Leg Curl Variations: The Ultimate Guide!


Leg Curl Variation

Leg curls are one of the best exercises you can use to build big, strong hamstrings.

They are also one of the most versatile hamstrings exercises. There are so many different leg curl variations that you can choose from!

If you want to get the most out of the 3 leg curl machines and add more variety to your hamstrings workouts then this article is for you!

Introduction

  • Part 1: The 3 Leg Curl Machines
  • Part 2: Where To Point Your Toes
  • Part 3: One Leg Vs Two Legs

In this comprehensive guide I’m going to show you the best leg curl variations that you can use for building bigger, stronger hamstrings.

The best leg curl machines for training your hamstrings include lying leg curls, seated leg curls and kneeling leg curls. These machines overload the hamstrings through the entire range of motion because you have tension on the muscle at the start, middle and end of the exercise. 

Most people perform their leg curls with 2 legs at a time and with their toes pointed up and straight ahead.

This is OK but you can train your hamstrings even harder by changing the angle of your feet and performing leg curls with one leg at a time.

But before we talk about these advanced leg curl variations we have to talk about the three basic leg curl machines.

Here is a perfect demonstration of the lying leg curl:

This is by far the most popular leg curl machine in the world. You lay down on the machine and then curl the weight until your knees are fully bent.

This is a very effective exercise but research shows us that the other two leg curl machines are even more effective for training the hamstrings.

Here is a perfect demonstration of the seated leg curl machine:

Research shows that the seated leg curl is slightly more effective than the lying leg curl for training the hamstrings (1).

This is because the seated leg curl stretches the hamstrings muscle at both the knee joint AND the hip joint while you are performing the exercise.

This is why many bodybuilding coaches like Jeff Nippard and John Meadows favor the seated leg curl variation in their own workouts.

Both of these exercises are great for training the hamstrings but definitely make sure you include the seated variation in your workouts.

Finally here is a perfect demonstration of the kneeling leg curl machine:

The kneeling leg curl is another fantastic hamstrings exercise. In fact the strength coach Charles Poliquin calls this his #1 hamstrings isolation movement.

The kneeling leg curl recruits more muscle fibers than the lying leg curl because it places a large stretch on the hamstrings at the knee joint AND the hip joint. 

Most people only know about these 3 leg curl variations: the lying leg curl, the seated leg curl and the kneeling leg curl. The truth is there are several different variables that you can manipulate on each machine to train the hamstrings harder. Check it out:

The Three Ways To Vary Your Leg Curls

  • Option #1: You can dorsiflex or plantarflex your toes
  • Option #2: You can point your toes straight ahead, inwards or outwards
  • Option #3: You can perform 2 legs or 1 leg at a time

If you want to build big, strong hamstrings and get the most out of your leg curl workouts then you MUST use these different options in your workouts.

Now let’s take a closer look at each option.

Option #1: You Can Dorsiflex Or Plantarflex Your Toes

Most people perform all of their leg curls with their toes pointed up towards their shins. This is a big mistake!

The truth is you will make faster progress if you vary the way your toes are pointed during leg curls. There are three ways to point your toes up or down during leg curls:

  • Option #1: Dorsiflex your ankles 
  • Option #2: Plantarflex your ankles
  • Option #3: The Poliquin Method

Your first option is to dorsiflex your ankles. This just means that you point your toes up towards your shins. For example:

Leg Curls With Dorsiflexed Ankles

When you dorsiflex your ankles you recruit more than just the hamstrings: you also recruit the gastrocnemius, the big calf muscle located near the back of your knee.

You can lift more weight on leg curls when you dorsiflex your ankles. However, research has shown that you actually recruit fewer muscle fibers in the hamstrings when you train this way.

A better option is to plantar flex your ankles. This means you point your toes away from your shins. Check it out:

Leg Curls With Plantarflexed Ankles

The truth is your gastrocnemius muscle stops helping you perform leg curls when your ankles are plantarflexed.

This means you isolate the hamstrings better and recruit more muscle fibers in your hamstrings when you perform leg curls with your toes pointed away from your shins.

You won’t be able to lift as much weight this way but you will get a much better training effect. At the very least it is a great variation to include in your workouts.

The strength coach Charles Poliquin invented a third way to vary your ankle position during leg curls: you dorsiflex your ankles on the lifting phase and plantarflex your ankles on the lowering phase. Check it out:

Leg Curls Using The Poliquin Method

This is my absolute favorite way to perform leg curls!

You are dorsiflexing your ankles on the lifting phase which means you are using your gastrocnemius to help lift the weight. Then on the way down you plantarflex your ankles so you use nothing but your hamstrings to lower the weight.

This means the Poliquin Method lets you overload the lowering phase of the lift! This is called “eccentric training” and it is an extremely effective way to build size and strength.

If you have never tried the Poliquin Method on leg curls then you are missing out. Try it for just one workout – you won’t regret it!

Option #2: You Can Point Your Toes Straight Ahead, Inwards Or Outwards

Most people perform all of their leg curls with their feet pointed straight ahead. In other words they never point their toes inwards or outwards on leg curls.

This is a big mistake because you are only targeting one of the three hamstrings muscles. 

The hamstrings are made up of three separate muscles:

  • Hamstrings Muscle #1: Semimembranosus
  • Hamstrings Muscle #2: The Semitendinosus
  • Hamstrings Muscle #3: Biceps Femoris

The important thing to know is that you can target each of the hamstrings muscles by pointing your toes in a specific direction.

The Semitendinosus is targeted more when your feet are pointed straight ahead. Most people perform all of their leg curls this way so your semitendinosus is probably over-developed compared to your other two hamstrings muscles.

The second option is to point your toes inwards towards each other. Check it out: 

Leg Curls With Feet Pointed Inwards

Pointing your toes in towards each other targets the medial hamstrings muscle, the semimembranosus. Trust me, the first time you perform leg curls with your feet pointed inwards you will know what I’m talking about!

Finally the third option is to point your toes out away from each other. Check it out:

Leg Curls With Feet Pointed Outwards

Pointing your toes out away from each other targets the lateral hamstrings muscle, the biceps femoris. This variation is especially important for getting full hamstrings development.

The biceps femoris muscle has two muscle heads:

  • Head #1: The short head
  • Head #2: The long head

The short head only crosses the knee joint and can only be trained with hamstrings isolation exercises like the leg curl. The bodybuilding coach John Meadows has also made this observation.

If you never perform leg curls with your toes pointed away from each other then you will never maximally develop this hamstrings muscle!

For best results you should perform leg curls with your feet pointed inwards, outwards and straight ahead. 

Option #3: You Can Perform 2 Legs Or 1 Leg At A Time

Most people perform all of their leg curls with 2 legs at a time. This is a big mistake! The truth is you will get better results if you perform at least some of your leg curl sets with one leg at a time.

You actually have three different options:

  • Option #1: One-Leg Leg Curls 
  • Option #2: Two-Leg Leg Curls
  • Option #3: The 2/1 Method

Research shows that you recruit more muscle fibers in the hamstrings when you train 1 leg at a time instead of 2 legs at a time.

Here is a perfect demonstration of the single-leg leg curl:

The single-leg leg curl is great for recruiting as many muscle fibers as possible. It is also great for correcting structural imbalances from one leg vs the other.

Most people actually have one leg that is stronger than the other. If you never perform single-leg exercises then this imbalance will just get worse over time.

You will get better results AND reduce your risk of injury if you perform some of your leg curls with just 1 leg at a time.

Of course there are times when you do want to perform leg curls with 2 legs at a time. For example if you are supersetting leg curls with another hamstrings exercise then the 2-leg leg curl makes perfect sense. 

Here is an athlete supersetting leg curls and dumbbell Romanian deadlifts. Check it out:

This type of superset is EXTREMELY effective for overloading the hamstrings. You want to perform both legs at a time so you can immediately move onto the second exercise.

If you are really determined to build up your hamstrings then you may want to try the 2/1 method on leg curls. This just means you lift the weight with 2 legs and lower the weight back down with 1 leg. Check it out:

The 2/1 Method For Leg Curls

The 2/1 method is so effective because it lets you eccentrically overload your hamstrings. The hamstrings have a large percentage of fast-twitch muscle fibers and respond extremely well to this type of eccentric loading.

If you are going to use the 2/1 method then I recommend you use an 8-10 second lowering phase for each leg. This will make the technique more effective and reduce your risk for injury.

The bottom line is you should perform leg curls with 2 legs, 1 leg and the 2/1 method for maximum results. 

Conclusion

Leg Curl Variation

Most people perform all of their leg curls using 2 legs at a time with their feet dorsiflexed and pointing straight ahead. This is a HUGE mistake! You will make much faster progress if you start mixing things up on your leg curl exercises.

The first thing you have to do is vary whether you are dorsiflexing or plantarflexing your ankles.

This means you need to vary whether your toes are pointed towards your shins or away from your shins.

Pointing your toes away from your shins will help you recruit more of the hamstrings muscle and make faster progress.

I especially like the Poliquin Method where you dorsiflex your ankles on the concentric range and plantarflex your ankles on the eccentric range. This technique lets you eccentrically overload your hamstrings for faster results.

The second thing you need to do is vary whether your feet are pointed inwards, outwards or straight ahead.

This will help you to target all 3 heads of the hamstrings.

It is especially important to include leg curls with your feet pointed outwards because this is the only way to really target the biceps femoris muscle.

The last thing you need to do is vary whether you are performing leg curls with 2 legs or 1 leg at a time.

The unilateral leg curl is probably a better choice because it increases recruitment of the hamstrings muscle and helps you correct strength imbalances from one leg to the other.

The 2/1 method is another great way to perform unilateral work and to eccentrically overload your hamstrings.

If you expand your mental horizons and use these leg curl variations in your training then you will be well on your way to bigger, stronger hamstrings!

Here is the original gangster Louie Simmons explaining why you need to keep an open mind to realize your full potential:

“The hardest thing for a human being to do is to change. You have to be willing to change. Dinosaurs didn’t change and they are gone. If the athlete doesn’t change or adjust he is gone.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck on your strength training journey!

References

  1. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33009197/

Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen and I'm the founder of Revolutionary Program Design. If you want to reach your size and strength goals faster then you've come to the right place. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere in the world. So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to lift weights or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

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