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Consider a typical bodybuilding leg workout that consists of multiple machine exercises combined with some barbell exercises, say for example the following

  • Seated leg extensions

  • (Smith machine squats)

  • Barbell back squats

  • Front squat machine (facing front/back)

  • Pendulum squat machine

  • Lying leg press/Seated leg press

  • Barbell lunges

  • Seated leg curls

  • Lying leg curls

  • Barbell Deadlift (variant: Regular, Sumo,...)

The order of exercises may vary a bit, but the principle is often the same that you have a combination of machine and free weight movements.

If one asks, of how to substitute for example leg extensions with free weights, one often hears that you should do just squats. However one part of the program above is already squats, so it doesn't seem to make sense in this case.

So, what would be good options to replace the non free weight exercises above with free weight ones (this may include barbell exercises, dumbbell exercises, bodyweight with minimal equipment or also landmine exercises including a landmine attachment like pentagon bar for heavier loading). The variants should be safe and you should have a good control about the load.

My first try for for the replacement list would be:

  • Leg extension: Swiss Ball Wall squats, Sissy Squats, Narrow Stance Bulgarian split squats

  • Smith machine squats: Just regular squats

  • Front Squat machine: Facing forward: Landmine Squats or with Pentagon bar Facing Backward: Landmine Hack Squat or the same With Pentagon Bar everything with wedges under the feet

  • Pendulum Squat machine: Same replacement as Front Squat machine facing backward

  • Lying leg press: ??

  • Seated leg press: ??

  • Lying leg curls: First I thought of nordic hamstring curls, GHD-curls, swiss ball curls or something like that, but I don't see how to get a finer control over the load in this case. Also for example in swiss ball it is not so easy to maintain a bit of hip flexion as explained here, #active insufficiency

  • Seated leg curls: ??

Would be great, if you could explain in your answer your exercises selection a bit with some finer details (for example why to replace the lying leg curl with exercise x but the seated one with exercise y).

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I am going to limit my answer to leg curl. I am not sure why you need different alternatives for Lying/Prone Leg Curl and Seated Leg Curl. They are very similar exercises that train the same muscles, primarily the hamstrings. I wouldn't perform both in the same session. Seated Leg Curl is considered to be the superior exercise because hip flexion allows for a lengthening contraction of the hamstrings, avoiding the active insufficiency you mentioned.

As for alternatives, let's consider the motion of the exercise, knee flexion. What other exercises involve knee flexion?

  • Sprinting - Obviously all leg muscles will be engaged, not just the hamstrings. It carries some risks and is not right for everyone. But studies do show that sprinting produced more hamstring activation than other exercises.
  • Nordic Hamstring Curl - Generally only works the hamstring eccentrically which has been shown to reduce hamstring injuries in athletes.
  • Razor Curl - Variation of Nordic Hamstring Curl where the hip is flexed. So it might be considered a closer replacement for Seated Leg Curl.
  • Glute Ham Raise - Easier to perform than the Nordic Hamstring Curl but a good way to challenge the hamstring concentrically if you have the equipment.
  • Standing Leg Curl - if you have a resistance band, this is another alternative to the machines.

But if you want exercises that can be progressively loaded, then I think you'll have to switch to hip extension. RDL and Glute Bridge are two good examples. Hamstrings will assist the movement but glutes will be the prime mover.

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