Back squats are an extremely popular leg-building exercise.
Visit any gym and you’ll likely see at least one person performing a back squat.
Leg curl machines are a very common fixed resistance machine found in many gyms too.
From beginners to experienced gym-goers, leg curls form a part of many leg workouts.
As these two exercises appear to be so different, it can be worth giving some thought as to whether one is better than the other.
Back squats are certainly very popular but are they actually better than leg curls?
Leg curls are great but could a fixed-resistance machine ever be better than a free weights exercise like back squats?
That’s what we’re looking at in this article.
In it, we compare back squats and leg curls to see if there is a clear winner or if they both have a place in your leg workouts.
What’s The Difference Between Back Squats And Leg Curls?
Back squats and leg curls are both leg exercises but that’s pretty much all they have in common.
Back squats are a free weights excise where a weighted barbell is held on the top of your back (across your shoulders) as you squat up and down by moving in a “sitting down” type motion.
Leg curls are performed on a leg curl machine.
During the exercise, you’re lying face down on the machine, with pads resting just above your ankles.
You then curl your feet up towards your glutes, lifting the selected weight in the process.
In simple terms, back squats are a free-weight exercise whereas leg curls are a fixed-resistance exercise that relies on a machine to be able to perform them correctly.
Which Exercise Is Best For Quad Development?
Back squats are primarily focused on lower body development.
Your quads will be one of the main muscles working throughout the movement so they make for a very good quad-building exercise.
Leg curls focus more on your hamstrings so aren’t particularly beneficial for quad development.
Back squats are much better at working your quads than leg curls.
Which Exercise Is Best For Hamstring Development?
Although your hamstrings play a part in back squats, leg curls are much better for hamstring development.
During leg curls, your hamstrings are the primary muscle being worked so there’s a big focus on them.
While not quite an isolation exercise, leg curls do a great job of working your hamstrings and increasing the size and strength of the muscle.
Which Exercise Is Best For Glute Development?
Back squats are one of the best glute-building exercises you can do.
While your glutes do activate during leg curls, they do nowhere near as much work as they do in back squats.
Back squats are extremely good when it comes to glute development.
Back squats are the foundation of a range of squat variations.
You can move the bar from the back of your body to the front, turning them into front squats for more focus on your quads.
Other squat variations include goblet squats (where a dumbbell or single weight is used instead of a barbell), sumo squat (a wider stance with feet pointing outwards), and zercher squat (similar to a front squat but the barbell is held in the crook of your elbows).
With so many variations to choose from, back squats have an extremely high level of variability.
As leg curls are done on a fixed machine, it’s quite difficult to adapt the exercise in different ways.
You can perform leg curls one leg at a time instead of doing both simultaneously.
However, there aren’t really any other options when it comes to varying the exercise.
Back squats have a far greater level of variability than leg curls.
Fixed-resistance machines are designed to move in a very limited number of ways.
As back squats use a barbell instead of a fixed machine, there’s a lot you can do to keep things interesting, effective, and enjoyable.
Back squats are not always suitable for beginners as they involve quite a complex movement.
Multiple muscle groups are working during back squats and your technique will need to be correct to minimize the risk of injury.
Back and knee injuries can occur if back squats are performed incorrectly, so good levels of strength and experience are needed before trying them.
As they’re done on a fixed-resistance machine, leg curls have a pretty low level of difficulty.
The leg curl machine only moves in a limited way.
So if you’re trying to move the weight incorrectly, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to execute the exercise.
This keeps the difficulty level of leg curls low as the machine helps guide you through the movement.
The movement is also one that most people find very comfortable to perform.
Leg curls have a much lower difficulty level than back squats.
The movement is more basic and the leg curl machine helps encourage the correct technique.
There are some safety considerations that are relevant for both back squats and leg curls.
The first one is to ensure you’re trying to lift an appropriate weight.
Having too much weight on the barbell in back squats or on the machine in leg curls can drastically increase your risk of injury.
Strength is built by gradually overloading your muscles. If this is not done gradually though, injury is a likely outcome.
Making sure you use the correct technique is also a very important aspect of safety for the two exercises.
Errors in your technique can result in excessive stress being placed on certain parts of your body which is a sure-fire way of injuring yourself.
You should also pay attention to the condition of any equipment you’re using for each exercise.
Any damage or malfunction can have detrimental effects on your training, so make sure all the equipment and machines used are in full working order.
Back Squats vs Leg Curls: Which Is Best?
Choosing whether one of these exercises is better than the other is a tough thing to do.
You could quite easily incorporate both into your leg workouts.
Back squats are best for working multiple muscle groups at the same time while offering high levels of variability.
Leg curls are better if you prefer a lower risk factor and an easier exercise to perform.
It may simply come down to your experience level and your personal preferences as to which one is best for you.
Hope this helped!
I’ve been in the fitness and strength training industry for nearly a decade. In that time, I’ve gained 30 pounds of muscle, written hundreds of articles, and reviewed dozens of fitness supplements. As for my educational background, I’m a currently studying for my Active IQ Level 3 Diploma in Personal Training.