Leg extensions do a great job at activating your quadriceps in a way that perfectly compliment your squats, lunges and other multi-joint exercises. Not all versions have to be done sat in a fixed machine, though. “Pike” leg extensions are arguably the best bodyweight leg extension for most, and ideal for minimal-equipment workouts. Here’s how they’re done correctly and why you should be using them.
Key coaching points:
- Place a resistance band behind your knees to make the exercise harder. Adjust the level of resistance accordingly, starting without a resistance band if you need to.
- Put your feet up on to the bench and your hands down on to the floor in front. If using a band this will be band anchored under your hands.
- Drop your knees down towards the floor as far as you can.
- Extend your knees and push your hips up in to a pike position.
- Squeeze your quadriceps hard at the top and for a brief second before lowering down.
- If you’re limited by tension through your hamstrings then don’t pike your hips up as high to start off with.
- Keep your core engaged throughout – imagine 360 degrees of air around your spine with abdominals contracted. Breathe however works best for you.
Why they work
They load terminal knee extension – Pike leg extensions do a great job at loading your quadriceps in their shortened range of motion, particularly your m. vastus medialis oblique (VMO). Your VMO is the teardrop muscle just above your knee, and important for patellar (knee cap) stability. This is especially true when your knee is bending. This is not only good news for your knee health, but for complete quadriceps development.
They train complimentary muscle lengths – Squats and similar exercises do a great job of loading your quadriceps at moderate lengths, but often fall short when it comes to loading at shorter muscle lengths. Squats especially fall short when it comes to m. rectus femoris activation, since this quadriceps muscle is heavily affected by hip angle (it’s the only quadriceps muscle that crosses the hip joint). On the other hand most leg extension variations do a much better job at activating this muscle, which make them a good assistance exercise to compliment your bigger lifts.
They’re easy to progress – Unlike most bodyweight leg extensions, pike leg extensions are easy to regress or progress based on your strength and ability. For a beginner option you can try them with both your hands and feet on the floor and piking up from a bear-like position. You can also introduce a light resistance band at any point before progressing to a higher resistance as your strength improves over time.
They require little equipment – You only need a bench or step to do the full version. Whether you’re short on equipment, stuck at home or in a hotel room, on vacation, or even the leg extension machine is taken, then these bodyweight leg extensions are useful option to have in your toolbox.
They’re good for knee health – In THIS article I covered why leg extension machines aren’t inherently “bad” as some would have you believe, and how they can be used to great effect given the right situation. That being said leg extension machines do have their drawbacks, especially for those with existing knee issues, or where lack of hamstrings strength is evident. Because of your feet placement during machine leg extensions there’s a lack of activation of important muscles below the knee joint which contribute to its stability. Pike leg extensions on the other hand have none of these drawbacks. They’ll strengthen your quadriceps while also providing a safe and healthy environment for your knees to continue performing at their best.
They’re more “functional” – “Functional” is a term often misapplied and overused. In really anything can be “functional” providing it has some carryover to the task you have in mind. Even a leg extension machine could be functional if the act of strengthening your quadriceps allowed you to do other activities better as well. That being said, pike leg extensions can arguably have better carryover to more daily and sporting tasks overall. This is for the simple reason that your body is having to do more than just simply isolate knee extension. Not only are you targeting your quadriceps, but your core and shoulder stabilizers are getting a great workout at the same time. Not forgetting the good it’s doing your tight or on-tension hamstrings.
When to use a bodyweight leg extension
As a warm-up exercise – Commonly termed “activation” exercises, what we’re really talking about here is increasing awareness of a certain position or muscle. Try using pike leg extensions to increase awareness of your quadriceps, before loading them using squats, lunges, leg presses and the like. Just 2 easy-ish sets should be enough to help you “find” the muscle tension you should always be searching for.
To pre-fatigue your quads – If you’re doing exercises like squats to build your quads then you’d better make darn sure that it’s your quads that are failing first. If you’re held back by another muscle giving out first then you’re not giving your quadriceps the best opportunity to grow. Here’s where pre-fatiguing can be an option. By isolating and pre-fatiguing your quadriceps before performing exercises such as squats, your quadriceps are more likely to fail first when you start loading them. Sure you’ll be squatting with less by using leg extensions at the start of your workout, but you have to ask why you’re squatting in the first place? Is it to lift as much as you can, or are you squatting to target and build a certain muscle? Try 3 sets of 12-20 (hard) pike leg extensions to get your legs growing again.
For extra isolation at the end – Pike leg extensions are the perfect exercise to finish off your lower body workouts. The goal here should be to force and occlude as much blood as possible in to your quads to create a metabolic stress response. You can even try some drop-sets with these, starting out with the band to near failure, then getting rid of the band to keep the set going. 2-4 sets of 15-30 reps will have you crawling by the end.
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