Leg Curls Vs Deadlifts: Which Is Better?


leg curls vs deadlifts

There are many great exercises to train the hamstrings. But which one is best? Stay tuned for the showdown that was always meant to be: leg curls vs deadlifts!

Introduction

Leg curls and deadlifts are two awesome exercises to train the hamstrings. 

They each have their own advantages and disadvantages so this topic deserves a thorough examination.

The information will be organized as follows:

  • Part 1: Anatomy Of The Hamstrings
  • Part 2: Leg Curls For Hamstrings
  • Part 3: Deadlifts For Hamstrings
  • Part 4: Which Is Better: Leg Curls Or Deadlifts?
  • Part 5: Sample Hypertrophy Routine
  • Part 6: Sample Strength Routine
  • Part 7: Conclusion

Parts 1-4 will try to answer the question of whether leg curls or deadlifts are better for training the hamstrings.

Parts 5-6 will provide you with 2 kick-ass hamstrings training routines, one focused more on hypertrophy gains and one focused more on building strength.

You don’t want to miss this cutting-edge information!

Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: Anatomy Of The Hamstrings

The hamstrings are really a family of three closely related muscles:

  1. The Semitendious
  2. The Semimembraneous
  3. The Biceps Femoris

In the real-world it is easier to just group these muscles into either the medial or lateral hamstrings.

The medial hamstrings include the Semitendinous and the Semimembraneous. On the other hand the lateral hamstrings are composed of the Biceps Femoris muscle. 

The hamstrings are easily one of the more interesting muscle groups in the body. 

They cross two seperate joints: the hips and the knees.

Because of this the hamstrings have two separate and unique functions:

In order to maximally develop the hamstrings you need to include exercises that train both of these functions. 

That is, you have to include isolation exercises that primarily focus on knee flexion as well as compound movements that primarily train hip extension.

This is one of the reasons it is so hard to name leg curls or deadlifts as superior – they are working seperate functions of the hamstrings and you need both!

Of course at the end of the day one of these exercises really is superior to the other. Check out Part 4 of this article to find out which one is best!

Part 2: Leg Curls For Hamstrings

Training the hamstrings with leg curls is actually quite a technical subject. Let’s cover a few of the most important considerations.

The anatomy of leg curls

Leg curls train the knee flexion component of the hamstrings. 

Interestingly enough the distal portion of the hamstrings (or the part of the hamstrings closest to your knees) is recruited the most with leg curls.

The hamstrings muscle fibers closer to your hips are still recruited with leg curls, but there isn’t as much emphasis placed here.

This isn’t just my opinion though – it has been documented quite clearly in the scientific literature.

This is one of the advantages of leg curls over deadlifts – deadlifts are a lesser exercise for recruiting the distal hamstrings!

Foot orientation during leg curls

Another excellent benefit of leg curls is that you can change the direction your feet are angled to place emphasis on the different hamstrings muscles.

For example, you can point your toes in to target the Semimembraneous muscle, point your toes straight ahead to target the Semitendinous muscle, and point your toes laterally to target the Biceps Femoris.

Over the long run changing the angle of your feet on leg curls is a great way to maintain proper structural balance in your lower body.

You definitely don’t want one of your hamstrings muscles to become too strong relative to the other 2!

Again this is another advantage of leg curls over deadlifts. It is much harder to emphasize different hamstrings muscles like this with the deadlift.

The hamstrings are mostly fast-twitch muscles

In isolation the hamstrings are a fast-twitch muscle and should be trained with relatively low reps. 

There are rare exceptions to this rule but research shows about 98% of the general population has fast-twitch hamstrings! 

As a general rule of thumb I recommend you perform most of your leg curl training in the 1-8 rep range. 

Training leg curls with reps higher than 8 is rather ineffective and should be reserved for individuals who like wasting their time in the gym!

This is another reason why I like using leg curls to train the hamstrings. 

It is very easy to perform a large volume of low-rep sets to target the fast-twitch muscle fibers in the hamstrings without burning out.

For example, performing a ten sets of three hamstrings workout with leg curls is quite doable. Try doing the same thing with deadlifts and you might end up in the hospital!

Part 3: Deadlifts For Hamstrings

Leg curls clearly deserve a place in your training routines. However, deadlifts also have their own unique advantages.

Let’s explore a few of the upsides of choosing deadlifts over leg curls.

Deadlifts work the proximal hamstrings better

The proximal hamstrings refer to the part of the hamstrings closer to your hips (or closer to your glutes).

These muscle fibers are recruited FAR better with deadlifts and other hip extension exercises than they are with leg curls!

This is one of the reasons that both leg curls and deadlifts are needed for maximum development of the hamstrings. They truly compliment each other!

Deadlifts recruit far more motor units within the hamstrings

The scientific research has consistently shown that deadlifts recruit more overall motor units within the human body than any other exercise, including the back squat!

As you may already know the effectiveness of an exercise is always a function of the number of motor units it recruits.

And when it comes to recruiting as many motor units as possible within the hamstrings, nothing beats deadlifts!

Deadlifts are a more functional activity

The term “functional” training gets thrown around a lot these days. 

When most people hear the word “functional” they are probably thinking of some uber-dweeb squatting on a bosu-ball with his eyes closed!

When I say functional I am talking about carryover to other gym exercises and other real-world activities. 

In this regard deadlifts win hands-down! I mean what could be more functional than picking up  a weight off the ground and putting it back down?

Part 4: Which Is Better: Leg Curls Or Deadlifts?

By now you should be convinced that both leg curls and deadlifts have a place in your training routines. 

Still, you probably want to know which exercise is best!

The answer shouldn’t come as much of a surprise: deadlifts are a superior exercise to leg curls!

This does not mean that leg curls never have their place in your routine, or that you should always emphasize deadlifts over them.

On the contrary, I am a huge fan of leg curls and include them in a large number of my lower body training routines.

However, at the end of the day, focusing on deadlifts will give you far greater and faster results than focusing on leg curls.

OK, now let’s check out a couple of my favourite hamstrings training routines emphasizing leg curls and deadlifts for strength and hypertrophy!

Part 5: Sample Hypertrophy Routine

Heels Elevated Squat

Let’s dive right into the routine! You will find exercise videos and a detailed explanation of this routine below.

Note: if you are having any trouble reading this routine then you need to check out the following article:

How To Read A Workout Routine!

It will answer all of your questions! 🙂

Here is the hypertrophy routine:

  • A1: Lying leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointed out), 4 x 6-8, 4/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A2: Romanian deadlift, 4 x 10-12, 3/0/X/0, 10 seconds rest
  • A3: 45 degree back extension (hold DB at chest), 4 x 15-20, 2/0/X/0, 180 seconds rest

Here are some video demonstrations for each exercise: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise A3.

This routine uses a pre-exhaustion tri-set to absolutely murder every available muscle fiber in the hamstrings!

I am normally not a huge fan of pre-exhaustion supersets or tri-sets but they work extremely well when training the hamstrings!

You see, the hamstrings are fast-twitch muscles when trained in isolation but behave more like slow-twitch muscles during compound movements.

This means we want to use lower reps on leg curls and higher reps on things like deadlifts and back extensions if maximum hamstrings hypertrophy is what we’re after.

This routine takes full advantage of this concept!

Trust me, the pump is absolutely unreal on a routine like this. 

After four rounds of the above superset you will feel like someone took a bamboo stick and wailed on your poor hamstrings for an hour!

Part 6: Sample Strength Routine

Some of you are more interested in strength than hypertrophy. If this describes you then I have you covered!

Here is an incredible hamstrings intensification routine that you may want to try.

Once again I recommend you check out this article if you have trouble reading the routine.

  • A1: Rack deadlift above the knees, 3 x 3, 2/1/X/1, 100 seconds rest
  • A2: Standing unilateral leg curl (feet plantarflexed / neutral), 3 x 3, 3/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • B1: Rack deadlift below the knees, 3 x 3, 2/1/X/1, 100 seconds rest
  • B2: Standing unilateral leg curl (feet plantarflexed / neutral), 3 x 3, 3/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest
  • C1: Conventional deadlift, 3 x 3, 3/1/X/1, 100 seconds rest
  • C2: Standing unilateral leg curl (feet plantarflexed / neutral), 3 x 3, 3/0/X/0, 100 seconds rest

Here are the exercise videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise B2.

This brutal workout includes nine sets of deadlifts! 

Don’t worry, the deadlifts are broken up into two different types of rack pulls and deadlifts from the floor so you won’t get too burned out at any one angle.

This is a great way to overload every portion of the strength curve on deadlifts and to overload the nervous system with some supra-maximal weights.

Of course some quadriceps work could be performed at the end of this routine if desired. 

For example, three sets of either backwards lunges or front foot elevated split squats would be perfect.

Part 7: Conclusion

leg curls vs deadlifts

So who’s the winner in the leg curls vs deadlifts showdown? Are leg curls better than deadlifts when it comes to stimulating the hamstrings or vice versa?

My vote goes to the deadlift as it is clearly the more bang-for-your-buck exercise!

However, leg curls also deserve their place in your training and I think you should use both!

The two sample routines provided should give you some ideas on how to work both leg curls and deadlifts into your lower body training days.

Of course I am always available for online coaching if you are looking for custom-made training programs.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training endeavors!

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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