Most lifters strive to build strong, thick hamstrings on leg day. Well-developed hamstrings contribute to chiseled, sculpted legs. Your hamstrings also support functional activities like walking, running, kicking, and jumping. The lying leg curl is the most obvious and popular way to train your hamstrings, as it isolates the muscles as they move through a long range of motion. Luckily, even if you don’t have access to a lying leg curl, there are plenty of equally effective exercises to build bigger hamstrings. Here is our list of the best lying leg curl alternatives.
Table of Contents
- 1 The 10 Best Lying Leg Curl Alternatives
- 1.1 1. Romanian Deadlifts
- 1.2 2. Seated Leg Curls
- 1.3 3. Cable Machine Pull-Throughs
- 1.4 4. Reverse Hyperextensions
- 1.5 5. Reverse Lunges
- 1.6 6. Kettlebell Swings
- 1.7 7. Nordic/Russian Hamstring Curls
- 1.8 8. Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
- 1.9 9. Prone Dumbbell Hamstring Curls
- 1.10 10. Hip Thrusts
- 2 Reasons to Choose a Lying Leg Curl Alternative
- 3 Muscles Worked by Lying Leg Curls
- 4 Lying Leg Curl Alternatives: FAQs
- 5 Other Alternative Exercises
- 5.1 The 9 Best Barbell Row Alternatives
- 5.2 The 10 Best Bench Press Alternatives
- 5.3 The 10 Best Pallof Press Alternatives
- 5.4 The 10 Best Leg Extension Alternatives
- 5.5 The 10 Best Overhead Press Alternatives
- 5.6 The 8 Best Ab Rollout Alternatives
- 5.7 The 8 Best Hammer Curl Alternatives
- 5.8 The 9 Best Lunge Alternatives
- 5.9 The 8 Best Tricep Dip Alternatives
- 5.10 The 10 Best Dumbbell Pullover Alternatives
- 5.11 The 10 Best Lat Pulldown Alternatives
- 5.12 The 10 Best Romanian Deadlift Alternatives
- 5.13 The 12 Best Pull-Up Alternatives
- 5.14 The 7 Best Deadlift Alternatives
- 5.15 The 9 Best T-Bar Row Alternatives
The 10 Best Lying Leg Curl Alternatives
- Romanian Deadlifts
- Seated Leg Curls
- Cable Machine Pull-Throughs
- Reverse Hyperextensions
- Reverse Lunges
- Kettlebell Swings
- Nordic/Russian Hamstring Curls
- Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
- Prone Dumbbell Hamstring Curls
- Hip Thrusts
1. Romanian Deadlifts
When to Perform Romanian Deadlifts
Romanian deadlifts strengthen your hamstrings and glutes. They may not look similar to a lying leg curl, but they are a great alternative. Both leg curls and Romanian deadlifts train the hamstrings in their lengthened position, stimulating hypertrophy and strength building. Romanian deadlifts are a convenient hamstring exercise using just a barbell or pair of dumbbells.
How to Perform Romanian Deadlifts
- Set up a barbell in a power rack to eliminate the need to pull it off the ground. Ensure the pins of the rack are high enough so that you only need a slight bend in your knees to reach the bar.
- Grip the bar with an overhand grip with your hands just outside your outer thighs.
- Brace your core and retract your shoulders. Lift the barbell out of the pins by extending your knees, but don’t lock them out.
- Take a few steps back, maintaining a soft bend in the knees. Place your feet hip-width apart.
- Hinge at the waist and push your hips back so that the barbell travels down across your thighs.
- Stop when the barbell is just below your knees or when you feel a stretch in the hamstrings.
- Pause, squeeze your glutes, and drive into your heels to stand back up. Be careful to stand tall without hyperextending the knees or arching your lower back.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps and sets.
Check out this video from Scott Herman Fitness for a visual guide to performing the Romanian deadlift.
Tips for Romanian (Stiff-Legged) Deadlifts
Keep your shoulders pulled back to ensure the barbell maintains contact with the front of your body throughout the exercise. Allowing the bar to move forward can lead to rounding your spine, causing discomfort or back injury. To initiate the concentric (lifting) phase of the exercise, squeeze your glutes. You can also perform Romanian deadlifts with a pair of dumbbells. For an advanced progression, you can do unilateral (single-leg) Romanian deadlifts to improve muscle imbalances.
2. Seated Leg Curls
When to Perform Seated Leg Curls
Seated leg curls require a specific piece of equipment, so this alternative is not for those who train at home. However, if you want to build maximal hamstring size and strength, you may want to switch your lying leg curls for the seated variation. A 2020 study by Maeo et al. found superior hypertrophy results from participants who did seated leg curls for 12 weeks when compared with lying leg curls. Seated leg curls stretch the hamstrings more, which increases overall mechanical tension.
How to Perform Seated Leg Curls
- Sit on a seated leg curl machine with your back resting against the seat pad.
- Rest your calves on the extended support pad lever.
- Adjust the hip pad so that it secures your upper legs in place. Make sure the hip pad is above the knee and below the hip.
- Squeeze your hamstrings to flex your knees and pull the lever towards you. Exhale during this phase of the exercise.
- Pause when the lever almost touches the backs of your thighs to ensure a full range of motion.
- Release the weight and extend your knees slowly and with control to emphasize the eccentric phase of the lift.
- Repeat for the desired number of sets and reps.
For a visual aid, check out this video from Renaissance Periodization demonstrating how to perform a seated leg curl.
Tips for Seated Leg Curls
To isolate the hamstrings, ensure your upper body remains stationary and secured against the seat pad. Arching or rounding the spine during seated leg curls could lead to lower back pain or injury. Slow down the eccentric phase of the leg curl to give the hamstring muscle fibers more time under tension.
3. Cable Machine Pull-Throughs
When to Perform Cable Machine Pull-Throughs
Pull-throughs are a great leg curl alternative if you can access a cable machine. Pulling weight through your legs from behind you gives your hamstrings, glutes, and hips a great workout. Cable pull-throughs are a beginner-friendly way to build confidence and strength in the hip hinge position, which is important for building bigger hamstrings.
How to Perform Cable Machine Pull-Throughs
- Attach a rope handle to a cable machine’s lowest pulley lever.
- Face away from the cable machine and reach through your legs to grab the rope with both hands.
- Step forward from the cable tower and plant your feet just outside hip-width distance.
- Keep a micro-bend in your knees and hinge forward until you feel a stretch in your glutes and hamstrings.
- From your hip-hinge starting position, squeeze the glutes to stand up straight so the rope handle travels between your legs.
- Reverse the movement by hinging at the waist and pushing your hips back.
- Repeat for the desired number of sets and reps.
For a visual aid, here’s a useful video from Chris and Eric Martinez.
Tips for Cable Machine Pull-Throughs
Lifters unaccustomed to the cable pull-through may struggle at first to balance the weight pulling them from behind. This is usually rectified by evenly distributing your weight across your forefoot rather than digging into just your heels.
4. Reverse Hyperextensions
When to Perform Reverse Hyperextensions
Reverse hyperextensions involve hip extension against gravity. They are a great alternative to lying leg curls and strengthen your glutes and hamstrings in a stretched position. You can do reverse hyperextensions on a specialized machine, a glute-ham developer (GHD) machine, or a bench if your gym doesn’t have a hyperextension machine.
How to Perform Reverse Hyperextensions
- Lie face down on a hyperextension machine, GHD machine, or flat bench. Your abdomen and sternum should rest against the bench, but your hips should be able to move freely.
- Hold the hyperextension machine handles or the sides of the bench for support. Allow your legs to hang straight down from the end of the bench.
- Tuck your chin, gaze straight ahead, and brace your abdominals to maintain a neutral spine.
- Squeeze your hamstrings, glutes, and spinal erectors to lift your legs towards the ceiling. Your legs should be straight but not hyperextended. Keep a micro bend in your knees.
- Pause when your legs align with your torso, and you feel the tension in the glutes and hamstrings.
- Slowly lower your legs until they hang freely.
- Repeat for the desired number of sets and reps.
Here’s a useful video demonstrating the proper form for a reverse hyperextension using a standard flat bench.
Tips for Reverse Hyperextensions
Initiate the exercise by squeezing your hamstrings rather than kicking your legs up. Using momentum in this exercise is dangerous as the force can cause your lower back to arch and strain your spine.
5. Reverse Lunges
When to Perform Reverse Lunges
Lunges are often quad dominant, but reverse lunges emphasize the glutes and hamstrings. Reverse lunges stimulate many muscles in the backs of your legs, making them an effective alternative to lying leg curls. Lunges are a compound exercise, while leg curls isolate the hamstrings. This alternative may exert your quads and nervous system more than the lying leg curl.
How to Perform Reverse Lunges
- If you are using weight, prepare for the movement by loading a barbell across your shoulders or holding dumbbells or kettlebells at your sides.
- Stand with your feet together, your back straight, and your gaze looking forward.
- Distribute your weight evenly and grip the floor with your feet for a stable foundation.
- Brace the core, glutes, and legs. Take a big step backward while bending your knees, hips, and ankles.
- Lower yourself towards the floor until your back knee hovers about an inch off the floor. Both legs should bend at 90 degrees. Your front foot should remain firmly planted. Your back foot will be pressing into the ball of the foot with the heel lifted.
- Pause. Keep the chest lifted and push through your back foot to engage your glutes and hamstrings and step your feet back together. You should now be at your starting position.
- Repeat on the same side or alternate legs for each rep.
- Perform an even amount of reps and sets per side.
For a visual aid, here’s a useful video from Bodybuilding.com demonstrating the proper form for a barbell reverse lunge.
Tips for Reverse Lunges
Keep your spine neutral and upright throughout the exercise. Don’t lean forward or round your back. When stepping backward, ensure you keep your toes in line with your hips. There should always be a hip-width distance between your feet for an even, stable base.
6. Kettlebell Swings
When to Perform Kettlebell Swings
Kettlebells are an amazing piece of equipment that serve many purposes and work for multiple muscle groups. Kettlebell swings are a great alternative to lying leg curls because they strengthen the hamstrings, glutes, and hips. Kettlebell swings build explosive strength and power in your posterior chain and can provide tension relief for tight hips. Kettlebell swings are convenient and can be done anywhere with only a single piece of equipment.
How to Perform Kettlebell Swings
- Stand tall with your feet hip-width distance apart, and your knees slightly bent.
- Hold a single kettlebell with both hands using an overhand grip. Allow the kettlebell to hang between your legs.
- Lean forward slightly, and then squeeze your glutes and hamstrings as hard as you can to thrust your hips forward and swing the kettlebell upward.
- Stop when your arms are fully extended, and the kettlebell is parallel to your chest.
- Allow the kettlebell to fall back between your legs and immediately thrust your hips forward again to swing the kettlebell back up.
- Repeat for the desired number of reps. Allow the kettlebell to lose its speed and momentum before setting it down at the end of your set.
For a visual guide to doing kettlebell swings correctly, here’s Brett Williams from the National Academy of Sports Medicine.
Tips for Kettlebell Swings
Safe and effective kettlebell swings depend on selecting an appropriate amount of weight. If you are new to kettlebell swings, practice with a lighter weight and brace your glutes and core throughout the exercise. Allowing momentum to generate the swing means you won’t use your muscles correctly, and you may even lose control of the weight and risk an injury. Remember that kettlebell swings are a hip hinge movement and not a squat. Push your hips back between reps and thrust them forward to swing the kettlebell.
7. Nordic/Russian Hamstring Curls
When to Perform Nordic/Russian Hamstring Curls
Nordic curls, also known as Russian hamstring curls, are a bodyweight exercise that closely mimics the movement pattern of a lying leg curl. Nordic curls involve lowering your body weight against gravity in a prone position. The eccentric strength of the hamstrings is used to stop you from falling to the ground. Nordic curls are an advanced exercise and should be used by experienced lifters wanting to challenge their hamstring strength.
How to Perform Nordic/Russian Hamstring Curls
- Set up your barbell to anchor your feet by loading it with a weight that will not move around as your body weight leans forward against it. You can also use a bench that is bolted to the ground, a partner holding your feet, or a spotter bar in a power rack if you have one.
- Protect your ankles by wrapping a barbell pad or towel around the center of the barbell and pad the ground to protect your kneecaps.
- Kneel on the padding in front of the barbell and secure the back of your ankles around the bar.
- Tuck your pelvis to set your spine and brace your abdominals. Hinge at the waist so your hips are slightly perpendicular to your spine, and your torso leans forward slightly.
- Take a breath in and brace your entire body. Have your hands just in front of you with your hands out, ready to catch you if you lose balance or control as you lower your body to the ground.
- Extend the knees and slowly lower your torso to the ground with control. Lower until you can no longer maintain the tension in your hamstrings, then allow yourself to drop and catch yourself with your hands as if you were about to do a kneeling pushup.
- Push through your palms and attempt to use your hamstrings to pull your torso back up to a vertical position. If you can’t do this with good form, simply push yourself back up and do as many negative reps (eccentric/lowering phase only) as you can with good technique and aim to increase the reps over time.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions or until you can no longer maintain good form.
This video from Dr Michael Risher demonstrates how to do a Nordic curl without a partner. He also gives a progression option to make the exercise easier for beginners by incorporating a resistance band.
Tips for Nordic/Russian Hamstring Curls
Avoid arching the back by consciously tucking your pelvis so it is perpendicular to your spine. Maintain a rigid torso throughout the exercise to isolate the hamstrings and glutes. Make sure you move slowly and with as much control as possible in the eccentric or negative (lowering) phase. Eccentric work builds more strength over time so that you can perform more reps and feel stronger in the concentric (lifting) phase of the lift without using your lower back.
8. Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
When to Perform Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
Stability ball hamstring curls are an accessible and effective alternative to lying leg curls. Pulling the stability ball towards your torso with your feet engages the glutes, hamstrings, and hips in a similar way to a hamstring curl. Using a stability ball requires greater activation of the stabilizing muscles in your core and back. Stability ball hamstring curls are great for building functional fitness. They are especially useful for runners, as the ball wobbling mimics running over uneven surfaces.
How to Perform Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
- Lay on the ground and place both feet on a stability ball with bent knees. Your heels should be close to your glutes.
- Place your palms on the ground by your sides. Actively press into your hands for support.
- Lift your hips and extend your knees so your body forms a straight line and you feel some tension in your hamstrings.
- Bend your knees and dig your heels into the ball to bring it towards your buttocks. Your hips will lift as you curl the ball towards you.
- Keep your hips high as you extend the legs and roll the ball away from you.
- Stop when you feel tension in the hamstrings.
- Repeat for the desired number of sets and reps.
For a visual aid, here’s a useful video demonstrating the stability ball hamstring curl.
Tips for Stability Ball Hamstring Curls
Keep your abdominals engaged to maintain a neutral spine. Arching your back as you lift your hips shifts the emphasis away from your hamstrings and causes back pain or injury.
9. Prone Dumbbell Hamstring Curls
When to Perform Prone Dumbbell Hamstring Curls
Prone dumbbell hamstring curls effectively mimic the movement pattern in a lying leg curl machine. This exercise involves lying prone on a bench and holding a dumbbell in your feet. You then pull the dumbbell towards your glutes by squeezing your hamstrings. Prone dumbbell hamstring curls are convenient as they only require a dumbbell and a bench. Using free weights like dumbbells engages more stabilizing muscles and improves coordination and functional fitness.
How to Perform Prone Dumbbell Hamstring Curls
- Secure a dumbbell between your feet and lie face down on a bench.
- Lift your legs while holding the dumbbell so your legs are parallel to the ground.
- Squeeze your hamstrings and glutes to pull your heels and the dumbbell towards your glutes.
- Pause when your knees are bent at 90 degrees and the dumbbell points towards the ceiling.
- Slowly lower the dumbbell until you feel a stretch in your hamstrings.
- Repeat for the desired number of sets and reps.
Check out this helpful video for a visual guide to doing prone dumbbell hamstring curls correctly.
Tips for Prone Dumbbell Hamstring Curls
You can also do prone hamstring curls using a resistance band secured to a stable anchor. Wrap the end of a long loop resistance band around your ankles and face away from your anchor. Pull your heels towards your glutes against the tension provided by the band to feel your hamstrings working.
10. Hip Thrusts
When to Perform Hip Thrusts
Hip thrusts are a popular glute exercise that also works your hamstrings. Hip thrusts are a hip extension exercise, which is one of the main functions of your hamstrings. Although they are not great at isolating your hamstrings, allow you to load them with heavier weights than with other movements. Hip thrusts are also convenient as you only need a barbell, plates, and a bench to rest your shoulder blades on.
How to Perform Hip Thrusts
- Sit on the ground with a bench behind you. It is a good idea to have the bench against a wall or sturdy surface to prevent it from slipping backward during the exercise.
- Lean back so that your shoulders are resting against the bench. Bend your knees and plant your feet.
- Pull your loaded barbell towards you so it rests against your hip crease. Placing a barbell pad or a folded yoga/gym mat between your hips and the bar will help prevent discomfort.
- Squeeze your glutes and push through your feet to drive the barbell upward until your knees are bent at a 90-degree angle. Your shoulders should rest near the top of the bench, with your torso creating a straight line from the bench to your knees.
- Hold at the top of the lift before slowly lowering the barbell.
- Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and reset the barbell at the end of your set.
This useful video from Jeff Nippard provides a great overview of how to set up and perform the hip thrust with perfect form. To see the demonstration of the hip thrust, skip to the 2:20 minute timestamp.
Tips for Hip Thrusts
Keep the knees and toes in line. As you start to lift your hips, it’s common for the knees to start to splay out or fall inward. Try to keep your knees in line with your toes and hips. It may be helpful to imagine holding an imaginary ball between your thighs. To emphasize the hamstrings rather than the glutes, dig your heels into the ground.
Reasons to Choose a Lying Leg Curl Alternative
With so many people now training at home, lack of access to a lying leg curl machine is a common reason to seek an alternative. Since leg curl machines can only be used for a small handful of exercises, investing in one doesn’t make sense for most at-home lifters. Even if you have access to a leg curl machine, there are many benefits to adding variety to your exercise selection. Using a range of hamstring exercises with or without machines requires your muscles to keep adapting and making strength and size gains.
Muscles Worked by Lying Leg Curls
- Primary muscles used: Hamstrings
- Secondary muscles used: Glutes, Hip Flexors
Lying Leg Curl Alternatives: FAQs
What makes a good alternative to lying leg curls?
Lying leg curls are an effective machine exercise to isolate your hamstrings. Effective alternatives to lying leg curls isolate the hamstrings without overly exerting nearby muscle groups like the quads. Lying leg curl alternatives should involve the three main functions of the hamstrings (hip extension, hip hyperextension, and knee flexion). Lying leg curls can be replaced with exercises like Romanian deadlifts, Nordic hamstring curls, and hip thrusts.
Are seated leg curls better than lying leg curls?
Yes, if you have a choice between seated and lying leg curls, you should probably choose seated curls. A 2020 study by Maeo et al. found superior hypertrophy results from participants who did seated leg curls for 12 weeks when compared with lying leg curls. While both variations are effective, if maximal hypertrophy is your goal, choose seated leg curls where possible.
Other Alternative Exercises
If you enjoyed this post, check out our other roundups of the best alternatives for other exercises.