Lying Leg Curl: Technique, Alternatives & Benefits (With Video!)

July 13, 2022

That dusty machine in the corner of your gym…

That’s the lying leg curl machine. While the typical gym bro may use it as a seat to rest between bicep curls, it’s an epic machine for building big legs - specifically, the hamstrings. Some fitness professionals will disregard the lying leg curl is an ineffective exercise for developing the hamstrings and favor compound exercises.

However, with the basic anatomy, I will show you below, you'll soon understand why the lying leg curl is essential for complete leg development. But first, here is how to do the perfect lying leg curl.

How To Lying Leg Curl With Perfect Form

Perfecting the lying leg curl is about getting the machine set up correctly and using a manageable weight. When these are done incorrectly, lying leg curl technique goes out the window. So, here's how to do it correctly.

Step 1: Set Up The Lying Leg Curl Machine

This is where the perfect lying leg curl form starts. If the pad is too far up or down your leg, you won’t maximize the stress on your hamstrings. The perfect setup should have the pad against the meat on the bottom of your calves.

This way, the pad is trapped in place by your shoes and won’t roll too far. Your knees should be just off the bench with the bottom of your quads against the edge. Your hips or lower abs will be positioned where the bench curves to place the hamstrings in a lengthened position.

Your legs should be completely straight once you’re lying on the lying leg curl machine with your legs supporting the load. You also have options with foot position to vary the exercise.

Toes Plantarflexed – pointing your toes flexes the calf muscles engaging them to help with the leg curl. I don’t typically recommend plantarflexing the toes when you want to isolate the hamstrings.

Lying Leg Curl Muscles Worked

Toes Dorsiflexed – pulling your toes toward you is the ankle position I like best. It feels strongest and most secure when performing the leg curl.

Lying Leg Curl Machine

Toes Turned In the hamstrings don't just flex the knee. They also rotate to help rotate the leg. While there is no muscle activation data on this, from experience, turning the toes in can potentially emphasize the inner hamstrings.

Lying Leg Curl vs. Seated Leg Curl

Toes Turned Out – turning the toes out, from experience, can potentially target the outer hamstring. I'll typically keep my toes straight to keep things simple.

Lying Leg Curl Alternative

Step 2: Curl The Weight With Control

Initiate the leg curl by curling your feet to your bum. You will likely feel your hips raising slightly off the pad. This is fine and completely normal as the weight gets heavier. It just shouldn’t be excessive.

Curl the weight until the pad touches your bum. You'll know when you are fatigued when you can't get it there. If the pad is set correctly, it should remain in a similar spot and not roll to your heel or up your calf.

I like to perform the concentric phase explosively. But you should control the lowering or eccentric phase. If you lower the weight too quickly, you’re losing hamstring tension and costing yourself gains.

You should finish each rep with your legs straight to maximize the range of motion.

Lying Leg Curl Muscles Worked

The lying leg curl explicitly targets the hamstrings. However, there are three main hamstring muscles:

  • Semimembranosus (inner hamstring)
  • Semitendinosus (middle hamstring)
  • Biceps femoris (outer hamstring)
Anatomy Of Hamstrings

The lying leg curl preferentially targets the inner hamstrings of the semimembranosus and semitendinosus [1]. Further, the lying leg curl specially targets the bottom to the middle portion of the hamstrings [2].

Lying Leg Curl Benefits

I have two main benefits of using the lying leg curl:

Build Huge Hamstrings

Building bigger hamstrings is no easy feat. It requires taking yourself into dark places in the gym with a lot of limping the following day. To maximize hamstring development, you need to train hip extension and knee flexion exercises as evidenced by what muscles the lying leg curl targets.

Regarding knee flexion exercises, the lying leg curl is easily in the top two. The other is the seated leg curl. Why? Because they are machine based, placing you in a stable setup to entirely focus on and isolate the hamstrings.

You can load the lying leg curl heavy and perform high reps maximizing tension and metabolic by-product build-up to stimulate a muscle-building response [3].

Warm Up Before Squats

This idea I got from John Meadows works wonders. If you have a squat session or squats as your first exercise, start with lying leg curls instead. Pumping your hamstrings with blood makes your knees feel amazing when you start squatting.

If you have bad knees, this should be a compulsory warm-up before you squat. When the hamstrings are pumped, the bottom position feels more stable, and your knees feel great.

How To Lying Leg Curl At Home Without A Machine

If you train at home or at a CrossFit gym, you probably won't have a lying leg curl machine. Here is how you can perform the lying leg curl at home without a machine.

Resistance Band Lying Leg Curl

During the pandemic, this is how Mona and I trained our hamstrings with leg curls. With high rep resistance band leg curls while lying on the floor. The strength curve differs from a machine lying leg curl as tension decreases as your legs extend with maximum tension at the top. Here's how to do it:

  • Attach a band to a sturdy object at knee height. Loop the band around your feet and lie on the floor, facing away from the band.
  • Army crawl forward to increase tension on the band. Perform the leg curl like you would on the machine. You will need to position your feet, so the band doesn't slide off at the end of every rep.

Dumbbell Lying Leg Curl

I don't recommend the dumbbell lying leg curl, but it will suffice if you have no other options. Because of the line of gravity, you get no tension at the top of the exercise and very little until your legs are straight. If you're lying on the floor, you won't have any tension with straight legs since the dumbbell will rest on the floor.

If you have an option to combine it with a resistance band, this exercise becomes even more effective. Here’s how to do it:

  • You can use the same bench and foam roller set up per the video or lie on the floor if you don’t have equipment.
  • Place the dumbbell handle between your feet, so the head rests on the bottom of your foot. You must point your toes straight.
  • Once in position, flex your knees to perform the leg curl. Squeeze your hamstrings at the top. Control the eccentric phase.

Lying Leg Curl vs. Seated Leg Curl

One advantage of the lying leg curl over the seated leg curl is that you can load it heavier. Heavier loads mean more tension on the hamstrings and a greater muscle-building stimulus. However, from a biomechanical standpoint, the seated leg curl is the superior leg curl variation.

The seat allows you to maximize the stretch on the hamstrings. We know that training the hamstrings at long muscle lengths is far superior for muscle growth than short muscle lengths [4].

The trick is to lean forward, not sit back, and stretch the hamstrings at the hip. Here’s a video of me demonstrating it.

Lying Leg Curl Alternatives

If you’re bored of the traditional lying leg curl, here are some alternatives to spice up your hamstring workout.

2 Up, 1 Down Lying Leg Curl

The lying leg curl can be done with an eccentric overload to stimulate eccentric specific adaptations. One way is to use 2 legs during the concentric and 1 leg during the eccentric phase. Here's how:

  • Select a weight heavy enough that you couldn't lift concentrically with one leg. Perform the leg curl with two legs, then remove one leg, so you must resist the heavy load with the other leg.
  • Aim for 3-4 seconds during the lowering phase until the leg is straight. Repeat the process for the prescribed reps.

Nordic Hamstring Curl

The Nordic hamstring curl is the most intense hamstring exercise you can do. It is also an eccentric overload exercise that will result in immense strength gains. The bonus is you don’t need any equipment, just a training partner. Here’s how to do it:

  • Kneel onto a soft pad and have a partner push on your Achilles tendon at the bottom of your calves. This is the most comfortable position.
  • Have your hands in front of your chest, palms facing forward, which act as your brakes to stop your face from hitting the floor.
  • While keeping a straight line from your knees to your head, slowly fall forward, extending at the knees. Your hips should not bend.
  • Resist as long as possible. Once you reach "breaking point," fall to the ground and push yourself back to the starting position with your hands. The breaking point is the point you no longer can control the movement.
  • The goal is to finish with your body in a straight line with enough control to kiss the floor.

Swiss Ball Leg Curl

Training your hamstrings at home means you typically don’t have access to a lot of equipment. The Swiss ball leg curl is the most straightforward bodyweight hamstring exercise as you can manage the load depending on where you place your legs on the ball. The closer the ball is to you, the easier the exercise becomes. Here's how to do it:

  • Lie on your back on the floor with your legs straight and the back of your heels on the Swiss ball.
  • Place your hands on the floor on either side of you to aid your balance. Lift your hips off the floor as high as possible while keeping your legs straight.
  • Once your hips are at the top, curl your heels towards your bum while keeping your hips high. A common mistake is letting your hips drop throughout the movement.
  • Once you've curled your feet as close as possible to your bum, slowly extend your legs to return to the starting position.

Summary

The lying leg curl should be a staple in your training routine, especially if complete muscular development is your goal. If you have a seated leg curl available, you can perform most of your knee flexion-based hamstring training there. However, I would still use the lying leg curl for variation.

References

1. Yanagisawa, O., & Fukutani, A. (2020). Muscle recruitment pattern of the hamstring muscles in hip extension and knee flexion exercises. Journal of human kinetics, 72(1), 51-59.

2. Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Tiryaki-Sonmez, G., Wilson, J. M., Kolber, M. J., & Peterson, M. D. (2015). Regional differences in muscle activation during hamstrings exercise. The Journal of strength & conditioning research, 29(1), 159-164.

3. Schoenfeld, B. J. (2010). The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(10), 2857-2872.

4. Maeo, S., Huang, M., Wu, Y., Sakurai, H., Kusagawa, Y., Sugiyama, T., ... & Isaka, T. (2021). Greater hamstrings muscle hypertrophy but similar damage protection after training at long versus short muscle lengths. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 53(4), 825.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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