It takes a variety of exercises to build up the powerhouse muscles that make up the front of your thigh, and it’s worth incorporating a mix of compound and isolation moves into your routine if stronger quads are among your key goals.
The leg extension is a stalwart isolation exercise that puts all the focus on your quads and it acts as the perfect complement to the leg curl, which isolates the hamstrings. Together the duo will go a long way towards bulking up your thigh muscles, front and back.
However, before we get to how you do leg extensions it’s important to address the risks of the exercise, because it’s one that many people with knee issues steer clear of. For info on the potential risks and how to avoid them, we spoke to Barry’s Bootcamp (opens in new tab) master trainer Sandy Macaskill.
What are the risks of doing leg extensions?
Leg extensions are a pretty straightforward exercise in terms of technique, which is always a positive, but they do keep your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) under tension. If you have weak knees, or regularly play sports that involve repeated changes of direction or jumping, it’s important to perform leg extensions carefully and with manageable weight. To be honest, though, the same applies for any resistance exercise.
Can you give some technique pointers for reducing these risks?
Lift light, first of all. Start with a light load and go from there. You can always build up, unless you wreck your knees out of the gate. The technique is pretty straightforward but even so, perform the exercise slowly and concentrate on contracting your quads to move the weight rather than yanking your feet up. Engaging the correct muscles requires you to really focus.
What other exercises could people do to target the same muscles without similar risks?
We work with free weights at Barry’s, so I would prefer the good old squat which recruits more muscles, allows a greater increase in the load and is a more functional exercise. Also it offers more variety, in terms of changing angles. Again, like any exercise, squats come with their own issues. Start with an unweighted squat, focusing on correct form, and progress from there.
How To Do The Leg Extension
Sit up straight on the leg extension machine – imagine you have a seat belt pulling your waist into the seat. Adjust the pad so it sits on top of your shins just above your feet, which should be pointing forward. Hold the side bars. Ensuring that you are using your quads to power the movement, rather than kicking up with your feet, extend your legs straight out in front of you. Then slowly lower them back to the starting position.
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Leg Extension Variations
Resistance band leg extension
As a general rule the leg extension is not easy to do anywhere other than in a gym thanks to its reliance on the leg extension machine, but if you are craving some quad-focused action on the move you can perform the move with a resistance band instead.
Sit on a chair with a resistance band looped around your ankle and the rear leg of the chair on the same side. Raise your leg straight out in front of your body, pause for a beat, then slowly lower, keeping tension in the band throughout.
For a standing version of the move, anchor a resistance band behind you, loop it around your right ankle and stand facing away from the anchor point so there’s tension in the band. Ideally you’ll have a chair or similar to hold for balance during the exercise. Lift your right foot and, keeping the movement controlled, bend at the knee to allow your foot to move back and up. Use your quad to reverse the moment, keeping the foot elevated throughout.
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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