Lifters today are confronted with infinite options to choose from for leg strength, muscular hypertrophy, and movement. Whether you are strength, power, fitness, or aesthetic athlete, both the Zercher squat and leg press can offer you beneficial outcomes.
Many lifters and coaches fail to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of a specific exercise in regards to the impact it can have when program correctly.
Therefore, I will discuss two popular leg training movements (the Zercher squat and the leg press), and go into detail in which one is your best option based upon your intense training outcome/goal.
The Zercher Squat
The Zercher Squat requires a lifter to place a barbell within the crooks of the elbows, often picked up from the floor or a low rack, then squatted with an upright torso.
[Want to learn more about the Zercher Squat? Check out our ultimate guide here.]
Similar to a front squat in terms of loading, this movement requires leg strength, upper back and postural control, and core stabilization, all of which can lead to immense neurological and muscular adaptations.
The Leg Press
Nearly every commercial gym has a leg press or leg sled machine (whichever name you prefer). While some functional fitness athletes, weightlifters, and coaches shun machine based training, they often overlook the hypertrophic benefits that leg presses can offer their athletes.
By taking a deeper look into how the leg press should be programmed and exercised to elicit these positive and significant muscular adaptations, coaches and shelters alike can increase leg mass, create new muscle tissue, and spare excessive loading in the spine; which yes, as you get stronger you will need to monitor…
Zercher Squat vs. Leg Press: Which Is Best For You?
Below are the specific aspects of training outcomes that can be affected by both exercises. While some of these have a clear “winner”, it goes without saying that in most cases, merit can be given to both exercises. My intent was to determine the best option based upon the intended outcome.
Application to Sport (Both)
At first glance we would assume a machine based movement has minimal application to sport. While the Zercher squat can undoubtedly increase strength, muscle mass, and overall athletic abilities, the leg press should not be overlooked.
For athletes lacking leg mass and volume, the leg press is a viable hypertrophy option. Additionally, the joint angles of the knee and hip during the leg press mimic many loaded starting and sprinting positions (American football, track and field, wrestling, etc). While an athlete should still be squatting to full depth and moving in open-chained, multi-directional movements, the leg press can play a significant role in overall muscles development and angular specific force output.
Therefore, I reward both of these movements as equal winners when discussing sport specificity.
Maximal Strength Development (Zercher)
Although leg pressing does promote some serious leg mass and strength capacities (see below), it lacks the spinal loading component which is a key factor in maximal strength potentials (as far as carrying over specifically to squats, pulls, and athletics). While the leg press can be used with heavy loads, it’s is recommended that lifters use the leg press for hypertrophy based training primarily, as maximal loading can result in joint pain and potential injury since the body is placed at a mechanical disadvantage (which is exactly why it it good for producing hypertrophy).
The Zercher squat has been covered in previous articles, each of which has discussed in detail the neurological, core stabilization, and postural strength adaptations that occur; making the Zercher squat my choice for increasing maximal strength development.
Muscular Hypertrophy (Leg Press)
I have made the case over and over again why all athletes should spend time doing more hypertrophy based training, as it is imperative for long term muscular development and adaptations.
While both exercises are effective at producing muscular hypertrophy, I would still have to give this one to the leg press. Unlike the Zercher squat, the leg press is not dependent on upper back and arm strength, which can tend to be a limiting factor during higher volume based training, which is needed to promote the metabolic disturbances necessary for hypertrophy.
The leg press allows a lifter to isolate the quads and hips in a very strict fashion so that the quadriceps are maximally elongated, contracted, and done some with precision. Because the leg press minimizes the need for core and posture stabilization the lifter can focus 100% of the muscle stretch and contraction, with intensity, which is necessary for muscular growth and hypertrophy. Additionally, the leg press is a great option to add quality volume to promote leg growth and hypertrophy without the additional loading on the spine (which is beneficial in higher volume cycles and/or with injured or sore athletes).
Posture and Movement (Zercher)
This is about the only category on here where little debate can be made for the leg press. The Zercher squat is a clear winner here, as the very nature of this exercise it to express postural and upper back stabilization throughout the fullest ranges of motion, under load.
I am a firm believer that most exercises have a place in one’s programming, especially when a coach and/or athlete takes the time to methodically break down the movement and correlate the intended outcomes with their goals. While both of these movements should not replace back and front squatting, they can be used as supplemental lifts to address specific weaknesses (postural control, leg mass, etc) or a lifter/athlete.
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