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If you’ve ever gone to a commercial gym, then you’re probably seen the lying leg curl machine. Maybe you’ve taken a look at this piece of equipment and thought to yourself, “Why would I ever use this?”
Well, make sure you read this blog post to the very end because you’re about to discover the muscles worked by the lying leg curl, how to do them, and a number of effective alternatives if you don’t have access to a machine.
Table of Contents
- Lying Leg Curls Muscles Worked
- How to Do Lying (Prone) Leg Curls
- 12 Effective Lying Leg Curl Alternatives
- Lying Leg Curl Exercises Without Machines
- Bodyweight Hamstring Exercises Without Equipment
- Dumbbell Hamstring Exercises
- Lying Leg Curl FAQ
- Are leg curls useless?
- Is the leg curl machine bad for your knees?
- Are leg curls bad for your back?
- Are lying leg curls effective?
- Why do I feel leg curls in my calves?
- Do lying leg curls work glutes?
- Do leg curls make your legs bigger?
- What is the difference between the seated leg curl and lying leg curl?
Lying Leg Curls Muscles Worked
The lying leg curl is an important exercise because it works a number of muscles that most people ignore, especially if you try to avoid leg day. Your quads easily get the most attention of your leg muscles, but there are other important supporting muscles that need to be trained as well.
The primary muscles worked by the leg curl machine are your hamstrings which contract to help you bend your knees. That’s why this machine is sometimes called the “hamstring curl”. The three muscles that make up the hamstrings are the semimembranosus, semitendinosus, and the biceps femoris which is the largest.
Your calf muscles are definitely secondary when it comes to this exercise, but they still receive some stimulation through the movement. Your calves are comprised of two muscles, the soleus and the gastrocnemius. The gastrocnemius assists the hamstrings in bending the knee and is used more than the soleus during the leg curl.
Your glutes are also worked during the leg curl, but they’re secondary like your calves. Your glutes help to keep your hips stationary and properly aligned during the exercise.
How to Do Lying (Prone) Leg Curls
The first time you see the prone leg curl machine, you might be a little intimidated. Heck, with pulleys and pads everywhere, you might not even know how to get in it. Be sure to ask a trainer or instructor for help if you need assistance getting started or adjusting the machine.
Here are the step-by-step instructions for using the lying leg curl machine.
- Get on the machine by lying flat on your belly.
- Adjust the heel pad so it sits right above your heels and just beneath your calf muscles.
- Make sure your legs are fully extended.
- On a quick inhale, grasp the hand grips at the front of the machine and keep your abdominals tight.
- Exhale as you bend your knees, pulling your ankles as close to your butt as possible.
- Hold this contracted position for a one second count.
- In a controlled manner, slowly unbend your knees and allow your feet to return to starting position.
- Repeat for 10 to 15 repetitions.
Quick Tip: You can target the hamstrings even more throughout this exercise by dorsiflexing your toes (curling them up towards your shins).
12 Effective Lying Leg Curl Alternatives
1. Standing Hamstring Curl with Bands
If you have a set of resistance bands, you can do this quick exercise to build your hamstrings along with your balance. Most bands are pretty similar, but I’ve had good experiences with these Fitness Dreamer Resistance Bands.
Follow these steps to perform the exercise safely:
- Secure a band with the looped end resting at your feet
- Loop the band around your foot with the tension on your heel
- Keeping your body upright, bend your knee and pull your foot towards your butt
- Keep your abs tight
- Hold for a moment and slowly unbend your knee to starting position
2. Gliding Leg Curl
While the gliding leg curl doesn’t require a standard leg curl machine, it does require a barbell with multiple pin attachments and a standard weight bench. You’ll actually be lying supine, holding onto the barbell during this movement so your forearms are added to the list of muscles worked.
To set up, place the bench parallel to the bar you’ll be using to hang from about 3 feet away. Make sure the barbell is securely set on the rack pins a little higher than waist height. Using a smith machine for this exercise is also a good idea.
Here’s how to do it:
- With a shoulder width grip, grab the bar securely and allow your body to hang
- Place the heels of your feet securely on top of the bench in front of the bar
- While keeping your arms straight, use your hamstrings to raise your hips and pull your body towards your feet
- Try to create a 90 degree angle with your knees before returning back to the original hanging position
3. Good Mornings
This can be done with a barbell or a set of dumbbells. Not only is this good for your hamstrings, but it’s great for your lower back too.
Here’s how to do “good” good mornings (nailed it):
- Start with the barbell on your back or your dumbbells on your shoulders, and you should be standing up straight, with knees slightly bent, like you are at the top of a squatting position. Never lock your knees.
- Then, lean forward and bend over at your hips. As you lean forward, you will feel your glutes move back and there will be a pull on your hamstrings.
- When your back is parallel to the ground, return to the standing position.
Start with lighter weight if you are new to this movement so you can learn proper technique and avoid injury. And, always remember to keep your core tight.
4. Kettlebell Swing
Kettlebell swings are a versatile exercise that you can use to target your hamstrings, as well as your entire posterior chain and core.
And you don’t need very heavy ones to get an intense workout. Just a few sizes like the ones in this kettlebell set should be enough to start.
Here’s how to do them the right way:
- Start in a partial squat position with the kettlebell on the ground in front of you. Your feet should be wider than shoulder width apart.
- Grab the kettlebell with both hands and pull it back between your legs, then swing it forward in front of you. The kettlebell should not go higher than shoulder height.
- The weight will then swing back between your legs. This is one rep.
There are different variations of kettlebell swings, but to focus on your hamstrings, keep your legs as straight as you can during each rep.
Lying Leg Curl Exercises Without Machines
5. Swiss Ball Leg Curl
Using a physio ball to do leg curls will not only target your hamstring muscles, but it will also work your core, glutes, abs, calves, and quads.
We recommend this physio ball because of the cool array of colors and convenient hand air pump .
Here’s how To perform the stability ball leg curl exercise:
- Start by laying on the floor supine with your arms straight by your side and your palms facing down on the ground.
- Then, place your feet on the stability ball and make sure your legs are extended completely and your butt is off the ground. Your body should be in a straight line between your shoulders and feet. Keep your core tight and don’t let your hips sag.
- Inhale, and bend your knees so your heels are rolling the ball toward you. Next, simply exhale and roll the ball back out.
The key to a proper swiss ball hip raise and leg curl is to keep your back and hips straight through each repetition. So, contract your core during each rep to keep yourself from cheating.
A variation of the stability ball hamstring curl is to do just one leg at a time to increase the difficulty.
6. Single Leg Hip Extension
These are sometimes called single leg curls and they’re a unilateral exercise that targets the hamstrings by contracting them while they are partially loaded with your body weight.
Here’s how to perform this exercise with correct form:
- Start in a bridge position, lying on your back with your butt off the floor, your feet hip width apart, and your knees bent at 90 degrees.
- Extend one of your legs out straight and hold it.
- Lower your hips and back down to the floor and then push them back up through the stabilizing leg.
- Always keep your weight centered in your heel.
Each rep should be slow and controlled to get that hammy working. Start with three seconds up and three seconds down, and aim for 15 reps on each leg.
This is a good example of what you might find in a well-rounded bodyweight training program like the Bodyweight Mastery Program.
7. Poor Man’s Leg Curl
The poor man’s leg curl exercise strengthens most of your posterior chain, including your hamstrings and glutes. To perform this exercise, you’ll need some kind of elevated platform like a standard weight bench.
- Lie down with your back on the floor, your knees bent, and your heels resting on top of the bench.
- Your knees should be bent at a 90 degree angle.
- Tighten your abs.
- Thrust your hips up slowly, pushing through with your glutes and unbending your knees only slightly. You should feel it in your hamstrings as well.
- Stop when your thighs are unbent and pause for one second.
- Bend at the hips and return your butt slowly to the floor.
Bodyweight Hamstring Exercises Without Equipment
8. Russian Leg Curl
This exercise is sometimes referred to as the reverse leg curl or kneeling leg curl, but for this exercise you’ll need a workout buddy around to hold your feet or you can anchor your feet under a weighted barbell or anything else that is stable.
Here’s how to do it:
- Start in a kneeling position with your feet anchored down firmly.
- Next, lower yourself toward the ground without flexing your hips or bending your back.
- Keep your core tight because when you are lowering yourself, you should be holding your weight in your hamstrings and core.
- Land with your hands on the floor and then immediately push yourself back up into the starting position and use your hamstrings to pull you up while keeping your body in a straight line.
The Russian hamstring curl is more difficult than it appears so here are a couple pro tips.
- Be sure to start slow, and consider using something like a Bosu Ball or Swiss ball in front of you to reduce the range of movement.
- Another option is instead of going all the way down and pushing yourself off the floor, simply cross your arms over your chest and lower yourself down as far as you can without flexing your hips or bending your back before pulling yourself back up.
9. Hamstring Towel Slide
This movement must be done on a low-friction surface like a hardwood floor. It will target your hamstrings, and it will also work your core and your glutes.
This exercise is also called the slick floor bridge curl and bodyweight hamstring curl since your bodyweight serves as the resistance for this movement.
Here’s how to execute this exercise properly:
- Start by laying on the ground supine with your arms to the side and place a small hand towel under your feet. The towel should be folded in half lengthwise, and to control the towel slide, flex your feet and use your heels.
- Once your towel is situated properly, bridge your hips toward the ceiling and flex your knees and hips to slide your feet toward your glutes until they are directly under your knees. This is your starting position.
- Slowly extend your knees and straighten your legs by using your heels to push the towel. Make sure to keep your hips and butt elevated slightly off the ground.
- Then slide your feet back under your knees for one rep.
This movement should be controlled and remember to keep your core tight. You should also squeeze your glutes and hamstrings at the top of the movement.
10. TRX Leg Curl
The TRX leg curl is performed with a set of TRX bands secured from the top of a power rack or high ceiling beam. This movement requires more stability and core strength since you’ll be suspended in mid air.
- Lie on the ground with your feet under the TRX straps
- Lift your feet and put them securely into the straps
- Put your hands on the floor by your sides and tighten your core
- Bend your knees, drive your hips up, and pull your heels towards your butt
- When you’ve brought your feet as close to your butt as possible, return back to starting position but don’t let your hips drop
Here’s how to perform this exercise:
Dumbbell Hamstring Exercises
11. Dumbbell Lying Leg Curl
If you have access to dumbbells, the lying dumbbell hamstring curl can replicate the movement of a lying leg curl machine. However, the resistance is applied differently, and this makes the exercise more difficult if you’re doing a leg curl at home.
Having a few dumbbells at home makes resistance training a lot more convenient when you can’t go to the gym. The BowFlex SelectTech Adjustable Dumbbells are a great pick if you’re looking for a personal set.
You only need one dumbbell, and make sure you choose the right amount of weight. The position of the dumbbell is important because you don’t want to drop it. That is an accident you definitely want to avoid.
Here’s how to do the dumbbell leg curl correctly:
- Lay on your stomach and make sure the “bell” part of the dumbbell is secured between the middle of your feet.
- Start with your feet close to the ground and slowly bend your knees and contract your hamstrings to lift the dumbbell, just like you would on a lying leg curl machine.
- Once your knees are bent to just over 90 degrees, lower the dumbbell back down to the starting position.
The lying hamstring curl should be done slowly, and always make sure you have a firm hold on the dumbbell.
12. Single Leg Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
The single leg romanian deadlift with dumbbells is going to work a number of muscles including your glutes, hamstrings, and spinal erectors. You’ll simply need to hold a dumbbell in each hand to load the exercise.
- Stand upright with a dumbbell in each hand in front of your body with an overhand grip.
- Light one foot off the ground by bending at the knee. This is your starting position.
- Bend your standing leg at the hip and allow your torso to rotate forward towards the ground.
- Let the dumbbells hang in your hands and your raised leg should trail your body up behind you.
- Pause for one second and then reverse the motion until you’re standing upright on one leg again.
Deadlift variations are a pretty common part of most workout programs. If you’re look for a workout routine that’s designed to give you a six pack without spending all your time in the gym, then check this out.
Lying Leg Curl FAQ
Are leg curls useless?
I wouldn’t say leg curls are useless since they’re effective at working your hamstrings and calf muscles. However, leg curls are definitely an isolation exercise and they don’t work your legs as a unit. Other exercises like deadlifts, glute bridges, and hip thrusts work your hamstrings along with other primary leg and core muscles to replicate more natural movements like the body was designed to perform.
Is the leg curl machine bad for your knees?
Directly, leg curl machines are not bad for you knees. However, if you have existing knee problems, then performing this exercise could exacerbate any existing leg curl knee pain. As long as you work with a manageable weight at higher reps, and you have healthy knees, you should have nothing to worry about.
Are leg curls bad for your back?
What’s interesting is that lower back pain isn’t always a result of issues with your lower back muscles. When it comes to leg curls, any stress applied to the lower back required to maintain muscular tension during the movement can exacerbate existing lower back problems. Always check with your doctor if you suspect that your exercise selection is affecting the health of your back.
Are lying leg curls effective?
Leg curls are an effective isolation exercise for working your hamstrings and calves. They produce the best results when performed for higher repetitions, like the 10 to 15 range for example. Lower reps could possibly lead to injury since not enough muscles are recruited during the exercise.
Why do I feel leg curls in my calves?
Your calves assist your hamstrings when bending your knees. When performing the leg curl, you’re loading your hamstrings and making it more difficult to bend your knee. So, if you have enough weight loaded on the machine, your calves should activate when doing the exercise.
Do lying leg curls work glutes?
Yes, leg curls work your glute muscles, but they’re secondary to the hamstrings. Your glutes help to keep your hips stationary and aligned as well as helping your knees to bend.
Do leg curls make your legs bigger?
It depends. Your body can’t increase the size of ANY muscle unless you’re consuming a caloric surplus daily. Your muscles need additional fuel to grow.
Plus, the leg curl machine only works a few leg muscles, not including the larger leg muscles like your quadriceps. If your goal is to increase the size of your legs, leg curls are only part of the solution. Overall, you need to be consuming a caloric surplus and performing exercises that activate all the major muscles in your legs for them to grow bigger.
What is the difference between the seated leg curl and lying leg curl?
The major difference between the seated and lying leg curl are the leg muscles recruited during each exercise. The seated leg curl machine flexes your hips and when your hips are in a flexed position, all four heads of the hamstrings activate to push down the weight. The lying leg curl doesn’t properly activate all four hamstring heads, but it does provide more activation to your calves and glutes than the seated version.
The seated leg curl machine also provides more lower back support because of the padding that’s positioned in the seat. The lying leg curl machine simply has you lying flat on your stomach and leaves the lower back support up to your abdominals and glutes.