It’s no secret that the leg curl is the go-to exercise for isolating the big slab of meat opposite the quads, aka the hamstrings.
There’s no denying that it’s very effective for stimulating growth and improving strength in this area by the same token. But, that doesn’t mean it’s the best for maximally developing the hamstrings because let’s face it… we’re in 2019 and there are many other great leg curl alternatives that are more functional overall.
The hamstrings are a crucial muscle for walking, running, good posture, avoiding injury during activities and even aesthetics, so we have to train them accordingly.
So, we chose some awesome exercises other than the leg curl for maximum gains that you should be doing if you’re not already.
But first, let’s talk about the hamstring muscles...
HAMSTRING ANATOMY AND FUNCTION
The muscles of the hamstring include:
- Knee Flexion/Rotation and hip extension
- Knee flexion, thigh extension, and tibia rotation.
- Thigh extension, knee flexion, and tibia rotation.
The biceps femoris is a long muscle located on the outer part of the thigh which consists of a long and short head. The long head crosses the knee and hip joint while the short head only crosses the knee joint.
Therefore, the long head is involved in the function at both joints whereas the short head is active only in the knee joint.
The semimembranosus is the largest of the hamstring muscles. It’s located on the back of the thigh and it extends from the pelvis to the back of the tibia (shinbone).
The semitendinosus is the longest hamstring muscle and it’s located between the other two hamstring muscles, where it extends from the pelvis to the tibia.
All three muscles cross both the knee and hip joint, except for the short head of the biceps femoris as mentioned previously. A muscle which crosses both joints will contribute to the function at both joints.
HOW TO TRAIN HAMSTRINGS EFFECTIVELY
Now, we talked about how the leg curl is a great exercise but it’s not an ideal functional movement. The reason being is that it’s an open-chain exercise which means the feet are not in contact with the ground so the limb moves freely.
Open-chain exercises are best for purely isolating a muscle by focusing on the contraction to induce breakdown of muscle tissue for muscle growth and strength.
But to get the best possible functional benefits we need to incorporate closed-chain exercises that place the feet in contact with the ground or a stable surface.
Having your feet in contact with something allows you to train from the bottom up through your entire kinetic chain. This is better for strength, coordination, stabilization of joints, muscle recruitment, balance, performance… you name it.
That’s because the hamstrings function to extend the knee, decelerate knee extension, and improve stability which are all functions necessary for supporting dynamic movements that we do in daily life, sports, and similar activities.
Because of how the hamstrings function due to their attachments (pelvis to thigh and thigh to lower leg), all three muscles have to be fully lengthened in order to store mechanical energy so that we can safely and effectively perform the gait cycle (walking and running).
This makes sense when you consider the anatomy of the hamstrings which function mainly to store elastic energy during the portion of the gait cycle where the leg swings before it makes contact with the ground.
Therefore, the best exercises we can do for maximizing the function of the hamstrings are ones that allow your hamstring muscles to be fully lengthened (hip and knee extension) and active at both the proximal and distal attachments since this is when maximal eccentric load occurs which results in maximal function…
Here are the most effective leg curl alternatives to achieve this.
The glute-ham raise is one of the best exercises for hammering your hamstring muscles. It’s closed-chain due to your feet being planted on the footplate and there’s movement at both ends of the hamstring attachments.
But if you don’t have equipment for this exercise then you can actually have someone hold your ankles down on the ground while you perform the movement.
To do the glute-ham raise…
- Secure your ankles between the padded rollers so that your feet are flat on the footplate.
- Start in an upright torso position and keep your core tight.
- Slowly lower yourself down until your torso is parallel to the floor.
- Contract your hamstrings and glutes to lift your torso back up.
Here’s a video example...
Tip: move your knees behind the pads to increase the exercise difficulty.
Perform this exercise using a partner to hold your ankles down if you don’t have access to a glute-ham developer.
FORWARD-LEANING BULGARIAN SPLIT SQUAT
Why is the Bulgarian split squat one of our favorites? Well, it’s a unilateral exercise (affecting one side) so you can bring up a weak side not to mention it’s excellent for sport-specific training. You can really load up the weight without compromising knee health and we recommend it for those with knee problems who have to train. It’s just one heck of a leg exercise in general.
But, a body position where you’re leaning more forward than upright (typical way to do it) is going to involve more of the hamstrings.
To do the forward-leaning Bulgarian split squat…
- While holding two dumbbells or only using your bodyweight, place the top of one foot on the bench and position your other leg about 4 feet away from the bench so that your shins will remain vertical during the movement.
- Keep your back straight, core tight, and lower yourself down until your upper leg is parallel to the floor while leaning forward into the working leg.
- Drive your body upward into a standing position using your heel and mid-foot.
- Switch legs after you’ve completed one set.
SWISS BALL LEG CURL
The Swiss ball leg curl is considered a closed-chain movement because your feet are in contact with the ball plus knee and hip flexion are required to perform this one successfully.
If you have a ball you can even do this one at home too.
To do the Swiss ball hamstring curl…
- Lie on your back and place your heels on the ball so that your feet are about hip-width distance apart with your legs bent at a 90-degree angle.
- Lift your hips, extend your legs and then pull your legs back toward your butt by flexing your hamstrings and glutes. Keep your hips lifted during the entire movement.
Here’s a video example…
Floor slides are one of the best but most challenging exercises to really get those hamstrings burning…
All you need to do is put on a pair of socks, lie on a decently slippery surface (e.g. tile, wood) and slide your feet out and in while keeping your hips lifted, contracting your hamstrings each rep.
You can also place your feet on a towel or cloth to help perform the slide.
DUMBBELL LEG CURL
Ok, so we had to include at least one open-chain leg curl variation since it’s still a good hamstring exercise.
To do the dumbbell leg curl...
You’ll simply lie on your stomach and perform leg curls while holding a dumbbell or some type of weight between your feet.
Tip: Do this exercise using a decline bench if you have access to one as it’s better for keeping constant tension on the hamstrings.
Perhaps the easiest bodyweight exercise anyone can do for the hamstrings, the bridge is performed by lying on your back with your knees bent and then you’ll simply use your feet to push your body up squeezing your glutes and hamstrings.
SINGLE-LEG HIP EXTENSION
The single-leg hip extension is a great way to train the hamstrings which is also more difficult than the bridge.
Here’s a video example…
This exercise is definitely not for everyone because it can place a lot of stress on the lower back if done improperly. So, you need to have a strong lower back and core. But you also must do this exercise correctly to avoid next-day pain.
To do the Romanian deadlift…
- Stand in front of the barbell with feet hip-width apart and shins close to the bar.
- Bend over and grip the bar so that your hands are just outside of your shoulders.
- Bend your knees and sit back slightly keeping your back straight.
- Flex your glutes, arch up, then drive upward using your heels and midfoot.
- Hinge your hips forward as the bar reaches above the knee.
- Lower the weight until the bar reaches mid-shin level while keeping your back as flat as possible.
The hip thrust isn’t just for the glutes as it’ll really stimulate the hamstrings as well. You can also really load up on this exercise and the movement involves movement at both joints.
To do the hip thrust…
- Sit with your back against a flat bench so that your legs are under the barbell.
- Roll the barbell onto your hip crease.
- Bend your knees and use your elbows to lift your torso off the ground so that your feet with be flat on the ground.
- Hold the barbell with both hands about hip-width or slightly wider apart to balance it on your hips.
- Lower your hips down to an inch from the ground.
- Drive your body upward until your torso is parallel to the floor, squeezing your glutes and pushing upward through your heels.
Here’s a video example…
Here are a few routines for the beginner and more advanced lifter. Avoid training the hamstring more than once in a 48 hour period to allow them to recover sufficiently, as should be the case for all muscle groups in the majority of instances where enough intensity has applied to your workouts.
BEGINNER HAMSTRING WORKOUT
- 3 sets x 10-12 reps (45-second rest between sets)
- 2 sets to failure (45-second rest between sets)
- 3 sets x 12-15 reps (30 to 45-second rest between sets)
ADVANCED HAMSTRING WORKOUT
- 3 sets x 12 reps (45-second rest between sets)
Forward-Leaning Bulgarian Split Squat
- 2 sets x 10-12 reps (45-second rest between sets)
Single-Leg Hip Extension
- 3 sets x 15 reps (30-second rest between sets)
COMMON QUESTIONS + ANSWERS
Q: WHAT EXERCISE CAN REPLACE LEG CURLS?
A: Any of the exercises we have listed are powerful movements for developing the hamstrings. So, utilize your choice of exercise but be sure to perform the movements properly to ensure you’re maximally engaging the hamstrings.
That means leave your ego at the door and use a weight that will allow you to train through a full and controlled range of motion.
Q: WHAT CAN I SUBSTITUTE FOR LEG CURLS?
A: To substitute the leg curl, any exercise which requires full knee flexion is acceptable. For instance, the dumbbell leg curl, Swiss ball curl, and even the glute-ham raise are great options, although the latter two are closed-chain.
Q: HOW DO YOU DO LEG CURLS AT HOME?
A: f you’re at home and have no equipment then you can construct a perfectly effective hamstring routine with a few of the exercises that we chose as alternatives to the leg curl.
Here are the exercises we recommend for an at home workout...
- Floor slides
- Swiss ball curl
- Single-leg extension
- Glute-ham raise using a partner
The leg curl doesn’t need to be removed from your hamstring training but it by no means should be the only exercise you do for this muscle every workout; which is very common in fact.
So, we hope you incorporate more of these leg curl alternatives that we’ve discussed to form an effective and more functional workout. The hamstrings play a large role in physical movement so don’t neglect training them sufficiently every week.