The leg press is a machine-based lower body exercise that can be used to build quadriceps hypertrophy and improve squat strength. While the leg press is not a substitution for squatting, it can help beginners establish greater leg strength and growth. Additionally, the leg press can aid advanced lifters in achieving higher amounts of training volume to simulate growth while minimizing additional wear and tear on the body.
In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the leg press, including:
- Leg Press Form and Technique
- Benefits of the Leg Press
- Muscles Worked by the Leg Press
- Who Should Do the Leg Press
- Leg Press Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Leg Press Variations and Alternatives
How to Perform the Leg Press: Step-By-Step Guide
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the leg press in a seated sled set up. Note, more recumbent leg press machines have a very similar set up.
Step 1. Determine Proper Seat Set Up
The seated leg press should be set up to allow the lifter to comfortably sit without having their lower back and hips come out of the seat in the bottom of the press. To do this, perform a few practice repetitions to full depth, focusing on keeping your lower back and hips down on the seat.
Coach’s Tip: If you experience pain in the bottom position either in the hips or knees, try adjusting the recline of the seat and/or foot width (step 2).
Step 2. Set the Feet
For most lifters, placing the feet in the squat stance will suffice. If however, you are looking to maximize quadriceps engagement, set the feet towards the bottom of the foot plate and take a narrower stance. The narrow stance will force deeper knee flexion angles, increasing the loading on the quadriceps.
Coach’s Tip: Focus on keeping the lower back and hips stable during this deep leg press. Failure to do so could result in the hips curling upwards off the seat, leading to additional strain on the lower back.
Step 3. Full Range of Motion Repetitions
Once you have un-racked the weight sled, softly bend the knees to allow the sled to be lowered. Be sure to feel the quadriceps being loaded as the weight sled is lowered. Do your best to establish low and stable leg press repetitions, so that you can fully maximize quadriceps engagement and growth.
Coach’s Tip: Slow and controlled lowering of the sled is ideal, so be sure to master lighter loads for volume prior to increasing overall loads.
4. Press Up and Repeat
Once you have reached full depth in the leg press, press your feet through the foot plate and lift the sled upwards. Be sure to not lose tension in the hips and core, keeping your hips and lower back on the seat
Coach’s Tip: Try not to fully extend the knees at the tip of the leg press, but rather keep them slightly bent at the top of the repetition. This will help increase loading and time under tension on the quadriceps.
3 Benefits of the Leg Press
The leg press offers coaches and athletes an opportunity to increase leg size, general strength, and address any muscular imbalances. Below we will discuss in depth the benefits of the leg press.
1. Build Strength Post Injury
The leg press can be a viable option for those athletes and lifters who may have pain and discomfort (due to injury) when loaded in the squat. While it is not suggested to disregard addressing the pain and discomfort, the leg press can be used to build fundamental quadriceps strength during times of rehabilitation.
If you are experiencing any physical pain and discomfort during training and/or outside the gym, please seek out a sports medicine professional.
2. Increase Quadriceps Development
Increasing quadriceps hypertrophy and knee extension specific performance can be beneficial for a variety of athletes. Strength and power athletes rely on the quadriceps for heavy squats, making the leg press a good accessory exercise to add additional quadriceps mass while minimizing overall stress to the body/lower back/spine.
Other movements like the back/front squats and split squats, while highly beneficial, can be limited by back and core strength and balance. The leg press allows lifters and athletes to attack the quadriceps without other muscle groups holding them back.
Please note, the leg press is a helpful accessory movement for strength, power, and fitness athletes; but should not be used as a primary substitution for most forms of squatting and unilateral work.
3. Minimize Direct Load in the Back
The leg press allows lifters and coaches to reduce loading on the spine yet still train the lower body. This can be beneficial for athletes recovering from injury and/or looking to limit additional stress while increasing lower body training volume.
Muscles Worked – Leg Press
The leg press is a movement that targets the quadriceps. The glutes and hamstrings, while slightly active in this movement, are less involved than in a squat due to the limited amounts of hip flexion and extension while in the seated position.
Who Should Perform Leg Presses?
Below are a few groups of athletes that can benefit from the inclusion of leg presses within training programs.
Strength and Power Athletes
Strength and power athletes know all too well the power of squat training. Leg pressing, while not a substitution for squatting, can be a useful exercise to add additional leg training volume (quadriceps) without adding additional strain on the central nervous system, spine, and lower back.
- Powerlifting and Strongman Athletes: Strength athletes can use the leg press to add additional quadriceps training volume to induce muscle hypertrophy.
- Olympic Weightlifters: Similar to powerlifters and strongman athletes, weightlifters can use the leg press to increase quadriceps size and strength while limiting lower back and spinal strain.
Competitive CrossFit and Fitness Athletes
Competitive fitness and CrossFit athletes can benefit from performing leg presses at times when they are looking to increase lower body volume and development while minimizing lower back strain.
Additionally, the leg press can be a viable alternative to squatting at times when injury/rehabilitation purposes contradict the usage of squats.
Note, this is not suggesting leg presses are a viable substitution to squatting as a whole, only in certain situations where injury and/or at the recommendation of a sports medicine professional.
Sports Training and General Fitness
While the leg press is not an alternative to squatting, it can be used in situations in which sports athletes, coaches, and general fitness goers are looking to add additional leg training volume into a training program while limiting overall spinal loading and lower back stress.
Leg Press Sets, Reps, and Weight Recommendations
Below are three sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for coaches and athletes to properly program the leg press specific to the training goal.
Note, that the below guidelines are simply here to offer coaches and athletes loose recommendations for programming.
Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
The leg press is a great exercise to increase muscle hypertrophy of the quadriceps while limiting additional strain to the core and lower back. As discussed in the benefits section, the leg press can be used to add additional training volume to the quadriceps following main strength / squat work.
- 3-5 sets of 8-12 or 12-15 repetitions with a moderate to heavy load.
- It is imperative to train in the full range of motion. Set the ego aside and perform a full, deep leg press repetition at a controlled pace. Additionally, minimize full knee extension/lockout at the top of the press to maintain tension of the muscles and further enhance muscular growth.
Strength – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
Training the leg press for maximal strength is not recommended (reps less than 5). If someone cannot squat for some reason, training for maximal leg strength in a fixed leg press can potentially do more harm than good. Below are some recommendations on how to use the leg press to build baseline strength and muscle hypertrophy to then transition to squats for main strength work.
- If you cannot squat for whatever reason (lack of mobility, injury, etc) training for maximal strength on a machine is not suggested. Rather, take the time to develop better movement mechanics on the bodyweight squat and unilateral exercises, using the leg press to then isolate the quadriceps for development.
- Refer to muscle hypertrophy and/or muscle endurance guidelines for sets, reps, and weight recommendations.
Muscle Endurance – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
The leg press can be used to develop muscle endurance of the quadriceps similar to other higher rep movements. Unlike high rep squatting, the leg press places more emphasis on the quadriceps muscular endurance; as high rep squats can often be limited by lower back and core endurance.
- 3-4 sets of 15-20 repetitions with light to moderate loads under controlled tempos and pauses.
- Be sure to perform the repetitions in the deepest, fullest of ranges at controlled tempos. Additionally, be sure to minimize full knee extension/lockout to maximize muscular development.
3 Leg Press Variations
Below are three (3) leg press variations to increase quadriceps hypertrophy and endurance.
1. Banded Leg Press
The banded leg press is a novel variation to add accommodating resistance to leg press training to increase the rate of force production, enhance concentric strength, and improve time under tension in the leg press. Simply add a light band to the leg press around the weight pegs and the seat frame.
2. 1 ½ Leg Press
The 1 ½ leg press, like other 1 ½ variations, increases loading and time under tension of the quadriceps, furthering muscle hypertrophy and strength development at various ranges of motion. To perform, lower the sled to the bottom position, push it half way back up, lower it back to the bottom, and then push the sled back to the starting position. That is one rep.
3. Partial Leg Press
Partial reps can be beneficial for overloading a muscle either with prolonged time under tension and/or additional volume. In doing so, you can increase muscular hypertrophy and isolate ranges of motion that may be sticking points in the squat/leg press.
3 Leg Press Alternatives
Below are three (3) leg press alternatives that can be used to improve muscular hypertrophy while minimizing loading on the back.
1. Narrow Stance Goblet Squats
Narrow stance goblet squats are a goblet squat variation that specify target the quadriceps. Due to the narrow stance, the degree of knee flexion is much higher, making it more demanding on the quadricep muscles to stabilize and extend the knee joint.
2. Front Rack Bulgarian Split Squat
The front Rack Bulgarian split squat can be a viable alternative to the leg press as it isolates the quadriceps and reduces some loading on the spine (often due to less loading being lifted and the weight shifted more towards the anterior, forcing a more vertical torso angle). This can be used for individuals who may not have access to a leg press yet are looking to increase quadriceps hypertrophy.
3. Belt Squat
The belt squat is a lower body movement that can be done to increase leg strength and hypertrophy while minimizing lower back and hip stress. To perform this movement, the lifter sets themselves within a belt squat machine or hangs a load from their hips as they squat. Be sure to stand on platforms that allow you to assume a deep squat position without the load touching the floor.
Build Bigger Legs!
At BarBend, we fully understand why so many lifters train for leg strength and size! Strength, power, and fitness sports are all dependent on quadriceps, hamstrings, and glute performance. Take a look at the below leg training exercise guides to increase muscle mass and boost your squat strength!
Feature image By Oleksandr Zamuruiev / Shutterstock