• Use a cuff attachment if you have one and secure it around your ankle. Alternatively, you can wedge your foot into a handle.
• Raise your working knee, which should be bent at 90 degrees with your thigh parallel to the floor.
• Extend your leg, squeeze your quads at the top and lower under control.

Key benefit: The ability to quickly and easily adjust the load on the weight stack means you can be precise with how much you lift. It also opens up set-extension strategies such as drop sets.

Limitations: In a conventional leg press, your thigh rests on a pad, which makes it stable. Having to hold your thigh in the air will reduce the weight you can lift. But it is good for balance and coordination.

Best leg extension alternative for quad strength

Barbell front squat

This leg extension alternative involves a different movement pattern. But it is hard to find a better exercise for building quadriceps size and strength.

• Hold the barbell across the front of your shoulders with your palms facing up and your elbows high.
• Simultaneously bend at the hips and knees rte lower into a squat.
• Keep your chin, chest and elbows up throughout the rep to avoid losing balance.
• Go as low as you can without tucking in your pelvis or rounding your back.
• Push through your heels and mid foot to return to the start.

Key benefit: The front squat is a really functional exercise. It builds real world strength and because it is tough it becomes a whole-body exercise. When it gets heavy your core, upper back and biceps all get in on the action.

Limitations: A lot of people struggle to get into the start position of a front squat because they don’t have the wrist and shoulder flexibility. If that is the case, you can use other grips, such as a cross-body grip. That’s where you rest the bar on your front shoulders with your arms crossed, supporting the bar. Or you could do the Zercher squat.

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Best leg extension alternative for isolating the quads

Barbell Bulgarian split squat

This is a tough but rewarding leg extension alternative. And it’s a great way of getting a real burn in your quads.

• Hold a barbell across your back, as if you were going to do a back squat.
• Place one foot on a bench behind you with your other foot a long stride in front of the bench.
• Bend both knees to lower to the floor.
• Ensure that your front shin is vertical and your front knee doesn’t track over your toes.
• Keep your chest upright throughout the rep.
• Push through your front foot to return to the start position.
• Do all of your reps on one side then swap sides.

Key benefit: If you want to isolate your quads, this is an incredibly effective move. It will also develop your balance and core stability.

Limitations: This is a challenging exercise. It requires significant balance and body awareness, so it can be off-putting to beginners. If you’re struggling with it, try the bodyweight version. Then move on to dumbbells and finally work up to using a barbell.

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