Tonal leg extension

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Even if you’ve never stepped foot into a gym or lifted a dedicated weight before, you’ve more than likely heard the phrase, “Don’t skip leg day.” Working your legs is a critical part of any fitness routine, as it helps to balance your frame and actually helps to build other muscles throughout your body. In particular, leg extension exercises help you build strength and muscle support for your knee. And with many gyms still closed, a lot of guys are looking for ways to perform the best leg extension exercises for men at home.

Whether you have dedicated weights or just want to use your body, there are a number of different ways to make a leg extension workout work for you. Unfortunately, some of the best leg exercises do require particular pieces of fitness equipment and weights, which are increasingly hard to find in stock online. Even so, you can still perform a lot of great leg exercises using nothing more than a gym mat and some open space.

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Below, we’ve highlighted five different pieces of equipment you can use to really maximize your leg extension exercises at home. For the purposes of this guide, we’ve chosen to focus on exercises and equipment that let you perform a leg extension without the machines you’d find at the gym.


1. Dumbbell-Based Leg Exercises

Dumbbells are arguably some of the most versatile pieces of exercise equipment, allowing you to focus on a toning and building muscle in a variety of different areas throughout your body. While there’s still a bit of a shortage due to COVID-19, these Fitness Gear Neoprene Dumbbells are available for store pick-up at your local Dick’s Sporting Goods and come in a variety of different weight sizes.

Some of the leg exercises you can do with dumbbells include:

  • Bulgarian split squat
  • Dumbbell step-up
  • Single-leg deadlift
  • Dumbbell deadlifts
  • Squats
  • Alternating lunges (either forward or reverse)

This workout video from United Kingdom-based fitness coach Mike Thurston includes those exercises and a few others.

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2. The Best Barbell-Based Leg Exercises

While a barbell takes up considerably more space — and a dedicated home power rack or weightlifting space — it allows you to really pile on the weight and work a lot of different muscle groups all at once. However, in using a barbell, there is an increased chance you might injure yourself from working so many groups. Slow and steady repetition is the key to maximize your leg exercises.

You can do many of the same exercises you’d do with a dumbbell with a barbell including deadlifts and front squats. This workout from verified YouTube account Anabolic Aliens includes several different barbell leg variations you can try at home.

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3. Kettlebell-Based Leg Exercises

Here at SPY, we’ve already spoken about how much we like kettlebells for a variety of different fitness activities, so you’ll be happy to know the same can be said for the best leg extension exercises for men. In addition to holding a single kettlebell for a variety of squats and lunges, you can perform kettlebell swings to really engage your legs, as well as, kettlebell press-outs to work on your squat form and upper body strength. Here’s a variety of different ways you can modify existing lower body exercises to accommodate your kettlebell.

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4. Mat-Based Leg Exercises

Just because you don’t have weights doesn’t mean you can’t work your legs. In fact, some of the most effective leg exercises are ones you can do with your body weight. Moves like a reversible table up or a single-leg glute bridge manage to work your legs as well as your abs in equal measure, adding a real two-for-one benefit.  A supportive gym mat like this 5mm Yoga Mat from lululemon provides the cushion you need and it is easy to wipe away the sweat when you’re done after the fact. And if you’re in need of a good routine, this bodyweight workout from Obi Vincent will leave you barely walking — it’s pretty clear he’s never skipped leg day!

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5. Leg Exercises With Resistance Bands

Another great workout tool to have on hand in your home gym (be it in quarantine or otherwise) is a resistance band. We love resistance bands because you can use them to work your entire body and they’re easy to carry on the go. And even more impressive, you can get your full workout without taking up too much space. So whether you’re traveling and looking to knock out some reps in your hotel, or you live in a studio and don’t have access to a gym, you can still get in your exercise. With resistance bands, it’s easy to perform your favorite leg extension exercises at home.

And as far as good resistance band exercises are concerned, we defer to our pals at Zeus Fitness. In general, Zeus Fitness has killer workouts, whether focusing on full-body, lower body or upper body exercises. But this video is particularly clever as Grant over at Zeus shows you how to isolate your legs and stay toned without needing much more than a resistance band and some space.

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6. Leg Machines

In the same way that there are dedicated branch presses or machines at the gym to work your upper body, there are also pieces of equipment that will serve you well when it comes to just focusing on your legs. The aptly named leg machines help to isolate those lower body muscles. Common machines include a leg press, which allows you to press weight away from your body using a platform. Leg curl machines do the same thing bicep and tricep curls do, only with your legs. You can get a better sense of how they work via the circuit video below.

Leg machines are expensive to invest in and are hard to find during the coronavirus. However, if you do have access to a gym, you they make it easy to perform the best leg extension exercises for men.


10 Beginner Friendly Exercises To Do At Home Right Now


8 Alternatives to Leg Extension Exercises

The leg extension, or knee extension, is a type of strength training exercise. It’s an excellent move for strengthening your quadriceps, which are in the front of your upper legs.

Leg extensions are done on a leg extension machine. You sit on the machine with a weighted pad on top of your lower legs. Then you use your quads to repeatedly extend your knees and lift your lower legs.

While the leg extension is a great quad workout, it might not be the most practical move.


Aside from the quads, the exercise doesn’t work any other muscles. It’s not effective for improving overall leg strength.

It also places a lot of pressure on the knees, which increases the risk of injury. Plus, it’s not very convenient because you need a special machine.

You can do other exercises in place of leg extensions. These alternatives not only work the quads, but other leg muscles as well. They’re also less stressful on the knees.

Before trying a new exercise routine, consult your doctor first. Your doctor can explain how to stay safe while working out.

The muscles worked

Leg extension exercises target the quadriceps femoris.

The quadriceps are a group of muscles in the front and side of your thigh.

This includes the:

As a group, the quads are the biggest muscle in the human body. The purpose of this muscle group is to extend your knees.

Strong quads are important for walking, squatting, and good posture.

Alternative exercises

1. Bodyweight leg extensions

You can do leg extensions while sitting in a normal chair. This will strengthen the quads without using added weight.

It’s also less stressful on the knees. If you have knee problems, bodyweight leg extensions without a machine may be an ideal alternative.

2. Standing leg extensions

The standing leg extension strengthens your core and quads, offering similar benefits to leg extensions on a machine. It also challenges your balance and coordination.

To make it harder, add an ankle weight to the foot you are lifting. You can also rest your hand on a wall for extra support.

3. Squats

The squat is a bodyweight exercise that targets your quads. It also engages the muscles in your:

To challenge yourself, hold a kettlebell or dumbbell while doing squats.

4. Reverse lunges

Reverse lunges, like leg extensions, strengthen and tone your quads.

They also activate the glutes, hamstrings, and core, so you’ll get a more dynamic workout.

5. Bulgarian split squats with dumbbells

The Bulgarian split squat targets your glutes and hips. It also works your hamstrings and quads, making it a great leg extension alternative.

To do this move, you’ll need a dumbbell and a bench. The bench should be knee-height or slightly lower.

The Bulgarian split squat requires good balance. If you’re new to this move, try it without a dumbbell first. You can add a dumbbell once you get used to the movement.

6. Step ups

Step ups are effective for strengthening your quads, glutes, and hip flexors. They also improve balance and hip mobility.

You’ll need a bench or box that’s at knee-height or slightly lower.

7. Cyclist squats

The cyclist squat, or quad squat, is another leg extension alternative.

Your feet are placed close together and your heels are raised. This lets your hips move straight down, which forces your quads to work harder.

You’ll need a weight plate or curb that’s about three inches high.

As you get stronger, you can hold a dumbbell in each hand.

8. Side lunges

Side lunges, or lateral lunges, activate your butt, hips, and quads.

Why alternatives are better

Leg extensions are ideal if you want to focus on your quads. But if you’d like to improve overall leg strength, it’s best to do alternatives.

Leg extension alternatives engage more leg muscles, like the glutes and hamstrings. Some exercises even work your core, which is important for good posture and balance.

These options offer a more functional workout than leg extensions on a machine. Additionally, alternative exercises reduce the risk of injury because they’re less stressful on the knees. This may be ideal if you have a knee condition like knee arthritis.

When to talk with an exercise pro

If you’re new to strength training, talk to a physical therapist or personal trainer. They can create a workout plan that’s appropriate for your overall health and fitness level.

Visit an expert if you have knee, leg, or hip issues. You might require supervision to safely do leg workouts.

You should also talk to a physical therapist or trainer if you’re recovering from an injury, like a broken leg. They can provide modifications based on your personal needs.

The bottom line

Doing leg extensions on a machine will work the quads, but it won’t strengthen any other muscles.

There are many exercises you can do instead of leg extensions. These alternatives involve more muscles, so you’ll get a more functional workout.

These moves are also less stressful on the knees, so they minimize the risk of injury.

If you’re not sure how to do these exercises, consult a personal trainer or other exercise professional. They’ll be able to show you how to do these moves safely and properly.

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Top 8 Leg Extension Alternative Exercises (Without Machine)

The leg extension is the purest test of the strength of your quads. No other exercise can isolate them like the leg extension – it’s a tried-and-tested isolation exercise for leg growth.

But what if you can’t use it? What If your gym doesn’t have a leg extension machine and you’re still looking to develop the strength and health of your legs? That’s the problem we’re going to tackle today.

Stick with us and we’ll share the essential techniques for developing quad meat and strengthening the joints around the knee. This means better legs, stronger squats, better performance, and reduced risk of injury!


What Muscle Does Leg Extension Work?

leg extension muscles worked

The key muscles you’ll use in a leg extension are, of course, the quadriceps. They extend the knee, but they’re also essential for movement in the hips. The rectus femoris is a muscle in the quadriceps that also flexes the hip – making it a bit more complicated than just moving your knee.

The fact that this exercise pretty much only hits the 4 muscles of the quads is unique. Whatever your favorite leg exercise is, there’s a good chance that its going to stimulate the glutes and hamstrings – even just for stability.

Not the leg extension: it’s a total isolation movement with no real effect on the training of the hamstrings or glutes. You can use it as a way of improving hamstring control by trying to flex the hams and quads at once, but it won’t load them. This is totally unparalleled in lower body training!

The Leg Extension Movement

One of the reasons why the leg extension is so popular and effective is that it works a movement that is not seen anywhere else in sport and exercise. It suspends the hips and loads your legs right at the end with a pad.

The difference between a knee extension and a squat, for example, is that squatting involves a “pushing” motion through all of the lower body. The leg extension is a totally synthetic movement that has no parallel in sport or other exercises.

This is also the challenge of replacing the leg extension. If nothing else in the change achieves the same movement, what do we do to replace it? Well, we’re going to focus on training the muscle for the same adaptation, and doing some hold in the positions that the leg-extension develops.

With this approach, you’ll still get the same thigh development we’ve talked about, but you’ll also be putting time and effort into the same positions and under-rated processes that have made the leg extension so popular.

8 Leg Extension Alternatives You Can Do at Home

1. Reverse Lunge

YouTube Video

One of the reasons that the leg extension is so popular is how easy it is to perform for everyone from the most well-developed athletes to a first-timer.

This accessibility is important for any exercise that would replace the leg extension. There’s no point relying on extremely difficult exercises – beginners would never get good enough to use them! The reverse lunge is the opposite: an accessible, easy-to-use exercise for developing all of the muscles of the quads without the difficulty of a squat.

YouTube Video

Start with a regular reverse lunge, add dumbbells, and then try them from a deficit. This is a great way to start developing strength and balance in the lower body. It’s a great rehab exercise in much the same way that the reverse lunge works and is a great place for beginners to start.

2. Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat

YouTube Video

Looking to build amazing leg strength and quad development? It doesn’t get much better than the Bulgarian split squat.

It’s a one-legged exercise that works everything in the lower body from the hips to the quads, and it’s a great way to practice the positions of a conventional squat. It’s definitely more high-rep than a regular squat, and you’ll immediately feel it in your quads.

The stability this develops around the knee is also crucial because, as mentioned above, the leg extension isn’t just about the muscles. It’s about good movement in the knee – a joint that often suffers instability injuries and needs to be well-prepared for movement and exercise.

YouTube Video

As with the reverse lunge, this is an exercise that can be performed at a deficit for even more challenge. This will increase the range of motion, difficulty, and make sure you’re getting more from every single rep.

3. Cyclist Squat

YouTube Video

Do you use the leg extension machine as a finisher for your leg day? Are you trying to squeeze out every last drop of growth?

The cyclist squat can do the same thing. It’s a squat variant that is all quad. It’s a great finisher and can be performed with light weights for huge results. The name alone should point out that its one of the most common exercises used by cyclists to develop muscle and strength in the lower body (and those folks have huge quads).

The cyclist squat elevates the heels, shifting the angles of the exercise to boost the role of the quads in the movement. The whole movement can be performed without any change in the hips, and all the change coming from a bend at the knees. Avoid locking out at the top of the exercise to increase the difficulty and really stimulate the quads.

You can’t perform this exercise particularly heavy, so you should focus on getting the reps in. Aim for 12-15 repetitions with a decent weight, and keep your heels as high as possible. These two factors are going to make sure you’re getting stimulating reps and keeping your knees healthy.

4. Step-Ups

The step-up is yet another single-leg exercise. The difficulty of this exercise is great for challenging stability and developing a better extension.

YouTube Video

Focusing on driving through the top of this exercise to full extension is important for replicating the full extension you get in a leg extension. This isn’t included in the end-range of a squat – the extension isn’t difficult or loaded.

The step up is a great way of training the top-half of the squat movement, as well as developing athletic power and actively loading the extension that’s missing from many other leg exercises.

YouTube Video

5. Hack Squat

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The hack squat is another classic bodybuilding exercise that aims to provide a huge amount of stimulus to the quads. With a sled-weight rather than a free weight, it reduces the balance challenges of the regular squat and increases the range of motion.

More work (when you recover properly) = more results. The extra range and easier loading of the hack squat makes it a great choice for boosting the development of your quads. This is especially true for 45-degree hack squats.

Using these sled-weighted machines is a great way of pushing out extra reps and using drop sets to improve your muscle growth. You can add extra volume to your program without over-using the posterior chains (the lower back, butt and hamstrings), allowing you to train the quads without worrying about failing because of other muscles.

The hack squat also helps to train the muscles of the thigh during a depth that you simply can’t reach in the conventional squat. Because of the support for the spine and the ability to balance against the sled, you can reach the very maximum of your ankle/knee/hip mobility. This lengthens the range of motion even further and makes every rep more valuable.

6. L-Sit

YouTube Video

If you’re worried about missing out on the benefits to the knee joint, you should try combining these crucial movements with the L-sit. This is an isometric hold that forces you to use the quads to keep your legs straight.

The point of this movement is to strengthen the connective tissues. Isometric holds are great for this, and the L-sit makes up for the lack of ‘terminal extension’. This is a great way to get one of the underrated benefits of the leg extension when you can’t use the leg extension itself.

While this is a great exercise, it does rely on you being able to hold your legs using the strength of your hips and quads. You can build up to this using the tuck and slowly straighten out your legs as you become stronger and more confident with the movement.

Alternatively, you could always get creative with some resistance bands to make the movement a little easier while you develop the strength and familiarity to perform L-sits and make them work for you!

7. Leg Raise (Lying or Hanging)

YouTube Video

If you can’t L-sit, or you want to develop more core strength while you train the knees and hips, you can add leg raises.

Like the L-sit, these require you to strengthen the quads isometrically. One of the benefits that they have, however, is the lengthening and shortening of the hip flexors. The L-sit uses these muscles to hold position, which is a totally different stimulus to the long range of motion that leg raises use.

These movements contribute to the development of the rectus femoris. This is the hip-flexor muscle that we discussed earlier – one of the muscles that is rarely active in the squat or other quad exercises. The leg raise (which can be performed while hanging or lying flat on the floor) is a great way to train these muscles and the stabilizers of the core.

8. Sissy Squats

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Sissy squats aren’t the same as a normal squat, but they’re a great way to focus on quad development specifically. They cut out the hips by having you keep the same hip angle throughout the movement and keep the knee in the same place.

All you have to do to perform the movement is extend the knee. This involves nothing more than allow your hips to shoot up. You aren’t extending the hips so the weight doesn’t transfer to the glutes at any point.

This is an unusual exercise to add into a training regime and it will take a bit of practice before you get the weight/movement right. However, it’s the closest thing to a leg extension you’ll actually be able to perform, it can be used to condition the knees, and it is able to isolate the quad more effectively than many other exercises that you’ll see in a gym.

Simply put, if you’re looking to develop your quads and you don’t have access to a leg extension, you have to be willing to think outside the box. The sissy squat is an amazing way of doing just that.

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to replace the leg extension for a few reasons.

To start with, it has a totally unique movement pattern that we really don’t see anywhere else in life. You never extend your knee by itself – you have to control the hip while you do it. You’re not levering your leg against a pad in real life, you’re pushing through the floor.

This makes it hard because the position itself is so contrived. The movement isn’t really possible without a leg extension machine or some seriously creative resistance bands. You’re going to struggle to replicate the movement, so we have to focus on developing the muscles and adaptations that the leg extension aims at.

Why is this difficult? Because the leg extension is actually a versatile exercise for everything from quad-building to knee-rehab. The reason you’re using the leg extension is a key factor in how you can replace it in your program. You need to remember that you’re training for an adaptation – not a movement.

When you realize this, you can use any of these exercises to contribute to that goal. Mixing them up is the best choice, as it covers all the muscle groups that the leg extension covers, giving you comprehensive development through the leg. This is also key because strength, power, endurance and joint-protection are all overlap, so a variety of exercises will really round-out your training.

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Tonal Gym Review: My Leg routine and more! (Part 5)

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