Learn How to Do the Leg Extension to Build Bigger Quads
Anyone who has stepped foot in the gym undoubtedly will have been presented with the leg extension machine during their induction. A staple in the programme of those who are in the pursuit of leg hypertrophy, and while it might not be classed as 'functional' it is a great piece of kit to include to build lower body strength.
According to trainer Gareth Sapstead, 'There’s no debating that leg extensions help place tension through your quads. After all, there aren’t many exercises that mimic the isolated squeeze and quads-burn they’re notorious for.'
The leg extension has some unmatched benefits in comparison to other exercises which we'd be foolish to miss out on. Here, we run you through the muscles worked, benefits, how to set up the machine, how to do the leg extension, how many reps and which weight, variations, workouts and a brutal leg extension finisher.
Stake your claim on the leg extension machine and let's go.
Muscles Worked by the Leg Extension
Quads: The primary movers during the leg extension are the quadriceps. These are the long muscles down the front of your thighs. The quads include the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius. Due to the nature of the leg extension being an isolation exercise, these are the only muscles worked. However, the leg extension has been shown to have superior rectus femoris activation in comparison to squats.
How to Do the Leg Extension
Set up the leg extension machine with your knees at 90 degrees and the pad on top of your shins by your ankles. Make sure you adjust the seat to suit your needs. Grip the handles at the sides of the seat.
With your core engaged, extend your legs so the padded roller lifts and your legs are completely straight.
Squeeze your quads and pause.
Slowly bend the legs, resisting the weight as you lower it until the plates meet.
Benefits of the Leg Extension
With the popularity of CrossFit and functional training styles, the leg extension machine may be gathering dust in your local gym, but don't overlook the benefits:
Machines are a good option for those who are new to exercise due to the back being supported and less skill demand necessary to complete the exercises.
A perfect exercise for hypertrophy and high rep ranges, resulting in that famous 'quad pump'.
Suitable for isolating the quad, making it the preferential exercise for those with aesthetic physique goals.
According to Sapstead, 'Leg extensions produce very little neurological fatigue and are relatively easy to recover from.' Therefore they can be placed more frequently in your programme or with less rest.
Leg extensions are a good supplementary exercise to your multi-joint exercises for more 'complete' quadriceps building.
How Many Reps and Which Weight Is Best?
Choose a rep range and weight to suit your abilities. As a general rule of thumb, for hypertrophy (building muscle) for the leg extension, the higher end of 4 sets of 12-15 reps should be sufficient for a good leg pump.
To choose an ideal weight, familiarise yourself with the RPE scale (rate of perceived exertion). This is a scale from one-to-10, 10 being maximum exertion, one being minimum exertion. For strength and muscle gain; towards the end of your sets, ideally you want to be sitting at around an 8 out of 10. This means that at a push you could complete 2 more reps at the end of the set with your weight of choice.
Leg Extension Variations & Alternatives
Single Leg Extension
Focus on one leg at a time to even out strength differences. Set up the leg extension machine with your knees at 90-degrees and the pad on top of your shins by your ankles. Make sure you adjust the seat to suit your needs. Grip the handles at the sides of the seat. With your core engaged, extend one leg so the padded roller lifts and your leg is completely straight. Squeeze your quad and pause. Slowly bend the leg, resisting the weight as you lower it until the plates meet. Repeat on the same side.
Kneeling Leg Extension
Try this bodyweight alternative in your next home workout. Begin kneeling with your core engaged and your arms across you chest. Keeping your body in a straight line from your knees to the top of your head, slowly lean back until you can feel your quads working hard to keep you upright. Don't break at the hips. Squeeze the quads to return to the upright position ready to repeat.
Landmine Hack Squat
Whilst this is an alternative to the leg extension, it packs a good punch and delivers a big leg pump. Lift the loaded end of your bar on to your shoulder, then turn around, ‘resting’ your back against the weight plate whilst holding the bar securely on your shoulder. Step your feet forward until your body is at an angel almost symmetrical to the barbell behind you. Bend your knees and push your hips back, dropping into a deep squat. Press your back into the plate as you stand back up explosively. Pause and repeat. Switch shoulders each set.
Another seated machine exercise you can try to supersize your legs. Set up the machine to suit your leg length and height. Begin seated with your feet on the pad, a little wider than the hips and slightly turned out. Position your feet near the top of the pad for more of a glute focus and in the middle for more of a quad focus. Unlock the machine and resist the weight under control whilst bending the knees in line with your toes. Push the pad away from you and squeeze the quads with the legs extended. Repeat.
Nothing beats the squat for your leg day workout. Hold your dumbbell close to your chest. Sink your hips back and descend into a squat. Your elbows should come in between your knees at the bottom. Drive back up, tensing your glutes at the top. Repeat.
Another alternative you can complete with bodyweight or free weights. Start with your feet shoulder-width apart and your core engaged. Lean backwards while bending at the knees so that you can feel your quads working hard. Lean back as far as you can without breaking at the hips and keep a straight line from your knees to the top of the head. Pause and reverse the movement back to standing.
Dumbbell Step Up
The dumbbell step up is another great alternative you can add to your training for some added quad work. Begin with the dumbbells in each hand, standing tall with your core engaged facing a box or bench. Step one foot up so it is entirely on the bench and push through the heel so that you are standing on top of it. Slowly lower yourself down to the ground whilst resisting the weight as much as possible. Keep the foot in place and repeat.
Leg Extension Workouts
Now you know how to do the leg extension, try some of our MH workouts:
Leg Extension Finisher
Tag this leg day finisher on the end of your workout for a massive quad burn. Complete 3-5 sets with a moderate weight.
Single Leg Extension x 10 reps on each side
Set up the leg extension machine with your knees at 90 degrees and the pad on top of your shins by your ankles. Grip the handles at the sides of the seat and with your core engaged, extend one leg so the padded roller lifts and your leg is completely straight. Slowly bend the leg, resisting the weight as you lower it until the plates meet. Repeat on the same side for 10 reps and then change.
Leg Extension x 15 reps
After your single leg extensions, repeat the exercise using both legs so that you work close to failure. For more intensity, on the last rep of each set do an isometric hold with your legs extended for 5 seconds.
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