While most leg routines do not directly train the hip flexors, they are active throughout many exercises to stabilise and control movement.
If you have injured your hip flexors this can make structuring your leg sessions difficult, but what are the best exercises that minimise use of the hip flexors?
The 7 best leg exercises that don’t use hip flexors are:
- Leg Press
- Hack Squats
- Leg Extension
- Leg Curl
- Hip Adduction
- Hip Abduction
- Calf Raises
At the end of this article, you will understand how to adjust exercise execution to shift loading away from the hips and how these exercises are best performed.
I will cover:
- 3 exercises you want to avoid and why
- 7 exercises you can use and how to minimise hip flexor use for them
- A sample program you can follow
3 Leg Exercise You Want To Avoid
First, let's start with exercises that you 100% want to stay away from if you are experiencing hip flexor pain.
Hip thrusts are a staple within programs to target the glutes, however, when the goal is to minimise the use of the hip flexors, we want to minimise the range of hip flexion and extension you are working through.
Hip thrusts working through this range puts high demands on the hip flexors to aid stability and control throughout the movement.
Free Weight Squatting
Machine replacements such as hack squats or pendulum squats will be better suited as you have constraints in place to add stability, and execution adjustments you can make to reduce hip range of motion.
Split Squats or Lunges
These have a high stability demand, large range of motion at the hip and as you lunge forward, or hit the bottom of a split squat, your hip flexors will be stretched underload.
While unilateral work is important (single leg work), you should look to replace these with less demanding options such as single-leg leg presses or leg extensions.
7 Leg Exercises That Don't Target Hip Flexors
While the leg press will still be working through a range of hip flexion, execution and range of motion can be adjusted to minimise this. By making these adjustments, you will also increase the work done by the quadriceps which is often the goal when using the leg press.
Primarily, you want to position your feet lower down on the foot plate; as low as you can while keeping your feet in contact throughout the exercise. This reinforces more forward knee travel and range of motion, while reducing the range of motion and work done at the hips.
A narrower stance can also help further target the quadriceps and help shift load and range of motion away from the hips.
If you still feel the leg press in your hip flexors, then you may want to cut the range of motion. Aiming for the range where you are feeling the load in your quadriceps and stopping before you feel this shift to your hips. Prioritise the range of motion that allows as much knee flexion as you can get, without working into deeper hip flexion.
Squat shoes can help with targeting your quads in the leg press. These articles will help you further understand why and give you recommendations on the best shoes for you:
- Heel Or Flat Shoes While Squatting? (6 Things To Consider)
- 5 Best Lifting Shoes For Beginners (2021)
These are a great replacement for free weight squatting while reducing the demands on your hip flexors.
With execution changes we can minimise the loading through the hips, while further targeting the quadriceps.
The aim is to take a stance around shoulder width apart, feet between the bottom and middle of the foot plate, with your toes pointing forward. The goal here is a stance that allows you to maximise knee flexion and forward knee travel.
By doing this, you should feel the load more in your quads, rather than in your hips. Similar to the leg press, a squat shoe, or heel wedge, may help.
Hack Squats are one of my favourite leg exercises, however, depending on your injury, may not be best for you. If they cause pain in your hip flexors, you may be best off replacing these with a leg press.
With home gyms becoming increasingly popular this means creative options for training without access to a wide range of machines. You can set up a hack squat at home, with just a foam roller.
Stand 1-2 feet away from a wall, lean back, and place the foam roller between your low back and the wall. As you squat, the foam roller will roll between your back and the wall. Focus on sitting straight down, while driving the knees forward.
You can add load to these, but I recommend increasing sets and reps primarily.
Looking for more hack squat alternatives? Read our article 9 Best Hack Squat Alternatives.
If the leg press or hack squats cause too much discomfort, then the leg extension will be your best choice for quadriceps training.
Leg extensions are best done with a full range of motion, with a brief pause at the top. While these suit a higher rep range, if you are unable to leg press or hack squat, you can reduce the reps, or increase the intensity with drop sets or AMRAPs (as many reps as possible).
Leg extension machines are ideal but using a high box or bench to sit on, you can set these up with a cable or band around your foot or ankle.
Looking for alternatives to leg extensions? Read our article 15 Leg Extensions Alternatives (At Home, Bands, Free Weight).
Machine leg curls provide two options – seated and lying. Both have their own benefits.
Seated leg curls allow you to train with a more lengthened hamstring due to extending at the hip as well as the knee, and offer more constraints, such as the thigh pad, making it harder to cheat.
Lying leg curls however offer a little more freedom of movement, and I know personally I fit in the machines better because of this and can train my hamstrings more effectively.
Focus should be on keeping the hips driving down into the machine, this will stop you lifting them and cheat on those harder reps.
Work through the range of motion that allows you to feel tension in the hamstrings, for me, this is 1-2 inches short of full knee extension.
Incorporate both within your programme and see which feels best to you.
These can also be set up with a band, dumbbell or cable around your ankles/between your feet while lying on the floor or a bench. Check out my article on the best leg curl alternatives for more variations.
Training the adductors as a hip extensor is difficult without loading the hip flexors, so to avoid this, the hip adduction machine is perfect.
These can be set up with a band or cables, however, will be more effective if you have access to a machine.
The aim is to use the range of motion that you can keep load in the adductors while also not aggravating the hip flexors. Squeezing at the peak contraction at the end of each rep.
I recommend performing these in higher rep ranges (10-15) as using heavier loads makes it difficult to perform these effectively; however, can be pushed closer to failure than other exercises.
Methods such as AMRAPs and drop sets are also a great way to increase the overall intensity of this exercise too.
Training the glutes without hip extension dominant movements leaves limited options.
However, hip abductions are great and offer enough constraints to minimise loading on the hip flexors.
While these can be performed with a cable or bands, to make them effective, you ideally want to use a machine.
Similar to adductions, I recommend performing these in the higher rep ranges, and incorporating intensity methods such as drop sets or AMRAPs to chase progressions.
While squats and other free weight exercises are out of the program, it is a great opportunity to catch up on the calf training many of us frequently skip.
These are effective using just bodyweight, but also across a range of machines and free weights.
There are two types of calf exercises you want to incorporate to target the different muscles in the calf.
A straight leg exercises, such as body weight calf raises on a step, or donkey calf raises, these target the gastrocnemius, the typical muscle associated with the calves.
A bent knee exercise, such as a seated calf raise machine or with plates balanced on your thighs, to target the soleus, which sits under the gastrocnemius.
Sample Program: How To Structure Your Leg Day Without Using Hip Flexors
This two-day program will help you get the most out of training your legs while minimising the use of your hip flexors.
- Hack Squat – 3 Sets of 8-10 Reps – Aim to perform these sets with 2-3 repetitions in reserve, progressing the load when you hit 10 reps for all 3 sets. If hack squats aggravate your hip flexors, replace this with leg press.
- Seated Leg Curl – 3 Sets of 10 Reps – Push these close to failure and look to progress the load where possible.
- Leg Extension – 2 Sets of 10-12 – Start with a load you can do for 10 reps, staying at the same loads until you hit 12, then look to progress load
- Standing Calf Raise – 3 Sets of 15-20 Reps – Pause at the top and bottom of each rep.
- Hip Adduction Machine – 3 Sets of 12-15 Reps – Hold the peak contraction for 1-2 seconds and perform 2-3 second eccentrics.
- Unilateral Leg Press – 4 Sets of 12-15 Reps – Treat these as ascending sets, if you hit 15 reps on a set increase load, aim to only hit 12 on the 4th set.
- Lying Leg Curl – 3 Sets of 12-15 Rep – Progress load when a set reaches 15 reps.
- Hip Abduction – 3 Sets of 10-12 – Aim for 12 reps per set close to failure, increase the load if 12 reps is easy, consider decreasing if you only hit 10.
- Seated Calf Raise – 3 Sets of 10-12 Reps – Hold the peak contraction and perform 2-3 second eccentrics.
Hip flexor injuries can make structuring your leg training difficult, but with the right exercise selection and adjustments to execution you can continue to make progress.
Machines with lower stability demands and those that minimise the range of motion at the hip will be the best options for your training.
Check out my other lower body training guides:
- 9 Best Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Glutes
- 8 Best Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Hamstrings
- 7 Best Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Ankles
About The Author
Jacob Wymer is a powerlifting coach and PhD Candidate in Biomechanics and Strength and Conditioning, researching the application of barbell velocity measurements to powerlifting. He is involved in powerlifting across the board, from athlete to meet director. Jacob runs his coaching services at EST Barbell. You can also connect with him on Instagram.