Leg day can be enjoyable for some, and hell for others.
Big, muscular thighs take a lot of work. And finding the right exercises plays a huge part in whether you’re successful or not.
Front squats are a popular variation to standard back squats and feature in many leg-building programs.
Leg extensions are a machine-based leg exercise that have been around for a long time and provide a much more controlled movement.
In this article, we compare front squats and leg extensions to see if one is actually better than the other.
We look at which muscles are activated, difficulty levels, variability, and some other useful points to help you decide which one to add to your leg workouts.
What’s The Difference Between Front Squats And Leg Extensions?
The biggest difference between front squats and leg extensions is that front squats are a free weights exercise while leg extensions are performed on a fixed machine.
Front squats involve holding a weighted bar on the front of your body (upper chest/bottom of shoulders) and squatting up and down, while leg extensions are done sat down on a machine with your knees extending to lift a selected weight.
Both exercises primarily target your quads but the movements and positioning are very different for each one.
Which Exercise Is Best For Quad Development?
Front squats and leg extensions are both very effective quad-building exercises.
Choosing one over the other can be difficult as they both have pros and cons when it comes to working your quads more.
Front squats put a lot of focus on your quads, and as the weighted bar is supported on the front of your body, your quads have to put in loads of effort to make the movement happen successfully.
Leg extensions pretty much isolate your quads during the exercise though.
This means that no other muscles can help in the movement making your quads work extremely hard.
If you want to lift more weight with your quads, front squats will be better. But if you want to build your quads in isolation, leg extensions will be the better choice for you.
Which Exercise Is Best For Hamstring Development?
As leg extensions isolate your quadriceps, no other muscles come into play during the exercise.
However, during front squats, there is some activation in your hamstrings making them better for hamstring development.
Which Exercise Is Best For Glute Development?
Squats have long been associated with glute development.
Although front squats are quad dominant, your glutes still play an important role in the exercise.
There is minimal (if any at all) glute activation during leg extensions, so front squats are much better in this aspect.
You have plenty of options when it comes to adding some variability to your front squats.
Changing your arm position by extending them out in front of you and resting the bar on your biceps turns front squats into zombie squats.
This can help you focus on your technique and it can also be much more comfortable (particularly for your wrists).
You could also look to add pauses to each rep at the lowest phase of the exercise.
This keeps the working muscles under tension a little bit longer without adding too much more to the movement itself.
As you’re limited to the movement of the machine, leg extensions have very low levels of variability.
Apart from using one leg at a time to perform the exercise, there aren’t too many ways to vary your leg extension experience.
Front squats have a much greater variability level than leg extensions.
A lot of this comes down to the fact that front squats are a free-weights exercise whereas leg extensions are machine-based.
Any machine-based exercise, like leg extensions, have extremely limited variability simply because the machines are designed to move in one way with minimal room for error.
If you think of front squats in terms of just the movement involved, it’s a fairly straightforward exercise.
When you consider the technique and risk involved though, the difficulty level rises somewhat.
The technique for front squats has to be correct to prevent injury.
The exercise places a large amount of stress on your quads. So, unless you already have a good foundation of strength in your leg muscles, front squats are a very challenging exercise.
Front squats are better suited to more experienced gym-goers who have a good idea of the technique and how their body should be moving throughout the movement.
Leg extensions are pretty easy to do considering the machine won’t usually move unless you’re doing them correctly.
That being said, it’s important to ensure the weight is appropriate and you have an understanding of the technique involved to get the most out of leg extensions.
While both exercises are relatively easy in terms of the movements required, front squats are a harder exercise to perform correctly and safely.
The leg extension machine does a good job of making sure you’re in the correct position and using the correct technique
This goes a long way in keeping the difficulty level low for the exercise.
When front squatting, it’s extremely important that your body position and technique are correct to minimize the risk of injury.
You also need to make sure the weight is appropriate as this is a common area where people get it wrong and put themselves at risk.
When using the leg extension machine, you need to keep the weight in mind as it’s quite easy to gain a false sense of confidence as you might think the machine will keep you safe.
The position of the pads on your legs also needs to be considered to ensure excessive pressure isn’t placed on your ankles or knees.
Front Squats vs Leg Extensions: Which Is Best?
If you’re looking for a more challenging leg exercise that focuses on your quads, but brings in other large leg muscles, then front squats will be better.
If you want to isolate your quads and perform an exercise where it’s easier to nail the technique, then leg extensions might be better for you.
Both of these exercises are great quad builders, so it’ll likely come down to which one you prefer more as to whether you add front squats or leg extensions to your leg workouts.
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.