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We hear about the benefits of functional, compound movements all the time. There is good reason for this: they are practical, have great carry over into everyday life, and are very efficient for those looking to get fit and strong. However, there is also a place for isolation movements.
Chief amongst the lower body isolation movements is the leg curl. It elicits hypertrophy and strength in your hamstrings and can be done with little central nervous fatigue for very high rep ranges. It deserves its place in anybody’s fitness regime who is looking to increase leg size and the amount of weight they are able to shift in their squats and deadlifts.
Alongside the reverse hyper extension, the leg curl is a key tool in your posterior chain arsenal.
However, as with anything, too much of one thing can be exactly that… too much. You may get bored with the leg curl, you may not always have access to a leg curl machine, or you may want to bring in other muscle groups, gradually adding extra muscles and joints so that you can really test what your hamstrings and, by extension, your lower body’s mechanisms, are capable of.
With this in mind, here are 12 leg curl variations. Some are isolation moves. Some, like the deadlift itself and various Olympic lift variations, are full body movers that work your posterior chain (of which you hamstrings are a key component) under great load. All deserve consideration for your training regimes, and all will bring their own benefits to your legs.
We’ll start with some variations on the leg curl that use different pieces of equipment and bring different muscle groups in to play, before moving onto some alternatives to the leg curl.
Leg Curl Variations
1. Gym ball leg curls
This will work the hamstrings in a similar way to the leg curl. However, it will also bring in a major core component, as is often the case when you include gym (or Swiss) balls in your training. This exercise will be perfect for the latter portion of your training session, as you look to isolate your hamstrings and tire out your abs.
To perform the gym ball leg curl:
- Lie on your back with your calves resting on a gym ball
- Raise your hips and roll the ball towards you so your feet end up resting on top of the ball
- Roll the ball back away from your body
- Repeat for 3-4 sets of 10-12
2. TRX Hamstring Curls
This is a step up from the gym ball leg curl as it puts an even greater degree of stress into your core. The TRX hamstring curl is another exercise that you will want to include towards the end of your workout, finishing off your core at the same time as pumping up your hamstrings.
To do TRX hamstring curls:
- Set up your TRX cables with the handles a couple of inches from the ground
- Lie on your back and place your heels in the handles
- Raise your hips up, coming into a comfortable bridge position. You want to create a straight line between your shoulders and your knees for this
- Using your legs, draw the handles towards your butt
- Move your feet back out again, keeping it slow so as to retain tension
- Repeat for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps
3. Slider Leg Curls
Sliders are a good recommendation for any public or home gym due to their versatility. One of their better uses is for machine free leg curls, once more lighting up your core muscles and your hamstrings.
To do slider leg curls:
- Lie flat on your back with your feet on the sliders
- Bring your hips up into a bridge position
- You will want to position yourself so that your body forms a straight line from knees to neck
- Slide your feet away from your body until your legs are almost fully extended, with your hips off the floor and your core tight. Try to keep movements slow and controlled
- From full extension, bring your feet back in, returning to your bridge
- Try to repeat for 2-3 sets of 8
4. Hamstring Towel Slides
This movement is a lot like the slider leg curls we looked at above. The only difference is that you use a towel on a low-friction floor. As with the slider leg curl, it works your hamstrings, glutes and core.
For hamstring towel slides, perform as above, swapping out the slider for a towel. It will be more unwieldy than sliders, and so can be considered a slightly more advanced, much more core intensive exercise.
Leg Curl Alternatives
Now we’ve seen some variations on the traditional leg curl, let’s look at some alternative movements that will stimulate your hamstrings and posterior chain through a mixture of different stimuli and angles.
5. Single Leg Hip Thrusts
Hip thrusts work well, but to really zero in on the hamstrings the single leg hip thrust is the best bet. This move doesn’t require any equipment (though as you get more proficient it may be worth adding some kind of weight to your hips) and will isolate the muscles we want to work unilaterally, placing them under a great load.
To execute leg hip thrusts:
- Come into a bridge position with your butt off the floor, your feet about hip width apart and your knees bent at a comfortable angle (around the 90 degree mark)
- Extend one leg straight out
- Keeping this leg in position, lower your hips down to the ground, stopping about an inch off the floor
- Push your hips back up using the grounded leg
- Repeat for 8-12 reps before switching legs, and aim for 3-4 sets on each side (so 6-8 total)
6. Nordic Curls
Now we’re getting into the really tough exercises. Nordic curls are sometimes called the kneeling leg curl, because they use similar motions to the leg curl. However, the stimuli is greatly increased. You will need a partner to assist you, or at the very least something to anchor your feet to the ground.
To do Nordic curls:
- Kneel down with your feet anchored, either by a friend holding your ankles down or by supporting yourself under some apparatus
- Without flexing your hips, and keeping your back straight, allow yourself to come down
- Lower yourself as close to the ground as possible
- For newcomers to the Nordic curl, feel free to use your hands at the bottom. Catch yourself and use your arms to push yourself back up. However, the aim should be to go hands free eventually, using only your core and hamstrings to stop yourself before coming to the ground
- From a few inches off the ground, use your hamstrings (or hands) to bring yourself up to the start position
- This is very hard, so a couple of reps will be sufficient for newcomers. Aim to bring it up to around 8 reps, for 3-4 sets
7. Kettlebell Swings
Kettlebell swings are a favoured exercise in many HIIT and circuit routines. They are also great primers for larger exercises like rack pulls and deadlifts (see below) and are amazing for building up hamstring explosiveness and core strength.
You don’t need to pick too heavy a weight to start with. Try 4-8kg for higher reps (20 or so, or try going flat out for 30 seconds), before taking it up to around 20-28kg in time.
For correct kettlebell swings:
- Start with your feet just over shoulder width apart, with your knees soft and your hips slightly back as if you’re just beginning to go down into a squat
- Have the kettlebell on the floor between your feet. Grasp it in both hands as you go down into position and pull it back between your legs
- From here, thrust your hips forwards powerfully, swinging the kettlebell out in front of your body
- The kettlebell shouldn’t go higher than your shoulders. If it does, it may be a sign that you need a heavier weight
- Allow the kettlebell to swing back behind your legs and repeat
- Try to keep your legs as straight as you can throughout, just softening the knees slightly
8. Good Mornings
Perhaps the ultimate deadlift accessory, good mornings are great at building up your posterior chain, with great emphasis on your hamstrings. You can do them with a barbell or with dumbbells, though it’s crucial to begin with lower weights as you practice getting your form right.
For your good mornings:
- Have the barbell across your back in a high bar squat position, or take the dumbbells to your shoulders
- You should be standing straight, with a neutral spine and your feet just outside of hip width apart. Keep soft knees throughout
- From here, bend your hips so that your butt goes backwards. Though you’re trying to bend forwards, don’t try to: focus instead on getting those hips back, or you may risk bending your lower back (a big no-no)
- Come down to a comfortable height, a little above the knees if you can manage it, before returning to the top. Keep your core tight throughout
- These can work for lower rep ranges (4-6) and higher ones (10+), and should be performed in sets of 3-4
We’ve seen a good sample of exercises that really get into your hamstrings in a variety of ways.
However, there are some fantastic, big compound movements that you should definitely be including in your routine if you’re looking to build a strong posterior chain with decent hypertrophy across your hamstrings:
9. Rack Pulls
Let’s keep the description brief, as most of the technique will be covered in the following deadlift section. However, for rack pulls, you want the bar elevated (either on the rack, giving it its name, or else stacked on some plates or blocks.) It can start from anywhere from just below the knees to just below the hips and should be loaded heavy (more so than even your deadlift itself.)
Low reps work best, aiming for 1-5, and you will want a double overhand position.
This is Mecca, arguably the ultimate exercise for posterior chain development. It brings about a healthy amount of hamstring growth, and a serious degree of strength improvement. However, the movement itself is very involved- if you’re ever going to pay a trainer, do so now and have someone demonstrate how to deadlift correctly.
In brief on the form, however, let’s break it down into three parts:
- Begin behind the bar with it nearly touching the legs. It should be just over your mid-foot, so that your shins touch it when you bend down
- Initiate the movement by hinging at the hips and knees, setting your weight predominantly over your heels while maintaining flat feet. Flat shoes or barefoot work best for deadlifts, so that you can keep your soles flat and your weight pressing down into the ground
- Keep a neutral spine as you hinge back, make sure your knees don’t go beyond your toes, and don’t look upwards (as may be the temptation)
- Grip the bar just outside of your shins, using either an overhand, hang or reverse grip
- Pack your lats, bringing your shoulder blades back and down, take a deep breath and brace your core
- This is where you uncoil that force, pushing against the ground as your hips come forwards and the bar comes up
- Keeping your spine straight, with the muscles of your back tightly contracted in order to maintain a safe posture
- Tighten your glutes and hamstrings, driving your hips up and forwards as you press into the ground with your heels
- This is the finish, and it’s crucial to hitting the lift. Your final position will be erect, with the barbell at your hips and your chest facing forwards
- From the drive, push your hips into the bar, standing as upright as possible
- Contract your glutes and rectus abdominus to strengthen the posture through this top portion
After this, lower the weight. You don’t want to bear the weight as you do this- there is no concentric phase to the deadlift. Instead, let it fall down to the ground, using just a little strength to control it. Hinge at your hips, bend your knees, and lower your chest until you’re back at the beginning.
Deadlifts should be performed under very heavy loads, for very few reps. 1-6 reps is common, working up to a maximum load for as many sets as is appropriate.
11. Stiff Legged Deadlifts
This is very similar to the regular deadlift. However, rather than bending your knees, you keep your legs straight. This will mean you use much smaller loads, but it really isolates the force into your hamstrings.
If you struggle to get to the ground with your knees straight, try raising the bar on blocks.
For another variation, try the Romanian deadlift. This is much like the stiff legged deadlift, but you don’t touch the bar to the floor between reps. Bring it down as low as is comfortable, perhaps to within a half-foot from the ground, and then return to standing.
12. Power Cleans
This is a variation on a classic Olympic lifting movement: the clean. It’s particularly good for explosive power in the posterior chain, meaning that your lower back and hamstring interaction will benefit greatly from performing it.
- The best way to perform these for hamstring strength is to begin them from the floor, as you would a deadlift (see above.) For more emphasis in your back, try them from a hang position, with the bar beginning held just below your hips at mid-thigh
- Always hold the bar with an overhand or hook grip
- If beginning from the ground, Step to the bar, position your feet at shoulder width. Hands hold the bar just past the shoulder width. Set your back straight as you would for the deadlift As with the deadlift, begin behind the bar with it nearly touching the legs. It should be just over your mid-foot, so that your shins touch it when you bend down.
- Start lifting the barbell, once more as you would for the deadlift. Push your heels down through the floor, keeping your core engaged throughout
- As the barbell passes the knees, pull it back towards your legs, always keeping it close to the body. Keep your arms straight and midline tight
- Your lift will accelerate after it passes the knees, turning into an quick, explosive movement and full-body extension
- When you lift the barbell to the mid/upper thigh, explosively extend your hips to full extension. Shrug your shoulders with your elbows bent outward. Aim to keep the bar as close to your body as possible
- Power means you will receive the barbell high. Not in deep squat, but in above the parallel standing position. You will therefore have to pull the barbell high and pull yourself under very quickly
- Pull your body underneath the bar to receive it on your shoulders. Lift your elbows up, push your shoulder forwards and slightly up
You can go for high reps, but usually Olympic moves like this will be done for singles, or for low reps at the least. Aim for 2-3 reps for 5-6 sets.
There we have it, 12 alternatives to the leg curl. All are good when used in conjunction with the leg curl, and all will bring you something different and more. Begin your workouts with the larger movements (deadlifts, rack pulls, cleans, good mornings) and end with the smaller ones (leg curl variations and so forth) so that you maximise muscle recruitment early on, before ending on a pump.