Are Sitting or Standing Leg Curl Machines Better?

Woman doing leg lifts

Strength training offers numerous compound exercises that target the major muscle groups of the lower body. But those lifters that want to isolate one specific muscle, such as the hamstrings, will need an isolation exercise. The leg curl specifically targets the hamstrings, but due to the mechanics of the form, it’s a lift that must be performed with a machine, not free weights. You have two broad options for leg curl machines -- seated or standing -- and the type that’s best for your program depends on several factors.


The seated leg curl machine is a rigid, lever-activated apparatus that uses stacked weight plates to provide counterbalanced resistance. You don’t curl the weight directly off the ground in the same way you would with biceps curls. The machine guides your form without much variance from repetition to repetition, and it forces you to use one precise motion through both phases of the curl. This configuration concentrates the stress of the lift directly on the hamstrings.


The configuration of the cable machine used for standing curls requires a foot or ankle strap that attaches to a cable and pulley that lifts and lowers stacked weight. The mechanics that provide the resistance are similar, but the machine is free form, requiring you to brace yourself against the machine or the wall while balancing on one foot and curling with the opposite leg. This configuration doesn’t guide your form, forcing you to focus on finding the correct angle for the curl and executing it identically for each repetition.


Each form of the leg curl presents two distinct differences based on the available equipment. First, the seated lever machine gives you the option to curl with one leg or both legs. The standing version requires you to focus only on one leg at a time. The other distinct difference is muscle engagement. The seated version allows you to focus entirely on the hamstrings, as the machine provides all necessary balance and support. The standing version engages a broader network of muscles in your legs, back and neck to keep you upright.


The decision of which leg curl machine is best depends on your goals. Athletes and advanced lifters may find that the variance available with the standing version provides a more thorough exercise. Those who want to focus on improving power or endurance for the hamstrings, or who are rehabilitating a hamstring injury, will find that the seated version allows them to concentrate on a narrow fitness goal much more efficiently. Variability adds another wrinkle, in that you don’t have to choose one over the other permanently. Swapping out the seated for the standing version every other week allows you to reap the benefits of both machines.