The leg extension machine is a popular addition to any regular gym-goer's workout routine. It's a great way to work the big muscles in the front of your legs, known as the quadriceps.
I like to incorporate leg extensions toward the end of my workouts. And what really sets them apart is that they are a single-joint isolation exercise that can “burn out the quad,” even after a heavy lower body workout.
However, leg extensions can be quite boring (especially if you’ve had them in your program for several weeks), and access to a machine might be limited. Fortunately, there are equally-as-beneficial leg extension alternative exercises that can target similar musculature.
Here are the 15 best leg extension alternatives:
- Close Stance Hack Squat
- Close Stance Leg Press
- Cable Leg Extensions
- Barbell Reverse Lunge
- Front Foot Elevated Bulgarian Split Squat
- Platz Squats
- Dumbbell Cyclist Lunge
- Dumbbell Goblet Squats with Elevated Heels
- Step Ups With Dumbbells
- Dumbbell Leg Extensions
- Banded Leg Extensions
- Banded Front Squats
- Sissy Squats
- Lateral Step Downs
- Wall Sits
These alternatives include a variety of barbell, machine, and bodyweight leg extension exercises.
In this article, I will break down each exercise, including why it might be a better alternative over the leg extension, how to do it properly, and some tips to get the most out of it.
What Makes A Good Leg Extension Alternative?
A good machine leg extension alternative will accomplish one of the following:
- Target similar muscle groups as worked in the leg extension.
- Prioritize the quadricep femoris muscle group as much as possible.
Let's look into these factors a bit further.
Muscles Used In The Leg Extension:
The muscles used in the leg extension are:
- Vastus lateralis
- Vastus Intermedius
- Rectus Femoris
- Vastus Medialis
The leg extension exercise isolates the action of knee extension, which effectively targets all four parts of the quadriceps muscles.
Takeaway: A good leg extension alternative will predominantly target the muscles of the quadriceps, limiting the use of other lower body muscles like the glutes, hamstrings, and calves.
The quadricep muscle group consists of the 4 big muscles on the front of the thigh bone. The quads play a key role in knee extension and are especially used during major movements like running, squatting, and jumping.
While the quads are a prime mover for these major movements, the quads are also engaged alongside other muscle groups as well. So if your goal is to prioritize the quads similar to the leg extension, then keep reading for some small changes, you can make to prioritize quadricep involvement!
Takeaway: While an alternative to the leg extension machine might not be able to isolate the quads to the same degree, prioritize exercises that you feel ‘burning’ your quads.
Related Article: Leg Extension vs Leg Curl: Differences, Pros, Cons.
Leg Extension Alternatives with Equipment
1. Close Stance Hack Squat
The close stance hack squat increases the range of motion of the squat while emphasizing targeting the quads. Not only does this make the close stance hack squat a great leg extension alternative, but it also makes it great for building mobility and strength in the squatting position. Building strength & mobility definitely reduces the risk of knee injury!
How To Do It
- Set the machine height to unrack upon standing up.
- Have feet be close together with toes pointed outward.
- Sit back until you have reached the desired depth of the squat movement.
- Maintain proper tension in the glutes, hamstrings, and quads
- Then stand back up with the weight on your shoulders.
As with many other exercises, you can wear shoes with an elevated heel to prioritize the quads. Elevating the heels will decrease the range of motion of the hip, while increasing the range of motion and demand of the knee.
In turn, this will recruit the knee extensors/knee flexors (quads/hamstrings) over the muscles, while placing less of an emphasis on the muscles of the hips.
2. Close Stance Leg Press
While the regular leg press targets the quads and glutes, we can bring our stance in to prioritize the quads to a greater degree. This modification makes the close stance leg press a good leg extension replacement.
Different leg press foot placement can activate the hips, quads, and glutes in different capacities. While a lower and narrower stance can target the quads, a wider and higher stance can target the glutes and hamstrings much more.
Additional quad activation can be achieved by utilizing the internal cue of pushing through the toes.On that note, here are several other options for exercises that take the glutes out and focus primarily on the quads and hamstrings 9 Best Leg Exercises That Don't Use Glutes
How To Do It
- Set the back pad up so that you are comfortable.
- Place feet lower on the platform and about hip width apart or closer than your regular stance.
- Push against the platform until your legs are completely extended.
- Drive the knees back and stop just short of touching the chest.
- Push through your midfoot to bring the legs back into complete extension.
Single-leg leg press can be an additional modification that can be made to this exercise to improve strength and development of each individual leg.
While the close stance leg press places an emphasis on the quads, the single leg places further pressure on the individual quad, making the leg press more challenging.
A superset can between the single-leg leg press and two leg press like so:
- A. Close Stance Leg Press: 1 x 10
- B. Single-Leg Leg Press: 1 x 10 each side
Implementing this sort of protocol can help achieve greater muscular fatigue and strengthening of the muscles of the quads.
3. Cable Leg Extensions
While seated on a box or standing, cable leg extensions isolate and target the quads and are most similar to leg extensions, which make it a great alternative to the traditional leg extension.
How To Do It
- Strap an ankle cuff that is tethered to the cable stack machine.
- Stand or be seated facing away from the cable stack.
- Kick until the knee is completely extended.
- From there, bring the leg back to 90 degrees of flexion.
When suffering from a knee or hip injury, the leg extension can be a valuable exercise to implement into your program. Restoring range of motion and improving quad flexibility through the use of a cable leg extension promotes the rehabilitative process of any sort of knee injury.
Related Article 9 Best Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Glutes.
Leg Extension Alternatives with Barbells
4. Barbell Reverse Lunge
A barbell reverse lunge places a good barbell leg extension alternative by placing greater emphasis on constant tension in the muscles of the quads.
The barbell reverse lunge can be loaded by plate and bar to a much greater degree than other variations. However, if your goal is to preserve strength for either Olympic or powerlifting movements, I will mention less fatiguing options that you have at your disposal in its place.
Reverse lunges have great versatility by being able to load this movement in many ways, less fatiguing options that you can implement are with either dumbbells, a medicine ball, bands, or a cable machine.
You can greatly improve the loading of this exercise with any of the equipment at your disposal.
How To Do It
- Push the weight of the barbell into your back to build tension in the upper back and lats.
- Stand up with the weight of the bar on your back.
- Take three steps back until you have enough room to do the exercise.
- Carefully take a big step back into a lunge.
- Sit back with your hips, while bending the front knee until the thigh is parallel to the floor, and the back heel is coming off the floor and the knee is bent 90 degrees.
- From this position, return to standing with the back foot.
- Alternate legs, and step back with the foot that wasn’t used in the initial rep.
While there are many lunge options, this might be your best bet for targeting the quads more.
5. Front Foot Elevated Bulgarian Split Squat
The front foot elevated bulgarian split squat is a good barbell leg extension substitute by increasing the range of motion of the movement and directly targeting the muscles of the quads.
Unilateral (single-sided) movements are a fundamental part of a well-balanced program. One of the greatest accessories, the bulgarian split squat, targets the glutes and quads of a single side.
By modifying the bulgarian split squat with the front foot elevation, one is able to effectively achieve greater quad activation, while increasing hip and knee stability.
How To Do It
- Elevate the front leg on a 2’’ box or plate, while resting the back foot on a bench.
- Initiate with the hips sitting back until the front thigh is below parallel to the ground.
- Let your knees naturally travel over your 2nd and 3rd toe as you descend into the squat.
- Drive your front foot into the ground until the hips and front knee are completely extended.
This exercise can be done with dumbbells, a barbell, or body weight. You will achieve a different stimulus depending on where the load is placed.
If you hold a dumbbell aside the leg that's squatting, you can achieve greater quad activation.
If you hold the dumbbell up as if doing a goblet split squat, you can challenge the core stabilizers to a greater degree.
Furthermore, suppose you initiate with the hips while keeping vertical shins. In that case, you will target the glutes and hamstrings to a greater degree while focusing on forward knee translation by sitting more upright will achieve greater quad activation.
Related Article: Leg Exercises That Don't Use Hamstrings
6. Platz Squats
The platz squat will allow for greater forward knee translation to take focus away from adductors and the hips to promote greater quad activation, making this exercise a good barbell leg extension alternative.
How To Do It
- Get under the bar with both feet directly under it.
- Build tension by driving your upper traps into the bar whilst breaking the bar over your back.
- Stand up with the bar by extending the hips.
- Take one step directly behind you then take two additional steps to get into position.
- For this exercise, your feet will be right next to each other while the heels are elevated by plates.
- Initiate with the hips by sitting back until thighs are at or below parallel with the ground.
- Complete the repetition by driving through your heels, and exploding through your hips.
While the platz squats are a great exercise for quad development, higher benefits can be achieved by programming high volume sets and repetitions.
Here's an example program of Platz squats:
- Week 1: 3 x 10 @50-60%
- Week 2: 4 x 10 @52.5-62.5%
- Week 3: 5 x 10 @55-65%
- Week 4: 3 x 10 @55-65%
Leg Extension Alternatives With Dumbbells
7. Dumbbell Cyclist Lunge
The dumbbell cyclist lunge allows for greater forward knee translation to target the quads more which makes it a great leg extension alternative.
Unlike a typical lunge, the cyclist lunge has a much closer base of support, to allow greater emphasis on knee extensors (quads).
This exercise can be regressed to body weight or using a medicine ball, while being able to progress to a barbell or smith machine.
How To Do It
- Step forward into a staggered stance that is much closer than a typical lunge.
- With palms facing in, let each arm hang with a dumbbell in each hand.
- Sit back until the thigh of the front leg is at or below parallel to the ground, while the back knee is bent 90 degrees and the heel is coming off the ground.
- From this position, stand back up into the starting position until the hips and knees are extended.
- Alternate feet and repeat all prior steps.
Specific cues can greatly enhance the quad activation of any exercise. By focusing on the forward knee translation of this movement (bending the knee forward more), you can improve the degree in which the quads are activated.
8. Dumbbell Goblet Squats with Elevated Heels
While you might not be able to do a barbell squat or have access to full gym equipment, a dumbbell goblet squat with elevated heels can be done in more locations and is modified to target the quads, which makes it a great at home or hotel leg extension alternative.
How To Do It
- Wear heeled shoes or elevate your heels on 5 lbs plates.
- Hold either a kettlebell or a dumbbell in the heels of your hands.
- Initiate with the hips and sit back until thighs are at/or below parallel to the ground.
- Try not to let the weight drop or chest cave during the rep.
- Stand up until your hips and knees are completely extended.
Adding a pause or tempo can make this exercise more effective in building size in the quads. If you are a powerlifter or Olympic lifter, tempos can also promote greater control which can have good carry-over to increasing squat ability.
Here are some examples of how you could program the cyclist lunge:
- 3 Second Tempo Cyclist Lunge: 3 x 8 @60-70%
- 2 Second Pause Cyclist Lunge: 3 x 5 @65-75%
If you need more home-based modifications, here are the 10 best alternatives if you don’t have a hyperextension machine 10 Best Hyperextension Alternatives
9. Step Ups With Dumbbells
Box step ups are good for building knee and hip stability, while strengthening the quads which make it a good therapeutic leg extension substitute.
How To Do It
- Keep your head up, while maintaining a neutral spine.
- Ensure the box height is just below the knee.
- Stand in front of the box, with your hands holding dumbbells at your side.
- Place your foot on the box.
- Drive yourself forward onto the box, while driving the opposite knee up.
A higher step up will produce greater tension on the top of the thigh (hip flexors) and the quads. This modification can improve knee and hip stability and mobility while challenging you to step higher up.
However, if you choose to increase the height of the box, I’d recommend utilizing lighter loads. This way, you can focus on movement quality, quad activation, and effective repetitions.
Related Article: Step Ups vs Squats: Differences, Pros, Cons
10. Dumbbell Leg Extensions
Although this is a leg extension variation, it is quite different from its machine counterpart. You can do dumbbell leg extensions anywhere with only a dumbbell, which makes this a good on-the-road or at-home leg extension substitute.
How To Do It
- For this exercise, you will be seated on a bench or a stable surface.
- Squeeze a dumbbell just above both your ankles.
- Proceed to extend both your legs out until the knee is completely extended.
- Control the weight back into the starting position.
Since you are using dumbbells for this exercise, you won’t be able to load it up as a machine. To get the most out of this exercise, select three different weight dumbbells to do drop sets from.
By doing a set of 10 at a heavier load and then sequentially dropping down to lighter loads, you can get the most out of the limitations of the equipment.
Leg Extension Alternatives With Bands
11. Banded Leg Extensions
This variation can be good for higher rep sets to build muscular endurance, while being a good on the road and at home leg extension substitute.
Dissimilar to the machine leg extension and the dumbbell leg extension, the banded leg extension provides elastic tension and an increase in resistance throughout the arc of the exercise.
How To Do It
- Set a band to an anchor point just behind you.
- This exercise can be done either seated or standing with the band around your ankle.
- If you are seated make sure there is clearance underneath you so that you have freedom to kick into extension.
- Maintain the focus of the movement at the knee by kicking out the foot into complete extension of the knee.
- Then return to the starting position with the knee bent at 90 degrees.
You can do a superset between the banded and weighted resistance if you have both a dumbbell and a resistance band. This will, in turn, increase the total amount of reps and muscular fatigue of the quads.
If not, another way to build the legs would be to superset them with a banded leg curl. This way, you can effectively target both the muscles in the back of the leg (hamstrings) and the muscles in the front (quads) within a single circuit.
If you want more leg curl alternatives, you can read our full article.
12. Banded Front Squats
Banded front squats require only a band and can be done anywhere, making this a great at home/on the road leg extension alternative.
By placing the band atop the front of the shoulders and upper chest, we are placing the primary load in the front (anterior chain) of the body, which will require a more upright posture and forward knee translation.
This will place a greater demand on the quads and challenge your hip flexibility along with your ankle mobility.
How To Do It
- Place the band across the upper chest front of your shoulder, while standing over the band as well.
- Initiate with the hips by sitting back and allowing knees to travel over the 2nd and 3rd toe.
- Sit back until your upper thighs are at or below parallel with the ground.
- Stand back up until your knees and hips are completely extended.
- Repeat previous steps for the following repetitions.
For more of a challenge, you can hold a dumbbell between the palms of your hands in addition to the banded variation for increased loading.
Furthermore, to target your quads even more you can wear a heeled shoe or elevate your heels with a 5 lb plate.
Leg Extension Alternatives At-Home, Bodyweight, or Without Equipment
13. Sissy Squats
By placing a great demand on the quads, the sissy squats are one of the most underrated leg extension alternatives.
This exercise starts with just body weight but can be progressed to a dumbbell, barbell, and safety squat bar variation.
How To Do It
- Start standing upright, with a rigid torso by pulling your traps down with the shoulders down and back, and toes pointing out with feet shoulder width apart.
- Initiate by bending the knees forward while letting the heels raise up.
- Allow your torso to come back and as low as you can without falling backward.
- Finish the repetition by extending the knees returning to the starting position in a controlled fashion.
Try to add a tempo and a pause to this exercise to increase the burn and fatigue that is placed on the quads.
If you are struggling to do this exercise properly, then the addition of a band can help guide you from start to finish and promote movement quality and greater repetitions.
14. Lateral Step Downs
Lateral step downs require a great deal of attention and focus on strengthening the quads, which makes it a great leg extension alternative.
How To Do It
- Stand on the edge of a box, with one foot on the box, and one foot off the side.
- Sit back and initiate with the hips, until the heel off the edge of the box touches the floor.
- At the bottom, extend the leg that is on the box until the leg is completely extended.
You can either get the hamstrings/hips involved more by focusing on the sitting back of this movement, or the quads by focusing on forward knee translation while squatting down.
Related Article: 7 Best Leg Exercises That Don’t Use Ankles
15. Wall Sits
While this exercise is primarily a core activity, there is a strong component of quad stabilization which makes it a great at home/on the road leg extension alternative.
How To Do It
- Put your complete back and hips on the wall.
- Sit into a squat, you can increase the depth to the point where the thighs are parallel to the ground, or higher if it's too challenging.
- Hold the squatting position for an amount of time that is challenging.
To further progress this exercise you can hold a plate out in front of you like a steering wheel. This will get the core stabilizers involved to a greater degree while targeting the quads as well.
Why Should You Substitute the Leg Extension Machine?
This mainly boils down to the equipment you have access to, your goals, and your injury history.
First, many people working out at home or in small boutique gyms may not have access to a leg extension machine.
Aside from equipment availability, your goals might not align with hammering the leg extension. It’s a great way to develop your quadriceps, but if you want to develop full-body coordination and function as a unit, the leg extension machine might not be what you’re looking for.
Lastly, if you have a history of knee injuries, the leg extension machine might not be for you. Especially if you have ACL or patellofemoral pain, finding a leg extension alternative is crucial to reducing the risk of re-injury and to exercise your quadriceps more functionally.
Related Article: The Best Leg Curl Alternatives
Other Lower Body Exercise Alternatives
Check out our other articles that discuss alternatives to popular lower body exercises:
- 9 Best Barbell Hip Thrust Alternatives
- 9 Best Leg Press Alternatives
- 9 Best Hack squat Alternatives
- 8 Best Pistol Squat Alternatives
- 9 Best Cossack Squat Alternatives
- 9 Best Belt Squat Alternatives
- 10 Best Front Squat Alternatives
- 10 Best Deadlift Alternatives
- 9 Best Romanian Deadlift Alternatives
- 17 Best Leg Curl Alternatives
- 5 Best Box Squat Alternatives
- 17 Sissy Squat Alternatives
- 7 Wall Ball Alternatives
- 10 Best Box Jump Alternatives
The leg extension machine works the quadricep muscles the highest of any other single leg exercise. However, your gym might not have a leg extension machine, and the leg extension cannot be loaded to the same degree as compound exercises like Bulgarian split squats or a leg press.
So, depending on the equipment you can access, each banded, barbell, cable, machine, and at-home exercise can be effective as leg extension alternate exercises for your workout routine.
I recommend trying each of these leg extension alternates and seeing which feels most stimulating to your quadriceps muscle. This will be the leg exercise for you that is most similar to the leg extension machine!