By now, I’ve written a lot about assistance exercises for powerlifting — including the importance of not overdoing them. In case you don’t have time to watch the video, it basically comes down to this:
- Only about 20% of your effort in the gym should be spent on movements that aren’t a type of squat, bench, or deadlift.
- How you perform this 20% matters a lot more than the specifics of what you’re doing (for example, a properly-performed dumbbell flye will do a hell of a lot more for you than a sloppy JM press).
That said, what movements you perform are still important, because a properly performed JM press beats the hell out of any dumbbell flye, at least in most circumstances.
And all of that brings us to the leg press.
The leg press has long been a staple in the routines of top bodybuilders, but powerlifters tend to scoff at it. “Why aren’t you squatting, bro?” And, to be fair, I do believe the squat is superior for leg development in many circumstances. But the leg press is actually underrated for strength, too — if you use it in the right way.
The Leg Press
The leg press is a really valuable movement because it allows you to load both the hip and knee joint together, using a heavy weight, without placing undue stress on your lower back. Furthermore, the leg press is pretty ubiquitous — unlike some speciality bars or equipment — and like all machines, offers added control over the weight compared to a barbell or dumbbell. While the last point is often seen as a drawback, the truth is — that control allows you to better target the musculature you’re working.
The trick is to target the right muscles, in the right way, so that you see some carryover to your squat and deadlift. Some points to keep in mind:
- You must use a full range of motion, focusing on relation of the knee joint to the hip joint. Your goal is to use a large enough ROM that your knee passes the crease of your hip (as in the squat) before extending your leg. However, some machines can make this pretty hard. You may need to take a wider stance or turn your toes out slightly more than you would in a squat to achieve a full ROM on the leg press.
- Most people can tolerate a pretty high volume of work here, as the quads do get a lot of exercise even in daily life, and there’s relatively little load on the back and core. For that reason, I typically recommend multiple sets of moderate (8-12) to high (15-20+) reps, with as much weight as you can handle. In other words, it’s tough to overdo the leg press, no matter how hard you’re working.
- I suggest not fully locking out your knees on any rep. That’s because when you lock your knees, you’re essentially taking all the load off of your muscles, and it can be really tempting to rest for extended periods of time in this position. Not locking out makes the movement much harder.
Again, remember that a lot will vary from machine-to-machine, so if you can, try a couple of different ones to find which fits your body best.
Leg Press Variations
Besides the benefits I mentioned above, the leg press is nice because there’s a seemingly endless number of twists you can add to keep progressing and keep your interest. Here are just a few:
- Unilateral leg press: Simply use one leg at a time. This often allows for 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.
- Foot placement: On most machines, using a high foot placement, towards the top of the foot plate, will put more emphasis on the hamstrings. Similarly, using a narrow stance will place more emphasis on the quads. Now, this will vary from leg press to leg press, so I recommend trying a variety of positions to see what works for you.
- Other spices: 1 ½ reps (go all the way down, then halfway up, then all the way down, then all the way up — that’s one rep), adding band tension, or using a controlled tempo (three seconds down, three seconds up) will all make the regular leg press much, much more challenging. And yes, you can combine these if you’re a masochist, but don’t overdo it. You want to make progress, not just do weird stuff in the gym.
Sample Squat Light Day
Let’s take a look at a sample “light day” for squats — one that might improve your quad strength without requiring a lot of recovery time:
- Front squat: I recommend low reps here, for practicality’s sake. Ever tried to do a set of 10 reps on front squats? It’s not fun! Instead, try 3-5 sets of 2-5 reps using 75-85% of your 1-RM.
- Leg press: Front squats should hit your core pretty hard, but the core can actually be limiting, so the leg press is a good addition here to strengthen the knee and hip without those restrictions. I’d avoid any sort of “spicing up” on a light day, and instead perform unilateral work with a challenging weight for 3 sets of 8-12 reps.
- Romanian deadlift: Since this is a quad-focused session, we’re including the RDL strictly for balance’s sake. Keep in light, and do 2 sets of 12-15 reps, focusing on the stretch in your hamstrings but not the weight.
4. Abs: Honestly, because the front squats should have worked your abs damned hard, anything goes here. My preference would be an ab-wheel rollout for 3 sets of max reps.
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 brining 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!
Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.
Feature image from Ben Pollack YouTube channel.