Leg Extension Alternatives

Best Substitutes You Can Do With No Equipment, At Home, or At the Gym

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTUpdated: March 24, 2024

Leg extensions are the best exercise for isolating the quads. But the problem is they require a specific and expensive machine.

Other posts and videos show leg extension alternatives that don’t target your quads at all. I mean, a simple bodyweight squat is not a leg extension substitute!

So I’m here to show you 16 leg extension alternatives that actually challenge your quads. And most of them you can do with no equipment or basic bands and free weights.

Leg Extension Alternatives At Home

What Are Leg Extensions

Leg extensions are an isolation exercise that involves the knee joint. When the knee is extended, your lower leg goes from a bent position to a straight position.

Single-joint exercises are better for targeting a specific muscle than compound exercises such as squats. This is why leg extensions are so good for developing the front of your thighs.

Leg Extensions Muscles Worked

The quadriceps is a group of 4 muscles on the front of your upper leg responsible for knee extension, including the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and rectus femoris.

Leg Extension Muscles Worked

No Equipment Leg Extension Alternatives

The following exercises are substitutes for leg extensions you can do at home or the gym without equipment. However, even without machines or weights, you might be surprised how much they challenge your quads!

1. Prone Bodyweight Leg Extension

This bodyweight leg extension is performed in a prone position, like a kneeling plank. And you push off from the floor while using your body as resistance.

To do a bodyweight leg extension, start by kneeling on the floor. Then bend forward and rest your upper body on your forearms. From this starting position, extend your knees until your legs are straight.

2. Kneeling Bodyweight Leg Extension

Another bodyweight leg extension is performed in a kneeling position and uses your upper body to provide resistance. This is a step up in difficulty from the prone bodyweight leg extension.

To do this exercise, start by kneeling on the floor. Now lean back until you feel your knees just start to come off the floor. Then flex your quads to pull your upper body back to the starting point.

3. Sissy Squat

A sissy squat is another bodyweight exercise that targets your thighs but also your core. Generally, it’s performed by squatting down without bending your hips, which emphasizes knee extension.

Stand with your feet about hip-width apart. Next, bend your knees and let your upper body lean back slightly. Lower your body until your upper leg and lower leg form a 90-degree angle. Then flex your quads to raise your body back up.

Resistance Band Leg Extension Alternatives

Next are some leg extension alternative exercises you can do with nothing more than a set of resistance bands.

4. Standing Banded Leg Extension

The easiest way to do banded leg extensions is by anchoring one end of the band near the floor. Then wrap the other end of the band around one ankle and step forward so the band is stretched tight behind you.

Now lift the banded leg off the floor so your thigh is nearly parallel to the floor. From here, extend your lower leg while keeping your knee as still as possible.

5. Seated Banded Leg Extension

Another way to do banded leg extensions is seated on a bench or chair. Again, you’ll anchor one end of the band and wrap the other on your ankle. This time, sit in a chair with enough support that your foot is off the floor. And now, extend your lower leg straight.

6. Banded Sissy Squat

Earlier, I showed you how to do a sissy squat. There’s a way to do sissy squats involving supporting the lower leg during the squat movement. Compared to a regular squat, this puts more load on the quads and less on the glutes.

To do a banded sissy squat, anchor one end of a resistance band to a sturdy object, then wrap the other around the back of your knees. Remember that you’re not locked in place, so you must still balance.

From here, squat down until your legs are parallel to the floor while keeping your back upright. Then stand back up using as much quad as possible.

Leg Extension Alternatives With Weights

Last up are leg extension variations that you can do in a home gym if you have a basic free-weight setup.

7. Heel Elevated Goblet Squat

A goblet squat is similar to a traditional squat, except you hold the weight in front of you. Also, when you elevate your heels, you increase your range of motion. All of this results in an exercise that really targets your quads.

To do a goblet squat, stand with your feet close together and your heels raised 1-2″ off the ground. Next, squat down until your thighs are about parallel to the ground. Then stand back up to the starting position.

You can do this exercise with your body weight. But it’s more effective if you hold a dumbbell or kettlebell in front of your chest.

8. Bulgarian Split Squat – Quad Focused

A Bulgarian split squat is similar to a lunge except that your back leg is elevated. This transfers more of the weight to the front leg forcing it to work harder while activating stabilizers.

Start by standing with both feet facing away from a bench or step. Extend one leg back so that your toes rest on the bench. Position your front foot roughly two feet away from the bench.

Next, bend your front leg so your hips drop straight down until your back knee just touches the floor. Then extend your front leg back to the standing position.

The key to activating your quad is to position your leg so that your knee passes over your toe.

9. Heel Elevated Squat

Traditional squats are a compound movement involving both the hip and knee joints. However, you can make it more like a leg extension by doing heel-elevated back squats.

While this is still a compound movement, the heel elevation dramatically increases knee bend and quad activation.

10. Dumbbell Hack Squat

A hack squat machine is designed to keep your back straight during a squat and put more focus on the quads. And you can simulate this without a machine using a wall and some dumbbells.

To set up a dumbbell hack squat, start by standing with your back to a wall. Next, place a foam roller or other round object behind your back. Now grab a dumbbell in each hand and put your feet 12-18″ out from the wall.

From this starting position, squat down until your upper legs are about parallel with the floor. Then extend your legs to stand back up. Placing plates or shims under your heels can help to activate more quads.

11. Front Squat

The barbell front squat is similar to the goblet squat in that you hold the weight in front of your shoulders rather than on your back. And this change in loading shifts your center of gravity forward, resulting in a more upright back.

In addition, front squats result in much greater knee bend and quad activation. So they are a reasonable substitute for leg extensions.

12. Dumbbell Leg Extension

A dumbbell leg extension is exactly what it sounds like. You perform a seated leg extension with a dumbbell between your feet. It takes a little coordination, but it’s a great substitute for machine leg extensions.

To do a dumbbell leg extension, start by sitting on a bench with a dumbbell on the floor in front of you. Next, place one foot on either side of the dumbbell handle so the head of the dumbbell rests on top of your feet.

From here, lift the dumbbell off the floor by extending your legs. Then gently lower it back down to the starting position. You may find that you need to elevate the bench to get the full range of motion.

13. Weight Bench Leg Extension

This final leg extension variation uses a special attachment for your home gym bench. It’s the exact same exercise and range of motion as a leg extension machine, except it’s plate-loaded.

I actually used an attachment like this during quarantine, and it’s excellent for building bigger quads. Another nice feature is that you can use this attachment to do leg curls. The bench can also be used for a multitude of other exercises.

Leg Extension Alternatives At Home Weight Bench

Leg Extension Alternatives At The Gym

If you work out at a commercial gym, you have access to multiple machines you can use to replicate the leg extension. Here are the best alternatives.

14. Hack Squat

The hack squat machine is excellent for building quad size and strength. As mentioned, this equipment is designed to keep your back more upright than a traditional squat.

The upright posture results in less hip bend and more knee bend. And you can place your feet lower on the platform to make this movement even more similar to a leg extension.

Related: Best Hack Squat Alternatives

15. Smith Machine Hack Squat

If your gym doesn’t have a hack squat machine, you can also replicate this exercise on the Smith machine. In addition, Smith machine hack squats give you more freedom to change your body position to work more quads, like leg extensions.

16. Leg Press for Quads

Typically, the leg press is a hip-dominant movement that’s better for working the glutes and hamstrings. However, you can modify this exercise to target your quads in place of leg extensions.

The key to emphasizing quads on the leg press is foot placement. Specifically, you want to put your feet lower on the platform so that your knees bend more than your hips.

Make sure you start with lower weights because this variation is much more challenging!

Related: Leg Press for Glutes & Hamstrings

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More Leg Exercises & Workouts

With these leg extension substitutes, you’re well on your way to building better quads with whatever equipment you have. But of course, you need to balance that with other leg exercises for a complete lower-body workout.

So here are some additional articles I know you’ll find helpful.

How to Do Narrow Stance Squats for Quads

Tom Platz Legendary Leg Workout

Chris Bumstead Olympia Leg Workouts

Best Hip Thrust Alternatives for Glutes

7 Smith Machine Squat Variations

Top 10 Landmine Leg Exercises

Or, if you’d like to change gears, I also have tons of other fitness-related content on everything from nutrition and supplements to bodybuilding news. So check out some of my other articles below!

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