Seated Leg Curl Alternatives: How to Engage the Hamstrings

seated leg curl alternatives

The seated leg curl is a lower body exercise that strengthens and isolates the knee flexors, primarily targeting the hamstrings which is helpful in basic functional movements as well as sporting activities where speed is essential. This is performed by flexing the lower leg against a resistance and is done on a machine. Alternative exercises for this workout are available in the case that a machine cannot be used as well as for variation of workout routines.

The various alternatives to the seated leg curl are exercises that may be done with or without the use of machines and equipment. These exercises provide the same benefit of strengthening the hamstrings, and include the following: hamstring walkouts, banded lying hamstring curls, swiss ball leg curls, nordic hamstring curls, and romanian deadlifts.

Learning how to perform a seated leg curl and knowing the muscles activated in this exercise are helpful in optimizing muscle growth and strengthening. These also help in proper execution of alternative exercises that provide the same benefits due to the engagement of the same muscle groups.

What Is a Seated Leg Curl

The seated leg curl is an exercise that isolates the hamstring muscles. It involves the use of a hamstring curl machine and is very effective in strengthening the hamstrings. Although there are functional exercises that also strengthen the hamstrings, isolation exercises target muscles individually in a way that functional exercises cannot.

Muscles Activated

Leg curls primarily engage the strongest knee flexors which are the hamstring muscles composed of the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and the biceps femoris muscles. The movement is assisted by other muscles that also flex the knee such as the gracilis, sartorius, and gastrocnemius. Although these muscles work during knee flexion, it is not their primary action, thus the hamstrings bear the brunt of the load.


Seated leg curls enhance strength and promote muscle growth of the hamstrings. The hamstring muscles are responsible for bending the knee, and contribute to extending the hip. Strengthening the hamstrings help stabilize the knee, and is beneficial to running, jumping, and explosive movements such as accelerating.

A seated leg curl is a low-impact exercise which strengthens the hamstrings without the added load on the joint. This allows for higher resistance training while improving and maintaining healthy joints. The training may translate to and support other workouts such as deeper squats and lunges.

Seated Leg Curl Alternatives

Alternative exercises to the seated leg curl include various workouts that primarily engage and strengthen the hamstrings. Some of these exercises may be done with bodyweight alone while others require the use of equipment and weights.

Hamstring Walkouts

Hamstring walkouts, from the name itself, strengthen the hamstring muscles as they work through varying ranges of knee flexion. This is because the hamstrings function as a knee flexor and assist in the hip extension required in this exercise. The hamstring walkout is also used as a rehabilitative method in instances of hamstring strains.

To perform a hamstring walkout, the individual begins by lying supine on the floor. The knees are bent with the feet flat on the ground and placed close to the glutes. The hips are then placed in extension by pushing off the floor as in a glute bridge. Once the hips are in full extension, small alternating steps are taken until the knees are extended and the individual’s weight is supported by their heels. This position is held briefly, then small alternating steps are taken to go back to a glute bridge position.

Banded Hamstring Curl

A banded hamstring curl is a leg curl done with the use of a resistance band. This is especially useful when a seated or lying leg curl machine is not available. Like a leg curl machine, resistance is provided by an external force and in the case of resistance bands, resistance is changed by switching out the bands to a lighter or heavier resistance.

Banded hamstring curls may be performed in both sitting and lying positions. To perform a sitting banded hamstring curl, a resistance band is tied to a sturdy object such as a heavy furniture or a fixed post. The individual sits on a chair in front of the object to which the resistance band is tied to, and loops the band on one heel while keeping the legs together. The knee is flexed against the resistance until it can not be flexed anymore. Upon reaching the end range, the knee is then slowly extended to return to the starting position.

Another alternative is to do banded hamstring curls in a prone position. With the resistance band tied to a sturdy object, the other end is looped on one heel while the individual is lying on their stomach. The knee is flexed to bring the heel toward the buttocks while keeping the front of the thighs and hips on the ground. Upon reaching the end range where the knee can not be flexed anymore, the knee is slowly extended to return back to the starting position.

Swiss Ball Leg Curl

A swiss ball leg curl, also known as supine hip extension with leg curl, is a lower extremity exercise that focuses on the knee flexors, but requires hip extension and core activation as well. While only the knee is moving when doing swiss ball leg curls, isometric contraction of the hip extensors and the core muscles are required to stabilize the hip and the trunk.

A swiss ball leg curl is performed by lying on the ground, the heels propped on the swiss ball with the knees extended. The arms and palms should be flat on the ground to assist in balancing. The buttocks are lifted off the ground and the core muscles are engaged all throughout the activity. The knees are flexed to bring the ball closer to the buttocks and the position is held for a second before slowly extending the knee to roll the ball away to complete one repetition.

Nordic Hamstring Curl

The nordic hamstring curl, also called the russian ham curl, is an eccentric exercise focused on strengthening the hamstrings. As an eccentric activity, the hamstrings work to control its lengthening against resistance.

A nordic hamstring curl is performed by kneeling on a pad or a mat with the ankle held in place by a partner or a loaded barbell. The individual leans forward from the knee while keeping the hip extended. The knee extension must be controlled to achieve slow descent of the trunk to the ground. Upon reaching the ground, the individual pushes themselves up using their hands to return to the starting position.

Romanian Deadlift

The romanian deadlift is a variation of the traditional deadlift that focuses more on the hamstrings. This variation also puts less stress on the back as compared to a standard deadlift.

Romanian deadlift

A romanian deadlift may be performed using a loaded barbell or dumbbells. Starting with the barbell or weights in hand, the lifter stands upright with the feet shoulder-width apart. The weight is lowered by hinging at the hips until a stretch is felt at the hamstrings, often felt when the weight passes the knees. The weight is brought back up by driving the hips forward and utilizing the hamstrings to return to standing position.

Common Mistakes in Hamstring Exercises

Many individuals neglect what is commonly known as “leg day” which leads to a lack of lower body strength including that of the hamstrings. Because working the hamstrings is important for deadlifters, runners, and several other athletes, it is necessary to perform hamstring exercises and avoid common mistakes in doing them.

One common mistake in starting hamstring training is not paying enough attention to the area. In order to build leg bulk, the hamstrings should also be worked as much as the other leg muscles. This includes adding variation to hamstring workout routines and not sticking to just one exercise during leg day.

Ignoring the eccentric part of any hamstring exercise is also a common mistake that needs to be corrected. The eccentric part of an exercise often involves the release of the movement. For example, in a seated leg curl, the eccentric portion is the return to the starting position. The eccentric portion of hamstring exercises should be done slowly and with attention as this helps in recovery from injuries as well as helps in minimization of repeat injuries.

There is also a need to focus on each side individually. This means working out the right and left hamstrings separately as this further strengthens the muscles. Just as the arms are worked out individually, so should the legs.

Final Thoughts

The seated leg curl is a great exercise for strengthening the hamstrings. However, the alternative exercises available provide good variation for hamstring training which is of great advantage to an individual. In performing hamstring workouts, it is important to avoid common mistakes as to optimize muscle growth and strengthening.

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