The hamstrings are a very important muscle group; they are used to assist in a vast number of full body lifts included in the majority of workouts you see online these days. This is why it’s important to add some direct attention to this muscle group to maximize their potential.
In this article, we’re going to break down some alternative pant splitting exercises you can do to increase your hamstring strength and development.
We’ll delve into both bilateral (using both limbs to perform the exercise) and unilateral (using a single limb to perform the exercise) movements.
We’re going to cover 8 different exercises you can do for lying leg curl alternatives:
- Seated Leg Curl
- Nordic Hamstring Curl
- Barbell Hip Thrust
- Stability Ball Hamstring Curl
- Standing Cable Hamstring Curl
- Lying Dumbbell Hamstring Curl
- Glute Hamstring Raise
- Single Leg Glute Bridge
What Is a Lying Leg Curl
Leg curls are an exercise that focus on your hamstrings; the movement itself involves lying horizontally and resistance being added to your lower leg. You utilize power from your hamstrings to curl the weight upward into a vertical position.
This exercise focuses on knee flexion which is a primary function of the hamstrings and places them into a lengthened range under load – ideal for a good stretch and eccentric contraction.
The lying hamstring curl is great for getting the hamstring into a fully contracted position in the shortened range of motion but many people really struggle to activate the hamstrings during this exercise.
This is because they tend to lift the hips from the pad which shifts the tension away from the hamstrings and onto the lower back muscles.
This is definitely common among people who are ego lifting. Not only will this minimize hamstring development and progress on this exercise but you’ll also risk injuring your lower back as a result.
Even though we hit the hamstrings through a lot of compound movements that may be included in your routine (like a deadlift for example); it’s important to also add some isolation work in to really focus on stimulating the hamstrings.
What Muscles Do Lying Leg Curls Work
There’s a surprising number of muscles that make up the hamstring muscle group. These muscles are known as biarticular muscles which means they cross over 2 joints, those joints being the hip and knee.
The lying leg curl targets the bicep femoris, semitendinosus, and the semimembranosus of the hamstrings.
The primary function of the hamstrings is to flex the knee (leg curl) however, a secondary function is to extend at the hip so this is why exercises like stiff leg deadlifts and good mornings are used for complete hamstring development.
As the hamstring muscles are all active during both movements, when looking at lying leg curl alternatives we mainly want to look at exercises that cause flexion of the knee.
This is also important because many people use exercise that focus on knee extention (squat, lunge, leg extension machine) which leads to an imbalance between your quads and hamstrings and it leads to overpowering or overdeveloped quads.
Therefore, direct hamstring work is essential for strength, balance, and overall leg development and growth.
We’ve covered these alternatives in more detail below.
Lying Leg Curl Alternatives
1) Seated Leg Curl
A seated leg curl is the most popular machine to use in addition to a lying hamstring curl because both of these machines hit the hamstrings in slightly different ways.
In a seated curl you are starting the movement with the biarticular muscles being in a more elongated position; thus, adding more stimulation to the muscle group.
Lying hamstring curls have less hip flexion than a seated curl which basically means you’re getting less activation in the muscle due to a shorter range of motion.
One of the reasons I love using this machine (as well as the lying leg curl) is that you have the option of performing the movements unilaterally; which means you can alternate between each leg instead of using both to complete the lift.
We all generally tend to be either right side or left side dominant. When doing unilateral movements, you can focus on your weaker side with no risk of your stronger side doing all the work.
The key benefit of the seated leg curl is that you can lock your hips into position against the pad and ultimately create more mechanical tension. Many people feel this hamstring curl variant more in their hamstrings than the lying curl variant.
2) Nordic Hamstring Curl
With this movement, it’s basically the opposite of what you’ve been used to doing with a lying hamstring curl.
Instead of starting in a horizontal position and curling your legs upward to perform the movement – You start in a vertical position and you’re using your bodyweight as resistance while lowering yourself in a controlled fashion to the ground.
As a result, this is a great lying hamstring curl alternative that can be used if you have access to minimal equipment or train at home.
It’s important to keep knee comfort in mind when performing this exercise as your center of gravity is located around the lower leg area. You can also add resistance to this move by holding a dumbbell or weight plate.
You’ll also need a partner or a loaded barbell to execute this exercise effectively as your ankles need to be locked in place.
Due to the ankles needing to be in a fixed position, it can be preferable to have a partner hold your feet and ankles in a fixed position; whereas placing your feet underneath a loaded barbell can be quite uncomfortable thus taking your focus away from your hamstring and focusing more on your foot placement.
You can of course get creative, as long as you can safely lock your ankles underneath an object that won’t move, you can easily do Nordic hamstring curls.
3) Barbell Hip Thrust
Hip thrusts are a great exercise that utilizes a lot more of your glutes. This movement is a great step up when you’ve gone as far as you can with a single-leg bridge. A barbell hip thrust is a lot easier to add more resistance to in comparison to leg bridges.
Glutes are also a very easy muscle group to neglect.
We can think that they get enough stimulation through other compound movements like squats and as much as that is so; they need some isolated targeting, too. You’ll also get some good stimulation added to your lower back and posterior chain; which will help tremendously when performing deadlifts and squats in the future.
We use our glutes to extend our hip or to pull our leg behind our body and due to the lives that we live in modern day society; we spend a lot of our time sitting on them instead of training them!
This is a movement that requires a lot of focus as it’s very easy to execute with improper form. If your form is off it’s very easy for the focus to be taken off of the glutes. It’s important to keep your gaze forward and chin down; instead of embracing the urge to tilt your head back.
While this is a glute dominant exercise, the hamstrings will still get worked noticeably at heavier weights.
4) Stability Ball Hamstring Curl
This is a very simple yet very effective exercise to really blast the hamstrings. It seems quite straightforward from the instructional video but there is a lot more to this exercise than meets the eye.
It’s a great exercise to increase strength in your hamstrings, glutes, and core. You’re incorporating a surprising number of muscle groups during this movement.
A stability ball is a common piece of equipment found in most gyms nowadays; so, you shouldn’t have much trouble finding the equipment needed for this – finding space in the gym could be more of the issue.
You can easily add this in as a finishing exercise at the end of your hamstring routine, as it’s always better to perform the lifts that require the most energy, earlier in your workout session. It doesn’t offer the most potential for progression but as an exercise finisher or mobility/activation exercise, it’s definitely a good option.
If you’re finding this too easy you can also increase the difficulty by performing it one leg at a time, alternating between sets.
5) Standing Cable Hamstring Curl
Here we have a movement that is only performed unilaterally; so it’s a great movement to help strengthen your less dominant side. Again, this equipment is readily available in most gyms so you shouldn’t have a problem incorporating this into your routine.
*** Just note that you will need to use some ankle cuffs in order to do this exercise.
A great benefit to performing this exercise is that the cable keeps constant tension on the muscle, rather than having the opportunity to rest at the top or bottom of the exercise. You’ll also be training the knee flexion function of your hamstrings which can be often overlooked without direct leg curl exercises.
Make sure to position yourself so that upon starting the exercise, tension has already been applied to your hamstring, rather than starting the movement feeling no engagement in the muscle. This exercise can also be done lying down to more closely replicate a lying hamstring curl.
You won’t be able to use as much weight but the constant tension is great for hamstring activation and getting a pump.
6) Lying Dumbbell Hamstring Curl
This is actually one of my favorite hamstring exercises and is deceptively engaging making it an excellent lying leg curl alternative.
A huge benefit to an exercise like this is the fact you can perform this at the gym or at home. Hamstrings tend to get the rap that you can only train them in the gym but, sometimes, we just need to get a little creative with it.
As seen in the video, this movement is extremely similar to a lying leg curl on a machine, but with the added incorporation of the stabilizer muscles as you balance the dumbbell between your feet. Having to actively keep the dumbbell in position means you can’t relax your hamstrings at any point.
Instead of an alternative, this can be used as a progression or warm up exercise before moving on to a lying leg curl machine.
You can perform this movement both lying on the ground, or lying on a bench. A bench would be preferable as it allows for a greater extension at the bottom of the movement as your feet can pass the bench whereas performing this on the ground only allows your legs to extend equal to the ground.
7) Glute Ham Raise
This exercise proves to be very beneficial when it comes to glute development. Due to the equipment used, it’s a lot easier to get locked into position in comparison to the Nordic Hamstring Curl, as you’ll notice both of these exercises appear to be very similar.
The main difference here is that a Nordic Hamstring Curl requires little to no equipment; whereas a Glute Hamstring Raise requires a specific machine to perform the lift.
The great thing about using this machine is that you can get greater time under tension during the lift, because the additional support pads can allow for more control and stability from the lifter.
You can also benefit from being elevated off the ground as this gives the opportunity for a greater range of motion, too.
If your gym has this machine, I thoroughly recommend taking advantage of it. If it doesn’t? Well, you’ve got a great alternative with the Nordic Hamstring Curl.
8) Single Leg Glute Bridge
Leg bridges are great because they can be executed in the gym and at home, as it does not require any equipment to perform.
The exercise is performed one leg at a time; another perfect example of a unilateral movement, I thoroughly recommend it if you notice differences in your strength levels on either side of your body.
Remember to focus on getting a full extension in your hips with this one as it can be very easy to perform half reps whilst doing this exercise.
One of the downsides of this exercise though is increasing the resistance.
Your main option to do so would be to use a resistance band stretched over the foot of your straightened leg. But, on the other hand; it’s a great exercise to really get some activation into your glutes as an additional muscle group; as well as your abs when stabilizing yourself at the top of the movement.
This is a great move to master before moving on to something like a barbell hip thrust, as mentioned earlier in this article.
So there we have it; notice that we have a combination of bilateral and unilateral movements here. It’s important to include a combination of both types of exercises within your hamstring routine.
It truly is surprising how much your dominant side can overpower your weaker side when performing compound lifts such as the Deadlift, Squat, etc. so it’s very important to add some isolation work for this muscle group (as well as every other muscle group for full development).
Personally, I find that hamstring DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) is the worst of all the DOMS you can have; which makes owning a good set of hamstrings even more impressive.
Just like with your back, you cannot see your hamstrings when you are training them so it’s critical that you focus your attention on your hamstrings when training them and the exercises above make this easy to do.
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