Top 5 Best Alternatives To Leg Extensions For Massive Quads

smith machine front squat

You can do other exercises besides leg extensions to grow your quads

Are you a bodybuilder striving for success or a fitness enthusiast that wants to improve your overall physique? One key element is massive quads. Not only will this result in better squats and balance, but it also reduces the risk of knee injuries. Plus, let’s remember the bonus of improving your physique. This article looks at five top alternatives to leg extensions, including cable leg extensions and front squats. 

RELATED: The Best 13 Leg Exercises for Monster Legs

Your quads comprise four muscles: rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. Leg extensions isolate these muscles and help to build strong quadriceps. Of course, you could also do lunges and squats, but leg extensions focus majorly on the quads. 

The popular variation of leg extensions is done with a leg extension machine. But unfortunately, only some people have access to that. Plus, others find that leg extensions cause severe knee pain and would like an alternative. However, if you fall into the above categories, we have good news for you.

This carefully curated list contains bodyweight and free-weight alternatives you can use at home. It also has options you can do on other machines and even an option that is less tasking on the knees. Here’s our list of the top five best alternatives to leg extensions for building massive quads. 

1. Short Step Lunges

First on our list of leg extension alternatives are short step lunges, a bodyweight compound exercise. Lunges work on your quads, glutes, adductors, and calves. They build your leg muscles unilaterally — one side at a time.

Lunges work on your quads significantly more than on the other muscles, like hamstrings (1). However, you can harness this routine to build your quads even more by shortening your steps. Short-step lunges emphasize your quads and can be done with free weights to pack on more mass.

How to do it:

  1. Stand with your hands by your sides and your feet close together while looking straight ahead.
  2. Brace your core and then take a short step forward. This is your starting position.
  3. Bend your legs and lower the knee of your back leg until it’s an inch from the floor. Don’t let that knee reach the ground. Keep your front shin and rear thigh vertical.
  4. Keeping about 60-70% of your weight on your front leg, push off with that foot to return to starting position and complete the rep.
  5. Alternate your legs to do another rep, or do all the reps with one leg in front before switching to the other for the desired number of sets. 

2. Standing Cable Leg Extensions

If there’s a long line for the leg extension machine and the cable machine is free, how about you try this similar alternative? Standing cable leg extensions are a variation that focuses on your quads. Note that you can’t go too heavy with this movement, but the knee flexion and hip extension create strong, effective quad contractions.

Standing cable leg extensions are done with the help of an ankle cuff and work your quads without the muscular fatigue that comes with other compound exercises. However, it can be tough to maintain your balance on this movement, so be wary. 

How to do it:

  1. Attach your ankle cuff to the low pulley cable and put it on one leg.
  2. Stand with your back to the cable machine and raise your legs so your hip and knee are roughly leveled horizontally. 
  3. Brace your core and extend your leg forward until straight, grasping the cable post for balance. 
  4. Bend your leg back without lowering your knee to complete the rep
  5. Switch to the other leg and repeat. 

3. Dumbbell Leg Extensions

The dumbbell leg extension is an excellent quad isolation exercise that you can do at home. Some surrounding muscles, like your adductors and hip flexors, are also recruited during this exercise. The thigh muscles, like the glutes and hamstrings, aren’t activated with this routine, but they’re effective for strengthening your quads. 

Dumbbell leg extensions are beginner friendly, and the free weight allows you to move and create a deeper stretch for more hypertrophy. All you need are dumbbells, and something to sit on that lets your legs hang off the floor. 

How to do it:

  1. Sit on a bench or chair with the back of your knees level with the end of the chair. 
  2. Put a dumbbell between your feet and grip tightly.
  3. Extend your legs until straight, then bend them to the starting position to complete the rep.
  4. If your chair is too low, you can place it on blocks to prevent limiting your range of motion.

4. Front Squats

front squats

While all squats work on your quads, front squats are more quad-centric. They involve more knee and less hip movement than other squats, like the back squat. Research shows adopting a wide stance when doing squats has been shown to recruit your knees more, thus working your quads better than the narrow stance (2).

Front squats put less stress on your lower back, but you can’t lift as much as you would with back squats. They also require a bit more mobility and are done with barbells. When doing this routine, you should avoid sitting on your heels and try to keep your back straight.

How to do it:

  1. Load a barbell on your upper chest and collarbone and rest it on your shoulders.
  2. Place your hand in an underhand grip at just outside shoulder width and push your elbows up.
  3. Start your squat by moving your hips and bending your knees to drop your glutes toward the ground.
  4. Keep your chest up and resist the pull to fall forward as your knees fall out. 

5. Backward Sled Pull

The backward sled pull is a knee-friendly quad builder that’ll take the size and strength of your quads to the next level. This movement will also test the strength in your torso since you’ll be leaning backward with your arms straight. This exercise is suitable for beginners since the movement isn’t too difficult to grasp. 

You can do the backward sled pull with straps with handles or use a belt that allows you to move hands-free. This exercise works on your abs, hip flexors, chest, shoulders, calves, glutes, adductors, and triceps. In addition, backward sled pulls are knee-friendly because they’re concentric muscle actions that don’t put as much stress on your knees as eccentric muscle actions. 

How to do it:

  1. Holding a handle in each hand, stand facing the sled and bend into a quarter-depth squat.
  2. Walk back until your arms straighten out and the straps are tight. 
  3. Start walking backward while ensuring your arms stay straight as you pull the sled.
  4. Push your heels into the floor as you walk to increase recruitment of your quads.

Learn From The Pros – Danny Hester Leg Extension Tips

Classic Physique Olympia champion, Danny Hester previously met up with Generation Iron in the gym to share some vital tips on perfecting the leg extension exercise. With decades of experience that built up to an Olympia victory – there’s no better athlete to gain insight from than Hester himself. Check it out below:

Conclusion

Want to build massive quads but tired of doing leg extensions? You can do plenty of other exercises to build up the anterior portion of your thighs. Plus, doing various movements will prevent you from hitting a plateau in your progress.

Check out these five leg extension alternatives to help overload your muscles for hypertrophy. Not only will you shake up your routine, but you’ll also find knee-friendly options. 

Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter to learn more alternative exercises! 

References

  1. Muyor, J. M., Martín-Fuentes, I., Rodríguez-Ridao, D., & Antequera-Vique, J. A. (2020). Electromyographic activity in the gluteus medius, gluteus maximus, biceps femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis and rectus femoris during the Monopodal Squat, Forward Lunge and Lateral Step-Up exercises. PloS one, 15(4), e0230841. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0230841 
  2. Escamilla, R. F., Fleisig, G. S., Lowry, T. M., Barrentine, S. W., & Andrews, J. R. (2001). A three-dimensional biomechanical analysis of the squat during varying stance widths. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 33(6), 984–998. https://doi.org/10.1097/00005768-200106000-00019
As a personal trainer and writer, Terry loves changing lives through coaching and the written word. Terry has a B.S. in Kinesiology and is an American College of Sports Medicine Certified Personal Trainer. He enjoys playing music, reading, and watching films when he's not writing or training.