The leg curl machine, whether it’s the one where you are lying prone or sitting upright, is a great exercise to isolate and strengthen your hamstrings. When you do it well, you will definitely reap the benefits.

But, if your gym doesn’t have a leg curl machine, it’s taken, or you’re looking for more variety with your hamstring isolation exercises, look no further than here. In this article, we will go into the anatomy and function of the hamstrings, the benefits of training hamstrings, 9 great leg curl machine alternatives, and the best way to program these exercises into your routine.

Note: While there are many compound exercises to target your hamstrings, we label the 9 exercises below as “leg curl alternatives” because they isolate the hamstrings in the same or very similar manner, biomechanically speaking, as a leg curl machine.

Without further ado, let’s get into it and build some impressive hammies. 

ANATOMY AND FUNCTION OF THE HAMSTRINGS

Some lifters think the hamstrings are just one muscle, so let’s just be clear, your hamstrings consist of three muscles. Understanding what they are and what they do is important in getting the most out of your hamstring training.

Here’s a breakdown of the hamstring muscles…

The hamstrings are made up of three muscles on the back of the thigh:

  • Biceps femoris (long and short head)
  • Semitendinosus
  • Semimembranosus

leg curl machine alternatives

All originate on the posterior of the lower pelvis, and they all insert medially and laterally just below the knee on the tibia and fibula. The exception is the biceps femoris short head which originates on the lower femur.

The functions of the hamstrings are:

  • Hip Extension
  • Hip Hyperextension
  • Knee Flexion (which occurs during leg curls)

Although leg curls make a big part in strengthening and building your hamstrings, it pays to train the other main function (hip extension) for better muscle development. Example of hip extension exercises are glute bridges, hip thrusts, stiff-leg deadlifts.

Note: Hip extension and knee flexion occur in so many lower body compound movements (i.e. squats & deadlifts), but isolating the muscles with joint specific exercises, such as leg curls, can help you to really hone in on the hamstrings. 

leg curl alternative at home

BENEFITS OF TRAINING HAMSTRINGS & LEG CURLS

Let’s face it, you can tell how much a lifter values leg training by the size and definition of their hamstrings. Vanity is a great reason for training hamstrings, but your hamstrings play a vital role in your performance in and out of the gym.

Here are some important benefits of training the hamstrings…

Injury Prevention: Hamstring strains happen when the muscle extends eccentrically. When you slow down the eccentric on the exercises below you will reduce the risk of hamstring strains because of improvements in eccentric strength and the length of your hamstrings. (1)

When you don’t isolate the hamstrings, you may develop imbalances between your quadriceps and hamstrings. If the quads overpower the hamstrings this will increase the injury risks to your knee and hamstrings.

Knee Health: Hamstrings play the important role of knee stabilizers. What does this mean? Think of your hamstrings like the brakes on your car. When your running, performing exercises involving the hamstrings, when you need to slow down, stop or lower down into a squat, your hamstring strength makes this happen. This goes a long way in keeping your knees healthy.

Improved Deadlift And Squat Technique: When strength imbalances exist between the quads and hamstrings, you’ll have difficultly lowering into a squat and deadlift and problems locking out. Improving the strength in your hamstrings goes a long way to ensuring better squat and deadlift technique.

Better Posture: Because the hamstrings attaches to your pelvis, the muscle’s length, flexibility and strength play an important role in the pelvis and upper body positioning. Having your hamstrings not overstretched or too short will help with good posture.

Hamstring dominant exercises based on hip extension and knee flexion, which includes leg curls, are a great way of achieving the above benefits. 

Leg curl without machine

9 LEG CURL ALTERNATIVES FOR MUSCULAR HAMSTRINGS

When the leg curl machine isn’t available or you want to spice up your hamstring game, take these 9 variations out for a spin.

Note: We will provide progression (harder) and regression (easier) exercises for each of the leg curl alternative movements below. These progression and regression exercises are part of the 9 total variations. So, just scroll through if you are wondering what they are and how to do them.

The exercises range from easy to hard…

1. Banded Prone Leg Curl

The beauty of the banded prone hamstring curl is the ascending resistance of the band. The further the band stretches, the harder your hamstring has to work. Plus, when the band isn’t stretched, it is easier on your joints. The setup is awkward but when the leg curl machine isn’t available this is one of the most legitimate options. It really almost perfectly mimics the leg curl machine.

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Here’s how to perform the banded prone leg curl:

  1. Anchor the resistance band to a sturdy object.
  2. Put your feet on either side of the band then flip over on your stomach with your feet hip-width apart.
  3. Pull your heels towards your glutes keeping your hips and quads on the ground.
  4. Stop when you cannot pull any further.
  5. Return to the starting position and repeat.

Best rep range: 12-20 reps

Difficulty: Easy-medium

Progression: Single leg banded leg curl or TRX hamstring curl

Regression: None. This one is accessible to everyone

Related:

2. Prone Dumbbell Hamstring Curl

The prone dumbbell hamstring curl is similar to the lying leg except for the obvious. With the weight being between your feet, you’re working hard to stabilize the dumbbell and you need to do the curl with control, leading to more time under tension. This is either performed on the floor, on a weight bench, or on a stability ball for an extra challenge.

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Here’s how to perform the prone dumbbell hamstring curl:

  1. Place a dumbbell between your feet or get a partner to do it.
  2. Lie in a prone position, hugging a bench with legs extended, squeezing the dumbbell between the feet. Squeeze your glutes so your lower back doesn’t go into extension.
  3. Contract the hamstrings and curl your legs to a 90-degree angle until you feel a contraction in your hamstrings.
  4. Slowly lower back and reset and repeat.

Best rep range: 12-15 reps

Difficulty: Easy to medium

Progression: TRX hamstring curl or stability ball hip extension hamstring curl.

Regression: Band prone hamstring curl

Related: 10 Best Dumbbell Hamstring Exercises

3. TRX hamstring curl

TRX takes your hamstring curl to a whole new level. The unstable nature of the TRX brings core and hip stability into play. You need to use your core and glutes to hold the bridge position to do this exercise. Plus, you’re training your hamstrings as a hip extender and knee flexor giving your more bang for your hamstring buck.

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Here’s how to perform the TRX hamstring curl:

  1. Lying supine on your back place your heels in the TRX foot cradles, toes pointed up and legs extended. Your feet need to be a foot above the ground.
  2. Perform a hip extension to get your hips off the ground. Stay in this position the entire exercise.
  3. Then pull your heels towards your glutes while your shoulder blades remain on the ground.
  4. Return to the starting position slowly and re-engage your glutes.
  5. Reset and repeat for reps.

Best rep range: 12-15

Difficulty: Medium

Progression: Slider hamstring curl

Regression: Eccentric slider hamstring curl

4. Slider hamstring curl

With the slider hamstring curl, you’re using your control and the friction of the sliders on the floor to give you resistance. This is easier than stability ball and Nordic curl variations and a good starting point when you really want to test your hamstrings. This strengthens your hamstrings in two ways (hip extension and knee flexion) to give you a better muscles building stimulus.

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Here’s how to perform the slider hamstring curl:

  1. Lie face up with your back in neutral with sliders under each heel and toes pointed up.
  2. Perform a hip extension and squeeze your glutes.
  3. Do an eccentric hamstring curl, until your heels are underneath your knees.
  4. Extend your legs back to straight and stop before your glutes reach the ground.
  5. Keep that tension in your glutes and repeat.

Note: To make it easier, you can lower your glutes to the floor with each rep, rest and then repeat from step 2, rather than maintain the hip extension the entire set.

Best rep range: 8-12

Difficulty: Medium to hard

Progression: Slider eccentric hamstring curl

Regression: Stability ball hip extension hamstring curl.

5. Slider eccentric hamstring curl

Slider eccentric hamstring curl is all about control. You’re taking the concentric contraction out to solely focus on strengthening your hamstrings with eccentrics. Because you’re in the hip extension position, you’re training the hamstrings as a knee flexor and a hip extender to further strengthen your hamstrings.

Note: Paper plates work fine here too. This exercise is either performed with one leg or two.

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Here’s how to perform the slider eccentric hamstring curl:

  1. Lie face up with your back in neutral with sliders under each heel and toes pointed up.
  2. Perform a hip extension and squeeze your glutes.
  3. Do an eccentric hamstring curl taking five seconds to lower yourself to the floor.
  4. While you’re on the ground slide your heels back to your glutes and repeat.

Best rep range: 6-12

Difficulty: Medium

Progression: Perform with one leg instead of two

Regression: Stability ball hip extension hamstring curl

6. Stability Ball Hip Extension Hamstring Curl

The stability ball hip extension hamstring curl trains the hamstrings as a hip extender and knee flexor. Due to the instability, this exercise requires more stabilization, giving you more time under tension and making you more aware of your technique. Any hitches and you and the floor become one. Both this and the exercises below are great for runners because the ball mimics the instability of running on the road.

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Here’s how to perform the stability ball hip extension hamstring curl:

  1. Put two feet on top of the stability ball and push your heels into the ball.
  2. Engage your glutes to put your lower back in neutral.
  3. Push your heels into the ball and perform a straight leg hip extension.
  4. Perform a hamstring curl until your feet are flat on the ball, making sure your body is in a straight line from hips to shoulders.
  5. Reverse the movement and lower your hips to the floor and reset and repeat.

Best rep range: 10-15 reps

Difficulty: Medium

Progression: Single-leg hip extension hamstring curl (see the next exercise below)

Regression: Band prone leg curl

7. Single Leg Stability Ball Hip Extension Hamstring Curl

The single-leg hip extension hamstring curl is almost exactly the same as the bilateral version except for the obvious. Taking on leg out forces the stabilizers to do more work and adds more resistance to the working leg. This exercise will strengthen imbalances between sides and improve your lockout strength with the deadlift.

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Here’s how to perform the single-leg stability ball hip extension hamstring curl:

  1. Put one foot on top of the stability ball and push your heel into the ball.
  2. Bend the non-working leg and engage put your lower back in neutral.
  3. Push your heel into the ball and perform a single-leg hip extension.
  4. Perform a hamstring curl until your foot is flat on the ball, making sure your body is in a straight line from hips to shoulders.
  5. Reverse the movements and lower your hips to the floor and reset and repeat.

Best rep range: 6-10 reps

Difficulty: Hard

Progression: Slider eccentric hamstring curl

Regression: Bilateral stability ball hip extension hamstring curl

8. Inverted hamstring curl

The inverted hamstring curl not only trains your hamstrings but your upper body and core stability too. Being inverted ensures you engage your glutes to keep yourself in neutral while using a weight bench to perform a hamstring curl. Using only your bodyweight to strengthen them, make sure to engage your hamstrings and perform with control.

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How to perform the inverted hamstring curl:

  1. In the squat rack hold a barbell at arm’s length while lying face up.
  2. Put your straight legs on a weight bench with your toes pointed up.
  3. Perform a hip extension perform a hamstring curl as your body rocks forward.
  4. Slowly return the starting position while maintaining grip and hip extension and repeat.

Best rep range: 10-15

Difficulty: Medium to hard

Progression: Nordic hamstring curl or perform the above exercise with one leg.

Regression: Stability ball hip extension hamstring curl

9. Nordic hamstring curl

Not exactly a hamstring curl but your legs are in flexion. Nordic hamstring curl tests the eccentric strength of your hamstrings as your hamstrings stop you from crashing to the floor.  The Nordic hamstring curl exercise is shown to decrease the risk of hamstring injuries by 51 % compared with those who didn’t perform it. (2)

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Here’s how to perform the Nordic hamstring curl:

  1. Kneel in the tall kneeling position and secure your ankles with a solid anchor point. Or have a partner hold them.
  2. Engage your hamstring glutes, abs to keep your entire back in neutral.
  3. Lean forward slowly only using your hamstrings
  4. Catch yourself with your hands if you cannot control yourself to the floor.
  5. Push yourself back up and repeat.

Best rep range: 6-10

Difficulty: Hard

Progression: Razor curl

Regression: Slider eccentric hamstring curl 

Related: Nordic Ham Curl Exercise Guide (which includes easier variations)

HOW TO WARM UP HAMSTRINGS

The purpose of the warm-up is to move blood from your abdominal area to your working muscles. This will zone you in physically and mentally for the work ahead. If you’re performing a full-body warm-up, there is no need to focus on the hamstrings.

But if when you’re training the lower body with exercises that need hamstring strength and flexibility, just stretching them will not suffice. Better to focus on your hamstrings with exercises like passive leg lowering. Performing a set of 10 reps as part of your warm-up will have your hamstrings thanking you.

HAMSTRING PROGRAMMING SUGGESTIONS

When you train, your hamstring workouts should be dependent on your goals. If it is your goal to get stronger, then isolating the hamstrings before training your squats, deadlifts, etc. may take away from this. Better to train the hamstrings after your big strength move for the day.

For example:

1A. Squat or Deadlift variation 3-6 reps
1B. Hip Mobility Drill

2A. Chin Up/Pull Up 4-12 reps
2B. Eccentric Hamstring Curl with Sliders 6-8 reps on each side

But if it’s your goal to add some muscle to your hamstrings then training your hamstrings in a superset with one compound move and one isolation move will have you feeling it tomorrow.

For example:

1A. Romanian Deadlift 8-12 reps
1B. Stability Ball Hamstring Curl 12-15 reps

The best rep range for leg curls and leg curl alternatives were stated above with each exercise, so follow those general guidelines. 

References:
1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/29116573/
2. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27752982/

Related: Best Hamstring Exercises With & Without Equipment

Leg curl at home

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