Two common movements seen in training programs and gyms for muscle hypertrophy and strength are the deadlift and the leg press. In this article I will briefly discuss both movements, and then dive into a comparative analysis between each of them to determine which movement is best for gaining muscle, sports performance, and transitions into more advanced training principles.
The Leg Press
In earlier articles I compared the leg press vs. the Zercher squat and the leg press vs. trap bar deadlift vs. squat in detail. The leg press can be a useful training tool to add quality leg mass, lower body strength potential, and even be used to rehabilitate lower body injuries (to increase muscular strength in controlled range of motion).
I have wrote extensively on deadlifting and the various styles (sumo vs. conventional deadlifts), why clean pulls are not the same as deadlifts, and even a deeper look into the benefits of trap bar deadlifts. For the sake of this article, I will compare the leg press to the conventional style of deadlifting.
[Do you know the difference between a deadlift and a clean pull? If not, that may be why your clean & jerk is lagging! Read more here!]
For starters, the deadlift and leg press target two entirely different muscle groups, so in terms of determining a winner in this category, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. The leg press is by nature a knee dominant exercise, therefore targets primarily the quadriceps (when done correctly). When leg pressing, many lifters may fail to allow for knee flexion and extension by loading the sled with too much weight (because let’s face it…leg pressing a ton of plates is cool…right?). Jokes aside, understanding how to leg press for quadriceps mass is pretty important, not only to leg development but joint (knee and hip) health as well.
The deadlift is a hip dominant movement, which means that the majority of joint flexion and extension happens at the hip rather than the knee. This results in the deadlift placing higher demands upon the hamstrings, glutes, erectors, and lats, quite opposite in fact of the leg press (which is actually closer to a squat). Due to it being front loaded, the entire posterior of the body must resist forward flexion and extend.
To maximize one’s lower body strength and hypertrophy, be sure to squat and deadlift, for sure, and potentially add in leg press to add in quadriceps development.
The leg press does have some sports performance application in that it can help to produce massive amounts of leg muscles (primarily quadriceps) which can impact the amount of force production in athletic movements (jumping, hitting, etc). If an athlete is able to train the ankle, knees, and hips in an integrated movement (say back squats) while using leg presses as an assistance hypertrophy exercise, one could justify leg presses as a sports performance exercise.
As for deadlifts, no doubt a sports performance lift. They directly impact one’s posterior chain strength and development, and are a compound, multi joint exercise, which are the primary strength and movement lifts athletes need in training. When manipulated, deadlifts can be done to target hamstrings (pulled hamstrings are common in sports), increase glute development (pivotal to jumping, running, power production, and lower back health), and even add quality muscle mass to the frames of all athletes.
Application to Advanced Training
On the surface level, I would argue that if someone was to only do leg presses as their primary “squatting” and/or lower body movement, they would have a pretty poor transition over to more advanced training in the gym, on the platform, or on the field. For starters, leg pressing is NOT squatting, and does not require balance, coordination, core stability, spinal loading, and integration of the nervous and musculoskeletal systems. In the hierarchy of complexity (which advanced training and sports are quite complex), the leg press is pretty low. The brightside is, once again, if the leg press is used as a supplement to a compound lift, well balanced program, it can be used as an advanced training piece of equipment to allow lifters and athletes to accumulate more training volume on their lower body while minimizing spinal and lumbar loading.
The deadlift is a foundational lift. It can be done to build strength, power, and hypertrophy. As a lifter advances in their training, they will be able to manipulate variables (such as loads, tempos, bars, bands, chains, stance, etc) to further their progress. The added muscle mass, hip development, and back strength will also carry over to other movements, such as squats, pressing, rowing, running, jumping, etc; all of which unlock a whole new domain of elite fitness and training.
I don’t think many people would be surprised when I conclude that the deadlift, in terms of application to sport and advanced training, comes out on top in this one. That said, while these movements clearly are not similar when looking at the joint actions and muscle groups used, some lifters may fail to understand how each can be integrated into either main strength lifts or used as supplements exercises to foster further growth and development. I urge all coaches and athletes to take a deeper look into their programming to ensure all muscle groups and movement patterning are being adequately trained to limit injury and stalled progress.
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