When you’re serious about growing lower body strength, power, and muscle, you cannot go past the barbell squat and the leg press. These lifts are often the top two contenders in strength programs when it comes to lower body muscle and strength. But given a choice, should you do the leg press or the squat?
You’ll see a lot of beginning lifters and advanced bodybuilders doing the leg press. It’s a machine-based, accessible exercise for athletes at all levels to build serious strength and muscle mass. On the other hand, the squat is a free-weight move that forms the bedrock of most strength programs. Depending on your goals, your body, and your preferences, the leg press or squat may work better for you. Here’s how to determine when it’s better to squat or to leg press. Let’s dive in.
Differences Between the Leg Press and Squat
Though they’re both leg day staples, the leg press and squat are not the same beasts. Here are some of the principal differences between them.
Machine Versus Free Weight
Let’s get the obvious over with first. The leg press is a machine-based, closed chain exercise — meaning your feet are in a fixed position — and your upper body is supported throughout the lift.
Conversely, the squat is a free weight, open-chain exercise. Because of these mechanical differences, both moves work your quads, but the squat trains more total body muscle mass. It also requires a tremendous amount of isometric strength and coordination.
While you’re leg pressing, you don’t need as much motor control because the movement is fixed. As a result, you don’t have to worry about where your body is in space.
This is not the same with the squat. Some lifters spend their entire career trying to master squat technique to squeeze out every strength and muscle advantage. The squat requires more stability and coordination than the leg press.
Due to the upper body support and fixed movement, the leg press is more of an isolation move for your quadriceps. The squat trains more total body muscle mass because your core and upper body are heavily involved. However, if you are looking for that hamstring boost during your leg press, place your feet higher on the sled.
With the leg press, you don’t need upper body and core stability, and there is less compressive stress on your lower back. On the other hand, a lot of squat variations involve a compressive load on your spine.
The Leg Press is Easier to Perform
The leg press is a machine-based closed chain exercise where the movement is fixed — its path is determined by the machine. Therefore, it takes less technical know-how to perform the leg press than the squat.
Some lifters spend years picking up nuances of the squat to keep building strength and size. It takes a lot longer to learn how to squat well than it takes to leg press well.
One of the biggest differences between the leg press and the squat is the positioning of the weights. In a loaded barbell squat, you’ll be holding the weight on your back, on your delts, or over your head. The leg press machine is an exercise that requires you to push the weights that are below your feet.
Similarities Between the Leg Press and Squat
The leg press and the squat do not look the same and the setup is different. However, they’re both leg day staples for a reason. These lifts have still got some similarities, too.
When you’re doing a squat variation or a leg press, the eccentric component of both exercises involves hip and knee flexion to lower the weight. During the concentric contraction of both exercises, the quad and the glutes extend to push the weight up. Both exercises train a similar movement pattern and joint function.
Neither Isolates Your Hamstrings
The leg press and squat both train your glutes and quads, but neither exercise specifically isolates your hamstrings. During both exercises, the hamstring’s role is to stabilize your knee joints, with most of the hamstring action coming from the eccentric portions of both lifts.
Your hamstrings help out with these lifts (especially the squat), but aren’t prime movers in either of them.
Leg Press Vs. Squat Technique
Both of these moves involve pushing through your feet to either squat up or press the platform up. Still, there are a few mechanical differences between the squat and the leg press.
Different Body Positions
During the eccentric portion of the squat, your back and core are responsible for keeping the weight stable either on your upper back, on your delts, or above your head. But due to the seated angle of the leg press machine, your upper body will be closer to the ground than your feet.
With the leg press machine, the angle and placement of the weight and the seat keeps your upper body in a fixed position. This makes it easier to get into position and puts less compressive force on your lower back, which is supported by the seat. With the squat, your lower back works hard to stay neutral during the eccentric portion while the barbell puts a compressive load on your spine.
How to Do the Leg Press
The leg press will look different for different athletes, depending on body type and the type of leg press machine you’re using. Before beginning, adjust the machine if possible to provide maximum safety and comfort for your body.
If you can, experiment with different angles without weight to ensure that the machine’s set-up is optimal for you.
- Sit down on a leg press machine and place your feet on the platform. Position your feet approximately a foot apart, either high or low on the platform.*
- Lower the safety bars holding the platform and press until your legs are fully extended but not locked out. Keep a soft bend in your knees.
- Lower the platform down until your upper and lower body are at a roughly 90-degree angle.
- Push the platform with your feet, using your quads to push back to the starting position.
- Reset and repeat. Make sure that the safety pins are locked once you are done.
* If needed, place your feet wider to give comfortable space to your chest and/or stomach at the bottom of the lift. Just spend some extra time warming up your inner thighs.
How to Do the Squat
Like the leg press, the squat will look different depending on people’s bodies and limb length.
Check out these tips for performing a solid squat.
- Step under a barbell and set a good foundation by engaging your core to lift the barbell off the squat rack.
- Grip the barbell wherever your shoulder mobility allows to get your elbows under the bar.
- Set it either high or low on your upper back. This is a matter of personal preference.
- Unrack the bar. Take a few steps back and re-establish core tension.
- Keeping your spine neutral, take a deep breath in. Squat down to a comfortable depth.
- Drive your feet through the floor until the lockout. Reset (taking another deep breath at the top of the rep) and repeat.
Note: This is a barbell back squat, and variations like the front squat and overhead squat have some set-up differences.
When to Do the Leg Press Vs. Squat
Both of these lifts deserve a spot in your programming, depending on body type and injury history. But if you’re trying to figure out which one to choose to best fit your goals, check out the advice below.
When it comes to moving the most weight possible, you are likely going to move more weight with the leg press than with the squat. That said, the barbell squat plays a bigger role in building more total body strength.
Because of the involvement of your upper and lower back, quads, and glutes, the barbell squat will strengthen your entire body, giving you a distinct advantage in full-body strength development. So if you’re looking to load on the most amount of weight plates, slip onto the leg press machine. But if you want to build as much full-body and functional leg strength as possible, opt for the barbell squat.
The leg press should be your go-to if you’re looking to build bigger quads while taking stress off your back. When you want bigger quads, the stability provided by the leg press machine puts more emphasis on your legs and none on the upper body. The ability to perform simple and safe drop sets and burn out sets on the leg press machine is another reason it’s a great muscle-builder.
But for more total body muscle potential, squats are your best bet. When performing squats, the body releases more human growth hormone (HGH), which will increase your hypertrophy potential. (1)
But both are great choices for muscle because they work similar muscles hard and heavy. But since the leg press is easier on your lower back and more stable due to your upper body support, you may have an easier time recovering from more hypertrophy-focused sessions with the leg press.
Bodybuilders might be able to recover faster from the leg press because of the lack of compressive force on your lower back and the lack of involvement of your upper body. It also more specifically targets your quads, which can be a great advantage when you’re looking to build out those teardrop quads and reach failure safely.
Barbell squats are important for bodybuilders who want to keep their overall fitness game in top form — not to mention building full-body strength and muscle. But for those looking for specificity, the leg press might win out here.
For Powerlifters and Functional Fitness Athletes
Powerlifters certainly can supplement their routines with the leg press, but there’s no getting around it — the back squat is a competition lift for powerlifters and will therefore need to take precedence. If you’re working in the offseason and want to build up your quads or just generally need to give your low back a break on leg day, you certainly can swap in the leg press.
But in general, for both powerlifters and functional fitness athletes — CrossFitters need that powerful squatting ability — the squat is a more functional and sports-specific movement.
Bodyweight squats are a great exercise for beginning lifters, as it is a fundamental movement pattern. But when it comes to lifting a load, starting with the leg press might help some lifters get stronger while still learning proper squat technique.
The fixed range of motion increases stability and less stress on your lower back compared to the back squat. This can let a beginning lifter build confidence while increasing their ability to move heavier weight.
Leg Press Vs. Squat — Who Wins?
Both the leg press and the squat can have a place in any well-designed strength program. When you’re looking for a functional movement to boost full-body strength with a huge emphasis on leg strength, squats are your go-to. If you’re a powerlifter or functional fitness athlete who needs to perform squats during competition, then these are definitely your proverbial bread and butter.
If you’re a bodybuilder, suffer from lower back pain, or are just starting out on your lifting journey, you might find that the leg press is a better option. With less compressive force on your spine, more stability, and less technical expertise required, the leg press will allow you to go harder and heavier for longer.
Which one you choose is a matter of preference, body needs, and fitness goals. The choice is yours — with such solid lifts, you can’t really go wrong.
- M.Ginuta et al. Combination of external load and whole body vibration potentiates the GH-releasing effect of squatting in healthy females.2013 Aug;45(8):611-6. DOI: 10.1055/s-0033-1341464. Epub 2013 Apr 15.
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