Legs

Discover 6 Leg Extension Muscles Worked & Alternatives

leg extension muscles worked

Your quads, or quadriceps muscles, are the powerhouse of your lower body, playing a crucial role in everyday movements and athletic performance.  

One of the best ways of recruiting this large muscle group is by making use of the leg extension machine, which is a common piece of equipment found in many (if not most) commercial gyms.  

Compound exercises such as back squats and lunges are excellent for targeting the quads to boost muscle mass and strength.

However, incorporating an effective isolation exercise can minimize the involvement of surrounding muscles, focusing the effort directly on the quads.


Recommended Reading – 9 Best Quad Focused Exercises To Build Leg Strength & Size


This targeted approach is key to developing bigger and stronger quads. 

This is where the leg extension exercise comes in as it’s a great way of isolating your quads for improved muscle definition and gains.  

In this article, we’ll be looking at the benefits of this exercise, along with how to do it with proper form and the leg extension muscles worked.    

The Benefits Of Leg Extensions

Leg extensions are much more than a staple leg day exercise and when they’re done properly, they can offer several benefits besides just quad development. 

leg extension alternative

Let’s look at why incorporating leg extensions into your leg workout can be a game-changer: 

Leg extensions are one of the more superior exercises for isolating your quadriceps, the muscle group on the front of your thigh.  

This allows you to properly emphasize this muscle for targeted strengthening, important for both aesthetic definition and functional fitness.  

For those recovering from knee injuries, such as a tear to the anterior cruciate ligament, or with other knee joint problems, leg extensions provide a controlled way of strengthening your leg muscles without the high impact or stress of compound movements.

Whether you’re using a standing leg extension, seated leg extension, or resistance bands at home, you can easily modify the resistance and do so gradually.

This adaptability makes it simple to progress making it great for muscle hypertrophy.  

Strong quads are fundamental for explosive movements, balance, and endurance.  

Whether it’s sprinting or climbing the stairs, leg extensions build a muscular foundation that enhances not only athletic performance in various sports, but also makes common activities you perform in everyday life much easier. 

Leg Extension Muscles Worked

The primary muscles worked during a leg extension are the quadriceps, which are one of the main muscles responsible for the movement of the lower body.  

Secondary muscles that are also activated, but to a lesser degree, are the hip flexors and the calf muscles.  

Let’s take a look at these muscle groups in a bit more detail: 

leg extension machine

The main muscle recruited during a leg extension are the quadriceps femoris, commonly known as the quads.

This muscle group, located at the front of the thigh, is composed of four individual muscles: the vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, vastus intermedius, and the rectus femoris. 

Each rep of a leg extension puts these muscles to work, promoting strength and muscle growth

Positioned on the outer side of your thigh, this muscle helps to extend your knee and stabilize your leg.  

When you lift the weight during a leg extension, the vastus lateralis springs into action, working hard to straighten the knee. 

Found on the inner part of your thigh, this part of the quad plays a crucial role in knee extension and protection of the knee joint.

The vastus medialis, especially the lower portion (VMO – vastus medialis oblique), kicks in powerfully as you extend your leg.

It’s crucial for the final push in fully straightening the knee, so it can lock out smoothly and safely.

Located between the vastus lateralis and vastus medialis, this muscle supports in extending the knee.  

During a leg extension, it works in conjunction with the other parts of the quad, pushing the load away with a focus on the central portion of your thigh. 

This is the only quad muscle that crosses the hip joint and assists in hip flexion.

It’s unique because it helps lift your leg during the leg extension.  

During leg extensions, the rectus femoris acts as a bridge between the hip and knee, aiding in lifting the weight through knee extension while also keeping the hip stable.

It’s the multitasker of the group, ensuring your leg extension isn’t just about the knee but engages the chain of movement from hip to ankle.

Secondary Supporting Muscles – Hip Flexors & Calves

While the quads do most of the work, the leg extension also engages secondary stabilizing muscles.

These include parts of the hip flexors and, to a lesser extent, the calf muscles.

They act as supporting muscles, ensuring that your movement is smooth, and your posture is correct throughout the exercise.

The hip flexors are responsible for flexing the hip joint, bringing your thigh closer to your torso.

When you perform a leg extension exercise, the hip flexors, particularly the iliopsoas (composed of the iliacus and psoas major muscles), engage to stabilize your pelvis and support the movement. 

They work to maintain proper posture and alignment, ensuring your body remains stable and balanced throughout the exercise.

As already mentioned, the rectus femoris, one of the quadriceps muscles, also functions as a hip flexor, further engaging during the lifting phase of the leg extension.

While not directly involved in knee extension like the quadriceps, the calf muscles, including the gastrocnemius and soleus, provide stability and support during leg extensions. 

As you perform the exercise, these muscles contract to stabilize your ankle joint, ensuring proper alignment and control throughout the movement.

They also help to maintain tension in your lower legs, contributing to overall stability and balance no matter how much weight you’re lifting.

How To Do Leg Extensions Correctly

While performing a leg extension exercise may seem pretty straightforward, there are some steps you need to take to make sure the machine is set up correctly so you can do the exercise with a full range of motion with little risk of injury.  

Here’s our step-by-step guide on how to do leg extensions with the proper technique: 

leg extension benefits

1. Adjust the back pad so that when you’re seated your knees wrap naturally around the seat pad. 

2. The ankle pad should be set in a way that allows your feet to start just beneath the padded seat. 

3. Ensure the ankle pad rests just about your ankle joint.   

4. Ideally you want your torso to be at a 90-degree angle to your upper legs as this will allow for a full range of motion. 

1. After setting the weight stack, grip the handles and pull your lower back into the seat to stabilize your pelvis.

2. Exhale and raise the ankle pads by extending your knees. 

3. Dorsiflex your ankle throughout by pulling your toes towards you.

4. At the top of the movement your quad muscles should be fully contracted and toes pointing towards the ceiling.   

5. To increase the challenge, pause for a second or two allowing for constant tension on the quads. 

6. With your abs braced and lower back pressed against the pad, flex your knees using control to return back to the starting position. 

7. When starting out, aim to do around 4 sets of 8 to 10 repetitions.  

Common Mistakes When Doing Leg Extensions

Before adding the leg extension into your workout routine, let’s cover some common mistakes made so you can be sure to avoid them.  

If you perform the leg extension too quickly, you’re not keeping any real tension on your quads which means less muscle hypertrophy and an increased chance of knee pain.  

While it’s fine to extend your knees quickly to add an explosive element to the exercise, make sure you hold it at the top and lower with control.  

It’s a common misconception that by pointing your toes out you can work more of your outer quad and by pointing them in you’ll isolate more of your inner thigh.  

Whether you perform single-leg extensions or use both legs, it’s important to keep your toes pointing forward.  

By pointing them in either direction you can potentially put your knees at a biomechanical disadvantage meaning you won’t load your quads as much and you could increase your risk of injury.  

If you’re finding you have to almost bounce the weight up and can only manage half reps, this is a big sign that you’re going too heavy.  

You don’t need to select a heavy weight when doing leg extensions as it can limit your range of motion and result in poor form.  

With not enough contraction of your quads, this makes it counterproductive to building muscle.

However, it’s worth pointing out that if you suffer from knee pain when performing a full range of motion, then performing partial reps is acceptable.  

Just be sure to choose an appropriate weight and perform it slowly and with control.  

Setting up properly is one of the key factors in performing a leg extension correctly.  

When you’re seated and ready to go, make sure the edge of the seat pad is right in the bend of your knee.  

This usually involves moving the back pad forward a little.  

If the machine you’re using doesn’t have this, then use any form of cushion that will allow you to sit forward enough.  

​Leg Extension Alternatives For Quad Development

As all four heads of the quadriceps help to perform knee extension, any alternative exercises should focus on knee extension, such as different squat variations, to effectively isolate the quads helping to improve overall leg strength. 

Each of the alternative exercises below offers a different way of working the quads through knee extension, providing variety and flexibility to your workout routine.  

Incorporating these alternatives into your leg day can help you build strength and muscle in your quads, so you don’t have to rely solely on the leg extension machine.

sissy-squat-movement

Sissy squats are a challenging bodyweight exercise that primarily works the quads while also engaging your core and stabilizer muscles.  

To undertake a sissy squat, stand with your feet at a shoulder-width distance and hold onto a stable surface for support.

Lean back slightly, then bend your knees while keeping your torso upright until your thighs are parallel to the ground or slightly beyond.

Push through your heels to return to the starting position. 

Sissy squats require significant knee extension, making them an effective exercise for quad development. 

Lunges are another versatile exercise that works the quads through knee extension.

Step forward with one leg, lowering your hips until both knees are bent at about a 90-degree angle.

The front knee should be directly above the ankle, and the back knee should hover just above the ground.

Push back up to the starting position and repeat on the other side.

Lunges can also be performed by holding free weights to increase the contraction of your quads. 

Walking-Lunge

Step-ups involve stepping onto a raised platform, like a weight bench, with one foot and pushing through your heel to lift your body up, bringing the other foot to meet the first.

This action requires knee extension, making it a great way of targeting the quads.

Step-ups can be done with body weight or while holding dumbbells for added resistance.

step-up

The leg press machine offers a controlled movement that closely mimics the leg extension’s knee extension movement.

Sitting in the machine, you’ll push the weighted platform away from your body by extending your knees working your quads, hamstrings, and glutes.

Horizontal lying leg press

Performed on a hack squat machine, this exercise emphasizes the quadriceps through knee extension.

Position yourself with your back against the pad, shoulders under the shoulder pads, and feet on the platform.

By bending the knees and lowering your body, then extending your knees to return to the starting position, you effectively engage the quads.  

You can vary this exercise by altering your foot placement putting more emphasis on certain muscle groups.  

hack squat exercise

Are Leg Extensions Bad For Your Knees

Whether or not leg extensions are bad for your knees depends on your overall knee health and how you perform the exercise.  

When they’re executed with proper form and a suitable weight, leg extensions can strengthen your quads without putting undue stress on your knees.

However, caution is advised if you have any pre-existing knee issues.

The nature of leg extensions can put a significant amount of force on your knee joint, especially in the fully extended position.  

This can exacerbate existing conditions like ligament injuries or arthritis. For a safer approach, focus on controlled movements and avoid locking your knees at full extension. 

​Summary

Leg extensions, even though sometimes viewed as controversial, can play an important role in creating a balanced leg training regimen.  

A great way to activate the quads at the beginning of a leg workout or pushing them to their limits at the end, they complement other exercises to ensure a well-rounded approach to leg strength and muscle growth. 

While it’s important to undertake them carefully to protect your knees, incorporating leg extensions as either a warm-up or a finisher can enhance your overall leg training effectiveness.

Remember, a varied leg routine that includes leg extensions along with compound and other isolation exercises is key to achieving solid leg development.

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