One of the most popular leg day exercises is the leg extension... but what happens when you can't access the machine?

Fear not, I'm here to help. 

If you do not have access to a leg extension machine, I've put together a list of the top 10 best leg extension alternative exercises, or substitutes.

Who needs leg extension machines, right? 

Try the following leg extension alternatives to give your quadricep femoris muscle group a fantastic workout. 

Here are the best leg extension alternatives I've come across that'll hit all areas of your quadriceps.

In my opinion you should pic 1-2 of these alternatives for your leg day routine as I believe if you hit your quads using multiple methods, you'll get the best results.

1. Bodyweight Leg Extensions

Man Doing Bodyweight Leg Extensions

The bodyweight leg extension is a great leg extension alternative exercise when you have no access to a machine as it is the closest movement you will get to using a leg extension system.

It's a great alternative that can easily be performed at home using a raised platform, a bench, or a chair. The exercise is ideal for a home workout, and it's even possible to perform when you are traveling or staying in a hotel room. 

The bodyweight leg extension produces similar results to the leg extension machine when it comes to isolating and strengthening the quad muscles. 

You can do bodyweight leg extensions while standing or sitting down but the most effective way is by performing the exercise in a raised plank position. 

Benefits:

  • Can be performed almost anywhere. 
  • Isolates the quadriceps. 
  • Great for strengthening your quads.

How To Perform Bodyweight Leg Extensions: 

  1. Place a chair, bench, or a raised platform on the floor. 
  2. Get into the push-up position so that your feet can rest on top of the platform. 
  3. Arch your back in an upward position, bend your knees towards the platform as you keep yourself steady with an engaged core. 

There is also an alternative way to perform bodyweight leg extensions with no equipment: 

How To Perform Alternative Bodyweight Leg Extensions 

  1. Kneel down on the floor, slowly bend backward with arms stretched in front of you until you feel the tension in your quads. 
  2. Slowly raise your body up for one repetition. 

Tips From A Trainer!

  • The exercise will require more flexibility. Remember not to injure yourself by moving too quickly or doing too much at once.  

2. Barbell Reverse Lunges (Easy Leg Extension Alternative At Home)

Man Doing Barbell Reverse Lunges In The Gym

Another excellent leg extension alternative is the barbell reverse lunge which targets the glutes and strengthens the hamstrings simultaneously. The addition of a good Olympic-style barbell means that your core is engaged, and it will increase the potential quad gains.

It's one of the best leg extension alternatives for a fast quad-centric workout that does not require a machine. 

The barbell reverse lunge is a fairly straightforward exercise which is a good start for beginners compared to the forward lunge. However, the barbell reverse lunge requires control in order to hold the squat and then push back up.

It might seem even more challenging when you throw a barbell into the mix, but it is a great quad burner. With this leg exercise you'll be asking yourself why you ever used the leg extension machine in the first place. 

Benefits

  • Great for all ability ranges.
  • You can add weight easily.

How To Perform Barbell Reverse Lunges: 

  1. Start with your feet shoulder width apart. 
  2. Take one step back with your right foot and lower yourself into a one-legged squat (try to put it far back so that you can feel the tension in the quad area). 
  3. Bring your right foot back to the starting position and repeat.  

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Keep your feet hip-width apart throughout the entire movement, it'll help you maintain your balance.  
  • Keep your knee cap in line with your foot for optimal movement.

3. Weighted Bulgarian Split Squats (Leg Extension Alternative With Dumbbells)

Woman Doing Weighted Bulgarian Split Squats

The weighted Bulgarian split squat is one of the most challenging leg extension alternatives, but it will help you to build quads of steel. All you will need is a bench and a couple of dumbbells for this exercise. 

The weighted Bulgarian split squat is an ideal exercise for athletes. It targets the big group of muscles in the legs — mainly the quads, calves (lower legs), and hamstrings and will drastically increase your explosive power. 

However, the Bulgarian split squat is a compound exercise, which means that it is more well-rounded in nature, working all your lower muscle groups. It could become a mainstay in your leg day workout routine. 

Benefits

  • It's a compound exercise (trains multiple muscles).
  • Easy to progress or regress. 
  • Builds lower body strength.
  • Builds mental strength (trust me). 

How To Perform The Weighted Bulgarian Split Squat: 

  1. Stand in front of a bench or another type of raised platform. Place your back foot on the platform.
  2. Slowly lower your body down until the back knee almost touches the ground, and your front leg is bent at a 90-degree angle. 
  3. Return to the original standing position.
  4. If you want to maximize the benefits of the weighted Bulgarian split squat, then you should try to use a dumbbell at a weight that you can manage. 

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Add a weighted plate under your front foot to achieve additional depth (and more quad activation). 

4. Cyclist Squats

Man Doing Cyclist Squats In The Gym

The cyclist squat is a killer quad exercise that develops muscles similarly to a cycling session. It is another leg extension alternative that is perfect for developing strong quad muscles without the need for a machine.

You'll only need a dumbbell and a spare weight plate, which takes up less space than a leg extension machine.  

The cyclist squat is known as a weighted squat, and you will have to raise your feet so that you can focus the brunt of the movement on your quads.

It is classed as a difficult isolation exercise, but it should not be overlooked in your list of leg extension alternatives. It is a great exercise to build defined quads (which are the best-looking leg muscles to develop in my opinion) without needing to perform the leg extension movement. 

Benefits

  • Helps you develop cyclist-esque quads.
  • No need for machines. 
  • Requires minimal equipment.

How To Perform Cyclist Squats:

  1. Place a weight plate on the floor and then hold the barbell over your shoulders. 
  2. Stand with your feet close together and put your heels on the plate so that your toes are on the floor. 
  3. Perform a squat and feel the serious burn in your quads like you normally would as you reach the bottom of the squat. 

Tips From A Trainer!

  • The cyclist squat is not a beginner-friendly exercise. If you are uncertain about the movement, then you should try to complete a bodyweight squat with the plate by following the same method first. 

5. Weighted Step-Ups

Man Doing Weighted Step-Ups

The weighted step up is another solid alternative to a leg extension, and it is an easy movement that only requires a pair of dumbbells and a bench.

If you do not have access to weights, then you can perform the weighted step up as a bodyweight movement. 

The best part about the weighted step up is that it is a relatively straightforward exercise which everyone, from a beginner to a gym veteran, can perform and reap the benefits of the workout. 

The weighted step up is not an exercise that is as quad intensive as another type of leg extension alternative, but it can still give people a great workout that targets the glutes and hamstrings. 

Leg extension machine... what's that? - Just kidding, but step ups are a good leg extension alternative. 

Benefits

  • Great for beginners. 
  • You can add weight easily.
  • Don't need a lot of equipment.
  • Develops strength in your leg muscles. 

How To Perform Weighted Step-Ups 

  1. Place a bench in front of you, and place your feet shoulder width apart.
  2. Step up with your left leg, then push yourself up using your lead leg.
  3. Slowly return to the starting position and repeat.  
  4.  Remove your left leg and repeat the movement with your right. 
  5. Finish your set and rest. 

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Let your front leg do all the work (the leg on the step/box). Don't fall into the habit of pushing off with your rear leg, it'll remove a lot of the force placed on your quadriceps muscle.  
  • If you're struggling, use a lower bench or another type of support platform in order to achieve the most quad engagement from the exercise. 

6. Front Weighted Or Bodyweight Squats

Woman Doing Front Weighted Squats In The Gym

The bodyweight and the weighted squat offer a number of different benefits, which make them both excellent alternatives to leg extensions.

The bodyweight squat can be performed in any place (unlike using the leg extension machine), while the weighted squat will require a pair of dumbbells or a barbell. 

The squat is one of the best leg exercises that you can do, and all variants will help you build a strong foundation. The front squat is a great alternative that will help you to develop big quads over time. 

Additionally, the front squat is a better movement compared to the back squat in terms of building quads because you will have to keep your torso upright, which means that you will feel a more substantial burn in the quad muscles.

However, it'll still help you develop your other lower body muscle groups and is one of the best compound exercises you can perform. 

Benefits

  • Places less stress on your lower back. 
  • Easier for beginners to learn. 

How To Perform Front Weighted Or Bodyweight Squats: 

  1. Hold the barbell in front of you in order to perform a front squat. Bend your elbows forward until you can hold the bar with only your fingertips. 
  2. Hold the barbell at the level of your collarbone, perform a squat and maintain a narrow stance in order to achieve the most out of your quads. 

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Brace your core to help you maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement.  
  • New to lifting? Use the front squat to develop lower body strength before you move on to barbell squats. 
  • The front squat requires a narrow stance that naturally activates the quads as opposed to a wider stance.

7. Side Lunges

Woman Doing Side Lunges

Another one of the best leg extension alternatives you could integrate is the side lunge, a simple exercise that is similar to the front and reverse lunge.

It is important to note that the side lunge should not be confused with the lateral lunge, which is like a front lunge but on the side. 

If you feel like making your side lunges more difficult, then you can also add dumbbells to the equation. 

The side lunge is good for the quad muscles since you will be exercising them equally on both sides. The amount of time that you focus on a side lunge and the tension that you feel will lead to quad gains. 

If you were to walk to the side in a crouched position, then you will feel the strain on your quads, which is great for developing strength, willpower, and huge quads.

While side lunges mainly target the quads, you will give your hamstrings and glutes a great workout too. Overall it's one of the best alternative leg extension exercises you can do to work your other lower body muscles.

benefits

  • Can be performed anywhere. 
  • No equipment is required. 
  • Develops your lateral movement strength. 

How To Perform Side Lunges: 

  1. To begin with, crouch down in a steady stance with your legs shoulder width apart. 
  2. Step your left leg out and lunge slowly to one side. 
  3. Bring your left leg back to the middle and repeat with your right leg. 
  4. Complete your set. 

Tips From A Trainer!

  • When doing the exercise, imagine you're sitting down on a very low seat which is off-centre to your body (send your glutes backwards as you lower to the side). 
  • Don't be afraid to let your knee joint go over your toes, it's a natural position.

Related Article - Benefits Of Lunges

8. Reverse Nordic Curl (A.K.A The Natural Leg Extension) 

Man Doing Reverse Nordic Curl

The reverse Nordic Curl, also referred to as the natural leg extension, is a great leg extension substitute. It isolates your quadricep femoris muscle group and prevents your other muscle groups from assisting.

The benefits of a reverse Nordic curl include developing strength in all four of the quadriceps, increasing the mobility of the hip flexor, and reducing the risk of injury during rapid muscle movements (such as running).

It's one of my favorite leg extension alternatives to perform in my home garage gym. And it makes for an ideal seated leg extension substitute. My quadricep muscles are always on fire at the end of the this movement.

Benefits

  • Works all four areas of your quadriceps. 
  • Lowers your risk of injury during sports by mobilizing your hip flexors. 
  • Removes your lower legs from the equation. 

How To Perform The Reverse Nordic Curl: 

  1. Kneel on the floor or a mat, and sit back on your feet. Keep your feet and knees hip-width apart. 
  2. Sit tall with your hips pushed forward slightly to create a straight line with the front of your body. 
  3. Lean back and lower your shoulders toward the floor by bending at your knee. Remember to keep your core engaged and extend your hips. 
  4. Carry on leaning back as far as you can. 
  5. Engage the quadriceps and return to your original starting position. 
  6. Try to complete sets of 10 repetitions. 

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Focus on SLOW and controlled reps. This is NOT the exercise for adding a ton of weight early on.  
  • Remember you might not be able to lean very far back when you first start to perform the reverse Nordic Curl, so build it up slowly.

Related Article - Best Box Jump Alternatives

9. Standing Leg Extension

Man Doing Standing Leg Extension Exercise In The Gym

The standing leg extension targets your core, along with the quadriceps, which makes it an excellent leg extension alternative. It also challenges your balance and coordination, which helps to improve your overall muscle function.

Furthermore, you can modify banded leg extensions by adding ankle weights or resistance cables to make a more intensive workout. 

As a variation to this exercise you can perform cable leg extensions (which requires a cable machine). 

Benefits

  • Can be performed anywhere, even while traveling. 
  • Resistance bands are cost effective. 
  • Standing leg extensions are great for rehabilitating knee injuries.

How To Perform The Standing Leg Extension: 

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and place your hands on your hips. 
  2. Engage your core and raise your left foot slightly. 
  3. Move your left foot back by bending your knee. Point your left foot upwards.
  4. Extend your left leg by straightening your left knee joint in front of you. 
  5. Engage your quadriceps and abdominals. 
  6. Return to the starting position and repeat with your right leg.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Don't be afraid to hold on to something to assist your balance, you want all of your focus to be on working your quads.  
  • Point your feet upwards to maximize your quadriceps activation and to emphasize your rectus femoris. 

Related Article - Leg Press Vs Leg Extension

10. Resistance Band Squats

Woman Doing Resistance Band Squats

The last alternative to leg extensions is resistance band squats. The resistance band squat is a powerful exercise that uses the band's resistance to focus on strengthening the legs, glutes, quads, and hamstrings. 

The resistance band squat is a unique alternative to leg extensions, and it adds variety to your strength training. Most people will pick up weights when they want to build strength, but the resistance band also offers several ways to train.

The band allows you to move in different positions while lifting weights must be done in a fixed position, it's a good leg extension alternative. 

Benefits

  • Helps strengthen your knees, preventing them from caving inwards during the squat movement. 
  • Easy to perform anywhere. 
  • Minimal equipment needed.

How To Perform Resistance Bands Squats: 

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder width apart and ensure that your feet are firmly planted on the resistance band. 
  2. Hold the ends of the resistance band up towards your shoulders. 
  3. Lower your body into a squat position. 
  4. Try to complete 8 repetitions.

Tips From A Trainer!

  • Combine this movement with another from this list to make a quadricep killing superset.  

What Is So Good About The Leg Extension?

The leg extension allows you to isolate your quadriceps, so you can solely focus your efforts on growing them. But, there are other benefits to the leg extension such as injury prevention, encouraging healthy knee joints through extension and flexion.

Here are some of the main benefits:

  • It Will Decrease The Likelihood Of Hurting Your Knee 
    The isolation of the knee extension means that you will work the patellar ligament of the knee, which is excellent for building knee strength and maintaining your overall health.
  • You Can Use It To Finish Off A Leg Day Workout
    The leg extension exercise can be used as a leg day finisher. It is not a compound exercise, and it mainly focuses on the quads, which means that you do not have to be concerned about the burnout that often prevents you from performing the exercise. It is a great movement that will help you to end a workout.
  • You Can Develop Quads Of Steel
    Last but not least, the best reason to do leg extensions or a leg extension alternative exercise is their effect on your quad muscles. The quads tend to be overlooked compared to other exercises that focus on working the glutes and hamstrings, so the leg extension movement is a great method of building strength in your quads.

Muscles Used In A Leg Extension

A leg extension involves the movement of your quadriceps femoris muscle group, which consist of four key quadriceps muscles: 

  • Rectus femoris [1] 
  • Vastus lateralis [2] 
  • Vastus medialis [3] 
  • Vastus intermedius [4] 

The four quads work in unison during the traditional leg extension to extend your knees and the rectus femoris, which work alongside the iliopsoas and help to flex your hip. 

Frequently Asked Leg Extension Questions

Is leg extension the same as squat?

No, the leg extension isn't the same as the squat. While they work the lower body, they're not the same. Leg extensions are better for isolating the quad. Squats are better for building overall lower body strength.

Are sissy squats better than leg extensions?

I wouldn't say one is better than the other as they both primarily work the quads. If you can, I recommend fitting both into your next leg day routine... your quads will thank me. 

Do leg extensions increase squat?

The short answer is yes, leg extensions can increase squats. Any accessory leg exercises you do along with squats will increase your strength and muscular endurance. The more you workout a muscle, the stronger it gets transferring into other compound lifts.

Conclusion

If you include even one or two of these leg extension alternatives into your workout routine, then you will certainly notice results. And you'll have a pair of QUAD-ZILLA'S on your hands. 

It's what you want, isn't it?

The leg extension substitutes in the list above are a great ways to improve your quadriceps (quads) and your overall leg strength.

If you can't perform the leg extension exercise, try adding some of these leg extension alternatives to your workout, such as the banded leg extension. 

References:

1.https://www.physio-pedia.com/Rectus_Femoris

2.https://www.healthline.com/human-body-maps/vastus-lateralis-muscle

3.https://www.getbodysmart.com/leg-muscles/vastus-medialis-muscle

4.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vastus_intermedius_muscle

Lee Kirwin

Lee Kirwin

Lee has worked in the fitness industry for over 15 years. He's trained hundreds of clients and knows his way around the gym, including what you need for your garage gym. When he's not testing products, he loves weightlifting, Ju Jitsu, writing, and gaming.