The leg press gets a lot of flack in the fitness community. Most folks concede that it’s a solid tool for isolating the leg muscles (mainly the quads), but, beyond hypertrophy, it’s just a cop-out for folks who can’t or don’t want to squat. This sentiment is false, and if you’re team #neverlegpress, you may be missing out on worthwhile strength and muscle-building benefits.
Compared to the traditional back squat, the leg press allows you to load up the legs with more weight than you can probably stand and squat with. More weight plus more reps equal more growth. And because you’re braced against a pad, you don’t have to focus on stabilizing the load, just pressing it as hard and for as many reps as possible. In short: The leg press lets you press more weight with more control.
Benefits of the Leg Press
- It Isolates the Legs
- It Doesn’t Require Balance
- It Strengthens Your Squat
- It Improves Your Deadlift
- You Can Move a Lot of Weight
- It May Improve Your Quality of Life
- It’s Beginner-Friendly
The leg press has you lay back on to a pad (or sit on a seat) and drive the weight using only your legs. Your upper body isn’t involved in the movement at all, which is especially helpful if you’re dealing with a nagging shoulder or elbow injury.
Depending on how you position your feet on the footplate, the leg press lets you isolate the quads, hamstrings, and calves. Placing your feet lower will allow for more quad activation, whereas placing your feet higher will target the hamstrings. Isolate the calves by pressing the footplate to full extension without hyperextending your knees, move your toes to the bottom edge of a sled and flex and unflex your feet.
Part of the reason the leg press gets so much hate (presumably) is the simplicity of the exercise. It’s almost seen as a lazy persons’ squat since you’re either sitting or supine during your reps. However, it’s the ease of use that, in part, makes the leg press such an effective movement.
For those who may struggle with balance, the leg press can be a good option to build leg muscles. The leg press machine assists with balance since you are in a seated position versus standing in a squat. Beginner lifters may lose balance when squatting due to issues with mobility, flexibility, or underdeveloped muscles.
While squats may be beneficial for practicing balance, they can also be ineffective and potentially dangerous if done improperly. Studies also suggest that the leg press may help improve balance, even though the squat elicits more strength. (1)
Since the leg press focuses primarily on the quads, the strength and muscles built can carry over to squat performance. In heavy squats, the lifter relies on the quads to hold the weight at the bottom and push back up to the top.
Studies suggest that quadricep development is essential, maybe even more than hamstrings, to lift heavier squats. (2) That being said, implementing the leg press into your leg day may help improve your ability to squat heavier loads.
The leg press mimics part of a deadlift motion, specifically the first moment you press through the floor to lift the barbell up. For some lifters, just getting the barbell off the floor might be the weakest point of their lift, and a leg press can help improve this sticking point. Although the leg press should not replace the deadlift, it’s beneficial for that stubborn sticking point.
Most people can tolerate a pretty high volume of work in a leg press, as the quads do get a lot of exercise even in daily life, and there’s relatively little load on the back and core. The stability needed in a squat relies on your core and spine, whereas with the leg press, the stability is coming mostly from the machine. Therefore, a lifter can typically push heavier weights than they would a squat.
It should be noted that too much weight, as with any exercise, can lead to injury. Even though you can typically go heavier with this exercise, if you feel your back rounding, that’s a sign the weight is most likely too heavy.
Every time you stand up from a chair or walk up a flight of stairs, you’re using your quads. Studies suggest that weak quadriceps, especially as you age, can put you at a higher risk for knee osteoarthritis, disability, and falls. Strengthening the quadriceps can reduce your risk of falling and of fall-related injuries. (3) Since the leg press primarily works the quads, it could help improve your quality of life now and as you age.
The leg press requires proper form, but it is not as complex as the squat, making it more beginner-friendly. Machines in general can be advantageous for beginners due to the greater stability provided and the assistance with form. The leg press can provide more stability to the spine and the core, which are two extremely important areas to remain stable when lifting.
If these areas are not stabilized, inefficient exercise and injury may occur. Lastly, the leg press may seem less intimidating than a barbell at first and is a great place to start.
How to Do the Leg Press
Although there are different ways to perform the leg press, there is a standard practice to follow to ensure proper form is carried out. Below is a step-by-step guide to get the most out of your pressing.
- Sit on the seat of the leg press machine with your back and head supported on the pad.
- Place your feet in the middle of the footplate about hip-width apart, ensuring your heels are not hanging off.
- Your knees should form about a 90-degree angle, and your feet should be in line with your knees. Adjust your seat as necessary.
- Squeeze your core and grab the side handles for more support if needed.
- Start to press the footplate away through your heels, keeping your feet flat the whole time.
- Press until your legs are extended, but your knees should not lock out.
- Slowly start to bend your knees to return, pressing your knees out, as you would in a squat, to avoid knees bowing inward.
Leg Press Variations
Like most other exercises, there are a plethora of variations you can employ to target different muscles and keep your workouts fun and varied. Check out the five variations below.
Unilateral Leg Press
This variation is essentially the same as the standard leg press except that you use one leg at a time. The unilateral leg press often allows for an extended range of motion, as you can twist your body slightly so that your hip does not limit the movement of your working quad.
It’s also great if you have uneven development in terms of either musculature or strength between your left and right sides.
Resistance Band Leg Press
This variation requires only a resistance band and mimics the leg press movement. It can be great for beginners or folks who are traveling and in need of a workout.
Lying on the floor is the most effective way to perform this exercise. Wrap one side of the band across the middle of your feet and hold the other side of the band in your hands, then press.
This stationary variation hits the quads in a similar way that the leg press does. Holding a wall sit for an extended period of time can challenge any lifter, but it’s also a great progression to leg presses or squats.
The position can train your body in the proper squat form while strengthening the muscles needed.
Smith Machine Squat
Since there’s more support, the Smith Machine provides more stability and balance, as well as a safer way to squat heavier loads if a spotter isn’t around.
Barbell Back Squat
This may be the more obvious variation, but it is a great way to build strength and muscle. The back squat is a compound exercise, targeting the quads, hamstrings, and glutes and requires more core activation for balance and safety.
Let’s Get to Pressing
It should go without saying that I’m not claiming the leg press to be a replacement for the squat. However, when used as described above, and as a small part of a sound powerlifting program, it can be very beneficial for bringing up your hip and knee strength to help improve your squat and deadlift. Don’t write it off as a “bro” movement — give it a shot and see if it works for you!
- Rossi, Fabricio Eduardo. Strength, body composition, and functional outcomes in the squat versus leg press exercises. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 2016; 58(3) DOI:10.23736/S0022-4707.16.06698-6
- Bryanton, Megan, Kennedy, Michael D., Carey, Jason. Quadriceps effort during squat exercise depends on hip extensor muscle strategy. Sports Biomechanics. 2015; 14(1). DOI:10.1080/14763141.2015.1024716
- Ahmadiahangar, Alijan, Javadian, Yahya, & Babaei, Mansour. The role of quadriceps muscle strength in the development of falls in the elderly people, a cross-sectional study. Chiropractic and Manual Therapies. 2018; 26. doi: 10.1186/s12998-018-0195-x