Coach spends a lot of time praising functional exercises, and for good reason: functional training hits multiple muscle groups and joints, and strengthens your body in a way that will benefit you when playing sports and going about your everyday life. But don’t take our praise of functional fitness as condemnation of isolation exercises like the leg curl, which do a stand-up job of targeting individual muscles in a way that functional moves cannot.
You can do the standard leg curl in a prone or seated position, with both requiring the use of a machine (although we also have some variations that use sliders instead of a machine if you don’t want to splash the cash on a home leg curl machine or gym membership). Whether you do it lying or sitting down, the benefits are broadly the same – the leg curl is one of the best ways to strengthen and bulk up your hamstrings.
How To Do The Lying Leg Curl
Start by adjusting the machine so your thighs and torso sit comfortably on the pads when you’re lying face down. The lever on the back of the machine should sit just below your calf muscles when your legs are straight. Grasp the handles on the front of the machine and brace yourself – it’s time to curl.
Curl your lower legs up as far as possible without lifting your thighs off the pad. Hold for a second at the top of the movement, then lower slowly back to the start. Keep your movements smooth throughout – if you’re having to resort to jerky movements to shift the weight, you’re using too much.
How To Do The Seated Leg Curl
Set up the machine so that the pads sit comfortably against your lower back when you sit on it. Put your legs on the padded lever so it sits just below your calf muscles, and set up the lap pad so it sits on your thighs just above the knees. Lift your legs so they are straight out in front of you and grasp the side handles on the machine. Pull the padded lever down and back towards you as far as you can with your legs, hold for a second, then slowly bring it back to the starting position.
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Leg Curl Variations
Gym ball leg curl
This variation increases the core challenge of the leg curl greatly, which is almost always the case when you involve a gym ball in an exercise. Lie on your back with your calves resting on a gym ball. Raise your hips and roll the ball towards you so your feet end up resting on top of the ball, then roll the ball away from you again.
TRX hamstring curl
Another variation that ramps ups the demands on your core. Set up a suspension trainer so the handles hang close to the ground, then lie on your back and put your feet in them so your heels are resting on the handles. Raise your hips into a bridge position, forming a straight line between your shoulders and your knees, and then draw the handles towards you with your legs. Move your feet back out again slowly, and resist the temptation to drop your hips to the ground even as your core muscles start to burn.
Slider leg curl
A set of sliders is a great addition to your home gym set-up, because you can use them for a variety of core-crunching moves as well as machine-free leg curls. They will have a coarse side to use on hard floors and a smooth side for carpets (note that neither works well on rubber, if you happen to have rubber floors).
Lie on your back with your heels on the sliders. Raise your hips into a bridge position where your body forms a straight line from knees to neck. Slowly slide your feet away from you until your legs are extended, keeping your hips off the floor and your core engaged throughout, then bring your feet back and return to the bridge position.
Weighted slider leg curl
Once you’ve got a handle on the standard slider leg curl it’s time to add some resistance to increase the difficulty and the benefits for your hamstrings. You can do this by looping a resistance band around your legs and a pole so you pull against the band as you curl your feet towards you, but an even simpler way is to put a weight plate on top of the sliders and rest your feet on that as you move them back and forth.
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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.