7 Leg Extension Alternative Exercises

closeup of a man using a leg extension machine

Leg extensions are a popular machine-based exercise performed to strengthen the quadriceps. If you want the benefits of performing leg extensions regularly but don’t have access to a machine (or are wary of the strain this exercise puts on your joints), there are a variety of effective alternatives. This article includes seven leg extension alternative exercises that will keep your quads in tip-top shape.

What Is a Leg Extension?

Leg extensions are a quad strengthening exercise typically performed on a leg extension machine at the gym. To do a leg extension on a leg extension machine, start by sitting on the padded seat. Select a weight you are comfortable with to start. Ideally, choose a moderate load you’ll be able to lift for 10-12 repetitions. The average beginner’s quadriceps can actually lift a substantial weight, but it’s important not to overestimate your abilities on your first try. To stay on the safe side, start with a weight that’s lighter than what you think you can handle and build up to a challenge later. Next, place your legs behind the padded bar and extend your legs until they’re almost straight. It’s important to extend your legs as far as you can without reaching a full 90-degree extension, as locking your knees can cause strain on your joints. Once you’ve completed your extension, exhale as you lower your legs back to the starting position. To get the most out of your leg extensions, do three sets of 10-12 repetitions at a moderate load. Many beginners make the mistake of testing their endurance with an extreme amount of repetitions, but the leg extension is not a high-rep exercise. It only takes a moderate amount of repetitions to fatigue the muscle. On the other hand, it’s also important not to choose an extremely heavy load to bear for a low number of repetitions. This can cause strain on the joints and ligaments. With leg extensions, it’s best to find a happy medium in terms of both weight and number of reps.

Pros of Leg Extensions

There are many benefits to performing leg extensions at the gym regularly. The primary perk of the leg extension is that it’s quite effective for building quad strength. This exercise targets the quadriceps and builds muscle over time. It’s especially effective if you run or walk for cardio training, as you’re likely primarily targeting your hamstrings and could use equal training for your other leg muscles. Leg extensions are also relatively simple, can be done by beginners, and only require one piece of equipment.

Cons of Leg Extensions

There are some drawbacks to performing leg extensions. One common complaint is that the exercise only targets the quadriceps, whereas a more dynamic move would incorporate other muscles as well. Moreover, leg extensions put a lot of pressure on the knees, which increases risk of injury. Also, while leg extensions can be performed in a chair with ankle weights (or you can perform a bodyweight leg extension without ankle weights), performing the traditional exercise requires a special machine and probably a gym membership. This makes leg extensions an inconvenient exercise all around, especially when there are more dynamic alternatives out there.

Muscles Involved in a Leg Extension

The leg extension specifically targets one muscle group: the quadriceps. The quads are located on the front and side of the thigh. The group includes the rectus femoris, the vastus lateralis, the vastus medialis, and the vastus intermedius. The quadriceps’ purpose is to extend the knees, which means they’re incredibly important for several everyday activities. The rectus femoris also acts as a “hip flexor”- it’s the only muscle that can flex the hip. Strong quads allow for good posture and enable you to walk, squat, stand up, jump, climb stairs, and more. Keeping your quads in shape will boost your overall athleticism as well as help your body respond to stress and prevent injury. Not only does training your lower body help manage chronic conditions like arthritis, heart disease, and diabetes, but it also releases helpful hormones like cortisol, testosterone, and human growth hormone. Working one leg at a time can improve your balance and strengthen your core as an added bonus. In contrast, neglecting to train your quads can increase your fall risk later in life, lead to knee pain and even osteoarthritis, and prolong your recovery time from surgery (i.e. ACL repair or hip replacement). There are a number of ways to build quad strength. Certain cardio exercises like cycling, stair-climbing, and kickboxing engage the quads. Even everyday walking and taking the stairs can improve quad strength. You can also perform exercises on machines at the gym (like leg extensions), or use your body weight or free weights (like some of the leg extension alternatives described below). Some quad exercises are quite challenging, which is why even the most devoted fitness aficionados often skip leg day. But keeping your quads in shape is crucial to your overall health, and not all quad-focused workouts are as tough as they seem!

Exercise #1: Bulgarian Split Squat

One effective leg extension alternative exercise is the Bulgarian split squat. This variation on the regular single-leg squat did not actually originate in Bulgaria, but was popularized by Bulgarian Olympic weightlifting coach Angel Spassov. All you need to perform a Bulgarian split squat is a bench or a sturdy chair. You can do this exercise with just your body weight or can hold a free weight of your choice (such as a dumbbell or kettlebell). The Bulgarian split squat is effective not only for strengthening your quads, but also for building strength in your glutes, hamstrings, calves, abs, and spinal erectors. Since the exercise is done one leg at a time, it places greater focus on the quads and core and also helps develop balance. To perform a Bulgarian split squat, stand roughly two feet in front of your bench or chair and reach one foot back to rest on top of it (toes down). Ensure your feet are roughly hip-distance apart and keep your shoulders back. Keeping your chest high, your eyes straight ahead, and your weight (if you have one) distributed evenly across your front foot, squat down using your front leg. Inhale on the way down, then exhale as you press back up. After a full set, switch legs. Beginners should aim to complete two sets of 6-8 reps on each leg. Once you can complete three sets of 12 reps on each leg comfortably, consider adding weight.

woman doing a Bulgarian Split Squat using a playground bench

Exercise #2: Hack Squat

Similar to the leg extension, the hack squat is an exercise performed using a machine at the gym. It targets the quads, hamstrings, and glutes, and you can even adjust muscle emphasis using the position of your feet and toes. The hack squat can be done for a moderate to high amount of reps, so if you’re looking to perform slightly more reps than you might be able to do for leg extensions, the hack squat might be for you. To perform a hack squat, place your back against the back pad of the hack squat machine and hook your shoulders under the shoulder pads. Keep your back flat against the pad and your head up at all times to avoid injury. Stand on the platform with your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed slightly out. Place your hands on the side handles–you may have to disengage the safety bars by shifting the side handles from a front-facing position to a diagonal position. Start with your legs almost straight (but don’t lock your knees). Squat down, keeping your knees over your toes as you inhale, then exhale as you press back up to the starting position. For hack squats, choose a weight that’s around 65-70% of your maximum weight for one rep. Using this weight, complete around 3-4 sets of 10-12 reps.

Man doing a hack squat in a gym

Exercise #3: Sissy Squat

The sissy squat, contrary to its name, is incredibly difficult to perform free-standing. This type of squat involves hinging from the knees rather than from the hips. This shifts most of the focus of the exercise to the quads, which makes it a perfect leg extension alternative. Your core is also engaged for balance and stabilization. To perform a sissy squat, start by placing your heels on a slightly elevated surface (like a barbell plate). With your feet shoulder-width apart and your toes pointing straight ahead, lean slightly backward and squat down. Be sure to keep your shoulders back and your spine in a neutral position. Keep your shoulders back and down, and keep your hands on your hips or straight out in front of you for balance. Pause at the bottom of each sissy squat before pushing back up to the starting position. For a serious challenge, you can try performing a sissy squat into a Nordic hamstring curl. At the end of your sissy squat, drop to your knees and lean forward for as long as you can before gravity takes over, letting your hands catch you into a modified pushup position before pressing back up for another rep. Since sissy squats are so difficult, it’s important to protect your joints. Don’t take on a sissy squat, even using a surface like a barbell plate, before you’re ready. Strengthen your quads and core first with other exercises (like the leg press or plank). Some gyms also have a machine called a sissy squat bench that you can use to maintain proper form.

The sissy squat gets its name from King Sisyphus, of Greek mythology, was punished by Zeus and forced to push a bolder up a hill for eternity.

Cartoon sisyphus is pushing for concept design. Vector illustration.

Exercise # 4: Goblet Squat

National masters champion weightlifter and strength coach Dan John invented the goblet squat as an alternative to the traditional squat that’s easier on the joints. No traditional squat should hurt your knees when executed properly, but it’s unfortunately easy to mess up. The goblet squat involves holding an (optional) free weight in both hands (like a “goblet”), hugged tight against your chest. Point your feet slightly outwards and squat as usual. To obtain proper form in a goblet squat, start by jumping three consecutive times. Where your feet land is where you should keep them while squatting. Squat down as far as you can, then use your elbows to push your knees apart. Many people bend at the waist when squatting rather than dropping their torso between their thighs (and many people allow their knees to collapse as well)–this elbow exercise should help correct your squatting posture. Goblet squats primarily work your quads and glutes, but several other muscle groups are involved, including your arms, shoulders, and core. You should aim to do goblet squats on a heavy-weight, low-rep basis–try starting with three to five sets of three to five reps.

Fit woman demonstrating the 2 positions of a Goblet Squat, up and down

Exercise #5: Wall Sit

Wall sits are an incredibly convenient and effective exercise for strengthening the quadriceps. They’re especially useful for runners, as they improve stamina and prevent runner’s knee. Wall sits are also incredibly challenging, but use only your body weight and a wall (or any stable vertical surface). To perform a wall sit, start with your back flat against a wall and your feet shoulder width apart about two feet out from the wall. Engaging your core, slowly slide your back down the wall until your thighs are parallel with the ground (like you’re sitting in a chair). Adjust your feet so your knees sit directly above your ankles (don’t let them push out over your toes). Also, be sure to keep your body weight concentrated in your heels (not your toes). Keeping your back flat against the wall, hold your “wall sit” for 20 to 60 seconds before sliding back up into the starting position. Repeat the exercise three times, resting for 30 seconds between each rep. As you get stronger, you can increase the time you’re “wall sitting” by five-second increments with each workout. For a real challenge, try placing a weight on your lap (i.e. a barbell plate).

fit blond woman demonstrating a wall sit exercise outside

Exercise #6: Step-Up

Step-ups are another convenient leg extension alternative that can be done using your body weight or free weights of any kind. All you need is an elevated surface that can bear your weight, like a step, chair, box, or bench. Step-ups provide substantial burn for your glutes and hamstrings as well as your quads, meaning they’re perfect for sculpting your entire upper legs. Step-ups also get your heart rate up, so you can use them as part of your warmup or cardio routine. All you have to do is use one foot to step up onto your surface repeatedly, pausing at the top (i.e. standing on top of the bench or step). Start with three sets of 15 steps on each leg. For an added challenge, you can hold free weights while stepping. You can also add intensity by simply tapping your toe to the ground instead of stopping completely between reps. Step-ups can even be done outside at the park or mid-run. Anywhere with stairs or a bench is fair game!

fit blond woman perfoming a step-up exercise on a bench in the woods

Exercise #7: Curtsy Lunge

The curtsy lunge is a variation of the standard lunge with added hip stabilization benefits. Curtsy lunges are great for toning your entire lower body and improving balance and posture. They work both your quadriceps and your glutes. To perform a curtsy lunge, start with your feet hip-width apart and your arms at your sides. Use one foot to draw a clockwise semicircle until it crosses behind your other leg, clasping your hands at your heart and keeping your right toe tucked. Then, lunge down as deeply as you can, hovering your knee a few inches above the ground. You’ll appear to be “curtsying.” Slowly return to the starting position and repeat the curtsy lunge with your other leg. For an added challenge, hold a free weight (like a dumbbell) in each hand at your sides. Curtsy lunges are a high-rep exercise–start with two to three sets of 10-15 reps per leg. To get the most out of the exercise and avoid injury, make sure your hips are stable (they shouldn’t move during the lunge), make sure your knees don’t overextend beyond your toes, and make sure you’re sitting down as far as you can into the lunge. When done with proper form, curtsy lunges can be powerfully effective. You can even add a side kick at the end of your curtsy lunge for a cardio boost!

fit man doing a curtsy lunge on astroturf


The leg extension, like the leg curl and leg press, is an exercise done using a special machine at the gym. This quadricep-strengthening exercise involves sitting on the padded seat of a leg extension machine and extending one’s legs to lift a selected weight. But there are several alternatives if you’re looking for a more convenient or dynamic exercise to work on your quads. Bulgarian split squats, hack squats, sissy squats, goblet squats, wall sits, step-ups, and curtsy lunges are all alternatives to the leg extension that don’t require fancy equipment and/or work more than one muscle group. Whether your workout regimen includes leg extensions or one of the alternative exercises listed here, as long as you’re consistent and use proper form, your quads are sure to stay in tip-top shape.

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